What is sacred art? What is the difference between sacred art and religious art?


Do you want to know the concepts of sacred art and religious art? What differentiates them?

In this article we will explore the concepts of sacred art and religious art and the importance of this differentiation at the level of art history and conservation of works of art.

An example of Islamic sacred art : In the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia, the top of the mihrab (prayer niche) is decorated with 9th century mosaics and painted with intertwined plant motifs.

An example of Islamic sacred art : In the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia, the top of the mihrab (prayer niche) is decorated with 9th century mosaics and painted with intertwined plant motifs.


We usually tend to use the 2 concepts indiscriminately for works of art created in a religious context.

However, throughout history, the function of works of art often changes. The applicable concepts and the ways to ensure their safeguarding and conservation also change.

The concept of sacred art includes religious works of art with a cult function.

Next we will cover the following points:

1 – Difference between the concepts of sacred art and religious art.

2 – Types and styles of sacred art .

3 – Pedagogical function of sacred art .

4 – Approaches to conservation and restoration.

1 – Sacred art  / religious art

It is thus distinguished from religious art or religious imagery by its function. That is, it is intended for worship.

We can have works of a religious character or with religious themes and motivations or that arouse religious feelings in the observer and that do not fit, thus, in the concept of sacred art.

The concept is therefore linked to the function of the artistic objects and not to the motivation behind their creation.

Sacred art and religious art

2 – sacred art | typologies and styles

Works of sacred art can include various types of objects and various artistic techniques.

Some types of art objects:

  • church and temple architecture;
  • sculptures;
  • church ceiling panels;
  • paintings;
  • engravings;
  • frescos;
  • stained glass windows;
  • mosaics;
  • liturgical utensils;
  • liturgical vestments;
  • tapestries.
As far as artistic style is concerned, the works may have been produced in various styles depending on the time, place, or prevailing taste.
Church of Marco de Canavezes, Siza Vieira – 1996

Igreja de Marco de Canavezes Siza Vieira - sacred art

Parish Church of Fornos, in Marco de Canaveses, the Santa Maria Church was designed by the Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira . It has received several international awards and is a major innovation in the concept of religious building. It integrates the list of 8 buildings by Siza Vieira in the nomination phase for World Heritage. Being a work of art with a cult function, it fits into the idea of sacred art.


As far as religion is concerned, we can find works of sacred art – intended for worship – in the different religions.

So we have Christian sacred art, Buddhist sacred art, Islamic sacred art, etc.

In the Buddhist religion, for example, the Thangka (or Thanka) are paintings depicting deities and enlightened beings from the pantheon of Tibetan Buddhism. They are a basis for learning religious principles.


sacred art ThankaThanka of Guhyasamaja Akshobhyavajra. Central Tibet, 17th century. Rubin Museum of Art

3 – sacred art | pedagogical function

In this context, and throughout history, we find many works with an eminently pedagogical function in relation to the liturgical messages they were intended to transmit.

In Catholic churches, for example, images related to biblical scenes, to the Gospels, to the lives of saints, have the function of awakening the religiosity of the faithful and accompany the liturgical celebrations.

Related post: What is iconography in art?

The images substitute or assist the verbal and written message in times of low literacy.

And in many cases, they are literally a form of storytelling, step by step. The most frequent case is the representation of the Via Crucis.Iconography of the saints online course

But when it comes to the lives of the saints we also have some very interesting cases.

Take the example of the coffered ceiling of the Church of São Vicente de Sousa, in the municipality of Felgueiras, Portugal.

Igreja São Vicente de Sousa

São vicente 2

São vicente 1

The caissons in the main chapel depict with images the life and martyrdom of Saint Vincent, the church’s patron saint. The panels are numbered sequentially according to the episodes in the life of the Saint.

What if the religious artworks are musealized?


Throughout history, works of art change their function. Many of the works of religious art originally produced with a cult function are now in museums.

Online course Preventive ConservationIn the case of monuments, their desacralization occurs, and they start to function as places to visit and enjoy, and not as places of worship.

In their origin they have a religious character, but their function has changed. They began to focus on study, history, artistic characteristics, and fruition.

The designation of Museum of Sacred Art applied to many museums that exhibit works that in their origin once had a cult function is frequent and perfectly clarifying of the content of their collections although the objects do not currently have a cult function.

4 – How do these concepts have an influence on the conservation of works of art?

The approach to conservation of works of art has to be different.

The conservation needs of objects per se are the same and depend on the characteristics of the constituent materials, the environmental conditions or the processes of change / degradation over time.

But is it possible to create the optimal conservation conditions for a sculpture that is being worshipped in a church, for example?

While in a museum environment the conservation of the work of art takes into account the conservation needs of the object, in the case of sacred art many other aspects have to be taken into account, for example

  • the conditions of the building itself
  • the conditions of exposure of the piece;
  • the frequency and conditions of use and movement (in the case of statuary, sculptures, banners, etc., used in processions, for example);
  • the cultural habits and traditions of worship (flowers and candles near works of devotional art, for example, may constitute a risk to the conservation of these works of art.

The conservation of works of sacred art is thus a challenge both for the institutions that have them in their custody and for the whole community.

It implies knowledge of the conservation principles applicable to the materials per se and the balance with the cult functions so important for the identification and cohesion of a community.

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Fátima Muralha

Fátima Muralha

Graduated in History – Art History from the Universidade Nova of Lisbon. Post-Graduate in Management and Promotion of Heritage by the UAL. Specialised in Management of Cultural Projects. Various training courses and a specialisation course regarding Promoting Heritage, Conservation & Restoration, Museum studies and Vocational Training. Coordinator in multiple projects linked to Historical and Artistic Heritage, educational and vocational training projects in various entities. Author of several publications and communications. Creator and coordinator of the development of virtual content of the project: History | Art | Culture.

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