Frithjof Schuon - Art

Art from the Sacred to the ProfaneEast and West

Frithjof  Schuon  (1907-1998) 
Philosopher and metaphysician, Schuon was world renowned in the field of comparative religion and known as the pre-eminet exponent of the Perennial Philosophy.  He wrote over 25 books.  Art from the Sacred to the Profane was published in 2007, after Schuon's death.  His wife edited the text from many of his books and essays and includes 270 photographs of art objects.

From the series Symmetrical Studies.    Click on the image to enlarge     Click here to see more images

Beauty, being perfection, is regularity and mystery.  The cosmic, or more particularly the earthly function of beauty is to actualize in the intelligent creature the Platonic recollection of the archetypes, right up to the  luminous Night of the Infinite. . . it reminds us of what we must love, and consequently be.

Human beings are rarely identified with their beauty, which is lent to them and moves across them like a ray of light.  

Beauty is like a mirror of our transpersonal and eternally blissful essence.  It is essentially an objective factor, and . . . like truth, possesses its own intrinsic quality; thus it exists before man and independently of him.

Every beauty is both a closed door and an open door, or in other words, an obstacle or a vehicle: either beauty separates us from God because it is entirely identified in our mind with its earthly support which then assumes the role of idol, or beauty brings us close to God because we perceive in it the vibrations of Beatitude and Infinity which emanate from divine Beauty.

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.  thus, one must live the experience of beauty so as to draw from it a lasting, not ephemeral, element, hence realizing in oneself an opening towards the immutable Beauty, rather than plunging oneself into the current of things; it is a question of viewing the world, and living in it, in a manner that is sacred and not profane.

A thing is true by its symbolism and holy by the depth of its beauty; all beauty is a cosmic mode of holiness.  Sacred art is Heaven descended to earth, rather than earth reaching towards Heaven.

Beauty must have in itself a spiritual function, otherwise there would be no beauty.  This function is interiorization.  This is the mystery of darshan: of union with an archetypical reality through sensory perception. 

Man and Art
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.

Art in the broadest sense is the crystallization of archetypal values, and not a literal copy of the phenomena of nature or of the soul; art operates by abstraction in order to extract gold from "raw material."  Positive originality cannot arise from our desires; it proceeds from a combination of our traditional environment and our legitimate personality, a combination pregnant with archetypes susceptible of manifesting themselves in it, and disposed to doing so.  In a work, art is the quest for--and the revelation of--the center, within us as well as around us.

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 . . . In other cases 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.

For God, His creature reflects an exteriorized aspect of Himself; for the artist, on the contrary, the work is a reflection of an inner reality of which he himself is only an outward aspect; God creates His own image, while man so to speak fashions his own essence, at least symbolically. . .  In a certain sense the work of art is greater than the artist himself, and brings back to the artist, through the mystery of artistic creation, his own Divine Essence.

Sacred Art
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 Holy Face . . . the statue of Shiva dancing  . . . the carved images of the Buddhas  . . .  and in certain cases, the calligraphic copying--likewise ritual--of the sacred Books . . .  Sacred art is first of all the visible and audible form of Revelation. . . The form must be an adequate expression of its content. . . 

Objectively, the true function of sacred images is to represent symbolically and sacramentally a transcendent Reality, and subjectively, to permit the fixing of the mind upon this symbol in view of obtaining habitual concentration upon the Reality contemplated, something which can be conceived in devotional as well as in intellectual mode, or in both manners at once.

On the plane of spiritual values no two things are more divergent than wisdom, which is inward, and art which is outward; between them is all the distance separating essence and form.  Yet "extremes meet," and nothing is closer to wisdom and sanctity than sacred art. . . which is like the visible face of the Truth: in a language both direct and graduated, it renders transparent that which spirituality hides in the depths of hearts.  

Sacred art is made as a vehicle for spiritual presence, it is made at one and the same time for God, for angels, and for man; profane art on the other hand exists only for man and by that very fact betrays him.

Sacred art helps man to find his own center, that kernel whose nature is to love God.

Through sacred art, sanctity or wisdom has become miraculously tangible with all is human material which virgin nature could not provide. . . To say that one prefers the works of God to the works of man would be to simplify the problem unduly, given that in any art meriting the epithet "sacred" it is God who is the author; man is merely the instrument and what is human is merely the material. . . All things being interrelated, it goes without saying that aesthetic emotion may convey . . . a spiritual intuition or even a truth which the artist may not necessarily be conscious of, but which will be transmitted none the less.

Islamic Art
The non-fiurative or abstract art of Islam (its exclusion of human and animal representations) issued from the sensory form of the revealed Book, that is, from the interlaced letters of the verses of the Koran, and also--paradoxical though this may seem--from the forbidding of images.  This restriction in Islamic art, by eliminating ertain creative possibilities, intensified others, the more so since it was accompanied by express permission to represent plants; hence the capital importance of arabesques, of geometrical and botanical decorative motifs.

In Islam the love of beauty compensates for the tendency to austere simplicity; it lends elegant forms to simplicity and partially cloths it in a profusion of precious and abstract lacework.  "God is Beautiful" said the Profit, "and He loveth Beauty."

Islamic art allies the joyous profusion of vegetation with the pure and abstract severity of crystals.  Being possessed by the idea of Unity, Islam has also an aspet of the simplicity of the desert, of whiteness, and of austerity, which in its art, alternates with the crystalline joy of ornamentation.  

Far-Eastern Art
Mystery is the essence of truth which cannot be adequately conveyed through language--the vehicle of discursive thought--but which may suddenly be made plain in an illuminating flash through a symbol, such as a key word, a mystic sound, or an image whose suggestive action may be scarcely graspable.  This explains the elliptical and paradoxical character of the koans in Zen and atmosphere of Taoist and Zen landscapes; the spirit of Zen and that of Taoism meet in this unrivaled art, as well as the ethnic genius of China and Japan.  On this plane of visual contemplation--or contemplative vision--tje genius of the Chinese and Japanese is one and the same; no peoples have been more successful in visualizing the mystery of things.  

The yellow man sees primordial and celestial sublimity, not in the human body, but in virgin nature.  The works are profoundly linked with nature to the point of forming with it a sort of organic unity.

In Chinese art everything seems to be derived on the one hand from the writing, which has a sacred character, and on the other hand from nature, which is also sacred and is observed lovingly as a permanent revelation of universal Principles.  The connection between calligraphy and painting is both close and decisive, a connection also to be found in Egyptian art.  Writing is a from of painting; the yellow people trace their characters with a brush and their painting holds a quality of writing; hand and eye retain the same reflexes.  

As for the Taoist landscapes, they exteriorize a metaphysic and a contemplative state: they spring, not from space, but from the "void"; their theme is essentially "mountain and water" and with this they combine cosmological and metaphysical aims.  It is one of the most powerfully original forms of sacred art.

Note:  I have passed over the following sections:  Naturalistic Art, Christian Art, Hindu Art, Buddhist Art, Poetry Music and Dance, The Art of Dress and Ambience

Back to:

Sacred Art & Sacred Knowledge which is a work in progress consisting primarily of a collection of quotes by Islamic Scholars on the traditions of the sacred in art and all aspects of Islamic culture. 

Welcome Page  to The Departing Landscape website which includes the complete hyperlinked listing of my online photography projects dating back to the 1960's, my resume, contact information, and more.