Narrative art is the name given to visual art that conveys a story. The most common instances of narrative art might be found in children's books, although the subjects of narrative art have most often been religious or historical. Narrative artwork can depict continuous scenes, a single event, or several scenes at the same time.
The illustrations in children’s books usually rely heavily on the written word to express meaning. Some experts feel that pictures do not do a good job of telling a story, because stories are told over time and pictures are seen all at one time. This may be an arbitrary view, however, because most people cannot absorb the contents of a complex work of art at one time. In other words, viewing art can also take place over time, and this is especially true with some famous pieces of narrative art like the frescoes at the Arena Chapel and the Column of Trajan.
Narrative art can express a continuous narrative or just one scene. The frescoes completed by Giotto in 1305 at the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy, are a good example of continuous narrative. Through a number of painted scenes going from left to right, Giotto illustrated the lives of Mary and Jesus. As viewers look at these paintings, it is almost like reading a story when they are looked at in sequence.
The Column of Trajan expresses a continuous narrative in an innovative way. Erected around 113 CE, the column memorializes Emperor Trajan’s victory over the Dacians, a group of people from Northern Europe. The details of the wars wind from the bottom of the column to the top, although seeing the images at the top of this 125 foot (about 38 meters) structure is a near impossible feat from the street level.
Leonardo da Vinci‘s Last Supper, completed around 1498, is an example of a narrative painting that is monoscenic, meaning that it shows a single event. In this scene, Jesus predicts his impending betrayal and departure, setting off a complex set of emotional reactions among the apostles at the dinner table. Another example of a one-scene narrative painting is Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze. Completed around 1851, this painting depicts Washington and his troops struggling to cross the ice-ridden Delaware River to confront Hessian troops during the American Revolutionary War. Leutze created a dramatic scene with a back-lit Washington striking a determined pose as he makes his way to confront the enemy.
Occasionally, a narrative artwork illustrates simultaneous narrative. The Ghent Altarpiece, painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, was completed in 1432 and illustrates a number of Christian themes. Jesus is shown in the upper center of the altarpiece with the Virgin Mary to his right and John the Baptist to his left. When facing the artwork, Adam and Eve appear to the far left and the far right, respectively. The lower panels depict the worship of a lamb, a symbol of Jesus, on an altar.