Christian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts

by Ethan Starr


If you have ever visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), you may have gotten lost within the three-floored, five-winged building. Maybe you have been unable to find that one painting you were looking for among the 450,000 artworks held within the Museum. Or perhaps, after wandering through the contemplative Japanese garden, Tenshin-en, you never even made it inside the building. Individuals searching for Christian art throughout the museum have likely experienced significant confusion while trying to find religious art that resonates with them. I have compiled a list of five “must-sees” for Christian art enthusiasts visiting the museum. These works draw from a number of genres and time periods, but comprise only a small percentage of the great collection of religious art that the MFA has to offer.

Christ in Majesty with Symbols of the Four Evangelists

On view in: I. W. Colburn Chapel Gallery, European (Gallery 254A)


In light of the recent turmoil in Spain’s Catalonia region, museum viewers can see a fabulous 12th century fresco transplanted into the wall of the European Gallery. This concave, semi-circular painting once decorated the church apse of Santa Maria del Mur in the Spanish Pyrenees. The figure of Christ in a mandorla dominates much of the space, surrounded by symbolic representations of the four Evangelists. Located below the semi-dome and separated by a remarkable geometric design are all twelve Apostles ringing the window line.

Seventh Plague of Egypt, John Martin

On view in: The Beal Gallery, European (Gallery 251)


“And Moses stretched forward his rod toward heaven, and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire rained down onto the earth.” (Exodus 9:23) In his 1823 depiction of the seventh of ten plagues against the people of Egypt, Martin lives up to his reputation for fantastical and melodramatic religious compositions. In one of the most famous paintings of the romantic painter’s career, Martin shows the pharaoh and the Egyptian people cowering within the great city of Thebes, framed by contrasting light and dark sky.


Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist, Sandro Botticelli

On view in: Italian Renaissance Gallery E (Gallery 219)


One of the most famous painters of the Italian Renaissance, Botticelli paints this personal devotional piece around 1500, in the later half of his career. Renowned for his detail, the artist’s paintings can often be recognized by finely rendered hair and drapery of his figures. If you look closely at this piece, the roses on the right are free-painted on top of sketches of lilies.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Thomas Cole  On view in: Waleska Evans James Gallery, American (Gallery 236)
Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Thomas Cole On view in: Waleska Evans James Gallery, American (Gallery 236)
The Garden of Eden, Erastus Salisbury Field  On view in: Joyce and Edward Linde Gallery, American (Gallery 237)
The Garden of Eden, Erastus Salisbury Field On view in: Joyce and Edward Linde Gallery, American (Gallery 237)

Here we have a comparison of two paintings of similar subject matter from the American Wing of the Museum. Thomas Cole’s rendering of the Garden of Eden is typical from the artist that founded the Hudson River School of Landscape painting. Rendering idealized scenes of pristine American wilderness, Cole and his contemporaries were focused mostly on the wonders of nature, and less so on the minute figures of Adam and Eve. Like Martin, Cole exhibits a dramatic contrast of lights and darks to delineate a change in environment, one of several traits that would become hallmarks of the American romantic movement that followed the artist.


In another 19th century American painting, Erastus Salisbury Field demonstrates the perceptions of the Garden of Eden from the polar opposite vantage point to Cole’s academic landscape painting: American Folk Art. Field’s work is characteristic of Folk Art painters during the first century of American independence, who painted often without formal training, and in the case of Field, as a personal hobby. After the piece failed to sell during the artist’s lifetime, a later owner painted over the indecent Eve as well as the serpent, until conservators later returned the painting to its original state.

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