Faith and Doubt in Art

Julian Spalding

What is the connection between Western Christian art and modern art? Why was the pursuit of naturalism so key to painters across the centuries? And why did the Enlightenment lead to the darkest paintings the world had ever seen?

Julian Spalding makes the case for looking at art through the lens of religious belief. In a talk that is lively, spirited and full of personal conviction Spalding challenges us to question why painting styles changed over time. This is one man’s invitation to look at pictures again with fresh eyes.

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I think all painting is poetry. It’s easy to understand a poem. You don’t expect a poem to represent something exactly. You expect it to put words together that surprise you, in rhythms and in sounds that move you. Well in the same way, in a painting. All paintings – if they’re any good – are putting images together that resonate with each other that mean something to you, that move you. And this is what is interesting about the Western tradition. It became an idea that paintings had to look exactly like what they were representing.

I want to explain why I think that Western art is so different from the other art of the world, why it’s so naturalistic, why artists looked so intensely at the world all around them. And I want to explain too why Western art grew so dark, darker than any other in the world and why only Western art produced modern art.

The faiths of the world, like Hinduism and Buddhism, and philosophies like Confucianism believed that the mysterious is beyond our grasp. Beyond our sight, beyond our attempt to visualise it. The source of spirituality is invisible. So all their art in essence is abstract.

Both Judaism and Islam believe you can’t see God. But Christianity thought you could. Judaism has virtually no imagery at all. Islam has imagery and it’s always abstract and the most wonderful example is the Taj Mahal. The whole facade is just patterns.

Western Christianity believed that God made man in his own image. And the most wonderful painting of this is Michelangelo’s image on the Sistine ceiling of God putting his finger out and Adam lying, you know, on a rock, you know, naked waiting to receive the spirit of life.

God not only made man to look exactly like himself, a younger version (!), but he also sent his own son called Jesus and there are many, many images of the baby Jesus on the knee of the Madonna.

There’s a wonderful painting by Piero della Francesca which shows the moment that Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist and he pours the water on him, and at that moment a dove appears from heaven and he receives his message and then the spirit of God is within him and then he has his mission. This is the image of a man turning into a god, which is what the Christians believed.

The reason why Western artists painted self-portraits and they don’t exist in any other artistic tradition is because the artist believed God had made them in their – in His own image. So if you looked at yourself, you saw God. You were partly God.

The great image of this is Dürer’s self-portrait which he painted in 1500. Now 1500 is a really important year in Christianity because people believed Christ was going to come back at any time.

Dürer looked at himself and he thought, ‘If Jesus comes back now, I’m going to be looking at Jesus and he’s going to be looking at the god in me’. This is not a painting of Dürer’s arrogance saying, ‘I’m as great a creator as Jesus’. This is nonsense. This is a painting of great humility, saying, ‘Look, God made me and I’m going to be facing God and I’m going to show him that I can paint myself as realistically and as truthfully as I can’.

The painting is unusual because it’s absolutely full-frontal, in the same way as the Piero della Francesca is absolutely face on. Because God as Jesus was facing the world, had come down to the world and was facing it.

A lot of portraits before tended to be slightly at the side. And slightly looking away. They were humble. This looks like arrogant because it’s straight on. But it’s not, it’s quite the reverse. It’s actually real humility.

Dürerwas the absolute high point of representation in a way, of human beings. Nobody had painted a face so intensely and so directly and so honestly. And then everything changed. Everything began to fall apart.

What happened was that all these artists, thinkers and scientists were looking at God’s creation.

And they all thought the closer they looked, the closer they would get to God who had created all this stuff. And what they discovered was that it all became mysterious. It all became problematic.

The first big step in this was Galileo whosaw a telescope as a children’s toy and said, ‘Oh I can make a big one of those’. And he did and he turned it on the moon and suddenly the world changed.

He discovered that the moon was a lump of solid rock, you know, spinning and the shadows were lengthening. And he drew little watercolours to show the shadows lengthening.

The idea that there were things to see beyond what we could see wasn’t part of God’s creation. How could there possibly be little creatures in water that we couldn’t see? How could there be stars, or moons or things that we couldn’t see?

And the more people looked, the more they doubted that God had made the world as it appears.

And this was terribly upsetting to Christianity. And it was terribly upsetting to art because it meant that appearances, all this huge agenda, all this great effort that all these artists had done to paint the beauty of the world as it was meant nothing. Everything had gone. Everything was dark.

What’s strange is that Western Europeans call the process of scientific discovery the Enlightenment but it actually at the same time resulted in a spiritual darkening. It produced the darkest art the world has ever seen. And this dark art was the art of doubt and the art of worry. We were losing the beauty of the world.

The most perfect expression of doubt appearing in Western art are really Rembrandt’s self-portraits. He was fascinated by the idea that God had made him. Every painting I think is searching for God. But every painting is also saying, ‘Did he really make me? Did he really make this ugly, funny old potato face? You know? Is this really – can I really see God?’ And his paintings got darker and darker. And this play of dark and light is in a way the most beautiful encapsulation of what was happening during the Enlightenment. He was painting after Galileo had looked at the moon through a telescope. He was right in the middle of the Enlightenment. And he just sensed it as an artist: everything is changing.

Paintings got so dark that you could hardly see them. And I think Goya was painting the sense that the world is now totally meaningless. We are monsters in space. The moon is not what we thought. The world isn’t created by God. What have we got in ourselves but a sort of beasts rising? It’s a nightmare vision of the world.

The Scream is a very famous painting. It was actually called The Scream of Nature by Munch. He got the idea when he walking in Norway and he saw an amazing sunset.

And I think this image is actually the very end of the Christian tradition. It’s the very end of the belief that God created sunsets. Munch says, ‘No no no. This is the scream of nature, of the beauty of nature being torn away from it. That no longer is this God’s creation’. And this is the agony and I think this is why it is such a resonant image within the History of Art.

Art historians usually describe modern art as being a great advance by artists. I don’t think it was at all. I think it was artists responding to what Darwin and all these scientists had discovered.

If the world hadn’t been made by God, if things weren’t divinely beautiful why would you paint them? If our noses and penises and mouths and vaginas could be in different places, why would you paint them as they appeared?

And of course Picasso realised this. He painted the hidden meaning of the world.

And when you look at a Cubist painting, like Ambroise Vollard, it’s just like the Dürerbut it’s hacked. Everything is hacked. He’s hacking into space, hacking into form, hacking into appearances. They are breaking through the tradition which was the great Western tradition of representation. Because they knew it didn’t mean anything anymore. But it required a tremendous intellectual and artistic effort to actually destroy this veil of appearances.

If you look now at Mark Tobey, who’s among the most influential early Abstract Expressionists in America. If you look at a Mark Tobey painting and you look at the Taj Mahal, you can look at both in the same way. The movement of light and darkness, and the movement of light in the Taj Mahal, they’re both about the same thing. They’re both about mystery.

When representation ceased to have meaning, Western art became like the art of the rest of the world.



With thanks to

Fitzrovia Chapel


Mrs Véronique Jaeger, Director
Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris



Alte Pinakothek

Bridgeman Images

The British Museum

Eglise des Dominicains Colmar

ESA / Hubble & NASA

Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris

Getty Images

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

National Galleries of Scotland

National Gallery of Art, Washington

The National Gallery, London

The National Museum, Norway

National Portrait Gallery, London

Sistine Chapel

Wellcome Collection



9 Lives

Audio Network




The Fighting Temeraire
Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1839
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


The Starry Night
Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
Museum of Modern Art, New York
VCG Wilson / Corbis / Getty Images


Mrs Siddons
Thomas Gainsborough, 1785
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses)
Paul Cezanne, c.1894–1905
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


The Battle of San Romano
Paolo Uccello, c. 1438–1440
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


The Kiss
Edvard Munch, 1892
The National Gallery, Norway
(CC BY-NC 4.0)


Saint Bride
John Duncan, 1913
National Galleries of Scotland


Self-Portrait in a fur coat
Albrecht Dürer, 1500
Alte Pinakothek
(CC BY-SA 4.0)


Sage worshipping at riverbank, Ganges River
ImagesBazaar / Getty Images


Iconic Myanmar temple at sunset with birds
Mark Fisher / Fisher Creative / Getty Images


India Orissa – Wheel of Konark Sun Temple
Ullstein bild / Getty Images


Ranganatha temple at Srigangam, Tamil Nadu
Company School, c. 1830
The British Museum
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


The Star of David Bronze Chandelier
Asercank / Getty Images


The Taj Mahal casts a reflection on the surface of a pool
Gavin Hellier / Getty Images


Taj Mahal and tourists
OmniMovi Ltd / Getty Images


The Creation of Adam
Michelangelo, c. 1512
Sistine Chapel


Madonna and Child
Giovani Bellini, late 1480s
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(CC0 1.0)


Madonna in the Rose Garden
Martin Schongauer, c. 1473
Eglise des Dominicains, Colmar


The Madonna of the Pinks (‘La Madonna dei Garofani’)
Raphael, c. 1506–1507
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


The Baptism of Christ
Piero della Francesca, 1437
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Elizabeth of York
Unknown artist, late 16thcentury, based on a work of c. 1500
NPG 311
© National Portrait Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)


Geoffrey Chaucer
After Unknown artist, late 16thcentury, based on a work of 1400
NPG 532
© National Portrait Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)


King Henry V
Unknown artist, late 16th or early 17th century
NPG 545
© National Portrait Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)


Geocentric diagram of the universe
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY 4.0)


Musa plant
George Dyonis Ehret
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY 4.0)


Micrographia, head and eyes of drone-fly
Robert Hooke, 1665
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY 4.0)


Galileo Galilei
Justus Sustermans, 1636
UniversalImagesGroup / Getty Images


Modern Moon
mrcmrc / Getty Images


Astronomy: five diagrams of the surface of the moon, during its phases
Aquatint after Galileo Galilei
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY 4.0)


Microscopic footage of plankton moving fast
BBC Universal / Getty Images


Hubble and a Stellar Fingerprint
ESA / Hubble & NASA, 2016


The Sacred Theory of the Earth
Thomas Burnet, 1684
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY 4.0)


Total Lunar eclipse Blood Moon
realistique / Getty Images


Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, c. 1609–1610
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian
Jusepe de Ribera, 17thcentury
National Galleries of Scotland


Rembrandt van Rijn, 1659
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Andrew W. Mellon Collection


Self Portrait at the Age of 34
Rembrandt van Rijn, 1640
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Rembrandt van Rijn, 1660
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(CC0 1.0)


Self Portrait at the Age of 63
Rembrandt van Rijn, 1669
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


The Pilgrimage to San Isidro
Francisco de Goya, 1821-1823
PHAS / Getty Images


A Giant Seated in a Landscape
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1818
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(CC0 1.0)


The Scream
Edvard Munch, 1893
National Museum, Norway
(CC BY-NC 4.0)


The Evolution of Man illustration
Waterhouse Hawkins, 1863
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY 4.0)


Portrait of Ambroise Vollard
Pablo Picasso, 1910
Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Bridgeman Images


Mark Tobey, 1960
Tempera on paper
12,5 x 17 cm
Photo: JL Losi
Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris


Taj Mahal, India Architecture Islam Heritage
Ludovic Marin / Getty Images


Silhouette of Taj Mahal against orange sky at sunrise
Fluorescent Films Ltd / Getty Images


Freesound contributors:


Christianity: Art and Iconography’, Encyclopaedia Britannica

The Baptism of Christ’, National Gallery

Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, ‘Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait (1500)’, Smarthistory, 9 December 2015

Matthew White, ‘The Enlightenment’, British Library, 21 June 2018

Galileo’, Encyclopaedia Britannica

Rembrandt’, National Gallery

Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, ‘Rembrandt, Self-Portrait (1659)’, Smarthistory, 9 December 2015

Picasso’, Art UK

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