11/26/10

Symbol


Symbol







This image is from the project Celestial Gardens
Click on image to enlarge






Symbol 
The following collection of quotes are excerpted from the sources as indicated.  For more context or additional material for the selected quote, click on the highlighted links provided.

I also encourage you to see these two other important related links, The Symbolic Photograph, which I also made note of at the end of this page and Grace-Photograph-Symbol-Universe.  It might be best to look at the material below, on symbol before you read the others.

--The Symbolic Photograph is a summary of my Written MFA Thesis (1972) for the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.  It explores my creative process in photography in relation to CG Jung's ideas regarding the symbol, his archetypal approach to psychotherapy, his research into medieval alchemy, and his late theory about synchronicity. The title of the thesis:  The Symbolic Photograph : A Means to Self-Knowledge - A Jungian Approach to the Photographic Opus

--Grace-Photograph-Symbol-Universe (January, 2017) explores my creative process in photography in relationship to my practice of Siddha Yoga Meditation, grace, and the symbolic photograph.  



Frithjof  Schuon   Art from the Sacred to the Profane ~ East and West   click here
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. 

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.

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.

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.


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Frithjof Schuon  Language of the Self   click here
In primordial periods art always was limited to either objects of ritual or working tools and household objects, but even such tools and object were, like the activities they implied, eminently symbolical and so connected with ritual and with the realm of the sacred.


To a great extent sacred art ignorers the aesthetic aim; its beauty arises above all  from the exactitude of its symbolism and from its usefulness for purposes of ritual and contemplation, and only secondarily from the imponderables of personal intuition.

An art is sacred, not through the personal intention of the artist, but through its content, its symbolism and its style.

The Koranic affirmation that "God alone is God" means that there is no Self but the Self;  there is no 'me' except it be "I" -- therefore no real or positive ego except the Self.  The Profit himself enunciated the same mystery in the following terms: "He who has seen me, has seen the Truth (God)."  That is to say: God cannot be seen except through His receptacle or, in a more general but less direct sense, through His symbol.



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Seyyed Hossein Nasr  Knowledge and the Sacred  click here
Sacred knowledge is based in the language of symbolism.  In the traditions of the American Indians, animals and plants are symbols of various Divine Qualities.  In such traditions there exists a knowledge of nature which is direct and intimate yet inward. 

Form is the reality of an object on the material level of existence.  But it is also, as the reflection of an archetypal reality, the gate which opens inwardly and "upwardly" unto the formless Essence.  As far as sacred art is concerned, this content is always the sacred or a sacred presence placed in particular forms by revelation which sanctifies certain symbols, forms, and images to enable them to become "containers" of this sacred presence and transforms them into vehicles for the journey across the stream of becoming.  Thanks to those sacred forms man is able to penetrate into the inner dimension of his own being and, by virtue of that process, gain a vision of the inner dimension of all forms.  Only the sacred forms invested with the transforming power of the sacred through revelation and the Logos which is its instrument can enable man to see God everywhere.

According to a well-known Hermetic (alchemical) saying, "that which is lowest symbolizes that which is highest," material existence which is lowest symbolizes and reflects the Intellect or the archetypal essences which represent the highest level.  This is why an icon or a canvas [or photograph, etc.]  can become the locus of Divine Presence and support for the contemplation of the formless.


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Samer Akkach  Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam
An Architectural Reading of Mystical Ideas   click here
Symbolism provides the main conceptual tools that enables one's mind to journey between the divine and the human domains and to maneuver through the multiple states of being they involve.

The meanings of symbols are not intentionally constructed but rather discovered or revealed through reflections on transcendental realities, and consequently the efficacy of a symbol does not depend on its being understood.  A symbol speaks to the whole human being and not only to the intelligence.  Symbols are multivalent.  They can simultaneously express a number of meanings whose continuity is not evident on the plane of immediate experience.  The significance of a symbol lies in revealing the unity and continuity between the different levels it reveals.  Symbols imbue human existence with significance by pointing to a more profound, more mysterious side of life, to the miraculous and sacramental dimensions of human existence.

All created things are symbols, Ibn 'Arabi explains; they are "dwellings" that enable us to reflect upon such things as divine unity, first Intellect, divine Throne, the science of representation, God's wonders, and so on.  But symbols have a double function: guiding and misguiding, revealing and concealing.  Ibn 'Arabi says God founded the world for people to seek him, but they instead became preoccupied with the world itself, so they misunderstood the intention of the creation...

Symbol: (definition) from Greek sym+ballo: "to throw together",  "expression", "to cross" and "to interpret",  "lesson" and "wonder".   Regarding "the expounder"- "one who crosses",  since in expounding one crosses from the outward to the inward side of the subject in order to reveal its hidden meaning.  Ibn 'Arabi says that to every sensible form God has attached a spiritual meaning toward which one should cross by interpretation.

The concealed meaning or significance of a symbol is often referred to as "secret" or "mystery" thus pointing to the intellectual effort required for the discovery of what is not immediately available.

Ibn 'Arabi says God alludes to his symbolic presences in all created things.  These symbols are available to humans in their daily experience of sensible things, be they "within themselves" or  "on the horizons," that is, in the outside world.  Their function is to give clues to direct the mind toward that which lies beyond the immediate attractions of the sensible and the visible.

A symbol is a call from a distance and a disclosure of an essential deficiency.  The ontological difference between the creator and the creature is what manifests the polarizing distance that separates God and humans.  God transcends human deficiencies and limitations, and it is this transcendence that makes the language of symbolism a necessity.  Much of revealed knowledge is beyond linguistic grasp and hence communicable directly through language.  The efficacy of the language of symbolism derives from the symbol's capacity to translate divine situations into human terms and vice versa thereby bridging the gap created by distance and deficiency.  Participating in both the divine and the human realms, symbols establish the necessary continuity between the order of the divine presence and that of human existence.  

The significance of symbolism lies not in the symbol itself but in the meanings it communicates, the reality it unveils.  Symbols are, therefore, not sought for themselves but for what they symbolize, for the insights they instil, the possibilities they disclose, and the meanings they deliver.  In a hierarchically ordered universe, the unseen, while setting itself apart from the seen by ontological distance and deficiency, projects a universal medium with an immense revelatory power, the medium of symbolism.

The meaning of the point is that it is seen as a potent symbol of the ultimate Reality, a graspable geometrical principle capable of revealing the relationship the divine Essence bears to the world.  The ungraspability and incomprehensibility of the point renders it a potent symbol of the ineffable divine Essence or God in the state of nondetermination.  One Sufi writes:  "the Point is a symbol of God's essence that is hidden behind the veil of his multiplicity."   The Circle becomes the symbol of the first comprehensible form of unity the Essence takes on.  The circle's inherent geometrical  qualities are thus conditioned by the metaphysical reality it embodies. 

Acting as a link between God and Man, the cosmos comprises the formal, imaginable, the communicable vocabularies which constitute the alphabet of the language of symbolism.


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Mircea Eliade  Symbolism, the Sacred, the Arts  edited by D. Apostolos-Cappadona click here  
The essential function of the symbol is precisely in disclosing the structures of the real inaccessible to empirical experience.  / Symbols maintain contact with the deep sources of life; they express, we may say, the "lived" spiritual.  This is the reason why symbols have a numinous aura; they disclose that the modalities of the Spirit are at the same time manifestations of Life, and by consequences, directly engage human existence.  

It is necessary to not lose sight of one characteristic which is specific to a symbol: its multivalence, which is to say the multiplicity of meanings which it expresses simultaneously.  This is why it is sometimes so difficult to to explain a symbol, to exhaust its significations; it refers to a plurality of contexts and it is valuable on a number of levels. 

Symbolic thought makes the immediate reality "shine," but without diminishing or devaluating it: in its perspective the Universe is not closed, no object is isolated in its own existentialness; everything holds together in a closed system of correspondences and assimilations.


The symbol translates a human situation into cosmological terms; and reciprocally, more precisely, it discloses the interdependence between the structures of human existence and cosmic structures.  Of course this is not a question of reflections, but of intuitions, of immediate seizures of reality.  

As the World is the divine creation par excellence it reveals the cosmological valences of a symbol, is equivalent to participating, although in a mediated manner, in the Sacred.  In revealing the cosmic context of the symbol, man is placed in the presence of the mystery of Creation.  The World being a divine work, all understanding bearing these deep structures is accompanied by a religious experience.  

Each context of a symbol reveals something more which was only unformed and allusive in the neighboring contexts.


To understand the symbolism of temples and human dwellings, is, above all, to understand the religious value of space; it other words, to know the structure and function of sacred space.  Such symbolisms, such rituals, transform space in which is inscribedf a temple or a palace simultaneously into an imago mundi and into a Center of the World.

Man may construct a sacred space by effecting certain rituals and symbolisms. The sacred space is the place where communication is possible between this world and the other world, from the heights or from the depths, the world of the gods or the world of the dead.

To organize a territory, to "cosmocize" it, is equivalent in the final instance to consecrating it.  And so, at the root of of all such complex symbolism of temples and sanctuaries is found the primary experience of sacred space, of a space where a rupture of levels occurs.   The "cosmocization" of a space is symbolic or ritualistic.



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Seyyed Hossein NasrIslamic Art and Spirituality, from the Introduction to Crystalline Paradise
The void symbolizes the sacred and the gate through which the Divine Presence enters into the material order which encompasses man in his terrestrial journey.  The void is the symbol of both the transcendence of God and His presence in all things. . . Whenever and wherever the veil of matter is removed, the Divine Light of Unity shines through. . .  Hence "Whithersoever ye turn, there is the Face of God" (Qur'an, 11:115).    

The use of the void in Islamic art became, along with the use of geometric and other forms of abstract symbolism, the only way to indicate the Unity which is at once everywhere and beyond all things.  Emptiness in Islamic art becomes synonymous with the manifestation of the sacred.



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Seyyed Hossein NasrIslamic Art and Spirituality, caption to a photograph in Crystalline Paradise
Together, the void and the "positive" material form, color and so forth, depict the full reality of an object, chiselling away its unreality and illuminating its essential reality as a positive symbol and harmonious whole.  The combining of these two aspects is seen clearly in the arabesque, so characteristic of Islamic art, where both the negative space and the positive "form" play an equally central role.  The arabesque enables the void to enter into the very heart of matter, to remove its opacity and to make it transparent before the Divine Light.  Through its extension and repetition of forms interlaced with the void, the arabesque removes from the eye the possibility of fixing itself in one place, and from the mind the possibility of become imprisoned in any particular solidification and crystallization of matter.  This refusal to identify, even symbolically, any concrete form with the Divinity stems as much from the Islamic insistence upon Divine Unity as it does upon the absence of an icon which would symbolize the God-man or the incarnation found in other traditions.

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Emma Clark, The Art of the Islamic Garden, caption to a photograph in Crystalline Paradise Geometry represents the essence of nature through abstract pattern; this means that every geometric form carries a qualitative, symbolic meaning.  Traditional Islamic art is centered on Divine unity.  Through order and harmony as manifested by geometry and rhythmic interlacement (arabesque) in art, the essential nature of the created world, the underlying unity within the multiplicity of forms, can be made visible. 

Nature and beauty are outward symbols of an inward grace.  Throughout the Quran the faithful are exhorted to meditate upon these signs or symbols, since everything in the created world is a sign or symbol of God. . .  The world should be seen for what it is -- an illusion (maya in Hinduism) that both veils and reveals the archetypal heavenly world.  When a civilization is centered on the sacred, whether it be Islamic, North American Indian or medieval Christian, the practical is always an inextricable link to the spiritual.  This is the language of symbolism -- linking the everyday activities back to their heavenly archetype. . . The Islamic garden can be seen as an open air sacred art, the content, form and symbolic language all combining to remind the visitor of the eternal, invisible realities that lie beneath outward appearances.


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Martin Lings, from his book Symbol and Archetype, from the Introduction to Tree of Life 
"If all the trees in the earth were pens, and if the sea eked out by seven seas were ink, the Words of God could not be written out to the end" (Qur'an XXXI:27)

The verse tells us, generally speaking, that earthly things are as nothing compared with what they symbolize; but at the same time it implies inescapably that the tree, for the purpose of representing heavenly implements of transcription, is a supreme symbol.  One of the chapters of the Qur'an is named after the Celestial Pen.




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Laleh Bakhtiar, from her book  Sufi: Expressions of the Mystic Quest 
from the Introduction to The Tree of Life 
The whole of the cosmos is seen as a tree, the Tree of Knowledge, which has grown from the seed of the Divine Command, "Be".  The Tree has sent down its roots, sent up its trunk, and spread out its branches, so that this world, the world of Symbols, and the world of Archetypes, are all contained by this Tree. 

As the Tree is manifest in a macrocosmic aspect, so it is hidden in the microcosmic form.  It is the symbol of wisdom which, through roots in meditation, bears fruit of the Spirit. 


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From The Symbolism of the Cross by Rene guenon
In certain tradtions the Universe itself is sometimes symbolized by a book.  On this symbolism of the book, the following passage from Ibn-Al'Arabi [referring here to the Qur'anmay be quoted: "The Universe is a vast book; the characters of this book are all written, in principle, with the same ink and transcribed on to the eternal Tablet by the Divine Pen; all are transcribed simultaneously and inseparably; for that reason the essential phenomena hidden in the 'secret of secrets' were given the name of 'transcendent letters'.  And these same transcendent letters, that is to say all creatures, after having being virtually condensed in the Divine Omniscience, were carried down on the Divine Breath to the lower lines, and composed and formed the manifested Universe." 


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See this Related link:   

A Means to Self-Knowledge 

A Jungian Approach to the "Photographic Opus"

This is a brief summarization of my 1972 MFA written thesis
for the University of New Mexico:  for me, the basic 
ideas expressed in the paper, which concentrate on 
C.G. Jung's study of Medieval Alchemy and his 
theory of Synchronicity, continue to be 
relevant for me today as an actively 
working photographer-artist.

Steven Foster, November, 2016
The Symbolic Photograph 


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Also visit:

The Symbolic Photograph

Grace-Photograph-Symbol-Universe  (January, 2017) explores my creative process in photography in relationship to my practice of Siddha Yoga Meditation, grace, and the symbolic photograph

Intuition, Correspondence, Contemplation, The Silent World

"An Imaginary Book" : The Complete Collection of Projects



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.








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