To a contemporary audience, the biblical narratives that appear in Western art from the Middle Ages through the modern era can appear impenetrably obscure. The ubiquity of New and Old Testament images in art originates from the need to visually illustrate and spiritually inspire largely illiterate audiences in an emotional—rather than intellectual—manner.
There is a hierarchy to these narratives that was primarily dictated by the physical spaces in which they were to appear. Scenes considered most important occupied prominent focal points of a church or altarpiece, with those of lesser significance radiating outward. Take the 14th-century fresco cycle that originally decorated the apse of the Porro oratory at Mocchirolo. The very choice of biblical passages and their placement in the chapel indicates the spiritual values of the people who commissioned the decoration. The Crucifixion occupies the largest space on the back wall; above this scene, on the barrelled ceiling, Christ holds his hand up in the act of blessing, or judgment, while narratives featuring Christ’s early life appear on each side wall.
The visual material offered by the Bible is vast, and although much of art history attends to Christian themes, this list offers an introduction to the most essential religious stories in Western art. In the modern era, artists have adapted these stories for new uses, whether to comment on current events or as allegories for their own agendas. Thus, the same scenes repeatedly appear—in radically different guises—throughout art history as trends develop and skills change.