Religious Themes in Ancient Art

Art allows the past the capacity to tell a story for those in the future.  Those stories give the audience a bird’s eye view into an ancient culture, deepening one’s understanding of it.  In the ancient world, people created art to highlight their cultural activities, in which religion played a very important part in defining a society or people group.  It is because of art that archeologists and scholars have been able to peripherally uncover the societies of the past by examining the material the artists used to create artifacts with.

The similarities between the Minoan and Norse pieces are that they both depict a religious theme. They also reveal the materials available at the time. The Stele uses only two colors, painted on a stone slab, a fairly simple use of the material. The Minoan piece contains a broader use of paints and is a portrait-style, framed in with a border and creative outer semi-oval sequence of dots and line curves. While the Minoan piece is vague as to what the bull represents in terms of the actual ritual being performed, the Vikings Stele is more interpretative because of the knowledge of Norse culture and its religious context. The clothing of the people in both pieces are distinct in that the Viking Stele highlights the passengers of the boat appear to be Vikings, with swords hanging by their sides and in heavier clothing or armor. The Minoan piece shows the style of the Aegean-Bronze Age, apparently displaying a ritual or ceremony which the participants are in minimal clothing intrinsic to the Mediterranean culture and climate.

Viking stele from Tjängvide, Alskog, Gotland, Sweden, showing Sleipnir, Odin’s horse, the offspring of his brother Loki. From the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

On the Viking Culture stele, the main theme is the Norse god Odin, riding an eight-legged horse who was called Sleipnir, guarding the gates of Valhalla, the warrior’s paradise.   Odin was one of the many gods in the Norse culture, and him riding his horse over a partition between the vessel and is relative to the sea-faring culture of the Viking Norsemen in the 8th century.  In addition to the soldiers on the boat, the potential Valkyrie flying above add to the theme of Valhalla, the afterlife and Odin the caretaker and guardian of the heavenly destination.  The Minoan culture however, is far more detached from the Norse in comparison to the present, interpreting artistic depictions such as this one has been more difficult to understand, hence the ambiguity in the description about the piece itself.  The Minoan culture was a Mediterranean culture on the island of Crete, and this piece of art is indicative characteristics known about this society.

Considering both pieces of art are a depiction of a religious ceremony or veneration, it is evident these two cultures thought their cultic expressions had to be documented. 1 Cor. 10:31 is a call to action for Christians to glorify God in all that they do, and although these pieces of art were not created by Christians, they too were honoring their religious cult.  The apostle Paul said in Acts 17, Paul encourages the Greeks about their religious dedication, yet also makes a point to disclose the truth about religion and general, and the One True God in the Son Jesus Christ.  Even though religion is mankind’s seaarch for purpose and their Creator, like Paul said in Acts 17, the culmination of history has been fulfilled in the Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for the “times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,” (Acts 17:30, ESV).


Marvin Perry, Myrna Chase, James Jacob, Margaret Jacob, Jonathan W Daly, Theodore H. Von Laue, Western Civilization 11th Edition, (Independence: Cengage Learning, 2015).

“Bull-Leaping Fresco from Knossos.” In Daily Life through History, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Image. Accessed August 2, 2018.

“Stele, Viking Culture.” In Daily Life through History, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Image. Accessed August 2, 2018.