What is Pantheism in Art?

Pantheism is a doctrine that identifies God with the universe. Here’s how it made its way into 18th-century European art.

Apr 18, 2024By Celine Jarrar, BA Art History

what is pantheism art


Pantheism, as a religious theme, has manifested itself in art within various cultures in history. However, it did not enter European art until the emergence of Early Romanticism, during the 18th century. Romanticists rejected Neoclassicism which was the prevailing artistic style of the time. The emergence of Pantheism in art faced delays due to centuries of strict adherence to the hierarchy of genres—a system that ranked subject matters in art, influenced by the art academies of Europe.


What is Pantheism? 

pantheism caspar friedrich monk by sea painting
The Monk by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich, 1810. Source: Staatliche Museum, Berlin.


Pantheists perceive the universe as a manifestation of God, encompassing combined substances, forces, and laws. They traditionally regard the universe as infinite, eternal, and all-powerful. Artists, inspired by these attributes seen as characteristics marking divinity in the elements of nature, incorporated them in their artworks. The Monk by the Sea, a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, perfectly exemplifies pantheistic characteristics in art. These include the vastness of nature, overall minimalism, medieval essence, and individualism. There is a monk, representing the artist himself, standing in solitude in nature. Contemplating the divinity within nature, he stands alongside a backdrop of a vast sky, emblematic of Romantic Pantheism.



jacques louis david intervention of sabine women painting
The Intervention of the Sabine Women by Jacques-Louis David, 1799. Source: Louvre, Paris


Neoclassical art signifies a revival of classical tendencies in art. This movement seamlessly adhered to the hierarchy of genres established by the art academies of Europe. The hierarchy of genres placed historical and religious artworks at the top, followed by portraiture, landscape painting, still life, and everyday genre at the bottom.


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Neoclassicists focused on depicting the ideal human form, reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman art, drawing inspiration from the ideas of scholars like Johann Joachim Winckelmann. In Neoclassical art, history and mythology were placed at the forefront.


An exemplary work of Neoclassicism is The Intervention of the Sabine Women, created by Jacques-Louis David. The central figure in the painting, draped in white, is Hersilia, a Sabine woman who intervenes at the center of the battlefield between the Sabine men and the Romans. This conflict stems from a devastating story of rape committed by the Romans and endured by the Sabine women. In this painting, we witness a moment when the wife of the Roman General Romulus throws herself in a plea for peace. The period during which Neoclassicism dominated the art scene was known as the Age of Enlightenment. This age emphasized the values of reason and order and a reverence for classical antiquity. However, the Romantics responded to these ideals, seeking to invoke emotion and to contrast this sense of orderliness.


Edmund Burke 

burke edmund portrait
Edmund Burke by Joshua Reynolds, 1882. Source: National Portrait Gallery, London.


The theory about the sublime and beautiful was proposed by Edmund Burke who is often regarded as the father of modern conservatism, both in a classical and traditional sense. In 1757, he published a dissertation on aesthetics titled A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Burke emphasized that the sublime was evoked through nature while the beautiful was expressed through society. This provided artists who wished to support the transition from Neoclassicism into Romanticism with a systematic analysis.



delacroix liberty leading
Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, 1830. Source: Khan Academy


Romanticism represents a revival of medieval ideals over classical ones. It originated in Europe towards the end of the 18th century and dominated the art scene in the early 19th century. Scholars consider the end of the French Revolution as the beginning of the Romantic era. Since this movement emerged out of rejection of the Neoclassical norms, it was also rejecting the hierarchy of genres.


Works like Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix were made during this period to commemorate the French Revolution of 1830. The figure representing Liberty in the center of the work is known as Marianne, depicted by Delacroix as both an allegorical figure and a woman of the people. Holding the flag of the revolution, which later became France’s national flag. The painting introduces elements of truth not commonly found in previous art movements, including aggression, casualties, realities of war, and resistance.


Beautifying Death

ophelia millais painting
Ophelia by John Everett Millais, 1852. Source: Tate, London


One highly important characteristic that sets Romanticism apart from Neoclassicism is the beautification of death. Artists sought more emotion and deeper meaning in their work, paving the way for the exploration of Pantheism in art. This meant that Romantic artists needed to find inspiration in different areas which led them to turn to literature. Paintings like Ophelia by John Everett Millais were inspired by figures such as Shakespeare.


This piece of Victorian art flawlessly captures the romantic portrayals of death. Millais was known for romanticizing death, which is evident in the sensuality woven into the expression of death on Ophelia’s face. While this painting is one among many artistic representations of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, it remains one of the best-known versions.


Pantheism in Romantic Art 

cross mountains altar friedrich
Tetschen Altar by Caspar David Friedrich, 1808. Source: Albertinum


The Tetschen Altar, also known as Cross in the Mountains, is a work of art created by Caspar David Friedrich. In this work, Friedrich presented a landscape painting as an altarpiece. This was a direct challenge to the conventions upheld by the art academies and the hierarchy of genres. By combining two subject genres that were considered incompatible due to their perceived level of importance according to the art academies of Europe, he caused a disturbance to the hierarchy, in support of Romantic art.


The piece features a gold-gilded wooden frame with a pointed arch, suggesting the adoption of gothic elements. Within this frame, we observe iconography such as wheat stems on the left side and grapes on the right—symbols of bread and wine in Christianity. At the summit of the mountains, there’s a crucifix, creating a symbolic statement of transcendence. Friedrich successfully weaved a connection between Christianity, God, and nature. The sublime settles within nature, embodied by the tall trees, and expansive skies, marking the gradual emergence of Pantheism in art.


Pantheism and Political Statements in Romantic Art

pantheism william turner slave ship painting
The Slave Ship by William Turner, 1840. Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


Romantic thinking gave rise to a powerful voice within art, as artists began to express their political stance through their works. In a work by J.M.W Turner titled The Slave Ship we can notice Edmund Burke’s concept of the infinite sublime within the expanding elements of nature. It beautifies the violence of nature with expressive intensity, employing a rough application of paint—distinct from the soft blended approach seen in Classical and Neoclassical works.


This painting exudes a purified energy, embodying Romantic notions of Pantheism which connected God to nature. An element labeled as the sea of eternity became prevalent in pantheistic Romantic works of this time, signifying a theme of apocalypse. Using nature as a means of judgment was a way to evoke a sense of karma.


This work of art, much like others that followed in its footsteps, is highly controversial. It was based on the true story of the Zong, a British ship whose captain threw sick and dying enslaved people overboard so that he could collect insurance money in 1781. This scene of inhumanity is brought to light here, invoking divine wrath within nature—a concept believed in by Pantheists. In the painting, we see structures dematerializing, while colors and forms bleed into each other causing distortion, as they become more vibrant. It’s a representation of chaos caused by the immoral acts of humans.


pantheism gericault raft medusa
The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault, 1819. Source: Louvre, Paris


The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault stands in rebellion against Neoclassical pictorial conventions, championing the emergence of Romantic art and Pantheism. In contrast to history painters who often drew their inspiration from biblical sources, Gericault based this large painting on literary sources. This departure from the Neoclassical conventions is evident in the absence of a dominant central figure. There is no adherence to classical unity or grouping, instead, the painting presents the truth and ugliness of immorality on earth, eschewing the traditional display of moral uplift.


At its core, this work is inherently Romantic, reflecting the drama and theatricality often found in literature. The composition is neither neat nor clear—it is crowded, with murky angry waters that emanate fear from nature. Created to appeal to our emotions, the work places us within the sublime aspects of nature.


A captain was tasked with safely guiding the Medusa on a journey, but due to navigational errors, the ship crashed. With a shortage of lifeboats, only wealthy people were allowed to board them. The lower classes had to construct a makeshift raft in order to be towed by one of the lifeboats until, in an act of cruelty, the captain cut the ropes loose. Over a hundred people were left to drift away. During the first day, twenty men died, and by the fourth day, only sixty people remained alive. Desperation led to acts of murder and cannibalism, resulting in only fifteen survivors who lived to tell the tale of the dark deprivation that took place. The artist successfully shifts the emphasis of battle paintings from heroism to suffering and endurance, highlighting the captain’s act as an allegory of injustice.

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By Celine JarrarBA Art History Celine is an art historian and painter, born and raised in the Middle East. She earned a BA degree in Art History from Florida International University in Miami. She studied a myriad of different cultures and got to experience living amongst a few during her time as a nomad. In places such as Egypt, Paris, and Amsterdam. Currently based in Los Angeles, California. In pursuits of work opportunities and further education. Is passionate about the arts, literature, history, philosophy, and mythology. With a special interest in European culture and artifacts. Here to share what knowledge she can with the world.