Symbolism, the Sacred, the Arts

Symbolism, the Sacred, the Arts
A collection of essays by Mircea Eliade, ed. by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona

  This image is from the project Crystalline Paradise

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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.

Regarding the symbolism of shadows: a "form" rising from Shadows can signify not only the manifestation of a World, but also the appearance of a "humanity" (a race, a people).  The emergence of Light out of Shadows symbolizes the creation of the Universe as well as the beginnings of History.  In one case as in the other, it is a matter of the "form" emerging from the unmanifested.  Shadows symbolize the beyond, Hell, the Cosmic Night, the regression to the unformed, pre-cosmogonic mode.  The symbolic return to Chaos is indispensable to all new creation.  

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.  

Divinities: Art and the Divine: 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.

Sacred art seeks to represent the invisible by means of the visible.  A work of art gives form to what is in itself beyond form.  Sacred art translates religious experience and metaphysical conceptions of the world and of human existence into a concrete, representational form.  Divinity also participates by revealing Himself to man and allowing Himself to be perceived in form or figure.

To cite only a signe instance, the heavens have transcendent and sacred implications.  rising infinitely, they are immutable and overpowering; they intimate that such lofitness is a dimension inaccessible to human beings, and hence an attribute of divinity.  This celestial imagery leads man to understand existentially that the sacred is something totally different from himself, that it belongs to a different order of being an is thus, in philosophical terms, transcendent.

The Sacred and the Modern Artist (written, 1964)  
Ever since 1880, when Nietzsche first proclaimed it, people have been talking a great deal about the "death of God."  There is a certain symmetry between the perspective of the philosopher and theologian, and that of the modern artist; for the one as for the other the "death of God" signifies above all the impossibility of expressing a religious experience in traditional religious language: in medieval language for example, or in that of the Counter-Reformation.  From a certain point of view, the "death of God" would rather seem to be the destruction of an idol.

Be that as it may, it is evident that, for more than a century, the West has not been creating a "religious art" in the traditional sense of the terms.  Artists are no longer interested in traditional religious imagery and symbolism.

This is not to say that the "sacred" has completely disappeared in modern art.  But it has become unrecognizable; it is camouflaged in forms, purposes and meanings which are apparently "profane."  The sacred is not obvious, as it was for example in the art of the Middle Ages.  One does not recognize it immediately and easily, because it is no longer expressed in a conventional religious language. 

To be sure, this is not a conscious and voluntary camouflage.  Contemporary artists are by no means believers who, embarrassed by the archaism or the inadequacies of their faith do not have the courage to avow it. . .  the great majority of artists do not seem to have "faith" in the traditional sense of the word.  They are not consciously "religious."  Nonetheless, we maintain that the sacred, although unrecognizable, is present in their works.

Let us hasten to add that this is a question of a phenomenon which is generally characteristic of modern man, or more specifically of man in Western society; he wants to be, and declares himself to be areligious--completely rid of the sacred. 

Modern man has "forgotten" religion, but the sacred survives, buried in his unconscious.   Modern man has lost the possibility of experiencing the sacred at the conscious level, but he continues to be nourished and guided by his unconscious.  And as certain psychologists never stop telling us, the unconscious is "religious" in the sense that it is constituted of impulses and images charged with sacrality.

The artist does not act passively either in regard to the Cosmos or in regard to the unconscious.  Without telling us, perhaps without knowing it, the artist penetrates--at times dangerously--into the depths of the world and his own psyche.  From cubism to tachism, we are witnessing a desperate effort on the part of the artist to free himself of the "surface" of things and to penetrate into matter in order to lay bare its ultimate structures.  . . . these are not, according  to the artist, operations undertaken for the purpose of some sort of objective knowledge; they are ventures provoked by his desire to grasp the deepest meaning of his plastic universe.

The two specific characteristics of modern art, namely the destruction of traditional form and the fascination for the formless,  for the elementary modes of matter, are susceptible to religious interpretation.  The hierophanization of matter, that is to say the discovery of the sacred manifested through the substances itself, characterizes that which has been called "cosmic religiosity," that type of religious experience which dominated the world before the advent of Judaism and which is still alive in "primitive" and Asiatic societies.  

For the past three generations we have been witnessing a series of "destructions" of the world (that is to say, of the traditional artistic universe) undertaken courageously and at times savagely for the purpose of recreating or recovering another, new, and "pure" universe, uncorrupted by time and history. . .  In these vast demolitions one can always read like a watermark the hope of creating a new universe, more viable because it is more true, that is, more adequate to the actual situation of man.

However, one of the characteristics of "cosmic religion" both among the primitives and among the people of the Ancient Near East is precisely this need for periodically annihilating the world, through the medium of ritual, in order to be able to recreate it.

Simply because it has been going on, the  world has wilted, it has lost its freshness, its purity and its original creative power.  Once cannot "repair" the world; one must annihilate it in order to recreate it.   

From a structural point of view, the attitude of the artist in regard to the cosmos and to life recalls to a certain extent the ideology implicit in "cosmic religion."  

Sacred Architecture and Symbolism
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.

We fine at the origin of all types of sanctuary space the idea of sacred space encircled by an enormous, chaotic, little-known zone of profane space; profane precisely because it is not organized; little known as it knows neither its limits or its structure.  Sacred space is perfectly structured, is is as we say "centered," "concentrated."

How does any space transform itself into sacred space?  Simply because a sacrality is manifested there.  The manifestation of the Sacred in any space whatsoever implies for one who believes in the authenticity of this hierophany the presence of transcendent reality.  The Sacred does not belong to the profane world, it comes from somewhere else, it transcends this world.  A manifestation of the Sacred is always a revelation of being.

Sacred Space Every consecrated space represents an opening towards the beyond, towards the transcendent.  This "opening" is sometimes signifed in a concrete manner, for example, in the form of a hole in the actual body of the sanctuary or dwelling.

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.  And then soon enough the image of the three cosmic zones is imposed, gnerally: Heaven, Earth, Underworld; the communication between these three zones implies a break in the levels.  In other words,, the sacred space of the temple makes possible the passage from one level to another; first and foremost, the passage from Earth to Heaven.  The communication between the cosmic planes also comprises a rupture of the ontological order: the passage from one mode of being to another, the passage from a profane state to a sacred state, or from Life to Death. 

The point of intersection between the three cosmic aones, the temple or the sacred city constituted by consequence a "Center of the World" because it is through there that the axis of the Universe, the Axis Mundi passes. 

In several traditions, the Cosmos is shaped like a mountain whose peak touches Heaven: above, where the Heavens and the Earth are reunited, is the "Center of the World."

Cosmological traditions express creation emanating from a "Center" in terms of embryology.  Just as the embryo grows from the navel, likewise "God began to create the world through the navel and from there it spread out in all directions."

The creation of man, a replica of the cosmology, had taken place likewise in the Center of the World.  The paradise where Adam was created from mud was at the center of the Cosmos, of course.  Paradise was the "navel of the Earth."  The sacrality of the "Center" is not a matter of isolated ideas, but a set of ideas which make a "system."  

The Center is precisely the place where a rupture of the levels occurs, where the space become sacred, thus real par excellence.  A creation implies implies a superabundance of reality, in other words, an eruption of the Sacred into the world.  I follows that all construction or fabrication has the cosmogony as an exemplary model.  The creation of the world became the archetype of each creative human activity, whatever its plane of reference.  

The idea of taking a territory into possession, of the installation of a village or of the construction of a cultic house represents the symbolic repetition of the cosmogony.  The circle or the square built by emanating from a Center is an imago mundi [an image of the Center of the World].   

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.  Whatever is the modality by which "inhabited chaos" becomes a "Cosmos," the sought-after end is the same: to consecrate the space, to homologize it to the space inhabited by the gods, or to make it susceptible to communicate with this transcendent space.  But each of these operations implies for the human being a very serious vital decision: one cannot settle in the world without assuming the responsibility to create it.  To live in one's own world, it is necessary to create it whatever the price that one must pay to bring about this creation and to make it endure. 

Archaic man endeavored to live continuously in a consecrated space, in a Universe kept "open" by the communications between the cosmic levels.  From a certain stage of culture, the human dwelling imitates the divine dwelling.  The human body, like the Cosmos, is in the final instance an existential situation, a conditional system that one assumes.  In Indian cultures, the spinal cord is assimilated to the cosmic pillar or to Mount Meru, breaths are identified as the winds, the navel or the heart as the "Center of the World."  Man reproduces on a human scale the system which characterizes and constitutes a "world," which in sum defines the entire Universe.

Each of these images--Cosmos, house, human body--present or are capable of receiving an "opening" making possible the passage into another world.  Or more exactly, the passage from conditioned existence to an unconditioned mode of being, that is to say perfect freedom. The image of "flight" signifies access to a mode of a superhuman being, the freedom to move by will to an unthinkable mode of being that is of absolute freedom.  Inhabited territory-- temple, house, human body -- all keep an "opening" (the "eye" of the temple, the hole or chimney in the roof, the cranial space in the skull).  

The surpassing of the human condition translates, in an imaged fashion, by the annihilation of the "house," that is to say the personal Cosmos in which we have chosen to live.  The image of "bursting the roof" signifies that we have abolished every "situation," that we have chosen not settling in the world but absolute freedom.


Sacred Art,  Sacred Knowledge is a work in progress consisting of a collection of quotes by Islamic Scholars on the traditions of the sacred art in Islamic, extended definitions of important words and concepts associated with my projects, some of my own personal writings, a list of recommended books to read, and more.  

Also visit:
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.