The images that shaped Europe

The sacred

Rituals, buildings and the art of death


Religions, beliefs, rituals and morals, and their material declinations, have been at the core of human activities for centuries. This phenomenon can be clearly seen by studying the representations of manufactured objects, buildings or sculpted stones to which the various believers have lent - and still lend in certain cases - a sacred character.

There are many objects of worship represented and in our corpus, especially in the first third of the 20th century. The most representative image is the crucifix, which appears both as scientific and sacred object. They are mainly published in academic journals dealing with art history and religion, such as the German journal dedicated to Christian art, 'Zeitschrift für christliche Kunst'. But the crucifix also appears in decorative art magazines of the first quarter of the 20th century and even in a magazine for children. In this last case, it is an advertisement. The crucifix is attached to a rosary and is offered as a souvenir of one's first communion.

It should be noted that the crucifix represented is the Catholic one. The Orthodox one is completely absent from the corpus. There are, nevertheless, some examples of patriarchal crucifixes, which resemble Orthodox crucifixes in their double horizontal bars.

The second most represented object of worship is the monstrance (ostensorium), used by Catholics and Anglicans to offer the sacramental bread. These images circulate especially in the first quarter of the 20th century, and in the same types of journals in which the crucifix circulate. Other type of images we see frequently circulated include reliquaries and tabernacles. We found no images of sacred objects used by Jews or Muslims in the corpus. For example, there are no images of the misbaha, the Muslim rosary, or the menorah. On the other hand, some French and Italian art history and archaeology journals have depicted Greek and Roman altars, essential elements for worship. This is probably due to society's interest in antiquity at the time - and its disinterest in the still existing religions other than its own. Finally, it is clear that society was still deeply Christian and conservative.

Sacred buildings

Images of places of worship confirm the tendency seen above for ritual objects - there is an over-representation of Christian elements and some Greco-Roman elements in the first quarter of the 20th century. Nevertheless, their representation in the press differs from what was seen previously. As we might expect, images of Greco-Roman temples, as well as churches, are present in art history journals, but the latter are also found in architectural journals. The representation of temples is more interesting: despite being located in Italy, like the temples in Paestum (Naples) or Agrigento, they are not published by Italian journals but by German, French and Polish ones. The Italian magazine ‘L'arte : rivista di storia dell'arte medievale e moderna’ published only two images displaying the Pantheon in Rome, but they are not pictures of the building but instead paintings representing it.

Ancient Greek temple in Paestum

Pictures of the Pantheon are present in several other magazines, including one that has nothing to do with art history: ‘Paris Illustré’ (1904). It is presented at the very beginning of an article describing the visit of the French president to Rome. It is the very first place that the president visited during his trip, therefore its meaning is mostly symbolic and political. No other images of a specific temple, or church, seem to have been represented multiple times. This testifies to the importance and significance of the Pantheon for the French and for Europeans more generally.

The art of death

The duality between the representation of Christian sacred elements and those of other religions is perhaps best seen in the sacred objects related to death. Indeed, while carved tombstones and numerous funerary crosses have been identified in the corpus, no Greek or Roman urns or funerary vessels have been identified. There is one ancient sarcophagus, but it is from the Christian period. Such a result may be due to the difficulty faced in differentiating an urn or funerary vessel from all other similar vessels and containers, but this does not prevent the Christian elements from being more easily grasped and more numerous.

Images of funerary crosses and tombs circulate above all in German journals from the very end of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th. Some of them were published in decorative arts magazines. They did not have a scientific purpose but rather aimed to present the production of funerary crosses to the Christian public.

The funerary cross, together with the crucifix, represents European society in the first quarter of the 20th century as a deeply Christian society. If the population was certainly still religious, one can wonder to what extent traditions played a role in this conservatism.

At the same time, there was a growing scientific interest in Greco-Roman archaeology and philology. In this context, the corpus seems somewhat biased, with few Greco-Roman objects or buildings coming to light. However, important archaeological journals in France, the ‘Bulletin de correspondance hellénique’, and in Germany, the ‘Römische Mitteilungen’, have existed since 1877 and 1886 respectively. One might therefore have expected to find many more ‘sacred’ images related to antiquity.