These are religious subjects that stand at the origins of historical painting – they became the basis for other genres and movements. They appeared during the Middle Ages, when the church controlled people's mind and souls. Artists were allowed to depict scenes from the Bible in their pictures, as well as to paint portraits of the members of clergy. In order to create a canvas centering around the events that took place thousands of years ago, painters had to use their imagination and depict the plot, taking into consideration the system of images and symbols that was common at that time.
During the Renaissance, other subjects began to appear in the artists’ paintings: historical scenes from mythology and literary works, and also battle scenes. Brightest examples include such canvases as The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Rape of Europa by Titian, The Four Apostles by Dürer, and The Battle of Zama by Romano.
Gradually moving away from religious subjects, the historical genre began to lay claim to authenticity. Artists who depicted scenes from the past, sought not only to accurately reproduce the signs of their time, but also to express their own attitude to what was happening. They endowed their characters with certain personality traits that were censured or encouraged by the society of the artist's time. Such paintings allow not only to look into painters' inner world, but also to get an idea of the morals of their era.
The 18th century was watershed for the historical genre. In an effort to shift away from academism, painters of that time were looking for new subjects, often drawing attention to historical events of little importance and dramatizing them. Moral standards gradually faded into insignificance, giving way to romanticism. The main subjects of the stories in the paintings by the artists of the 18th – 19th centuries are the heroism of ordinary people and their ability to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the high purpose. This leitmotif is most noticeable in such works as Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix, Washington Crossing the Delaware by Leutze, and The Third of May 1808 by Goya.