Since prehistoric times, humans have created art to reflect their religious and spiritual beliefs. The meaning and purpose of these pieces is different according to every religion, but much religious artwork utilizes common elements such as iconography, pattern, and architecture to either teach their followers, protect them or allow them to communicate with deities or spirits.
Most Christian images are didactic and intend to teach the viewer about the Bible and Christian belief. Pagan statues of deities were vessels by which the gods or goddess could visit earth. Other art is tied to magic, meant to transform or come alive for the viewer. To find out the purpose of a work of art, look at the environment it's been placed in, how naturalistic it is, and the level of narration. A high level of narration indicates the piece is trying to tell a story and is probably didactic, while more abstract art is generally magical and highly naturalistic art often depicts the deities, especially in the West.
Symbolism and Iconography
Iconography, meaning "image to write," is used to tell a story or convey theological ideas in the art of many religions. Ancient Egyptian art was deeply symbolic, with hieroglyphs not only illustrating letters but ideas. The Christian religion has an extremely complex iconographical language, and many religions use animals to represent either deities or theological ideas.
Pattern can also convey meaning in some religious art. Prehistoric cave paintings have patterns of dots, circles and hand-prints. Although archaeologists and art historians cannot be sure of the meaning of these patterns, some think they're the result of visions. Pattern is an essential part of Islamic art. The symmetry and math employed represents the pure beauty of Allah, and covering objects in patterns emphasizes the fleeting nature of earthly objects. A pattern can make one object unique while emphasizing the unity in all things, a major theme in the Quran.
Nearly all the major religions have or have had temples or churches of some sort. A religion's temple can tell you a lot about it, even if you don't know much about the religion. For example, large, enclosed temples with seats indicate regular group liturgies or ceremonies. Places of pilgrimage often revolve around a central relic and have space and paths for pilgrims to walk, typically in a circle. Open-air structures, like the temples of Ancient Greece or Stone Age menhirs, commonly indicate a ceremonial life tied to nature.
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