17 Surprising Influences on Bible Art & Adaptations (Part 2)

Updated: Feb 24


Last week I began exploring the 17 influences that shape Bible Art and Bible Adaptations. If I was to summarize all five of the factors into one word, it would be History. As an adaptation, Bible Art necessarily relates to what came before it, namely the biblical stories that it seeks to adapt. Moreover, because those stories are old and most have been interpreted and adapted many times over the past millennia, Bible Art not only relates to the source in its original state but also to the crowded palimpsest that it has become. In contrast to these historical influences, the factors below emphasize the role of Bible artists themselves and how their unique characteristics, creativity, and potential help adaptations take shape.

6) The Stance of the Bible Artist Toward the Bible

When the Noah film came out, many Christians seemed surprised at how it not only departed from but even subverted its biblical source material. This was not a surprise to anyone who knew the director, Darren Aronofsky, and was aware that he was not coming to the story with a stance of faith. While non-Christians certainly can and have made thoughtful Bible Art and Bible adaptations, the stance of a Bible artist toward his source will often affect the way that the supernatural is incorporated and how the character of God is portrayed. With Noah, for example, although miracles are included, the film contextualizes itself as a fantasy rather than as historical; likewise, God’s character and purposes in the film diverges significantly from that suggested by the original narrative.


Next time you enjoy Bible Art, consider:

  • Is the Bible artist's stance toward the Bible affecting the way he treats supernatural elements or the character of God?

7) The Bible Artist’s Unique Interpretation, Invention, & Intention

Usually far too much influence is granted to the unique interpretation or invention of a particular creator of a piece of Bible Art compared to the number of other factors that we’ve been exploring. To take Aronofsky's Noah again as an example, overestimated how much an invented and under-appreciated the ways that the film borrowed from existing Jewish theological tradition.


There are, however, contributions for which Bible artists get too little credit, particularly in Bible movies aiming for a high degree of fidelity to the original source. The Passion of the Christ has a few invented characters and scenes, but even in the portions of the film that follow the Gospels with high precision, the framing of the shots and the use of genre-specific techniques like juxtaposition and non-linear narrative give those portions a very different feel compared to the gospels. When Bible artists include personal inventions in their adaptations, the best are not whole-sale departures from the original story/tradition (Noah inventing the idea of its title character trying to kill his family) but rather developments and extensions of it (The Passion’s invented Mary scenes that develop the established relationship between Jesus and Mary).


While we can easily notice when Bible Art contains a newly invented scene or when its plot has been reframed, it’s sometimes more difficult to go the extra step and ask ourselves how those changes have caused it to have a different intention than the original work. In Bible Art that attempts to question or subvert the original biblical narrative (again, Noah; also The Last Temptation of the Christ), we may feel the divergence in intention more strongly because the work is pushing upstream against the intention we expect based on our prior experience with the original biblical story. But Bible Art doesn’t need to be subversive in order for it to have a different purpose than its source. The Jesus Storybook Bible differs from the real thing not because it raises additional questions and ambiguity but, on the contrary, because of how it limits the questions and ambiguity that the Bible leaves us with. Comforting readers with a sense of clarity and order is not anti-biblical, but neither is it biblical; it’s a unique contribution that the author makes.


Next time you enjoy Bible Art, consider:

  • What are subtle ways in which the Bible artist is shaping my experience and interpretation of the biblical story?

  • When the Bible artist does invent characters or scenes, are these organic developments or do they signal a fairly radical departure from the source?

  • How do the changes introduced to the adaptation contribute to an intention or purpose that was not present in the original biblical story?

8) The Bible Artist’s Unique Style or Tone

One caution we have to keep in mind before rushing to conclusions about the intention of a piece of Bible Art: not all the inventions or changes that a creator makes are due to a definite intention or purpose. Imagine if someone asked you to tell them the story of David and Goliath. Even if you just picked up your Bible and read the story to them word for word, there’s one contribution that you couldn’t help but make to the story: the sound and pace of your voice. In a similar way, Bible artists of all mediums can’t help but leave their own personal imprint on the adaptations that they create, even if those imprints aren’t directed toward a particular intention or goal. It’s worth looking at adaptations in light of the other works that their creators make in order to see how they reflect certain patterns in tone and style.


Next time you enjoy Bible Art, consider:

  • How does this adaptation reflect artistic and thematic trends that I see in other works created by this Bible artist?

9) Multiple Bible Artists or Contributors

Up until this point, for the sake of clarity, we’ve spoken mostly in terms of solitary Bible artists. In reality, relatively few forms of Bible Art are the product of a single creator; even painting, which we Moderns think of as a very solitary enterprise, in past eras was often done by an entire workshop overseen by a master artist. Of course, the most obvious case of multiple Bible Artists collaborating together to produce a single work is film. As the credits will attest, Bible films are the result of an entire army of contributors of greater and lesser degrees of influence on the final product. The result is that some Bible Art has detectable traces of competing and/or complementary styles, tones, and intentions, weaving or crowding each other.


Next time you enjoy Bible Art, consider:

  • How many people contributed to this biblical adaptation? Can I identify their distinct and potentially competing influences of these Bible artists?

10) Access to Historical Knowledge (or Lack Thereof)

Modern people sometimes don’t understand why some Bible Art is so manifestly a-historical, containing very Anglo-looking Jews dressed in garb contemporary to the creator. In part this is a stylistic choice, but the stylistic choice is often built on the simple fact that such knowledge either did not exist or was only accessible to a very limited group of specialists. Today, we live in a world that has accumulated vast amounts of archaeological data, and, more importantly, where such data can be accessed easily without being a specialist. This has contributed to our general preference for historical accuracy over anachronism, but in eras where verisimilitude was hardly possible, much less valued, the Bible Art that was created looked very different.


Next time you enjoy Bible Art, consider:

  • How do the creative choices behind this adaptation reflect the Bible artist’s relative degree of historical and cultural knowledge?

11) Development of New Technologies and Techniques

We live in a time of unprecedented technological change and with it come new possibilities for arts of all kinds, including Bible Art. We’re most aware of this when it comes to Bible movies and how the growth in special effects technology has enabled us to recreate miraculous events in more fantastic and photorealistic fashion. But technological innovations in the art world didn’t begin in the past hundred years. Musical notation, book-binding, different kinds of paint and dye, and the printing press are all relatively recent technologies that modern Bible artists now take for granted.


In addition to the development of new tools, creators are constantly experimenting in order to find new ways to put their existing tools to work. These techniques are often produced or influenced by growth in math and science (e.g. a greater understanding of the human body or of proportion) and often become the springboard for new artistic movements or schools. Eventually, the embrace of a technique becomes so pervasive (e.g. realistic proportion post-Renaissance) that it becomes difficult for Bible artists to even conceive of what it would be like to work apart from it.


Next time you enjoy Bible Art, consider:

  • How did technology or new techniques open up and/or limit new possibilities for this adaptation compared to previous adaptations of the same Bible story?

  • How did technology or techniques not yet available at the time of this biblical adaptation limit and/or open up the possibilities for its Bible artist?

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