Titus Burckhardt: Sacred Art in East & West

Titus Burckhardt:  Sacred Art in East and West (1958/1967/2001)

         Waterfall, Alhambra Palace 
         Symmetrical photograph from Crystalline Paradise

Titus Burckhardt is a great Islamic art scholar and writer.  I have read several of his other books and quoted from those sources in the projects listed above.  I decided to obtain a copy of Burckhard's Sacred Art in East and West (its out of print) because its title relates directly to my theme.  I will share excerpts from several of its chapters below.

Ritual Sanctified Space
In Chapter 1, The Genesis of the Hindu Temple, Burckhardt writes about the making of art as a process of sanctifying space by ritual act.  I have always thought of creating art as a way to take refuge inside myself, away from the problems and challenges of the outer world; it has been quite enlightening to think of the creative process of picture making in terms of the traditional wisdom that Burckhardt presents in his book.  If the making of contemporary art functions for the maker - or the viewer who sees it - as a way to enter into a meaningful connection with what Burckhardt calls Divine Presence, I suppose the contemporary art could be thought of in traditional terms.    

In my written introduction to the project Four-fold Symmetrical Hydrofracking Photographs I discussed my intuition, or fantasy - or perhaps it was a form of wishful or magical thinking - that by visually transforming the ugly and dangerous images of hydrofracking into symmetrical abstract photographs, perhaps the work could somehow - miraculously? - protect our environment from the aggressive, polluting process used to access natural gas from NY State's shale rock deep underground.  If I consider the  construction of symmetrical photographs as a ritual act of transforming, or purifying (sanctifying) the picture space - or the original subject matter photographed - perhaps my initial intuitions are in line with some basic if subtle truth.

In Burckhardt's discussion of the construction of a primitive Hindu Temple, he says the alter exists even before the temple because the sanctuary is made sacred through sacred rites.  To show that this idea has a primordial legacy he quotes Black Elk, a priest and sage of the Native American Sioux Indians, in which he describes the consecration of a traditional fire altar:

"Taking the axe, the officiant pointed it towards the six directions, and then struck the ground to the West.  Repeating the same movement he struck the ground to the North, then in the same way to the East and to the South; then he raised the axe skywards and struck the ground twice in the center for the earth, and then twice for the Great Spirit.  Having done this, he scratched the soil with a stick which he had purified in the smoke and offered to the six directions: he drew a line running from the West to the center, then from the East to the center, then from the North to the center, and finally from the South to the center; then he offered the stick to the heavens and touched the center, and to the earth and touched the center.  In this way the altar was made.   In the manner described, we fixed in this place the center of the world, and this center, which in reality is everywhere, is the dwelling-place of the Great Spirit."  (Black Elk)

Roundness of of space
Burckhardt says that the normal shape of a temple is rectangular, but the alter of the nomadic Indian is round which is appropriate to nomadic life.  He writes:  Nomadic sanctuaries, made like tents or huts of live branches, are generally round; their model is the dome of the sky.  Similarly nomadic encampments are arranged in circular form.

from:  Symmetrical Meadow Photographs

Burckhardt has written extensively about the center point in the sacred art of Islam.  In fact at the very center of the traditional sacred Islamic four-fold garden, which has been a major influence on my symmetrical photographs, there is always an overflowing fountain which is fed by water channals flowing in toward the fountain from the North, South, East and West as written in the holy Qur'an, in descriptions of the Heavenly Paradise.  Though my idea to make four-fold symmetrical photographs began intuitively (I describe this in the introduction to Prayer Stones), my idea was supported and energized when I discovered the  traditional design of the four-fold Islamic garden.  I then later read about the sacred geometry that is the basis for all Islamic art and which starts with a point that becomes the center of a circle from which all other forms are created (read Islamic Patterns: An Analytical and Cosmological Approach by Keith Critchlow).  

from Celestial Gardens

Crystalline Image
Burckhardt continues: The temple is the sanctified crystalline image of the cosmos.  The fundamental diagram of the Hindu Temple is thus a symbol of the Divine Presence in the world; but from a complimentary point of view it is also an image of existence, brutish and personal, but overcome and transfigured by the devas (who sanctified the entire cosmos at the time of creation).

The Hindu spirit never loses sight of the duality of the root of all things, for things proceed at once from the infinite Beauty and from the existential obscurity that veils it, this obscurity being in its turn a mysterious function of the Infinite, for it is nothing other than the universal plastic power, the Shakti that cloths beings with limited forms.  Hindu art does no more than imitate the work of the Shakti.  It is the Shakti who represents Divinity in its aspect as transformer of the cosmos.

Burckhardt is clearly completely aware of the symbolic nature of the apparent world.  Much of his writing is about pointing to the Divine that is veiled behind various forms of the appearances.  Once again, Burckhardt writes of the American Indian tradition, this time the Osages, a tribe of the plains, and their ritual arrangement of their camp in the form of a circle: a picture of the whole cosmos, the perfect man, in whom is found the center - that is, the fire that burns in the middle of the medicine-lodge.  

Burckhardt then goes back to the different types of temple design know as Vastu-Purusha-mandala consisting of differing numbers of squares.  Since my recent work has been based on the traditional four-fold symmetrical garden design of Islam, and I'm fascinated by the transformation that this approach to constructing photographs can "magically" manifest, I was especially interested in this following statement:  

Four-Square Mandala
As for the mandalas with an even number of squared divisions, their central feature is a block of four squares: it constitutes the symbol of Shiva, Divinity in its aspect of transformer.  We have seen that the quaternary rhythm, of which this mandala is as it were the spatial fixation, expresses the principal of time; it may be looked on as the "static" form of the cosmic wheel with four spokes, or divided into its four phases.  It will be observed that this type of mandala has no central square, the "center" of time being the eternal present.

It's possible that when an artist is totally immersed in the creative process (what athletes often call the "zone" or the "rhythm"), intuition takes over and there is some temporary identification or union or alignment with a creative energy that Burckhardt calls the Shakti.  I have definitely experienced this.  When I'm in this state it feels like I'm not the "doer" or "maker".


The Maker of Sacred Art
Burckhardt begins the sixth section of his first chapter by discussing the impact of constructing sacred objects and spaces on the artist:

We have seen that the construction of a temple is the expression of a cosmology.  It carries well an "alchemical" significance, so far as it is the support of an inward realization in the artist himself. 

The temple has a spirit, a soul and a body like man and like the universe. . . The artist confers upon his work something of his own vital force; in exchange he participates in the transformation which that force undergoes by virtue of the sacramental and implicitly universal nature of the work.   


"Gorgon's Mask" from Crystalline Paradise
A four-fold symmetrical photograph 
constructed using an image of fish 
 feeding in a pond at the Seville Alcazar

Maya / Gorgon's Mask
In section VIII of the first chapter Burckhardt discusses the inexhaustible power of Maya, and its ability to manifest in dualistic terms, including figures.  It can be maternal in it's aspects, but also cruel in its magic.

Maya's dual nature is symbolized in the iconography of the Hindu temple by the protean mask of the Kala-mukha which crowns the arches of the doorways and niches.  This mask looks something like a lion and something like a marine monster. . . It is the "glorious" and terrible face of the Divinity considered as the source of life and death.  The divine enigma, cause of the world at once real and unreal, is hidden behind this Gorgon's mask: in manifesting this world the Absolute reveals Itself and hides Itself at the same time; It endows beings with existence, but at the same time deprives them of the vision of Itself.

I have observed that the symmetrical photographs are inhabited by what at times seems like an infinite number of face-like formal constellations of shapes. lines, etc.  This relates to a well known verse from the Qur'an [verse 11:109]:  Wheresoever ye turn, there is the Face of God. 


"I Am The Door"  
from Chapter III:  Iconography of the Romanesque church portal

Burckhardt begins the chapter discussing the niche in relation to the door because the church portal combines the two:  A sanctuary is like a door opening on the beyond, on the kingdom of God.  In all sacred architecture the niche is the place of the epiphany of God.  The niche is the reduced image of the "cave of the world": its arch corresponds to the vault of the sky, as does a dome, while its piers correspond to the earth.  As for the Door, it is not other than the Christ Himself.

Burckhardt then writes about the six works of charity:  Charity is the recognition of the uncreated Word in creatures . . . He who recognizes the presence of God in his neighbour, realizes it in himself; thus it is that spiritual virtue leads towards union with the Christ, Who is the Way and the Divine Door.  None will cross the threshold of that Door but one who has himself become that Door.  

This leads to Burckhardt's brief mention of the traditional artist, the maker of sacred art.  The artist becomes that Door:  

On the portal may be seen the image of a master mason kneeling before the Christ and offering Him a model of the portal; he is therefore offering to the Christ, who is Himself the Door, the symbol of the Christ.  This is an expression not only of the essence of every spiritual way, but also of the nature of all sacred art; for in going back to a sacred prototype, which the artist adapts to a particular set of material conditions, the artist identifies himself with that prototype; in giving it an outward form, while working to the rules that have been transmitted to him [i.e.,tradition], he realizes its essence.


Stalactites, ceiling, the Alahambra Palace,
Symmetrical Photograph from Crystalline Paradise

Islamic Art Divine Light made Crystalline
In chapter IV "The Foundations of Islamic Art" Burckhardt writes: 
Islamic architecture does not seek to do away with the heaviness of stone by giving it an ascending movement, as does gothic art; static equilibrium demands immobility, but the crude material is, as it were, lightened and rendered diaphanous by the chiselling of the arabesques and by carvings in the form of stalactites and hollows, which present thousands of facets to the light and confer on stone and stucco the quality of precious jewels.  The Arcades of a court of the Alhambra [a Palace in Granada, Spain] for example, repose in perfect calm; at the same time they seem to be woven of luminous vibrations.  They are like light made crystalline; their innermost substance, one might say, is not stone but the Divine Light, the Creative Intelligence that resides mysteriously in all things.

Impersonal Beauty
The "objectivity" of Islamic art - the absence of a subjective urge, or one that which could be called "mystical" - has nothing to do with rationalism . . . the logical essence of Islamic art remains always impersonal and qualitative . . . this does not paralyze inspiration, it paves the way towards a non-individual beauty.  The nature of all material is beauty since it comes from God; all one has to do is to release that beauty in order to make it apparent.  According to the most general Islamic conception, art is no more than a method of ennobling matter.  

The beauty of Islamic art must be impersonal, like that of a starry sky.  

The Rug Maker
The art of the nomadic rug maker favors the repetition of strongly marked geometrical forms as well as abrupt alternations of contrast and a diagonal symmetry.  Similar preferences are apparent throughout almost the whole of Islamic art:  . . . an acute sense of the fragility of the world, a conciseness of thought and action, and a genius for rhythm. 

The Kaaba itself does not represent a sacramental center comparable to the Christian altar, nor does it contain any symbol which could be an immediate support to worship, for it is empty.  Its emptiness  reveals an essential feature of the spiritual attitude of Islam: awareness of the Divine Presence is based on a feeling of limitlessness . . . limitless space.

Symmetrical Photograph from Celestial Gardens

The arabesque is not merely a possibility of producing art without making images; it is a direct means for dissolving images or what corresponds to them in the mental order, in the same way as the rhythmical repetition of certain Koranic formulae dissolves the fixation of the mind on an object of desire.  In the arabesque all suggestion of an individual form is eliminated by the indefinity of a continuous weave . .  Thus at the sight of glittering waves or of leafage trembling in the breeze, the soul detaches itself from its internal objects, from the "idols" of passion, and plunges, vibrant within itself, into a pure state of being.

When I conjoin four repeated images, as in the above, an "arabesque" is created.  Lines and forms repeat or echo as they conjoin and a visual rhythm is established that echos and expands out from the center.  For me there's a sense of union even as there's a sense of rhythmic expansion.  It's energizing in a way, but paradoxically also very calming, as if the mind stops and a simple atmosphere of clarity pervades my being.

The walls of certain mosques, covered with glazed earthen-ware mosaic or a tissue of delicate arabesques carved in stucco, recall the symbolism of the curtain (hijab).  According to a saying of the Prophet, God hides Himself behind seventy thousand curtains of light and of darkness; "if they were taken away, all that His sight reaches would be consumed by the lightnings of His Countenance."  The curtains are made of light in that they hide the Divine "obscurity," and of darkness in that they veil the Divine Light.

"The veil"  Symmetrical Photograph 
from Celestial Gardens


Chapter VI: Landscape in Far Eastern Art

Light of the Void
Although Tao-Buddhist painting does not indicate the source of light by the play of light and shade, its landscapes are none the less filled with a light that permeates every form like a celestial ocean with a pearly lustre: it is the beatitude of the Void (shunya) that is bright through the absence of all darkness.

Never does a Chinese or Japanese painter represent the world in the likeness of a finished cosmos. . . A Far Eastern painter is a contemplative, and for him the world is, as if it were, made of snowflakes - quickly crystallized and soon dissolved.  Since he is never unconscious of the non-manifested, the least solidified physical conditions are for him the nearer to the Reality underlying all phenomena; hence the subtle observation of atmosphere that we admire in Chinese painting in ink and wash.

"Spring fog, floating meadow" 
from Symmetrical Meadow Photographs

Unveiling the primordial harmony
Burckhard affirms again, here, the impersonal nature of this form of traditional art by relating it to Impressionism, which he says is a subjective response to things seen which are fleeting.  He writes:  Taoist painting, on the contrary, avoids the hold of mind and feeling, avid as they are of individualistic affirmations; in its eyes the instantaneity of nature, with all its inimitable and almost unseizable qualities, is not in the first place an emotional experience; that is to say the emotion found in nature is not in any way individualistic nor even homocentric; its vibration dissolves in the serene calm of contemplation.  The miracle of the instant, immobilized by a sensation of eternity, unveils the primordial harmony of things, a harmony that is ordinarily hidden under the subjective continuity of the mind.  When this veil is suddenly torn, hitherto unobserved relationships, linking together beings and things, reveal their essential unity. . . By way of a single aspect of virgin nature, the timeless has touched the soul of the painter like a lightning stroke.

The artist detaches himself  -  allowing intuition to take charge
This art exists in the first place for the artist himself; it is a method for actualizing contemplative intuition and it is as such a synthesis of Taoism and Buddhism. . . The artist must practice calligraphic painting until he has mastered it, and then he must forget it.  He must concentrate on his subject, and then detach himself from it; then alone will intuition take charge of his brush.

This state of intuitive spontaneity is not beneath normal individual consciousness but on the contrary it is above it.  The true nature of being is neither conscious nor unconscious; it is situated on the same level as instinct. . . In the eyes of a dhyana Buddhist the non-mental character of virgin nature - of minerals, plants and animals - is as it were their humility before the unique Essence, which surpasses all thought.  That is how a natural landscape with its cyclical transformations unveils for him the alchemy of the soul . . . in contemplation.

The Waterfall
 Landscape in the eyes of a Chines is "mountain and water."  The mountain or the rock represents the active or masculine principle, Yang, and the water corresponds to the feminine and passive principle, Yin.  The complimentary nature of the two is expressed most plainly and richly in a waterfall.  

Waterfall, Alhambra Palace 
Symmetrical photograph from Crystalline Paradise

Like every symbol, that of the waterfall veils Reality while at the same time revealing it.  The inertness of a rock is the inverse of the immutability appertaining to the celestial or divine act, and similarly the dynamism of the water veils the principle passivity of which it is the expression.  Nevertheless, through an attentive contemplation of rock and waterfall, the spirit eventually brings about a sudden integration.  In the endless repeated rhythm of the water, hugging the motionless rock, it recognizes the activity of the immutable and the passivity of the dynamic; from that point it lifts its gaze, and in a sudden illumination [satori] it catches a glimpse of the Essence which is at once pure activity and infinite repose, which is neither motionless like rock nor changeable like water, but inexpressible in Its reality empty of all forms.


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Sacred Art, Sacred Knowledge

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