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The Degrees of Art


Frithjof Schuon

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 10, No. 4. (Autumn, 1976). © World Wisdom, Inc.

Editor’s note: This essay has also appeared as a chapter in the book
Esoterism as Principle and as Way (Perennial Books, 1981).
The following is a recent translation of the essay,
approved by the estate of Frithjof Schuon.

Traditional art derives from a creativity which combines heavenly inspiration with ethnic genius, and which does so in the manner of a science endowed with rules and not by way of individual improvisation; ars sine scientia nihil.

The work of the artist or craftsman comprises two perfections, namely perfection of surface and perfection of depth. At surface level, the work must be well done, in conformity with the laws of the art and the demands of the style; in depth, it must be able to communicate the reality which it expresses. This explains why traditional art is related to esoterism as regards its form and to spiritual realization as regards its practice; for the form expresses the essence, and an understanding of the form awakens the need to transcend it with a view to its essence or archetype.

The artist, in fashioning the work — the form — fashions himself; and as the purpose of the form is to communicate the essence or celestial content, the artist sees this a priori in the formal container; realizing the form from the starting-point of the essence, he becomes the essence by realizing the form.

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Within the framework of a traditional civilization, there is without doubt a distinction to be made between sacred art and profane art. The purpose of the first is to communicate, on the one hand, spiritual truths and, on the other hand, a celestial presence; sacerdotal art has in principle a truly sacramental function. The function of profane art is obviously more modest: it consists in providing what theologians call “sensible consolations”, with a view to an equilibrium that is helpful for spiritual life, rather in the manner of the flowers and birds in a garden. The purpose of art of every kind — and this includes craftsmanship — is to create a climate and forge a mentality; it thus rejoins, directly or indirectly, the function of interiorizing contemplation, the Hindu darshan: contemplation of a holy man, of a sacred place, of a venerable object, of a divine image.[1]

In principle, and in the absence of opposing factors capable of neutralizing this effect, the aesthetic phenomenon is a receptacle that attracts a spiritual presence; if this applies in the most direct way possible to sacred symbols, where this quality is superimposed on sacramental magic, it likewise holds good, though in a more diffuse manner, for all elements of harmony, that is to say truth in sensible form.

*          *          *

No art in itself is a human creation; but sacred art has this particularity, that its essential content is a revelation, that it manifests a properly sacramental form of heavenly reality, such as the icon of the Virgin and Child, painted by an angel, or the icon of the Holy Face which goes back to the holy shroud and to St Veronica; or such as the statue of Shiva dancing or the painted or carved images of the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Taras. To the same category — in the widest acceptation of the term — belong ritual psalmody in a sacred language — among others Sanskrit, Hebrew and Arabic — and, in certain cases, the calligraphic copying —likewise ritual — of the sacred Books; architecture, or at least the decoration of sanctuaries, liturgical objects and sacerdotal vestments are in general of a less direct order. It would be difficult to do justice in a few lines to all possible types of sacred expression, which comprises such diverse modes as recitation, writing, architecture, painting, sculpture, the dance, the art of gestures, clothing; in what follows we shall be concerned only with the plastic arts, or even only with painting, the latter being moreover the most immediately tangible and also the most explicit of the arts.

Besides the icons of Christ and the Virgin, there are also a multitude of other hieratic images, relating the facts of sacred history and the lives of the saints; likewise in Buddhist iconography, after the central images come the numerous representations of secondary personifications; it is this more or less peripheral category which may be called indirect sacred art, even though there may not always be a rigorous line of demarcation between it and direct or central sacred art. The function of this ramification — apart from its didactic significance — is to enable the spirit of the central images to shine through a diverse imagery which rivets the movement of the mind by infusing into it the radiance of the Immutable, and which, in so doing, imposes on the moving soul a tendency towards interiorization; this function is thus entirely analogous to that of hagiography or even to that of tales of chivalry, not forgetting fairy tales whose symbolism, as is well known, belongs to the realm of the spiritual and so to that of the sacred.

Sacred art is far from always being perfect, although it is necessarily so in its principles and in the best of its productions; nevertheless in the great majority of imperfect works, the principles compensate for the accidental weaknesses, rather as gold, from a certain point of view, can compensate for the but slight artistic value of a given object. Two pitfalls lie in wait for sacred art and for traditional art in general: a virtuosity tending towards the outward and the superficial, and a conventionalism without intelligence and without soul; but this, it must be stressed, rarely deprives sacred art of its overall efficacy, and in particular of its capacity to create a stabilizing and interiorizing atmosphere. As for imperfection, one of its causes can be the inexperience, if not the incompetence of the artist; the most primitive works are rarely the most perfect, for in the history of art there are periods of apprenticeship just as later there are periods of decadence, the latter often being due to virtuosity. Another cause of imperfection is unintelligence, either individual or collective: the image may be lacking in quality because the artist —the word here having an approximate meaning — is lacking in intelligence or spirituality, but it may likewise bear the imprint of a certain collective unintelligence that comes from the sentimental conventionalization of the common religion; in this case, the collective psychism clothes the spiritual element with a kind of “pious stupidity”, for if there is a naïveté that is charming, there is also a naiveté that is moralistic and irritating. This must be said lest anyone should think that artistic expressions of the sacred dispense us from discernment and oblige us to be prejudiced, and so that no one should forget that in the traditional domain in general, there is on all planes a constant struggle between a solidifying tendency and a tendency towards transparency which draws the psychic back to the spiritual. All of this may be summed up by saying that sacred art is sacred in itself, but that it is not necessarily so in all its expressions.

*          *          *

Sacred art is vertical and ascending, whereas profane art is horizontal and equilibrating. In the beginning, nothing was profane; each tool was a symbol, and even decoration was symbolistic and sacral. With the passage of time, however, the imagination increasingly spread itself on the earthly plane, and man felt the need for an art that was for him and not for Heaven alone; the earth too, which in the beginning was experienced as a prolongation or an image of Heaven, progressively became earth pure and simple, that is to say that the human being increasingly felt himself to possess the right to be merely human. If religion tolerates this art, it is because it nevertheless has its legitimate function in the economy of spiritual means, within the horizontal or earthly dimension, and with the vertical or heavenly dimension in view.

Nevertheless, it must be reiterated here that the distinction between a sacred and a profane art is inadequate and too expeditious when one wishes to take account of all artistic possibilities; and it is therefore necessary to have recourse to a supplementary distinction, namely that between a liturgical and an extra-liturgical art: in the first, although in principle it coincides with sacred art, there may be modalities that are more or less profane, just as inversely, extra-liturgical art may comprise some sacred manifestations.

The term “sensible consolation”, wrongly applied by theologians to sacred art itself, as also, moreover, to the beauties of virgin nature — as if beauty had nothing to transmit other than consolation[2] — best fits the simpler types of art and the secondary charms of nature. The purpose of such arts is to communicate a climate of holy childhood, which the culturistic poisoners — always aggressive and megalomaniac — will doubtless qualify as “affectation”, which is just a slanderous misuse of language; in reality art has no right — insofar as it is unpretentious, and even without this reservation — to be grandiloquent and titanesque, the mission of the artist being to produce work that is sane and balanced and not an expression of useless turmoil.

Certainly the artist does not fashion his work with the sole intention of producing a spiritually or psychologically useful object; he also produces it for the joy of creating by imitating, and of imitating by creating, that is to say, for the joy of letting the existential intention of the model flow forth, or in other words, of extracting from the latter its very quintessence; at least this is so in some cases, which it would be pretentious and out of proportion to generalize. In other cases, on the contrary, the work of the artist is an extinction through love, the artist dying, so to speak, in creating: he performs an act of union by identifying himself with the admired or beloved object, by recreating it according to the music of his own soul. In other cases again — and all these modes may or must combine with one another to different degrees — the artist dedicates himself to adapting the object to a given material or a given technique: the Japanese engravers confer on Fuji and other views a quality that makes one think of the wood that they use, and the painters of screens present rivers and the moon against a gilded background which enhances them by giving them in addition a paradisal perfume.

At all events, the “sensible consolation” is in the work before being in the result; the sanctification of the religious artist precedes that of the spectator. Every legitimate art satisfies both emotivity and intelligence, not only in the finished work, but also in its production.

There is likewise in art a desire to pin down the visual, auditive or other forms which escape us, and which we wish to retain or possess; to this desire for fixation or possession there is added quite naturally a desire for assimilation, for a quality must not only be beautiful, it must also be entirely ours, which brings us back directly or indirectly, depending on the case, to the theme of union and love.

*          *          *

The Hindu, or more particularly the Vishnuite miniature, is one of the most perfect extra-liturgical arts there is, and we do not hesitate to say that some of its productions are at the summit of all painting. Descended from the sacred painting of which the Ajanta frescoes afford us a final trace, the Hindu miniature has undergone Persian influences, but it remains essentially Hindu and is in no wise syncretistic;[3] it has in any event achieved a nobility of draughtsmanship, of coloring, and of stylization in general, and over and above this, a climate of candor and holiness, which are unsurpassable and which, in the best of its examples, transport the viewer into an almost paradisiac atmosphere, a sort of earthly prolongation of heavenly childhood.

The Hindu miniature, whether centered on Krishna or on Rama, renders visible those spiritual gardens which are the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata-Purana, and the Ramayana, but it also conveys musical motifs in a romanticized style, as well as the contradictory sentiments to which love may give rise in diverse situations; most of these subjects hold us, willingly or not, under the spell of Krishna’s flute. Some of these paintings, in which a maximum of rigor and musicality is combined with a vivid spiritual expressiveness, unquestionably pertain to sacred art inasmuch as the epithet “profane” can no longer be applied to them; spiritus ubi vult spirat. This is a possibility that we also encounter in other domains, for example, when we are forced to admit that the Bhagavad-Gita, which logically pertains to secondary inspiration, is in reality an Upanishad, and thus a revelation of a major kind, or when a particular saint, who socially belongs to a lower caste, is recognized as personally possessing the rank of brahman.

All these remarks likewise apply to that other summit of painting attained in the Japanese screen; apart from the fact that this genre, in many of its productions, consciously prolongs the Zen or more or less Taoist painting of the kakemonos, with its content of landscape or plants, as well as other subjects which do not have to be taken into consideration here, it often attains a degree of perfection and profundity which renders it inseparable from Buddhist or Shintoist contemplativity.

Another type of extra-liturgical art that captivates by its powerful and candid originality is Balinese art, in which Hindu motifs combine with forms proper to the Malay genius; the fact that this genius — apart from the Hindu influence — has expressed itself principally in the sphere of craftsmanship and in that of architecture in wood, bamboo and straw, does not prevent one from seeing in it qualities which sometimes become great art; there can be no doubt that from the point of view of intrinsic values, and not merely from that of a particular taste, a fine barn in Borneo or Sumatra has much more to offer than has the plaster-nightmare of a baroque church.[4]

*          *          *

In the case of the examples just mentioned, we are obviously at the antipodes, not perhaps of certain medieval miniatures nor of the noblest and most spring-like works of the Quattrocento, but of the dramatic titanism, and the fleshly and vulgar delirium, of the megalomaniacs of the Renaissance and the 17th century, infatuated with anatomy, turmoil, marble and gigantism.

Non-traditional art, about which a few words must be said here, embraces the classical art of antiquity and the Renaissance, and Continues up to the 19th century which, reacting against academicism, gives rise to impressionism and analogous styles; this reaction rapidly decomposes into all sorts of perversities, either “abstract” or “surrealistic”: in any case, it is really of “subrealism” that one ought to speak here. It goes without saying that worthwhile works are to be found incidentally both in impressionism and in classicism — in which we include romanticism, since its technical principles are the same —, for the cosmic qualities cannot but manifest themselves in this realm, and a given individual aptitude cannot but lend itself to this manifestation; but these exceptions, in which the positive elements succeed in neutralizing the erroneous or insufficient principles, are far from being able to compensate for the serious drawbacks of extra-traditional art, and we would gladly do without all its productions if it were possible to disencumber the world from the heavy mortgage of Western culturism, with its vices of impiety, dispersion and poisonousness. The least that one can say is that it is not this kind of grandeur that brings us closer to Heaven. “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not; for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

This culturism is practically synonymous with civilizationism, and thus with implicit racism; according to this prejudice, Western humanity proves its superiority by the “Greek miracle” and all its consequences, and thus by the anthropolatry — it is not for nothing that one speaks of humanism — and cosmolatry which characterize or rather constitute the classicist mentality. However, the “Greek miracle” is first and foremost an abuse of the intelligence, which could not have occurred if awareness of the sacred had not been depleted— despite Orphism and Platonism —  in large sections of the ruling class under the pressure of an increasingly profane outlook, that is to say of an exteriorized and exteriorizing intelligence both unstable and adventuresome and infatuated with novelties; in keeping with this mentality, the moderns see in the most exteriorized and most enterprising mind a superior intelligence or even intelligence as such.

As we believe we have mentioned on other occasions, what must be blamed in artistic naturalism is not its exact observation of nature, but the fact that this observation is not compensated and disciplined by an equivalent awareness of that which transcends nature, and so of the essences of things, as happens for example in Egyptian art; in all sacred arts it is the style, which indicates a mode of inwardness, that corrects such outwardness, contingency and accidentality as the imitation of nature may involve; we would even say that an awareness of essences to a certain extent compromises or retards, if not a sufficient observation of outward things, at least their exact expression in graphic terms, although — and one must insist on this —there is no incompatibility in principle between exact draughtsmanship and contemplativity, the latter conferring on the former the imprint of inwardness and essentiality. Moreover, this combination is prefigured by the almost inward quality of normative forms, a quality that requires, precisely, an artistic treatment that is capable of giving it full expression in accordance with the laws of the fixative or crystallizing dimension that is figurative art.

A perfect equilibrium between a noble naturalness and an interiorizing and essentializing stylization is a precarious, but always possible phenomenon. It goes without saying that essentiality or the “idea” takes precedence over observation and the imitation of nature; the intuition and expression of archetypal nature takes precedence over the observation and imitation of nature. To each thing its rights, according to its place.

*          *          *

A naturalistic work of art of the most academic kind can be perfectly pleasing and nobly suggestive by virtue of the natural beauty that it copies, but it is nevertheless a lie, to the extent that it is exact, that is to say, to the extent that it seeks to pass off a flat surface for three-dimensional space, or inert matter for a living body. In the case of painting, it is necessary to respect both the flat surface and immobility: it is consequently necessary that there should be neither perspective, nor shadows, nor movement, except in the case of a stylization which, precisely, permits the integration of perspective and shadows in the work, while conferring on the movement an essential, and so symbolic and normative quality. In the case of sculpture, not only is it necessary to respect the immobility of matter by suppressing movement or by reducing it to an essential, balanced and quasi-static type; it is also necessary to take account of the particular substance used. When expressing the nature of a living body, or some essential aspect of its nature and thus some underlying “idea”, it is important to take account of the nature of clay, of wood, of stone, of metal; thus wood permits different modalities from those permitted by mineral substances and, amongst the latter, metal enables different qualities of expression to be brought into relief than does stone.

Stylization, as we have seen, permits a maximum of naturalism where it is able to impose on it a maximum of essentiality; in other words, a summit of creative exteriorization calls for a summit of interiorizing power and consequently demands a mastery of the means whereby this power may be realized. In the majority of cases art stops half-way and there is nothing wrong in this, since concretely there is no reason why it should go further; traditional art perfectly fulfils its role; art is not everything, and its productions do not have to be absolute. But this is independent of the principle that sacred art must satisfy every sincere believer; in other words, it fails in its mission if its crudeness, or on the contrary its superficial virtuosity, leaves unsatisfied or even troubles believers of good will, namely those whom humility preserves from all intolerance and worldly acrimony.

We have already remarked that there is a relative but not irremediable incompatibility — an incompatibility of fact and not of principle — between the spiritual content or the radiance of a work of art and an implacable and virtuosic naturalism: it is as if the science of the mechanism of things killed their spirit, or at least ran the grave risk of killing it. On the one hand we have a treatment that is naive, but charged with graces and diffusing an atmosphere of security, happiness and holy childhood; while on the other hand — in classical antiquity and from the Cinquecento onwards — we have on the contrary a treatment that is scientifically executed but the content is human and not heavenly — or rather it is “humanistic” —and the work suggests, not a childhood still close to Heaven, but an adulthood fallen into disgrace and expelled from Paradise.

When calling the art of exactly copying nature an abuse of intelligence, we have indicated its analogy with modern science: artistic naturalism and exact science both comprise some valid aspects since they are true in a certain respect, but in fact the average man is incapable of completing this wholly outward truth, or these respective truths, by means of their indispensable complements, without which science and art cannot realize the equilibrium that is in conformity with the total reality which logically determines them. Everyone, today is aware that the efficacy of the experimental sciences is no longer an argument in their favor, since the calamities they engender are precisely a function of their efficacy; likewise, it is not enough that artistic naturalism should represent a maximum of adequation, since it is just for this reason, given the use that has been made of it for all too long, that it has finished by depriving souls of a healthy nourishment adapted to their true needs.

It may be added that an element which in one way or another has powerfully contributed to the ruination of art is ambition and the search for originality; by and large and in spite of laudable exceptions, these are all that are necessary to, on average and despite some praiseworthy exceptions, deprive art of that atmosphere of candor and calm happiness, or of sanctity, which is one of the reasons for its existence.

*          *          *

The analogy between artistic naturalism and modern science permits us at this point to make a digression. We do not reproach modern science for being a fragmentary, analytical science, lacking in speculative, metaphysical and cosmological elements or for arising from the residues or debris of ancient sciences; we reproach it for being subjectively and objectively a transgression and for leading subjectively and objectively to disequilibrium and so to disaster.

Conversely, we do not have for the traditional sciences an unmixed admiration; the ancients also had their scientific curiosity, they too operated by means of conjectures and, whatever their sense of metaphysical or mystical symbolism may have been, they were sometimes — indeed often — mistaken in fields in which they wished to acquire a knowledge, not of transcendent principles, but of physical facts. It is impossible to deny that on the level of phenomena, which nevertheless is an integral part of the natural sciences, to say the least, the ancients — or the Orientals — have had certain inadequate conceptions, or that their conclusions were often most naïve; we certainly do not reproach them for having believed that the earth is flat and that the sun and the firmament revolve around it, since this appearance is natural and providential for man; but one can reproach them for certain false conclusions drawn from certain appearances, in the illusory belief that they were practicing, not symbolism and spiritual speculation, but phenomenal or indeed exact science. One cannot, after all, deny that the purpose of medicine is to cure, not to speculate, and that the ancients were ignorant of many things in this field in spite of their great knowledge in certain others; in saying this, we are far from contesting that traditional medicine had, and has, the immense advantage of a perspective which includes the whole man; that it was, and is, effective in cases in which modern medicine is impotent; that modern medicine contributes to the degeneration of the human species and to over-population; and that an absolute medicine is neither possible nor desirable, and this for obvious reasons. But let no one say that traditional medicine is superior purely on account of its cosmological speculations and in the absence of particular effective remedies, and that modern medicine, which has these remedies, is merely a pitiful residue because it is ignorant of these speculations; or that the doctors of the Renaissance, such as Paracelsus, were wrong to discover the anatomical and other errors of Greco-Arab medicine; or, in an entirely general way, that traditional sciences arc marvelous in all respects and that modern sciences, chemistry for example, are no more than fragments and residues.

No piece of knowledge at the level of phenomena is bad in itself; but the important question is that of knowing, firstly, whether this knowledge is reconcilable with the purpose of human intelligence, secondly, whether in the last analysis it is truly useful, and thirdly, whether man can support it spiritually; in fact there is abundant proof that man cannot support a body of knowledge which breaks a certain natural and providential equilibrium, and that the objective consequences of this knowledge correspond exactly to its subjective anomaly. Modern science could not have developed except as the result of a forgetting of God, and of our duties towards God and towards ourselves; in an analogous manner, artistic naturalism, which first made its appearance in antiquity and was rediscovered at the beginnings of the modern era, can be explained only by the explosive birth of a passionately exteriorized and exteriorizing mentality.

*          *          *

If the deviation of art is a possibility, the rejection of art is another. To speak of a great civilization which rejects, not one particular art, but all art, is a contradiction in terms; the more or less iconoclastic point of view of a St Bernard or a Savonarola cannot be the attitude of a whole city-based civilization. But this point of view, or a point of view that is in practice analogous, can exist traditionally outside civilization of this type, for example in the nomadic or semi-nomadic world of the North American Indians: the Redskins properly so-called — not all the aboriginal inhabitants of America — are indeed more or less hostile to the plastic arts, as doubtless were also their distant congeners the ancient Mongols, and perhaps also the ancient Germans and Celts. According to the Indians, virgin nature, which is sacred, is of an unequalled beauty, and it contains every conceivable beauty; it is thus vain and indeed impossible to seek to imitate the works of the Great Spirit. It is curious to note that the classical world, that of naturalism and anthropolatry, looks upon itself as a conqueror as far as nature is concerned; the cult of man involves contempt for surrounding nature, whereas for the Indian, as moreover for the Far-Easterners, nature is a mother, and also a fatherland, of which man is indeed the center, but not the absolute proprietor, still less the enemy.

The religious naturism of the North American Indians, envisaged here in connection with its exclusion of the plastic arts, results from a real and thus legitimate aspect of things, it could thus not fail to be affirmed in one or several parts of the globe; history proves that this perspective, while it obviously has nothing exclusive about it nevertheless has a solid basis; to understand this, it is enough to think of all the deviations of the “creative genius” and of all the evils from which the world of civilizationism suffers.

Moreover, this point of view is also present in the ancient world, at least partially: the prohibition of images by Judaism and Islam proceeds in fact from an analogous or symbolically equivalent perspective, and it makes itself felt in the world as a sort of beneficent aeration or as a factor of equilibrium. The difference is that in the case of the Redskins, the motivation for the rejection or abstention lies in the inimitability of nature — apart from practical reasons which are in any case relative — whereas in the case of the monotheistic Semites it lies in the sins of luciferianism, magic and idolatry.

It must nevertheless be admitted that the Indians of whom we are speaking did not completely abstain from figurative drawings. They decorated their tents with a kind of pictography representing men and animals, and they also had the practice of sparingly carving their calumets, but in both cases the art is integrated into objects that are both useful and sacred, and it consequently conforms to the sobriety and holy poverty of a world that is committed to taking no thought for the morrow.

Islam tolerates — in certain countries and situations — miniatures of a very decorative style, on condition that God never appears in them, and that the face of the Prophet is left blank or is covered by a veil; painting is accepted, albeit without enthusiasm, because things that are painted “project no shadow”, the miniatures having in addition the advantage of being small, and thus not cumbersome.

The Semites reproach the iconodules for worshipping wood, stone and metal, and images made by man; they are right when they are speaking either of their own past or present paganism, or that of their habitual pagan neighbors, but not when they include in their reproach Christian or Asiatic iconodules. The sacred images of these communities are, precisely, not made by human hand; Christians express this by attributing the first icon to an angel, with or without the participation of St Luke. As for the inert matter which the idolaters seem to worship — in reality it contains a magical power — it ceases to be inert in sacred art because it is inhabited by a heavenly or divine presence; the sacred image is created by God, and it is sanctified and as if vivified by his presence.

*          *          *

The de facto ambiguity of beauty, and consequently of art, comes from the ambiguity of Maya: just as the principle of manifestation and illusion both separates from the Principle and leads back to it, so earthly beauties, including those of art, can favor worldliness as well as spirituality, which explains the diametrically opposed attitudes of the saints towards art in general or a given art in particular. The arts reputed to be the most dangerous are those engaging hearing or movement, namely poetry, music and dancing; they are like wine, which in Christianity serves as the vehicle for a deifying sacrament, while in Islam it is prohibited, each perspective being right despite the contradiction. That the intoxicating element—in the widest sense—particularly lends itself to sanctification, Islam recognizes in its esoterism, in which wine symbolizes ecstasy and in which poetry, music and dancing have become ritual means with a view to “remembrance”.

Beauty, whatever use man may make of it, fundamentally belongs to its Creator, who through it projects into the world of appearances something of his being. The cosmic, and more particularly the earthly function of beauty is to actualize in the intelligent and sensitive creature the recollection of essences, and thus to open the way to the luminous Night of the one and infinite Essence.

*          *          *

The vocation sine qua non of man is to be spiritual. Spirituality manifests itself on the planes which constitute man, namely intelligence, will, affectivity, production: human intelligence is capable of transcendence, of the absolute, of objectivity; the human will is capable of liberty, and thus of conformity to what is grasped by the intelligence; human feeling (affectivity), which is joined to each of the preceding faculties, is capable of compassion and generosity, by reason of the objectivity of the human mind, which takes the soul out of its animal egoism. Finally, there is the specifically human capacity for production, and it is because of this that man has been called homo faber, and not homo sapiens only: it is the capacity for producing tools and constructing dwellings and sanctuaries, and if need be for making clothes and creating works of art, and also for spontaneously combining in these creations symbolism and harmony. The language of harmony may be simple or rich, depending on needs, perspectives and temperaments; decoration too has its purpose, both from the point of view of symbolism, and from that of musicality. This amounts to saying that this fourth capacity must also have a spiritual content on pain of not being human; thus its role is simply to exteriorize the three preceding capacities by adapting them to material or cultural needs, or let us simply say by projecting them into the sensible order otherwise than by rational discourse or writing. Exiled on earth as we are, unless we are able to content ourselves with that shadow of Paradise that is virgin nature, we must create for ourselves surroundings which by their truth and their beauty recall our heavenly origin and thereby also awaken our hope.

When creating, man must project himself into matter in his ideal and spiritual personality, not in his state of fall, so that he may afterwards be able to repose his soul and his spirit in a framework that reminds him in a gentle and holy manner of what he must be.

*          *          *

The two Hindu notions of darshan and satsanga sum up, by extension, the question of human ambience as such, and so also that of art or craftsmanship. Darshan, is above all the contemplation of asaint, or of a man invested with a priestly or princely authority, and recognizable by the vestimentary or other symbols which manifest it; satsanga is the frequentation of holy men, or simply men of spiritual tendency. What is true for our living surroundings is likewise true for our inanimate surroundings, whose message or perfume we unconsciously assimilate to some degree or another. “Tell me whom thou frequentest and I shall tell thee who thou art.”

Art refers essentially to the mystery of the veil: it is a veil made of the world and ourselves and it is thus placed between us and God, but it is transparent in the measure in which it is perfect and communicates to us what at the same time it dissimulates. Art is true, that is to say a transmitter of Essence, to the extent that it is sacred, and it is sacred, and thus a means of recollection and interiorization, to the extent that it is true.


[1] When one compares the blustering and heavily carnal paintings of a Rubens with noble, correct and profound works such as the profile of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Ghirlandaio or the screens with plum-trees by Korin, one may wonder whether the term “profane art” can serve as a common denominator for productions that are so fundamentally unequal. In the case of noble works that bear the stamp of a contemplative spirit one would prefer to speak of “extra-liturgical art”, without having to specify whether it is profane or not, or to what extent it is. Moreover one must distinguish between normal profane art and a profane art which is deviated and which has thereby ceased to be a term of comparison.

[2] It is true that this notion of “consolation” has a deeper import in the mystical realm.

[3] Whether it be a case of art, doctrine or anything else, there is syncretism when there is an assemblage of disparate elements, but not when there is a unity which has assimilated elements of diverse provenance.

[4] One can say the same of Shinto sanctuaries, which have been described as “barns’, especially those at Ise.

Original editorial inclusion that followed the essay in Studies:
All that we are by nature is in full contrariety to this divine love, nor can it be otherwise; a death to itself is its only cure and nothing else can make it subservient to good; just as darkness cannot be altered or made better in itself or transmuted into light, it can only be subservient to the light by being lost in it and swallowed up by it…
William Law.