Early Religious Art: Monotheism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Judaism, Christianity and Islam have something in common: the belief in one God. Read on to find out how it was shown in early religious art.

Jan 10, 2021By Ashley Ceballos, BA English Literature w/ minor in Cultural Anthropology
early religious art judaism christianity islam
Mosaic of Menorah, 6th century CE, via the Brooklyn Museum; with Mosaic of Blessing Christ Between Angels, ca. 500 AD, in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, via the Web Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; and Folio from the “Blue Qur’an,” late 9th-mid 10th centuries AD, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Three major religions in the world, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all share one common idea: monotheism, or the worship of one God. However, all these religions carry different interpretations of the belief. Below is a careful examination of their early religious artworks, in which one can see various expressions of the representations used to emphasize the belief of one God. 


Religious Art Of Judaism 

mosaic temple facade torah ark
Mosaic of Temple Facade with Torah Ark, excavated at Khirbet es- Samarah, 4th century AD, via The Israel Museum, Jerusalem 


This religious artwork depicts a Torah Ark at the center of it, which is historically known to hold the sacred text of God’s law. In Judaism, the religion has guided itself on the sacred text of the Torah Ark. Specifically in The Book of Devarim 5:8, it states against the use of images of God and any similar representation: “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, even any manner of likeness, of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” From this section of The Book of Devarim, interpretations arose that no human depiction of God was permitted in any form of religious artwork.


Early art has reflected such ideals with the focus on mosaics which are geared towards religious items. Mosaic floors in synagogues were a common form of early religious artwork in Judaism, with a focus on not creating a depiction that would disrespect God. Religious items remained the center component of the mosaics with examples such as the Torah Ark.


bowl menorah shofar torah ark roman
Bowl Fragments with Menorah, Shofar, and Torah Ark, Roman, 300-350 AD, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Sacred items played a key role in this religious artwork. In the original construction of this fragmented bowl, banqueting was depicted at the bottom. The gold glass showed religious items such as the menorah, shofar, etrog, and the Torah Ark. 

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


The menorah represents the light it wishes to bestow upon Judaism and the nation of Israel, and the idea that it should follow by avoiding the use of force. The shofar is constructed from a ram’s horn or other dietary animals in the religion, used as an instrument in ancient times to make a calling. The callings would be either for Rosh Hashanah or to state the start of a New Moon. Also, it could be used to bring people together. Finally, the etrog is a citrus fruit that honors the seven-day religious festival called Sukkot


perpignan bible
Perpignan Bible, 1299, via the Center for Jewish Art, Jerusalem


Early religious art also extended to the Jewish Holy Bible, Torah, decorated with gold colors and the symbolic Menorah. The above bible is from the French city of Perpignan and is adorned with gold emphasizing various religious items of Judaism, such as the Menorah, Rod of Moses, Ark of the Covenant, and Tablets of the Law.


The Tablets of the Law could be represented to reinforce the written word of God. The Rod of Moses could represent the story of Moses in the Torah, in which God gave him a rod to use in events such as the parting of the red seas. The use of the rod in such works could also support the affirmation of no human depiction of religious art, as it relied on the rod to explain itself. The Ark of the Covenant has been interpreted as a physical representation of God on earth. This representation, even though it goes against the use of adorning physical items in the religion, was an exception. The ark served to state when God wanted the nation of Israel to travel and as a physical presence of himself upon the earth. 



calling of saint peter saint andrew
The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew, 6th century AD, in the Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna


In this Mosaic, Jesus is clearly illustrated alongside three other individuals: Andrew, Simon, and an unnamed man behind Jesus. The religious artwork shows Jesus, with what is seen to resemble a halo, calling upon Andrew and Simon from the waters. The mosaic depicts a flat surface with simple drawings and shapes, along with colors that radiated its patterns.


Christianity boomed after the fall of the Roman Empire, and many Christians only spoke Latin. Since Christians wanted to spread their faith, the only way they would be able to communicate Christianity with other people was through the storytelling of religious art. Christians chose to represent their belief in God as a main symbolic figure alongside other biblical figures in their religious art. Their message was clear in their mosaics, which tied in with their worship of one God.  


ivory plaque crucifixion
Ivory Plaque with the Crucifixion, ca. 1000 AD, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The crucifixion of Christ is the main component of this miniature ivory, as seen above. The biblical characters of Saint John and the Virgin Mary, Christ’s mother, are seen at the sides of Christ. It is most likely from a reliquary or a cover of a book. It resembles the carvings of the time of the crucifixion of Christ. 


The crucifixion of Christ is a biblical story in which Christ sacrificed himself by turning himself in to the Romans. It is a well-known story that has been used in numerous early to modern religious artworks. The cross thus can be interpreted as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice and love for humanity. Also, the use of biblical figures such as the Virgin Mary correlates with other works at the time that could be interpreted as honoring her as the mother of God’s child Christ, and as a symbol of purity. The component of story-telling and visual representation is present in many early Christian religious artworks.


sarcophagus junius bassus rome
Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, Rome, 349 AD, in Museo Tresoro, Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican City, via the Web Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


This marble creation of a sarcophagus was used for Junius Bassus, who was a high-ranking official during the Roman Republic. Bassus converted to Christianity and was baptized shortly before he passed away. The Roman senate gave him a funeral that was public and made him the sarcophagus which was put behind the ‘confessio’ of St. Peter. On the marble, work is the depiction of various biblical stories, with Christ, the son of God, at the center of the stories. 


The sarcophagus highlights another early Christian tradition of engraving tombs, which showed religious art centered on Christian biblical stories on the outer section. It is believed since the early markers of these works were mostly pagans, the use of the emblems or ambiguity in their imagery reflected this. However, sarcophagi in the early Christian faith seem to remain set on interpreting biblical stories, as to emphasize and enforce the religion that held the belief of one God. 


Religious Art Of Islam 

mihrab prayer niche islam
The Mihrab (Prayer Niche), from the theological school located in Isfahan, 1354-55 A.D, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; with Prayer Niche (Mihrab) from Isfahan, after the early 1600s, via the Cleveland Museum of Art


The Mihrab (Prayer Niche) is an architectural design in which various religious inscriptions in Arabic are written at the framing and center of the niche. In these religious artworks, there are inscriptions depicted from sections of the Islamic holy book called the Qur’an. 


Islam believed in the similar Jewish belief of not including human depiction in their religious art. Even though the Qur’an does not state against the creation of an image, only the worship of it, the Hadith does mention the punishment of such acts of images. Thus, the restriction of human images became so and seemed to translate to most interpretations of the faith, avoiding image representations in their religious art. This, in turn, resulted in the focus of detailed designs and vibrant patterns in architectural constructions, which served as one of the main focal points of their religious art forms.


bifolium qur-an
Bifolium from a Qur’an, late 9th-10th century AD, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Originally from a manuscript from a Qur’an, this early religious art is a double folio decorated with black ink and dots ranging from green to red stating its vowels. A medallion that was shaped like a star is present as well. 


Islam believes in the written word, which led calligraphers to center their designs around the holy book, the Qur’an. Also, evident within their early religious art is the attention given to the decoration of Qur’an manuscripts. The written word believes that the words used in the Qur’an to be the direct message of God, thus identifying the written word as the purest expression of God’s intent. 


mosque lamp al-mihmandar met museum
Mosque Lamp of Amir Ahmad al-Mihmandar, ca.1325 AD, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 


Inscriptions are written on the lamp which states that its donator, Ahmad al-Mihmandar, gave the lamp to the madrasa that he constructed in the city of Cairo, Egypt. His display, which is a disk of white with shields made of gold that lies on a red bar, appears six various times on the lamp.  Another inscription appears, this time of the Qur’an, which appears at the neck area and underside of the lamp.  


This lamp, is once again, another example of early religious art’s focus on the creation of the written word and its holiness. The inscription against a backdrop of gold and a lamp used as light enforces the belief of guidance and the importance of the religious text. Lamps were but another way to enforce and install religious art in the domain of everyday life, also reminding its people of the words of God. 


Author Image

By Ashley CeballosBA English Literature w/ minor in Cultural AnthropologyAshley is a University of Central Florida student, majoring in English Literature with a minor in Cultural Anthropology. She has taken part in a volunteer project in England, assisting a homeless charity in the city of London. She is an avid reader, with her favorite genre being historical nonfiction. She also enjoys researching and writing about history.