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.
Beginning with the Renaissance, the architecture of churches in the West was shaped by new cultural and liturgical demands that reshaped the spaces of Christian worship. Renaissance Christians found models of urban monumentality and geometric harmony in the architecture of classical Rome that they deemed lacking in their existing Gothic forms. At the same time, both Catholics and Protestants placed new emphasis on preaching and on the ability of worshipers to see the liturgy. These factors decisively reshaped church architecture. The rational austerity of the Renaissance, however, soon gave way to the more exuberant decoration of the baroque and, in time, to a revival of the Gothic. Beginning in the late 18th century, it became valued for its association with mystery, organic development, and the endurance of faith amid the rise of scientific rationalism. By the mid-19th century, an eclecticism in architecture had developed where many church builders used varied styles to actualize buildings of many plans in order to bring the desired historical and emotional associations to the structure, or simply to distinguish it from its neighbors. Yet, architectural principles—often associated with the Gothic—that emphasized the integral relation of form, structure, and function led many church builders to embrace architectural modernism. They rejected applied ornament, especially that which hid the structure of the building. Concrete, steel, and glued laminated wood beams made possible new designs often with a minimalist aesthetic and innovative ground plans. As in the 16th, so in the 20th century this architectural shift was associated with new values and liturgical demands. For many there was a fundamental concern with the architectural expression of the immanence of God. Historical styles and dim light seemed wrongly to suggest that God was not part of the contemporary world. Along with this, liturgical ressourcement fostered throughout the 20th century by the Liturgical Movement and endorsed by the Second Vatican Council championed the idea that liturgy was “the work of the people,” a corporate activity in which all participated. This led to the development of the “modern communal church” as a liturgical form. Many historic buildings were significantly altered. Within thirty years, a sizable revolution was insisting on more traditional, often classical, architectural forms ensuring that future church building would be shaped by a dialogue between tradition and the modern.
The 18th century was an era of transition for the arts and religion. Monarchs continued to commission religious art and architecture for a variety of reasons, including fulfillment of vows, expressions of faith and piety, and celebrations of dynastic power. The period saw simultaneous trends toward sumptuous decoration and sober display, as well as the rise of new artistic styles, including the Rococo, Neoclassicism, and the Gothic Revival. The Grand Tour brought many northern European Protestants to the seat of Catholicism. Protestant attitudes toward “popish” art softened in the 18th century, due in part to the increasing contact between Catholic and Protestant culture in Rome and to the perception that Catholicism was no longer a plausible threat. As the temporal and spiritual power of Rome declined in the 18th century, the papacy sought to reestablish itself as a cultural authority. The papacy embellished Rome with a number of archaeological and architectural initiatives, linking the popes with classical civilization and casting themselves as the custodians of the shared Western cultural tradition. With a growing art market and the consumer revolution, the populace had expanding access to religious imagery, from fine religious canvases collected by Catholic and Protestant elites, to reproducible prints that were available to nearly every member of society. However, the Enlightenment brought a profound questioning of religion. Religious works of art faced a loss of context in private displays and in the official Salon exhibitions, where they were intermixed with secular and erotic subjects and judged not on the efficacy of their Christian message or function but rather on aesthetic terms in relation to other works. The century ended with the French Revolution and brought violent waves of de-Christianization and iconoclasm. In order to save France’s Christian heritage, religious works of art had to be stripped of their associations with church and crown.