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date: 27 September 2023

Neoclassicism and Religious Art in 18th-Century Europelocked

Neoclassicism and Religious Art in 18th-Century Europelocked

  • Allison PalmerAllison PalmerProfessor, School of Visual Arts, University of Oklahoma, Norman


The term “Neoclassicism” refers to an era when a large number of artists and scholars across Europe in the 18th century took inspiration from the history and material remains of classical antiquity, which was defined as ancient Greece and Rome. While Neoclassicism is often considered a stylistic trend, artists worked across stylistic categories, yet they were all part of a broad milieu that responded to profound societal changes by seeking out classical precedents for questions posed by Enlightenment thinkers. These questions included the purpose of religion in society, where philosophers including John Locke (1632–1704) and François-Marie Arouet Voltaire (1694–1778) theorized new spiritual modes to examine human existence.

Many religious painters of the 18th century studied at the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture established in Paris in 1648 under royal sponsorship that dictated taste, and these artists were championed for their ability to depict grand expressions of human emotion learned from antiquity and from classicizing Renaissance and Baroque artists, including French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), who popularized the Roman concept of exempla virtutis. Jean- Baptiste Colbert, the First Minister to King Louis XIV and Vice-Protector of the Academy, promoted this grand classicizing Baroque style as the elevated style of the aristocracy, which laid the foundation for Neoclassicism. For French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713–1784), art could provide pleasure, but a superior artwork provided a visual beauty that inspired virtuous behavior; thus, while not all art served a religious function, artworks often showed examples of virtue. For example, Diderot, who reported on the biennial exhibitions sponsored by the Academy in Paris, praised Jacques-Louis David’s (1748–1825) Oath of the Horatii (1784, Louvre Museum, Paris), a depiction of a 7th-century bce Roman legend, for its demonstration of patriotic sacrifice. Many of these moralizing narratives drew upon stories from classical antiquity, learned by artists trained at the French Academy in Rome (established in 1666) during a period of study sometimes called the Grand Tour.

Neoclassical art was also shaped by the intense cultural questioning that arose with the French Revolution, and it found fertile ground during the Industrial Revolution. Religious art had a complicated historical development in the 18th century given the dramatic changes that disrupted religious institutions and church patronage in favor of secular patrons and new subjects. Nonetheless, the moralizing tendencies of Neoclassicism and the academic favoring of historical painting continued to provide a place for religious art and architecture throughout the 18th century, much of which deserves further study.


  • Religion and Art

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