Whatever happened to religious art? The term today may evoke recollections of Byzantine icons, medieval sculpture, Renaissance madonnas, the great Rembrandt etchings, but hardly of someone painting away in a studio on the West Side of Manhattan. This general impression is, however, somewhat erroneous, as many later painters have included religious subjects in their oeuvre. Georges Rouault , in this century, painted many moving figures from the bible, and as worldly an artist as Salvador Dali exbibited a large ''Last Supper'' and a ''Crucifixion'' at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
It does, however, take a special kind of perseverance to devote oneself to this type of art. Charlote Lichtblau's career began with exhibitions of portraits, still lifes, landscapes, but gradually it focused more and more on biblical themes. In spite of having shown her work in art galleries, universities, churches, and even in a Protestant cathedral, the artist in a mood of frustration wrote in a published essay: ''The art community these past twenty years rather frowns on all passionate painting, let alone passionate expressionist works of religious content. The churches do not want them either. . . .[Yet] I know of no genuine artist who does not devote his or her work to the spiritual, if not the specifically religious. That art and religion have become separate and mutually exclusive establishments is a bewildering and divisive phenomenon of the modern era.''
Actually, one may say that the decline of religious art has resulted from many varied factors, such as the Reformation's return to scriptural prohibition of ''graven images''; the invention of the printing press, which spread the reading of the Bible in common languages and rendered obsolete the need for paintings with which to teach the illiterate; the rise of an affluent middle class, which provided a market for works with popular, secular themes.
But this painter sweeps all that aside in her desire to render visible her highly unorthodox and individual meditations. Lichtblau's paintings are never literal illustrations of Bible scenes. Her departure from tradition may be indicated by her delineation in more than one of her Last Supper series of paintings of a young black boy leaning on Jesus' breast in the place usually occupied by the Apostle John. The use of a child, not a grown man, may signify that the artist is not saying that she thinks John was black, but rather is symbolizing Jesus' love reaching out beyond his small circle to all mankind, and , therefore, every faithful disciple is the one ''whom Jesus loved.'' And in order to free her work further from traditional formalism, she uses titles like ''Thirteen'' or, as in the case of the work reproduced on this page, ''Messianic Banquet.''
This large painting is a splendid swirl of subtly vibrant colors in the very unexpected manner of the German Expressionists (and so little is caught by the black and white photo!). The figure in the left-hand corner is painted in a signing blue. Purple, red, orange and green delineate the circle of disciples surrounding the figure of Jesus, which glows in brightness.
One of the most interesting aspects of thework is the materialization on canvas of what seems like a train of thought. Just as the reading of one Bible passage may suggest others to a student, Lichtblau's imagery will suggest many scenes from Jesus' life other than the nominal one. Thus, the brilliant yellow highlighting of Jesus calls to mind his transfiguration on the mount. The figure in the left corner, a woman with a water jug, speaks of the water-into-wine or, alternatively, reminds that women appeared prominently in the Gospels. The dozing man at center right anticipates the sleep of the disciples at Gethsemane. And one might mine out many more rich allusions from this single work. The Composition follows a characteristic pattern of the artist in which the foreground is somber and shadowy but the whole canvas is backlit by a joyous flooding radiance.
It is not surprising that this Vienna-born artist is drawn to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, whose interpretations of mankind's relation to Deity were equally unorthodox and have an expressive chiaroscuro to match her own. ''The Annunciation: after Rilke'' is a much smaller, more intimate canvas than ''Messianic Banquet.'' Elements of Rilke's two poems on the subject enter in the same cross-current manner, as do the many elements of Jesus' story in the other painting.
We see a mary in the traditional blue who might answer the description in Luke of the virgin who was ''troubled'' at Gabriel's greeting. In one of the Rilke poems, the angel announces himself thus, ''I am the day, I am the dew,'' and we observe that one wing is constructed mainly of shafts of sun-colors -- red, orange, yellow -- while the other recalls the dew with green, yellow-green, blues and purples. However, the lines which this canvas suggests most strongly are those in the poem from his Das Marienleben: The angel, so bent close to her a youth's face that his gaze and
that with which she looked up struck
together, as though outside it were sud
denly all empty and what millions saw, did,
bore, were crowded into them: just
she and he; seeing and what is seen, eye and
eye's delight nowhere else save at this spot
Rilke concludes this poim, ''Then the angel sang his melody.'' And one cannot help but feel the echoes of that song reach this artist, painting today in a society increasingly secular, hedonistic and technologic. Charlotte Lichtblau's German Expressionistic translation of that melody into paint may be in a language that is not immediately familiar, but one cannot doubt the authenticity of its purpose.