Take a Look at the Most Impressive Christian Sculptures of All Time
The Catholic Church has a rich history of commissioning world-renowned artists of the day to create beautiful works to decorate churches with the realities of the faith. From the 14th century to today, sculptures of Christ, the Blessed Mother, biblical figures and saints give us reason to pause and ponder the realities of the faith and the beauty of creation.
Here is a list of some of the most notable Christian-themed works of heart to inspire us today.
Pieta by Michelangelo
Date Created: 1498–1499
Location:St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
At only 25 years old, Michaelangelo was commissioned by Cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas to create a sculpture of Mary holding the dead Jesus across her lap for his tomb. Mary is notably depicted as a young woman, not as a mother of a 33 year old man. But Michaelangelo defended his decision to depict her in this way siting the church’s teaching on her sinlessness. It is the only work of Michelangelo's that he signed: Legend has it that he overheard pilgrims attribute the work to another sculptor, so he carved his signature in the sash across Mary's chest.
Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila by Bernini
Date Created: 1647–1652
Location: The Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome
Bernini was commissioned to create this sculpture for the tomb of the Venetian Cardinal Federico Cornaro. It portrays St. Teresa of Avila’s experience of religious ecstasy in her encounter with an angel who plunged her heart with a golden spear. Through the experience, she felt consumed with desire for God’s love.
St. Cecilia by Maderno
Date Created: 1600
Location: The church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome
In 1600, the incorrupt body of St. Cecilia was found under the altar of the same church that bore her name. A renovation of the Cathedral was commissioned including a new tomb, where this sculpture resides. Maderno's sculpture also replicates the position in which her body was discovered. She extends three fingers with her right hand and one with her left, a symbol of the Trinity, three persons in one God.
St. Bartholomew Flayed by Marco d'Agrate
Date Created: 1563
Location: The Cathedral of Milan
St. Bartholomew was skinned alive during his martyrdom. This image portrays the holy apostle with his skin draped over his shoulder as a badge of honor and holding a knife in hand. The image repulsed Mark Twain during his pilgrimage saying, “It was a hideous thing, and yet there was a fascination about it somehow. I am very sorry I saw it, because I shall always see it now. ….It is hard to forget repulsive things” (Twain, Innocents Abroad, Chapter 18).
Christ the Redeemer
Artist: Designed by sculptor Paul Landowski and built by engineer Heitor da Silva Costa in collaboration with Albert Caquot. Sculptor Gheorghe Leonida created the face
Date Created: 1922-1931
Medium: Soapstone and Concrete
Location: Mount Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Christ the Redeemer overlooks the city of Rio de Janeiro. Funds to raise this massive statue were collected by Brazillian Catholics to combat the “Godlessness” they found in society. In this image, Christ’s arms are stretched out to replicate a cross and as a symbol of peace. Much like the Statue of Liberty in the United States, Christ the Redeemer has become an iconic national symbol for the Brazilians.
The Well of Moses by Claus Sluter
Date Created: 1395–1403
Medium: Asnières stone
Location: the former Chartreuse de Champmol in Dijon, France
This marvelous work depicts Moses, David, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Daniel and Isaiah--the prophets who foresaw Christ’s passion and death. The statue originally stood in a cloister surrounded by Carthusian monks, intended to be a burial place for Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. It was meant to be a base for a crucifix. The monastery was destroyed during the French Revolution, and the statue is now open for public viewing.
St. Wolfgang Altarpiece by Michael Pacher
Date Created: 1479-81
Medium: Polychrome pine
Location: Parish Church, Sankt Wolfgang, Austria
This massive altarpiece is a combination of sculpture, painting and architecture. There are two doors and three different displays for different occasions: an everyday display, a Sunday display, and a display for special holy days. When the doors are open, the carved and painted gold centerpiece is visible shows the Coronation of the Virgin. When closed, the doors portray four scenes from the life of Saint Wolfgang and scenes from the Life of Christ.
The Bronze David by Donatello
Date Created: 1440s (original date unknown)
Location: Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
The original was commissioned in 1408 to be a part of a collection of sculptures to reside in the buttresses of the Florence Cathedral. However, the more familiar bronze image was created to be placed in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici as part of a political display. It shows David after slaying the Goliath, standing boldly on the giant’s head.
The Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin
Date Created: 1880–1917
Medium: Plaster and later bronze
Location: Musée d'Orsay in Paris
Commissioned by the French state to serve as an entrance to a new art museum, this somewhat troubling sculpture depicts Dante’s Inferno. After working on it for over 37 years Rodin died from influenza leaving the work unfinished. It comprises of 186 figures, most notably, The Thinker, which some interpretations say is Dante himself, and others say is Adam contemplating original sin. There are also three bronze casts of the work in Paris, Philadelphia and Tokyo.
Christ of the Abyss by Guido Galletti
Date Created: 1954
Location: Submerged in the Mediterranean Sea
Christ of the Abyss was commissioned by Italian diver Duilio Marcante in memory of his friend who died in an accident near the spot where it rests. It depicts Christ offering a benediction of peace, with his head and hands raised skyward towards the surface of the sea. It has become a tourist spot for divers from around the world and has been replicated in the United States off Key Largo and Grenada.
Our Lady of the Rosary at Fatima by José Ferreira Thedim
Date Created: 1920
Medium: Cedar Wood, Pearls, and precious stones
Location: Little Chapel of Apparitions, Fatima, Portugal
Commissioned for the Shrine at Fatima, Sister Lucia herself guided Thedim as he created the statue so that it closely resembles what she saw during the Fatima apparitions. On the feast of Our Lady of Fatima in 1989, Pope St. John Paul II donated the bullet used during the failed assasination attempt to the shrine, which was encrusted into the crown of Mary.
These are honorable mentions because it’s impossible not to give special recognition to perhaps the most influential Catholic artist of all time, Michaelangelo. His works continue to transcend and be admired by generations of Catholics and art aficionados. He was a devoted son of the Church who often risked his personal health and safety for the sake of beautifying the churches of Florence and Rome.
Moses by Michaelangelo
Date Created: c. 1513–1515
Location: The church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome
Commissioned by Pope Julius II for his tomb, Michaelangelo sculpted Moses with horns on his head based on a faulty translation of Exodus 34. Legend says that Michaelangelo felt his creation was so life-like, he struck its knee and shouted, “Now speak!”
David by Michelangelo
Date Created: c. 1501–1504
Location: The Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence
Michaelangelo was just 26 years old when he began “David” from a block of marble that was rejected by other artists of the day. It portrays David before he slays Goliath, showing off a feeling of self confidence and concentration that carried him throughout his kingship.
The Risen Christ by Michelangelo
Date Created: 1519–1521
Medium: Marble and bronze
Location: The church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.
Commissioned by a wealthy Italian nobleman, Michaelangelo’s first attempt to create the Risen Christ holding the cross failed due to a faulty piece of marble. His second attempt was successful. Christ was originally portrayed in the nude, in order to show that his humanity and sexuality are uncorrupted by lust, hence in his resurrected body, he triumphs over sin and death. However, about 200 years after its creation, a bronze floating loincloth was added.