Paintings of Biblical Women in the Modern Era

At the beginning of the twentieth century, religious art wasn't produced in the quantities of previous centuries. Churches, especially in America, proliferated and came in all sizes and shapes. However, many weren't rich and couldn't afford to commission artists to produce panels, frescoes, altarpieces, and elaborate stained-glass windows. However, some artists were still inspired to paint the mother of Jesus and Eve, and stained glass as well as glass-panel painting were still important in creating an atmosphere of holiness.

The use of stained-glass windows in cathedrals and churches in the high Gothic tradition seems to have reached an apex in the fifteenth century. After this period the artisans became interested in using paler colors (admitting more of the outside light) and larger-than-life figures. Scenes from the life of Christ, Virgin and Child, and images of saints dominated ecclesiastical stained-glass windows and panels.

Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, a leading painter in the Art Nouveau style, portrayed the Hebrew widow Judith explicitly sexualized, with a seminaked torso and confident half-smile suggesting she knew her powers of persuasion over her enemy, Holofernes (whose head she sliced off). One of the most popular French artists of the late 1800s and early 1900s was William Adolphe Bouguereau, a painter in the Academic Style (a painting style that combined the colors of the romantic style with elements of neoclassicism). His “Virgin of the Angels,” painted in A.D. 1881, featured the Blessed Virgin without a halo, seated with the Baby Jesus in her arms and surrounded by three angels, two playing musical instruments. Bouguereau created another painting of the Virgin in A.D. 1900 titled, “The Virgin with Angels.” That painting of Mary included a halo of nine stars. She appears to have risen from the seat of her throne in heaven, holding the Infant Jesus, while white-clad angels kneel on clouds around her.

In A.D. 1892 John Maler Collier, a British painter in the preRaphaelite style, created “Lilith.” The fair-skinned red-headed version of the “first Eve” stands au naturel, embracing the serpent that has entwined itself around her body. In complete control, she tilts her head toward her right shoulder as if to affectionately rub her cheek against the serpent's body. In the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, Lilith is a night demon. According to a medieval Jewish tale, she was created as Adam's first wife, but left the Garden of Eden because she did not want to lie beneath him in submission.

In 1914, John William Waterhouse painted his unforgettable image of the angel Gabriel offering flowers to the Blessed Virgin Mary in “The Annunciation.” The angel announced to her that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit, and the babe was to be called Jesus (Luke 1:26–38).

In 1900, Henry Ossawa Tanner, an expatriate American who lived in France, painted an image of Mary in the old-fashioned style of Mater Dolo-rosa (Sorrowful Mother). A somber Mary sits on the floor watching over her sleeping child, who lies hidden beneath a sheet. The strange iconography suggests to some art experts that Mary might perhaps be anticipating the coming Passion and Death of the Savior. Indeed, the sheet appears to be a burial shroud.

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