Next time you’re taking a Sunday stroll into the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, be sure to cast your eye upward. As you ascend the grand staircase to the main floor, you’ll find your gaze drawn into the heavens, where it’s returned by no less a security guard than the enthroned Christ, encircled by his ministering angels.

The National Gallery’s hanging of Francesco Botticini’s giant, gilded masterpiece, “The Assumption of the Virgin” (c. 1475-6), makes an unequivocal statement: in entering the world of art, you are also, like it or not, entering the realm of religion. Not just religion in an esoteric sense, where we might speak of the numinous quality of a painter’s brush strokes, but the organised religion of the Church. Indeed, we only need to think of some of Western art’s most enduring images – Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”, Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment”, or Matthias Grünewald’s “Isenheim Altarpiece” – to recognise just how deeply the history of art has been coloured by the history of Christianity.

But what about modern art? No longer beholden to the Church for commissions, and free to explore subjects well outside the remit of Holy Writ and ecclesial tradition, art in the modern period has not been the same faithful handmaiden of religion it often had to be in the past. If we’re to listen to pronouncements by blimpish politicians and pundits on the immoral state of contemporary art, the exact opposite is true. By this line of reasoning, which always seems to gain steam when it’s time to allocate public funding for the arts, religion and modern art are mortal enemies. And those dastardly artists, so we’re told, never miss an opportunity to spit – or worse in the case of Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (1987) – in the face of institutional religion.

The reality, of course, is much more complicated. And in fact what’s remarkable is not so much the antagonism between modern art and religion, although that bubbles to the surface periodically, but rather the reciprocity between the two. In an institutional context, the Dominican friar Marie-Alain Couturier was among the first to seize upon this symbiotic potential, instigating a series of visionary commissions for French churches, starting in the 1930s. In the church of Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce in the Plateau d’Assy, Couturier employed artists across a range of religious backgrounds, including practising Catholics, Jews, and others without any religious commitment. In enlisting titans such as Bonnard, Braque, Chagall, Léger, Lipchitz, Matisse and Rouault, Couturier wagered successfully on the capacity of the best modern art, regardless of the artist’s own persuasion, to chime with traditional Christian subjects and symbols. Following the logic of the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, perhaps this harmony has its roots in hermeneutics. After all, religious pictures, Gadamer would argue, only make manifestly clear the religious character which inheres in all our experiences of art. What’s most important to note at the moment, however, is a more practical point: a number of leading modern artists could envision a sacred space not only as a suitable context for their work, but a desirable one.

Beyond the church walls, we can notice a similar receptivity to religion in some of the foundational images of modern art. Before he sailed for Tahiti, for instance, Paul Gauguin modelled the figures in “The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel)” (1888) after the devout peasants he encountered in Brittany. As he wrote to Vincent van Gogh, he even hoped to give the work to a church in Pont-Aven, though “naturally”, Gauguin sniffed, they balked at the offer.

Even Picasso’s iconic “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), set in a bordello no less, is laced with religious references. The work bears striking similarities to El Greco’s “The Vision of St John” (1608-14), which Picasso studied at the time. Intriguingly, one critic has further identified the central prostitute in Picasso’s canvas with the so-called Woman of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation. Apparently non-figurative works, likewise, can yield unexpected religious connections. While many of Kandinsky’s “Composition” paintings from the 1910s may seem like fantastical abstractions, a number have their genesis in Russian icons, especially images of St George slaying the dragon. And this is to say nothing of the theosophical symbolism which is so rife in Kandinsky’s work, as explained in his treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911).

To come back to a more recent example, even the apparently iconoclastic “Piss Christ” could be read, just as easily, as a devotional image by an artist who grew up in an environment steeped in Catholicism. What better way to meditate on the torments and degradation of Christ than to see his form submerged in urine? Meanwhile, the beauty of the image, suffused in a hazy, golden light, invites us to consider a salvific message – the “good news” of Christ’s victory over death.

With a few such examples in mind, the supposed enmity between modern art and religion dissolves. The question of how to get the “godfearing” to appreciate modern art may still be a relevant one, but it isn’t necessarily the most interesting. In light of the religious roots and preoccupations of so much modern art, maybe we should start asking what the “god-less” can learn from modern art. Indeed, perhaps the gallery is uniquely poised to foster a productive encounter with religion for even the most avowed atheist. In the inoculating ambiance of the gallery, a modern Christ perched on a plinth, or framed along the wall, can commune with the same skeptic who would quickly scuttle by a church.

'Apocalypse in Lilac, capriccio' (1945) Marc Chagall, Ben Uri GalleryFollowing this scenario a bit further, it’s worth taking a longer look at one such modern image of Christ. In January, the London Jewish Museum of Art announced its canny acquisition of Marc Chagall’s 1945 painting “Apocalypse in Lilac, Capriccio” (right), making it the only Chagall crucifixion painting held in the UK. There’s an anguished immediacy to the piece, and it’s easy to see why Chagall kept the image – painted as reports of the full horror of the Holocaust were emerging – out of public view during his lifetime. In an unusually direct historical reference, Chagall paints a mangy, almost lupine Hitler staggering along the base of the picture. For his – or her? – part, Christ lies utterly exposed upon the cross, his tallit or prayershawl dangling at his sides. On his head and arm he wears the phylacteries donned by observant Jews. This is not a Christian Christ whose suffering saves or whose death expiates sin, Chagall makes clear, but instead an unmistakably Jewish Jesus, suffering without cause.

That Chagall, a Jew, should employ such explicitly Christian iconography here is startling. Chagall had treated the crucifixion numerous times, from his 1912 masterpiece “Dedicated to Christ” to the famous “White Crucifixion” of 1938, but these were works clearly intended for public consumption. The “White Crucifixion”, in particular, is a calculated attempt to appeal to Christians in their own language, crying out to them to stop the unfolding catastrophe facing European Jewry. In “Apocalypse”, on the other hand, it is already too late to rescue Europe’s Jews. Still, even in this fiercely personal expression of grief and fury, Chagall takes refuge in the symbolic language of a faith he doesn’t hold.

What was it that Chagall saw in the image of Jesus that he could not find elsewhere? Deliberately gnomic in his explanations of his work, Chagall gave a partial answer in a 1946 lecture. “For me,” he mused, “Christ was a great poet whose poetical teaching had been forgotten by the modern world.” Christ is at once archetypal victim and archetypal artist, and as Chagall makes clear in his wartime poem “The Painter Crucified”, the two roles are intimately entwined for him. The content of Christ’s “poetical teaching”, Chagall hints, consists precisely in the ability to convert the magnitude of suffering into a singular, inexhaustible image.

This is not simply to say that all religious expressions are artistic. But what religious symbols can do, more powerfully than any other, is reveal a horizon of meaning towards which art aspires: the ability to make ontological claims about “the way things really are”. To come back to some philosophical language from Gadamer, religious symbols perfect the “intricate interplay of showing and concealing”. And among other things, it seems to be this tantalising capacity that has kept modern artists, even those with no doctrinal connection to Christianity, returning to fundamental religious images like the crucifixion.

For the non-believer, perhaps focusing on this “poetical teaching” can offer a way of engaging with religious art in a manner beyond merely cultural or aesthetic appreciation; one which begins to dance, albeit gingerly, along the perimeters of the theological. What we experience in religious art, ultimately, doesn’t have to lead us into heaven. In Botticini’s “Assumption”, the disciples gather around Mary’s tomb, only to discover an assortment of lilies has taken the place where her body should rest. Uncomprehending, they look around in bewilderment. If looking at religious art can leave us similarly stunned, perhaps for some that’s more than miracle enough.

Aaron Rosen is the author of Imagining Jewish Art: Encounters with the Masters in Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj (Oxford: Legenda, 2009)

This piece is from the April/May 2010 issue of New Humanist. subscribe