Christian iconography and compositional schemes are deeply ingrained in the history of Western painting. They all but monopolized the medium for about a dozen of its formative centuries—from the Byzantine era through the Renaissance—during which techniques and traditions were being figured out and established. To consider the legacy of this symbolism today, A.i.A. brought together four painters from around the world who grapple with Christian imagery consciously and critically in their work. Some offer queer and decolonial perspectives on the moral beliefs that were spread through colonization by Europeans. Some search for new forms of spirituality. And some are interested in how images both persist and change throughout history. All twist and update Christian imagery to give it new unorthodox meaning.
EMILY WATLINGTON How does Christian imagery appear in your work? None of you are making work about Christianity per se, but rather borrow from its visual repertoire to take on other topics.
FRIEDA TORANZO JAEGER The way Christian imagery functions—especially in the 15th and 16th centuries—fascinates me. Christianity gave us hermeneutics; it’s something that can be interpreted and then reinterpreted, that generates endless meaning and values. Through this religion, painting became an epistemological artifact. Christian imagery visualizes certain fantasies and connects you with something spiritual. I really want to use that function of painting in my work, to connect with something more abstract than myself—something that changes in various historical contexts. I paint driverless cars and queer utopias, often appropriating Gothic and medieval altarpiece formats, displaying canvases on hinges, like altar panels, to give them a sculptural presence.
TAMMY NGUYEN In my practice, I’m interested in exploring confusion as it relates to postcolonialism and geopolitics. I like combining histories and narratives that don’t always seem like they should make sense together but that, in reality, exist in parallel. There are so many examples, especially when we’re talking about diaspora, war, etc. My series of 14 paintings depicting the stations of the cross, which I made for the most recent Berlin Biennale, was inspired by my visit to an island in Indonesia called Pulau Galang. It was near where my parents went as Vietnamese refugees—an island called Kuku Island. That camp was decommissioned, but Pulau Galang is now a tourist site for folks who want to visit this history. The Vietnamese refugee camp, which was quite large, was divided into sections for the major three nonindigenous religions in Vietnam—it had a Buddhist area, a Protestant area, and a Catholic area. I was really struck by the Catholic worship area because it was so large—it was a whole forest. Inside, there were giant, beautiful statues depicting the stations of the cross. These golden statues were so striking, and so passionate.
I don’t have a memory of war; I’m a postwar child of the Vietnamese diaspora. And a lot of my imagining of the Vietnam War was inspired by this collection of statues. I started to think about the role of faith in circumstances of trauma and grief. I thought about how Christian statues were brought over to Vietnam through a colonial campaign mainly orchestrated by the French. In the tropical wilderness of Indonesia, nature is cannibalizing the statues. So I created a body of paintings depicting each of the 14 stations, and in each of those paintings you can see the tropics eating away at the figures. In a way, they tell a narrative that’s wholly new and very wild.
ALINA PEREZ There are definitely lots of storytelling tools in Catholicism, and they are inseparable from certain compositional elements. There are reasons why certain frescoes are revered and people travel to Europe to look at them. Renaissance painters were mastering the tools of light and shadow, and perfecting how these elements combine to make figures.
Catholicism is embedded in the history of painting, but also in my psyche. My work certainly bears traces of my upbringing. I was surrounded by saint cards on the fridge and rosaries in the cupholder in the car. Saint cards are all over Miami. I grew up going to church. We had an event where everyone would dress like a saint—the one whose name was closest to yours. And I designed this whole outfit to become Saint Philomena [the patron saint of babies], which was a bizarre experience. Also, I would come home and see fruit in the corner of the house and then be told, “Don’t touch that; it’s an offering.” This had a way of turning stationary things into something almost alive.
Papi with Lizard Earrings Smooshing Cocuyos  is a figurative drawing based on my father. It captures the experience of being young and watching my dad catch these lightning bugs he called cogwheels. He would smash them in his hands, and then his palms would glow. I remember being so enchanted, and I wanted to capture that with the lighting in my work. I wanted to explore the overlaps between religious or otherworldly experiences and everyday reality.
JANNIS MARWITZ Before I was drawn to Christian imagery, I was drawn to something older—images from antiquity, especially those of sarcophagi, which I painted for a while. I was interested in how sarcophagi have changed their forms and embellishments throughout history, eventually changing their meaning and adopting very Christian motifs. That is something that interests me: how, when you look at images and process them, they resurface in multiple ways. I tend to work with fragments that I find in paintings and prints, or that I draw from memory.
In an untitled painting of mine from 2021, you can see this colliding of image fragments. The top part is a stage, and the lower part shows a burning house. I relate to what Alina said about light, and here I wanted to have two sources of light in the painting. One spotlight illuminates the upper part of the stage, and the burning house illuminates the city in the lower part. Light makes images present and helps us see color. I’m definitely influenced by folk miniature paintings and illuminated manuscripts.
You can see the same figure in two of my paintings—the untitled one I just mentioned, and The Raid . In one, he’s in the foreground, and in the other, he’s underneath a table. I wanted to have this figure looking both into and out of the picture; I think of him as helping the viewer regard the image. In a way, it references Caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreto , where you see two people from behind as they worship the Christ child that the Virgin Mary is holding. It’s almost as if you are looking at someone else who is looking at the painting’s main subject—they are telling you how to perceive Mary and her son.
WATLINGTON Do you see this religious imagery as a historical burden to be overcome, or as a trove of treasures to draw upon?
TORANZO JAEGER I didn’t grow up with Christianity, even though I was born in a Christian country [Mexico]. Coming from a shamanistic, Indigenous background, I was always terrified of Christianity, because of the way many of its values are ingrained in society. These values often create huge obstacles that need to be overcome. But when it comes to painting, revisiting and repurposing history is, to me, a core practice of decolonization. As Edward Said said, history is not an indestructible authority. I love that idea because, obviously, history is full of depressing narratives; but there’s so much more to it than that. Yes, the history of Christianity is one of oppression, but it’s also extremely complex. So I give myself the agency to revisit histories that don’t relate to my background—especially those of the European Middle Ages.
WATLINGTON You also approach the future in a similar way, taking the autonomous car as one of
your main motifs.
TORANZO JAEGER Exactly. I often think about how modernity has always come from the West, and because of this, the West has always been the owner of the future. So, I thought: No! I’m gonna think up my own future! I’m going to establish queer decolonial worlds in these artifacts that I’m making. I want to give myself this agency that was taken away from me. This is very important—even if there’s not a future, even if we totally fuck up the planet tomorrow, I want to give myself this agency anyway. For me, this involves appropriating one of the most futuristic things out there—driverless cars—and imposing my postcolonial and queer utopias onto them, as I do with historical imagery.
NGUYEN I’m really excited by how generative using Christian imagery has been, and humbled by how immense the history is. I’m also really cautious about invoking the power of this symbolism. But I do find it exhilarating to watch all the complexities unfold as I work with the imagery. I made all the paintings in the series I mentioned in the tradition of illuminated manuscripts, but at a much larger scale. I used watercolor, vinyl paint, pastel, and metal leaf on paper that has been laminated and stretched over board. I came to work with these materials after taking a class on making illuminated manuscripts with Karen Gorst, who’s a living illuminator.
While in the class, I wasn’t thinking about Christian imagery, but I was curious about the craft of making illuminations, and also the craft of historical bookbinding. I was really moved by the function of metal leaf. Alina and Jannis have talked about light already—metal leaf offers this very unique kind of light in sacred depictions. Not only does its glow represent a kind of sacredness, but I also found it interesting that metal is at once opaque and radiant. It’s a beautiful contradiction. That formal quality of the medium has provided many ways of depicting spirituality and religiosity. Exploring Christianity, I also often think about how the economy is conflated with certain ideas of faith—when gold is applied to a painting, the work’s value automatically increases. How striking it is that this same gold also evokes something high in spiritual value.
MARWITZ When I went to art school in Germany, there was always an insistence on a break from what came before, an emphasis on modernity. But the writings of Aby Warburg opened a totally different world for me. He pointed out all the possibilities that come with thinking about images—how they appear and reappear—and talked about the forces that drag them through history. That’s something fascinating about imagery in general, but you can see it clearly in Christian imagery specifically.
One example is a lamb. The Greek god Hermes [Mercury to the Romans] was often depicted as bearing a lamb, which comes from an ancient ritual. But as Rome transitioned to Christianity, the image turned into Jesus carrying the lamb [Jesus, the Good Shepherd who seeks out and saves the one who goes astray]. Then in the 18th century, you might have a pastoral scene where the lamb has no religious meaning at all.
PEREZ For me, it’s less about specific images than about the power behind them. Recently, I’ve been really invested in questioning the power of belief, and in figuring out just how powerful the images we carry in our minds can be. I used to make a lot of drawings that were about my childhood—familial, formative experiences. And then I had this epiphany that the images in your mind are what make your memories so real. It’s maybe less important that certain things happened a long time ago; their power lies instead in the constant ritual of remembering and replaying the image you create of them. As Frieda said, there isn’t just one version of the past that’s set in stone. I started to think: Perhaps if I draw memories or symbols in a different way, I can start to change the narratives and the beliefs I derived from them.
If you look at Christian iconography, you can really see how the relationship between imagery and belief plays out. There’s lots of beautiful imagery, but also many painful depictions of hell used to scare the shit out of people. Paintings were used to make you see and believe, which is scary—but it’s also very inspiring to think that you could perhaps create images that have a place in the future, as many of you have been saying.
NGUYEN I don’t know if any of you feel this way, but I find that Christian imagery has a tremendous power, because there’s such a large, common public that at least recognizes the cross. This makes Christianity a useful shared ground to start talking about other things that are lesser known. In the past, I’ve drawn from things like Vietnamese mythology, where the iconography is so niche that a big portion of the public can’t really enter into the work as easily. As someone who wants to engage in conversation about various intersections of cultures, histories, diasporas, and geopolitics, I notice these kinds of differences.
PEREZ Christianity also borrowed a great deal from other cultures and religions, so I wonder if that’s part of why its iconography is so familiar and recognizable.
WATLINGTON Are there particular paintings that have left a big impression on you?
TORANZO JAEGER Lately, my favorite painter is Enguerrand Quarton, who made the Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon [ca. 1455]. I think it’s one of the most interesting paintings of the medieval era. It was shown at the Louvre in an exhibition called “French Primitives.” What a title—obviously, that show was a long time ago . Quarton was categorized as “primitive” because of his flatness. My works are also really flat, and I think they resemble Byzantine art in many ways. He was working shortly after the fall of the Byzantine Empire , but he was really painting as someone would in the Byzantine era—without much depth. And also, some art historians speculate that he had never seen this composition before—the Pietà wasn’t really a common motif in France. So, in a way, he wrote his own version of the scene, coming up with his own composition—one that some people saw as stiff or lacking emotion, since this scene is usually full of drama. I love everything that has to do with Byzantine art especially, because it’s where people were still figuring out what painting is. Obviously, later, when linear perspective takes over, everything changes; but I love these attempts that Quarton carries on, because they’re so weird. You might have figures floating in a painting that’s trying to depict something serious from the biblical canon.
In the painting, Mary is in the middle, but she’s not crying. Yet you can find her tears if you look into Christ’s wound. I thought this moment was really dramatic and full of lament. Some people still talk about this painting as one of the most mysterious of its time. I am trying to use these early styles in my work to ask: What kinds of painting practices do I want to exist in the world? I’m fascinated by people who were establishing the history of painting in their own time.
MARWITZ The architecture in the background looks totally made up. Flemish painters around this time would have painted Flemish cities, but these buildings are totally wild.
TORANZO JAEGER Some speculate that the city is supposed to be Constantinople. Apparently, Quarton was referring to the fact that the Byzantines lost Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. So he was painting the historic loss of the city alongside the Pietà. But he never visited Constantinople; he just painted it based on descriptions.
NGUYEN I’m mesmerized by all this! The Man of Sorrows [ca. 1525] from the Workshop of Aelbert Bouts, is a very popular painting in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that has been really important to me.
PEREZ It has the most intense stigmata I’ve ever seen!
NGUYEN It’s so intense! Another reason I’m so drawn to it is because I love thinking about portraiture or figurative painting as landscape; I’m always playing with those categories. This portrait seems to evoke a place beyond. Jesus’s crown of thorns really comes across as some sort of a thicket, and the teardrops reminded me of water systems. I actually created my own version of it. Making my own Man of Sorrows  was a wonderful opportunity for me to think about hands, hair, and other things that many painters obsess over.
PEREZ It’s interesting too that portraiture of Jesus, or any deity, was never about capturing a specific likeness. With a lot of figurative art now, everyone is talking about specificity and likeness; but Jesus was made recognizable through symbols and body language.
The main religious painting that made an impact on me is maybe not overtly Christian: Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas . It deals with identity and what it means to be different versions of yourself. It’s about internal human struggles, and the never-ending struggle to communicate our desires and our fears in healthy ways. It’s about who we want to be when we wake up, and then finding we’re someone else at the end of the night. To me, all religion and spirituality comes back to the inside of you. I think that’s why this painting really scared me when I first saw it as a little kid. Christianity can scare you, too—it can be very intense to realize what your choices are.
MARWITZ For me, it was The Flight into Egypt by Adam Elsheimer, a painting from the beginning of the 17th century. Elsheimerwas a German painter who emigrated to Rome, where he died quite young. And this is a rather small painting—oil on copper, 12 by 16 inches. He usually worked in small formats—some panels are something like 9 by 7 centimeters—so you really have to view them up close. These are paintings made for one person to look at. On the journey to Egypt, Mary is in the center, next to Joseph and baby Jesus. Most artists painted this as a daytime scene, but Elsheimer made it a night scene with amazing lighting. It’s almost proto-Romantic, with the moon hovering above the water. A torch lights the main figures in the center. In most other depictions of this event, you see Joseph leading the way; but here he doesn’t—it seems like he’s talking to Jesus. It’s a very intimate, tender portrayal. I find it incredible that this interaction happens at such a small scale. This painting is also considered the first accurate, naturalistic depiction of a night sky—so you see the Milky Way and different constellations.
TORANZO JAEGER It’s almost pastoral!
MARWITZ Absolutely. It’s also astonishing that it predates the paintings of artists like Poussin [1594–1665] or Lorrain [1600–1682], who were so important for establishing the genre of landscape painting, gradually emphasizing the natural settings in which various figurative scenes took place. Yet it’s on the same level in the way it mixes figures and landscape.
WATLINGTON Most of the examples you brought up were commissioned by the church or by patrons for the purpose of explaining specific stories to an audience, often an illiterate one. The beauty of these works was meant to induce some sort of spiritual experience—so the painters were, in effect, channeling God to the people. They had a limited, if not prescribed, set of subjects to work with. But you’re not working for churches or patrons. Do those tasks, like storytelling, or creating some sort of transcendent experience, resonate with you, or is your goal something else entirely? I realize that’s kind of a big existential question, but I also imagine you’ve thought about it.
TORANZO JAEGER I think my intentions are somewhat irrelevant. I’m more interested in the history my paintings leave behind. Painting is a historical medium. Today I can have certain specific things that I want to do in painting—but maybe in 10 years, or even in a month, they’ll change. My desires are complicated; they change all the time. So I’d rather let history decide the purpose of my work.
MARWITZ You say that painting belongs to history. But something I find interesting, especially with religious painting, is that every time an image appears in front of us, it restages something that we might already know. Most of the scenes that we see in religious paintings are familiar to us, in various degrees of detail. But in using them, we’re not really illustrating those stories. Religious imagery has changed drastically, but there are still Christian attitudes embedded in things like the emotion a color evokes. Today, ideas like transcendence are more ingrained in things like color.
TORANZO JAEGER Totally. With color, we sublimate spiritual desires into something material. We restage certain scenes when we have an urge to say that something has changed. It’s the same crucifixion, but it’s new times, so we have to rewrite it.
PEREZ I think we have become, in effect, the church that commissions the pieces. We’re all just channeling parts of ourselves into the work for the greater good—or not…
NGUYEN I like the idea of just seeing how history will embrace our work. The idea of patronage is so ordered; with the paintings that we’re making now, systems are very fluid and changing, and notions of value are definitely in flux. But the recognizability of Christian imagery affords us a certain deeply ingrained order and predictability.