Presenting Religious art in a way acceptable to Protestants


I’m teaching an art history class for a group of Christian middle school kids. There’s a mix of Catholics and Protestants. I am planning that my last lesson will be on religious symbolism in Medieval and Renaissance painting.

I’m a little apprehensive because sometimes the Protestants in the group have objections when the Catholic teachers get too Catholic.

Anyway, I was hoping some Protestants or some converts could tell me what some sensitive topics might be when it comes to religious art. I would like to do a painting of the annunciation. Since it is a Biblical scene, do you think that would be okay. Or should I steer clear of Mary?

Would a scene of the crucifixion be offensive to Protestants? I am wondering since some Protestants have an aversion to crucifixes?

I considered discussing icons, but I’ve been warned that icons is a sore subject in the group since some Protestants object to using icons as a meditative tool.

Any input would be helpful.


There are Protestants and then there are Protestants, of course. Some object violently to depictions of the Crucifixion, I should think a lot don’t.

If you’re teaching about art as art and explaining its symbolism I don’t think any should be offended by it. As long as they had some idea of the content before they signed up for your class :slight_smile:

I’d say discuss your plans with your students and ask if any of them would have problems with it - best and easiest thing to do.


If you’re doing specifically religious art in Medieval and Renaissance painting as the lesson, then you can’t avoid it, so don’t try. It would be like trying to teach about the settlement of the Southwest without mentioning the missions and the missionaries that started them (or the Mormons, for that matter). Can’t be done.


I am also considering doing a study of Caravaggio–one of my favorites

Here’s his Conversion of St. Paul

Explore Theresa Drake


Caravaggio is brilliant, isn’t he :slight_smile: I love Narcissus

Explore Theresa Drake

very cool! Never seen it before.

Can you tell I’m winging it with this class?



I mean this in all seriousness. Use those common, non-denominational vinyl stick-ons that appear in areas where Protestants are prevalent.

One shows a little boy and girl kneeling in front of a cross with their hands clasped and heads lowered.

There’s an icon for you.

Since it is historical (I am assuming) I will tell you that I piloted a course for the Colton JUSD in southern California entitled, “An Introduction to Western Civilization.”

I used pagan (Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Egyptian, Minoan) and Catholic art exclusively.

The contrasts were important: gods/goddesses to saints/martyrs and the whole movement of art in the West took off from the Catholic religious painters and sculptors.

If you don’t want to offend then do not use An Essential Guide to the Bible (Harbour House, I believe). In this (typical) ‘guide’ to the formation of the canon and who did what when and why, there is absolutely NO mention of the Catholic Church. Only names (without titles) and lower case ‘church’ or ‘church authorities’ are referred to, never a Pope Damasus in sight!

The point is: it happened and it is part of everyone’s Western heritage from the greater Mediterranean through Europe.

To avoid it for fear of ‘offending’ some students should be offensive to those who seek to know the truth, however distasteful to one’s personal feelings it may be.

Mary is and was historical. Show her and her Son.

The crucifixition is the, well, crux, of our Faith.
The Faith that Protestants’ ancestors once adhered to and believed.

Pax Christi


Certainly, go ahead with depictions of the Crucifixion…Perhaps also something of the Resurrection? I have seen a wonderful picture soemwhere–I have no idea of the name or artist, but it shows the Roman soldiers lying insensible on the ground, and Christ coming from the tomb…
I saw that as a child, & I can still see the beauty of it.
The Conversion of St Paul that you posted is wonderful!! This is a story that the kids will be familiar, as is the Annunciation. (Although most of us don’t use that term. It’s always just the “angel appearing to Mary”).

Good luck with the class!!


If you are teaching medieval and Renaissance art you are teaching about art created in an overwhelmingly Catholic era by artists imbued with a Catholic sensibility so it is hard to see how you could present a balanced view of the imagery in the religious art that denies that sensibility and still be accurate and faithful to your resources. If some in the class are offended by those sensibilities, so be it.


I’m not in the greatest mood at the time of this post, so maybe you should ignore me, but I would say to absolutely wear it out with whatever you want to show them. And I don’t mean to be offensive or to “rub it in” the faces of the Prots in your class, but not withold good art from them for fear of being offensive, cuz Catholic or not, it’s just history. And for pete’s sake, Protestants should at least LIKE Mary. The sight of her shouldn’t be repulsive to any Christian.


well said.


My first smart alec response was going to be “Put a frame on it”. :smiley:

But seriously, you could just call it Christian art from the period and show whatever you think serves the purpose of the art class best in your eyes. Do your best to not show a Catholic agenda and do your best to not hide Catholic art that serves the purpose of the art class.

I’ll never forget two professors in college (I attended a Lutheran liberal arts college for two years before transferring for reasons not detailed here). In my religion class, the professor went out of his way to show how the Lutheran interpretation was correct and always did in context that Catholic interpretation was wrong. In my history class on the same period, the devout Lutheran professor (whose son became a Lutheran minister) was always careful to talk about certain historical abuses and crimes as “done in the name of the Church”. He never said done by the Catholic Church or anything that could be interpreted as anti-Catholic.

You can imagine which professor I think fondly of to this day.


Protestants, in my experience, don’t have issues with religious art, as depicting Bible scenes, etc.

The issues are with people using images in religious ritual, as in bowing, lighting candles, and praying in front of.

The hands down finest collection of religious art I have ever been priveledge to see is at the museum at Bob Jones University.

They might consider some Catholic art “mythology” if it is based on tradition rather than history or Scripture ( such as the assumption of Mary into heaven)


I’d say just show it. Most Protestants (especially younger ones) in my experience don’t have any problems with the Crucifixion or other Catholic art. It’s art, I don’t know why people would have a problem with it.


Thanks for all the input! Sometimes the Catholics in the group get “in trouble” for things we wouldn’t expect. We are really rooted in our Catholic worldview.

I guess one thing I’m worried about is explaining from the symbols in the paintings and how they relate to Mary–for example an apple showing her as the new Eve.

I might play it safe and stick to Jesus scenes.

I won’t use this one, but it is one of my favorite paintings It’s the crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio

Explore Theresa Drake

I might though, show some of the paintings of the evangelists.


Go for Mary and Child. Knock 'em dead with Christmas stamps from the 50s through the 70s (all Madonna series).
Appeal to the maternal in your audience: Mary as mother and baby as our Lord.

Some people need a cold water wash to get those scales off their eyes!

Good Luck



Protestants don’t object to the art if it used strictly as art.
However protestants object to it being placed in churches , then it becomes an Idol, Protestants object to that.

As for crucifix protestants feel it detracts from the fact the we worship the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

FYI Mel Gibson’s passion of the Christ only included a resurrection scene after objection by protestants.


As for crucifix protestants feel it detracts from the fact the we worship the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

“we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” 1 Corinthians 1:23

Paul didn’t seem to mind.

God bless


I had a Protestant tell me she beleived our salvation stems from the resurrection of Christ, and NOT His death. They are generally confused about salvation and what constitutes it. You are proclaiming the Gospel to them. They need the graces they receive by having it told to them (in pictures in this case). Never mind the other symbolism. Concentrate on the salvation aspect of the symbolism. You may want to bring in Scripture passages, such as the one’s that mention the Passion, the wounds of Christ, etc. If you need help, you can PM me. :wink:



You have a misconstrued view of the purpose of religious art. A written word is a symbol of a reality the same as a picture, only the letters form sound first. The word stands in for a picture.

I may have a picture of a dog, but if I have a picture of MY dog, that conjures up all kinds of emotions, memories, etc. It is a specific dog, not just dogs in general.

A picture of Christ, especially of a crucifix is specifically Jesus. It cannot be mistaken for anyone else in history or the world. It brings to mind the single-most important moment in the universe. It is a manifestation to your mind, and therefore your heart, of the moment the image represents, as well as who or what it represents. You have heard the phrase, a picture is worth a thousand words. It is the same way with all icons.

A religious icon is a phsyical manifestation of a spiritual reality. The picture itself is not what is manifested, but the entire concept it represents enters the eye, and into the heart and soul. The mind, and by default, the soul is forced, if you will, to think about and consider that which the picture represents. In the same way the image of something bad, say a picture of pornography is permanently damaging. It is so because it leaves an imprint on the soul along with the sensual excitement. Remember what Jesus said about sinning in thought. Looking at pornography is a sin by way of thought. A picture of Godly things is good for the soul. This is why God forbid idols. Their souls would accept these objects and worship them as their god. This was a false reality. God cannot withstand falsity.

Religious art, to us, is a lot like living in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus, along with the rest of the Body of Christ, because we are unified, is made present to us by these pictures. We see a picture of a Saint, and we get a warm fuzzy because this person shows us the Way through his example. We think; I want to be as in love with God as this person. St. Terese is not my God anymore than my grandmother is. Yet, seeing a picture of them both may ellicit a warm, fuzzy feeling.

An image of Jesus automatically leads to our worship of Him because He is our God. His image causes our souls to bring him to our conscience. Perhaps, at that moment He wanted to remind us that He is there. I can give a specific example of this in my own life, but I wont bore you further. My point is, we worship, venerate or reject an image according to what we in our hearts believe about that object. Some have a negative reaction because they hate God. I will not analyze why Protestants hate the crucifix, though it is tempting.

Your fear of religious art has to do with prejudice and fear.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit