Religion and art have been inseparable entities since the dawn of human expression. Prehistoric cave paintings, cryptic hieroglyphics, renaissance masterpieces, sacred architecture… the divine holy muse has woven itself thick throughout history’s tapestry of creative inspiration.
Modern art may have spawned in every unpredictable direction, but the passion for spirituality is always somewhere to be found. This often includes when a musician seeks a visual representation for their audio output. On that note, here are ten striking album covers that rely on religious iconography, for better or worse.
1. Shakira – Oral Fixation, Vol. 2 (2005)
It may have been her second English-language album, but Oral Fixation, Vol. 2 was Colombian Shakira’s seventh in total. In stating that her mouth is her “biggest source of pleasure”, who is best to demonstrate such tantalising ideas than Eve with the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden? This Biblical event initiated the original sin, and naughty dishonesty suddenly infested us humans. But you know what’s not dishonest? Shakira’s hips. They don’t lie. That was this album’s second single if you’re interested.
2. Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine (1992)
Renowned for their aggressive political standpoints, it’s fitting that RATM’s debut cover featured Thích Quảng Đức. He was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in 1963, protesting President Ngô Đình Diệm’s oppression of their religion. This photo by Malcolm Browne pulled mass attention, so much so that U.S. President JFK withdrew support for Vietnam. The image won the World Press Photo of the Year award in 1963.
3. Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers (2022)
To illustrate his more personal fifth studio album, Kendrick gifted his fans a rare glimpse into his family life, revealing his children and his girlfriend for the first time to many. But what you may miss on an initial glance is the crown of thorns upon Kendrick’s head, recalling the torture and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In true rapper fashion, however, Lamar’s crown was designed with 8,000 cobblestone micro pavé diamonds totalling over 137 carats. Collaborator Dave Free offered further meaning: “The crown is a godly representation of hood philosophies told from a digestible youthful lens.”
4. Marilyn Manson – Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) (2000)
As a shock-rocker never shy of religious aggravation, Marilyn Manson loaded his fourth studio album with such an excess of symbology that there’s too little space to fit it into this article. However, the artwork itself is enough to discuss—or perhaps too much? Here, Manson is shown crucified, a clever depiction of the record’s play-on-words title, where the American film capital Hollywood is compared to the holy wood from Jesus’ cross. It is a comment that names Jesus as the first genuine celebrity in history.
5. Blink-182 – Buddha (1994)
Before Blink-182 were Blink-182, they were known simply as Blink. They threw together a cassette of demos and took photos of random things to find an acceptable album shot. The band ultimately chose this snap of a Budai garden ornament. Budai is known as the Laughing Buddha or even the Fat Buddha. That said, he is often confused with The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama; hence the group fell on Buddha as the album name quite in error. Nevertheless, when Blink-182 reissued the release in 1998, the cover was changed yet used a different version of Budai once again.
6. Aerosmith – Nine Lives (1997)
This original art for Aerosmith’s twelfth studio album was inspired by a Hare Krishna painting. Here, Lord Krishna dances upon Kāliyā, the snake demon. Except, of course, in Aerosmith’s world, Krishna had a female body and a cat’s head. There was a considerable offended backlash from the Hindu community, which pressured the record company to change the artwork to a different piece. But you can never fully take the Aerosmith out of Aerosmith, and the album still featured a song called Taste of India. No, they were not talking about the country’s cuisine.
7. George Harrison – Living in the Material World (1973)
The most underrated Beatle was forever famously chasing spirituality. He found ample influence in dharmic religions, penning numerous songs dedicated to the Lord while infusing Indian power into his musicianship. His fourth studio album, Living in the Material World, kept on this theme, presenting an image of Krishna and Arjuna from The Bhagavad Gita inside the sleeve. But it was the front and back cover that came with a unique Eastern trick many overlook to this day. Both sides displayed George Harrison’s open hand. The idea is that the listener could place their palms against George’s, holding the vinyl in a prayer position. Then, if someone yanks the LP from your grip, you would be automatically performing the traditional Hindu greeting gesture.
8. Iron Maiden – Powerslave (1984)
Iron Maiden have a few tricks up their album sleeves that could make this list. Perhaps most infamous is the biblically named The Number of the Beast, where a smiling devil stares the camera down. But no matter their album, the band will always feature a variation of their mascot, Eddie, somewhere on the cover. On Powerslave, he takes on an Ancient Egypt persona thanks to artist Derek Riggs. The title track expands on the concept with lyrics about a dying Egyptian Pharaoh. This tale references other Egyptian staples too, such as the Underworld god Osiris and the Eye of Horus symbol.
9. Bob Dylan – Saved (1980)
By the time Bob Dylan’s 20th album rolled around, he was shedding fans fast. Saved was the second of his controversial Christian period, and people weren’t on board with their favourite poet’s newfound preachy nature. His record label was aware of the resistance and initially refused the album cover showing Jesus Christ’s hand touching his believers (painted by Tony Wright). Instead, they released a version with a photo of Dylan performing on stage. However, re-releases have replaced this artwork back into position, and include Jeremiah 31:31 inside the sleevenotes: “Behold, the days come, sayeth the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah'”.
10. Slayer – Christ Illusion (2006)
Ending with a bang, Slayer’s tenth studio album caused a stack of trouble. Its blasphemous title was one problem, but even more complicated was the artwork revealing a mutilated Jesus who was zombified rather than sublime. To add fuel to the hellfire, the album contains the song Jihad which retells the September 11 tragedy from the perspective of an Islamic terrorist. As a result, EMI India destroyed their entire stock of the record while the band’s label offered alternative covers for retailers that had otherwise closed their doors.