Religious imagery has always reflected its time. Not just the painterly rules governing its style but also the environment, fashion and setting. It was during the Byzantine period that the church lay down certain regulations on how religious topics could be painted.
The church dictated how things were portrayed, what constituted suitable subject matter and even the choice of colours. There were conventions that had to be adhered to and how images were painted was heavily regulated.
Despite all of this the pictures are of the age. The clothes, the hairstyles and the equipment are most definitely from the Medieval age.
The same is true when we reach the Renaissance period. Although the rules had started to relax, there are certain things that are definitively from the 1500s. The style, landscape and buildings all indicate a particular moment in time.
If you look at religious paintings through the ages, this holds true. There is always an element or two that places the painting in a specific era. They will all feature Jesus, an angel, the saints and the Madonna but they also show off religions relevant to their age.
We are in the time of mass communication with icons, labels and brands. Social media speaks to the masses with fake prophets and the devil inside is only a #smiley face away. So how can we represent religion effectively in the 21st century?
We use hashtags all the time, our conversations are peppered with emoticons and emojis. Why not use these iconic symbols as a way of depicting the age old images of religion? Make the ROFL image our repentant saint. Why can’t saint Elijah have #cave as his marker?
When Simone Martini painted his beautiful drapery on his saints, do you think he made up the patterns on each fabric, or did he have a deal with a local cloth merchant? There shouldn’t be anything wrong with incorporating the merchants of our time. Such as IKEA furniture, H&M clothing or modern buildings.
Religion isn’t a static thing it changes over time and so does how it is portrayed. Today’s religious paintings should echo our own time and reflect on the concerns and styles and ways of communicating. After all isn’t that what religion is all about, communicating?