Virtually all cultures have used art for religious purposes. The drawings in Paleolithic caves seem to have served a spiritual purpose. Some of the animals depicted are drawn with exaggerated features that make them take on a supernatural power, which suggests, for the artists, that the animals had religious meaning. The ancient Egyptians used art to please their gods and to ensure long life. Since ancient times, indigenous cultures and religious traditions everywhere have used artistic objects and images in rituals and in transmitting the stories that express their faith. Art, then, has been a central means for expressing all things religious.
However, art carrying religious themes has not always expressed or conveyed what might be called spiritual meaning, while art without religious themes has often done so. The distinction rests on whether the artist and viewer experience in art what is commonly referred to as transcendence-a higher power or insight into a deeper meaning of life. An example of art expressing spiritual feelings without any specific religious meaning is the images drawn of daily work in a field and of everyday life in general-as can be shown in many of the French impressionists' paintings. For many, these images take on spiritual meaning. For religious purposes, art has been used for religious rituals, for teaching, and for expressing spiritual feelings. Art used to enhance the ritual aspects of religion can be found almost anywhere. For centuries, vessels and jewelry have been made for use in religious rituals. The Ijebu of Yoruba use ritualistic containers in the form of animals to exhibit particular animals' strengths. More cultures than can be named use masks in religious ceremonies that may represent sacred animals, gods, or goddesses. During religious ceremonies, some cultures have individuals put on masks representing gods or goddesses to assume their spiritual powers.
In preliterate societies, art has been an important way to teach. For example, at the height of the Renaissance, images were made to teach illiterate persons about the characters, events, and stories in the Bible. Another favorite subject was that of saints, who were often depicted on triptychs for use as personal altars. This was a time when the only art that was commissioned was about religion, and so much of the art from this period was religious without expressing something spiritual.
Art in places of worship is often intended to elicit feelings of awe and reverence. For example, in the Sistine Chapel, the viewer looks up at a huge mural on the ceiling that is obviously meant to overwhelm the viewer with its image of a very powerful God. Many cultures use art to tell stories central to their religion and to commemorate various gods. A walk through any museum collection of African or Aztec art is apt to show artifacts and images on bowls depicting such stories with religious themes.
Religious symbols are often carried around in everyday life as people wear a symbol of their faith in their jewelry. These visual representations allow people to hold their religion close to them wherever they go. Art, then, provides concrete, visible, and even portable manifestations of a person's faith. Despite the distinction between religious and spiritual art, the intent behind most religious art is both. Tibetan sand paintings are among the clearest and most consistent examples of art that is both religious and spiritual. The images, which are made by a mosaic of tiny bits of colored sand carefully placed over many days, include typical Tibetan iconography. After the sand painting is finished, it is swept up and placed in the river, a spiritual act symbolizing life's impermanence, one of the central messages in Buddhism.
In the 20th century, the emphasis in art has been less on the religious and more on the spiritual. Spiritual art becomes personal, and relies more on the viewer's internal experience. When religious icons are removed from art, spirituality may actually be more accessible and more easily communicated across faiths and cultures. Wassily Kandinsky talks about art that is essentially timeless in its spiritual meaning. For Kandinsky, the successful spiritual artwork is internal and timeless.
Religious art and art with spiritual meaning has played and still plays an essential role in the faith of both communities and individuals. The images and objects may change, and the balance between religious and spiritual may change as well. However, what remains constant is the central importance of art as a means for expressing transcendence and life's meaning.