Chapter Eight: Traditional Art as Fountain of Knowledge and Grace
Law and art are the children of the Intellect.
Beauty absolutely is the cause of all things being in harmony (consonantia) and of illumination (claritas); because, moreover, in the likeness of light it sends forth to everything the beautifying distributives of its over fontal raying; and for that it summons all things to itself.
Dionysius the Areopagite, DE DIVINIS NOMINIBUS
Tradition speaks to man not only through human words but also through other forms of art. Its message is written not only upon pages of books and within the grand phenomena of nature but also upon the face of those works of traditional and especially sacred art which, like the words of sacred scripture and the forms of nature, are ultimately a revelation from that Reality which is the source of both tradition and the cosmos. Traditional art is inseparable from sacred knowledge because it is based upon a science of the cosmic which is of a sacred and inward character and in turn is the vehicle for the transmission of a knowledge which is of a sacred nature. Traditional art is at once based upon and is a channel for both knowledge and grace or that scientia sacra
both knowledge and of a sacred character. Sacred art which lies at the heart of traditional art has a sacramental function and is, like religion itself, at once truth and presence, and this quality is transmitted even to those aspects of traditional art which are not strictly speaking sacred art, that is, are not directly concerned with the liturgical, ritual, cultic, and esoteric elements of the tradition in question but which nevertheless are created according to traditional norms and principles.1
To understand how traditional art is related to knowledge of the sacred and sacred knowledge, it is necessary first of all to clarify what is meant by traditional art. Since we have already identified religion with that which binds man to God and which lies at the heart of tradition, it might be thought that traditional art is simply religious art. This is not at all the case, however, especially since in the West from the Renaissance onward, traditional art has ceased to exist while religious art continues. Religious art is considered religious because of the subject or function with which it is concerned and not because of its style, manner of execution, symbolism, and nonindividual origin. Traditional art, however, is traditional not because of its subject matter but because of its conformity to cosmic laws of forms, to the laws of symbolism, to the formal genius of the particular spiritual universe in which it has been created, its hieratic style, its conformity to the nature of the material used, and, finally, its conformity to the truth within the particular domain of reality with which it is concerned.2
A naturalistic painting of Christ is religious art but not at all traditional art whereas a medieval sword, book cover, or even stable is traditional art but not directly religious art although, because of the nature of tradition, indirectly even pots and pans produced in a traditional civilization are related to the religion which lies at the heart of that tradition.3
Traditional art is concerned with the truths contained in the tradition of which it is the artistic and formal expression. Its origin therefore is not purely human. Moreover, this art must conform to the symbolism inherent in the object with which it is concerned as well as the symbolism directly related to the revelation whose inner dimension this art manifests. Such an art is aware of the essential nature of things rather than their accidental aspects. It is in conformity with the harmony which pervades the cosmos and the hierarchy of existence which lies above the material plane with which art deals, and yet penetrates into this plane. Such an art is based on the real and not the illusory so that it remains conformable to the nature of the object with which it is concerned rather than imposing a subjective and illusory veil upon it.
Traditional art, moreover, is functional in the most profound sense of this term, namely, that it is made for a particular use whether it be the worshiping of God in a liturgical act or the eating of a meal. It is, therefore, utilitarian but not with the limited meaning of utility identified with purely earthly man in mind. Its utility concerns pontifical man for whom beauty is as essential a dimension of life and a need as the house that shelters man during the winter cold. There is no place here for such an idea as “art for art's sake,” and traditional civilizations have never had museums nor ever produced a work of art just for itself.4
Traditional art might be said to be based on the idea of art for man's sake, which, in the traditional context where man is God's vicegerent on earth, the axial being on this plane of reality, means ultimately art for God's sake, for to make something for man as a theomorphic being is to make it for God. In traditional art there is a blending of beauty and utility which makes of every object of traditional art, provided it belongs to a thriving traditional civilization not in the stage of decay, something at once useful and beautiful.
It is through its art that tradition forges and forms an ambience in which its truths are reflected everywhere, in which men breathe and live in a universe of meaning in conformity with the reality of the tradition in question. That is why, in nearly every case of which we have a historical record, the tradition has created and formalized its sacred art before elaborating its theologies and philosophies. Saint Augustine appears long after the sarcophagus art of the catacombs which marks the beginning of Christian art, as Buddhist architecture and sculpture came long before Nāgarjuna. Even in Islam, which developed its theological and philosophical schools rapidly, even the early Mu‘tazilites, not to speak of the Ash‘arites or al-Kindī and the earliest Islamic philosophers, follow upon the wake of the construction of the first Islamic mosques which were already distinctly Islamic in character. In order to breathe and function in a world, religion must remold that world not only mentally but also formally; and since most human beings are much more receptive to material forms than to ideas and material forms leave the deepest effect upon the human soul even beyond the mental plane, it is the traditional art which is first created by the tradition in question. This is especially true of sacred art which exists already at the beginning of the tradition for it is related to those liturgical and cultic practices which emanate directly from the revelation. Therefore, the first icon is painted by Saint Luke through the inspiration of the angel, the traditional chanting of the Vedas is “revealed” with the Vedas, the Quranic psalmody originates with the Prophet himself, etc. The role of traditional art in the forging of a particular mentality and the creation of an atmosphere in which contemplation of the most profound metaphysical truths is made possible are fundamental to the understanding of both the character of traditional art and the sapiential dimension of tradition itself.
From this point of view art is seen as a veil that hides but also reveals God. There are always within every tradition those who have belittled the significance of forms of art in that they have gone beyond them, but this has always been in a world in which these forms have existed, not where they have been cast aside and destroyed. Those who have eschewed forms of art have been certain types of contemplatives who have realized the supraformal realities, those who, to use the language of Sufism, having broken the nutshell and eaten the nut inside, cast the shell aside. But obviously one cannot throw away a shell that one does not even possess. To go beyond forms is one thing and to fall below them another. To pierce beyond the phenomenal surface to the noumenal reality, hence to see God through forms and not forms as veils of the Divine is one thing and to reject forms of traditional art in the name of an imagined abstract reality above formalism is quite another. Sacred knowledge in contrast to desacralized mental activity is concerned with the supraformal Essence but is perfectly aware of the vital significance of forms in the attainment of the knowledge of that Essence. This knowledge even when speaking of the Supreme Reality above all forms does so in a chant which is in conformity with the laws of cosmic harmony and in a language which, whether prose or poetry, is itself an art form.5
That is why the possessor of such a knowledge in its realized aspect is the first person to confirm the significance of forms of traditional art and the relation of this art to the truth and the sacred; for art reflects the truth to the extent that it is sacred, and it emanates the presence of the sacred to the extent that it is true.
It is of course pontifical or traditional man who is the maker of traditional art; therefore, his theomorphic nature is directly related to this art and its significance. Being a theomorphic creature, man is himself a work of art. The human soul when purified and dressed in the garment of spiritual virtues6
is itself the highest kind of beauty in this world, reflecting directly the Divine Beauty. Even the human body in both its male and female forms is a perfect work of art, reflecting something of the essentiality of the human state. Moreover, there is no more striking reflection of Divine Beauty on earth than a human face in which physical and spiritual beauty are combined. Now man is a work of art because God is the Supreme Artist. That is why He is called al-muṣawwir
in Islam, that is, He who creates forms,7
why Śiva brought the arts down from Heaven, why in the medieval craft initiations, as in Freemasonry, God is called the Grand Architect of the Universe. But God is not only the Grand Architect or Geometer; He is also the Poet, the Painter, the Musician, This is the reason for man's ability to build, write poetry, paint, or compose music, although not all forms of art have been necessarily cultivated in all traditions—the types of art developed depending upon the spiritual and also ethnic genius of a traditional world and humanity.
Being “created in the image of God” and therefore a supreme work of art, man is also an artist who, in imitating the creative powers of his Maker, realizes his own theomorphic nature. The spiritual man, aware of his vocation, is not only the musician who plucks the lyre to create music. He is himself the lyre upon which the Divine Artist plays, creating the music which reverberates throughout the cosmos, for as Rūmī says, “We are like the lyre which thou plucketh.”8
If Promethean man creates art not in imitation but in competition with God, hence the naturalism in Promethean art which tries to imitate the outward form of nature, pontifical man creates art in full consciousness of his imitating God's creativity through not competition with but submission to the Divine Model which tradition provides for him. He therefore imitates nature not in its external forms but in its manner of operation as asserted so categorically by Saint Thomas. If in knowing God man fulfills his essential nature as homo sapiens
, in creating art he also fulfills another aspect of that nature as homo faber
. In creating art in conformity with cosmic laws and in imitation of realities of the archetypal world, man realizes himself, his theomorphic nature as a work of art made by the hands of God
; and likewise in creating an art based on his revolt against Heaven, he separates himself even further from his own Divine Origin. The role of art in the fall of Promethean man in the modern world has been central in that this art has been both an index of the new stages of the inner fall of man from his sacred norm and a major element in the actualization of this fall, for man comes to identify himself with what he makes.
It is not at all accidental that the break up of the unity of the Christian tradition in the West coincided with the rise of the Reformation. Nor is it accidental that the philosophical and scientific revolts against the medieval Christian world view were contemporary with the nearly complete destruction of traditional Christian art and its replacement by a Promethean and humanistic art which soon decayed into that unintelligible nightmare of baroque and rococo religious art that drove many an intelligent believer out of the church. The same phenomenon can be observed in ancient Greece and the modern Orient. When the sapiential dimension of the Greek tradition began to decay, Greek art became humanistic and this-worldly, the art which is already criticized by Plato who held the sacerdotal, traditional art of ancient Egypt in such high esteem. Likewise, in the modern East, intellectual decline has everywhere been accompanied by artistic decline. Conversely, wherever one does observe major artistic creations of a traditional character, there must be a living intellectual and sapiential tradition present even if nothing is known of it externally. Even if at least until very recently the West knew nothing of the intellectual life of Safavid Persia,9
one could be sure that the creation of even one dome like that of the Shaykh Luṭfallāh mosque or the Shāh mosque, which are among the greatest masterpieces of traditional art and architecture, would be itself proof that such an intellectual life existed at that time. A living orthodox tradition with its sapiential dimension intact is essential and necessary for the production of major works of traditional art, especially sacred art, because of that inner nexus which exists between traditional art and sacred knowledge.
Traditional art is brought into being through such a knowledge and is able to convey and transmit this knowledge. It is the vehicle of an intellectual intuition and a sapiential message which transcends both the individual artist and the collective psyche of the world to which he belongs. On the contrary, humanistic art is able to convey only individualistic inspirations or at best something of the collective psyche to which the individual artist belongs but never an intellectual message, the sapience which is our concern. It can never become the fountain of either knowledge or grace because of its divorce from those cosmic laws and the spiritual presence which characterize traditional art.
Knowledge is transmitted by traditional art through its symbolism, its correspondence with cosmic laws, its techniques, and even the means whereby it is taught through the traditional craft guilds which in various traditional civilizations have combined technical training in the crafts with spiritual instruction. The presence of the medieval European guilds,10
the Islamic guilds (aṣnāf
), some of which survive to this day,11
the training of potters by Zen masters,12
or of metallurgists in initiatic circles in certain primitive societies,13
all indicate the close nexus that has existed between the teaching of the techniques of the traditional arts or crafts, which are the same as the arts in a traditional world, and the transmission of knowledge of a cosmological and sometimes metaphysical order.
But in addition to these processes for the transmission of knowledge related to the actual act of creating a work or of explaining the symbolism involved, there is an innate rapport between artistic creation in the traditional sense and sapience. This rapport is based on the nature of man himself as the reflection of the Divine Norm, and also on the inversion which exists between the principial and the manifested order. Man and the world in which he lives both reflect the archetypal world directly and inversely according to the well-known principle of inverse analogy. In the principial order God creates by externalizing. His “artistic” activity is the fashioning of His own “image” or “form.” On the human plane this relation is reversed in that man's “artistic” activity in the traditional sense involves not the fashioning of an image in the cosmogonic sense but a return to his own essence in conformity with the nature of the state of being in which he lives. Therefore, the “art” of God implies an externalization and the art of man an internalization. God fashions what God makes and man is fashioned by what man makes;14
and since this process implies a return to man's own essence, it is inalienably related to spiritual realization and the attainment of knowledge. In a sense, Promethean art is based on the neglect of this principle of inverse analogy. It seeks to create the image of Promethean man outwardly, as if man were God. Hence, the very “creative process” becomes not a means of interiorization and recollection but a further separation from the Source leading step by step to the mutilation of the image of man as imago Dei
, to the world of subrealism—rather than surrealism—and to purely individualistic subjectivism. This subjectivism is as far removed from the theomorphic image of man as possible; the art it creates cannot in any way act as a vehicle for the transmission of knowledge or grace, although certain cosmic qualities occasionally manifest themselves even in the nontraditional forms of art, since these qualities are like the rays of the sun which finally shine through some crack or opening no matter how much one tries to shut one's living space from the illumination of the light of that Sun which is both light and heat, knowledge, love and grace.15
To understand the meaning of traditional art in its relation to knowledge, it is essential to grasp fully the significance of the meaning of form as used in the traditional context (as forma, morphē
, etc.). In modern thought dominated by a quantitative science, the significance of form as that which contains the reality of an object has been nearly lost. It is therefore necessary to recall the traditional meaning of form and remember the attempts made by not only traditional authors but also certain contemporary philosophers and scholars to bring out the ontological significance of form.16
According to the profound doctrine of Aristotelian hylomorphism, which serves so well for the exposition of the metaphysics of art because it originated most likely as an intellectual intuition related to traditional art, an object is composed of form and matter in such a way that the form corresponds to that which is actual and matter to what is potential in the object in question. Form is that by which an object is what it is. Form is not accidental to the object but determines its very reality. It is in fact the essence of the object which the more metaphysical Neoplatonic commentators of Aristotle interpreted as the image or reflection of the essence rather than the essence itself, the essence belonging to the archetypal world. In any case, form is not accidental but essential to an object whether it be natural or man-made. It has an ontological reality and participates in the total economy of the cosmos according to strict laws. There is a science of forms, a science of a qualitative and not quantitative nature, which is nevertheless an exact science, or objective knowledge, exactitude not being the prerogative of the quantitative sciences alone.
From the point of view of hylomorphism, 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. From another point of view, one can say that each object possesses a form and a content which this form “contains” and conveys. 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. Moreover, thanks to those sacred forms which man is able to transcend from within, man is able to penetrate into the inner dimension of his own being and, by virtue of that process, to gain a vision of the inner dimension of all forms. The three grand revelations of the Real, or theophanies, namely, the cosmos or macrocosm, man or the microcosm, and religion, are all comprised of forms which lead to the formless, but only the third enables man to penetrate to the world beyond forms, to gain a vision of forms of both the outer world and his own soul, not as veil but as theophany. 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.
Since man lives in the world of forms, this direct manifestation of the Logos which is revelation or religion in its origin cannot but make use of forms within which man is located. It cannot but sanctify certain forms in order to allow man to journey beyond them. To reach the formless man has need of forms, The miracle of the sacred form lies in fact in its power to aid man to transcend form itself. Traditional art is present not only to remind man of the truths of religion which it reflects in man's fundamental activity of making, as religious ethics or religious law does for man's doing, but also to serve as a support for the contemplation of the Beyond which alone gives ultimate significance to both man's making and man's doing. To denigrate forms as understood in traditional metaphysics is to misunderstand, by token of the same error, the significance of the formless Essence.
At the root of this error which mistakes form for limitation and considers “thought” or “idea” in its mental sense as being more important than form is the abuse of the terms abstract and concrete in modern thought.17
Modern man, having lost the vision of the Platonic “ideas,” confuses the concrete reality of what scientia sacra
considers as idea with mental concept and then relegates the concrete to the material level. As a result, the physical and the material are automatically associated with the concrete, while ideas, thoughts, and all that is universal, including even the Divinity, are associated with the abstract. Metaphysically, the rapport is just the reverse. God is the concrete Reality par excellence compared to Whom everything else is an abstraction; and on a lower level the archetypal world is concrete and the world below it abstract. The same relation continues until one reaches the world of physical existence in which form is, relatively speaking, concrete and matter the most abstract entity of all.
The identification of material objects with the concrete and mental concepts with the abstract has had the effect of not only destroying the significance of form vis-à-vis matter on the physical plane itself but also obliterating the significance of the bodily and the corporeal as a source of knowledge. This tendency seems to be the reverse of the process of exteriorization and materialization of knowledge, but it is in reality the other side of the same coin. The same civilization that has produced the most materialistic type of thought has also shown the least amount of interest in the “wisdom of the body,” in physical forms as a source of knowledge, and in the noncerebral aspects of the human microcosm as a whole. As mentioned already, those within the modern world who have sought to regain knowledge of a sacred order have been also those who have protested most vehemently against this overcerebral interpretation of human experience and who have sought to rediscover the “wisdom of the body,” even if this has led in many cases to all kinds of excesses. One does not have to possess extraordinary perspicacity to realize that there is much more intelligence and in fact “food for thought” in the drumbeats of a traditional tribe in Africa than in many a book of modern philosophy. Nor is there any reason why a Chinese landscape painting should not bear a more direct and succinct metaphysical message than not only a philosophical treatise which is antimetaphysical but even one which favors metaphysics, but in which, as a result of a weakness of logic or presentation, the truth of metaphysical ideas is bearly discernible.
The consequence of this inversion of the rapport between the abstract and the concrete has in any case been a major impediment in the appreciation of the significance of forms in both the traditional arts and sciences and the understanding of the possibility of forms of art as vehicles for knowledge of the highest order. This mentality has also prevented many people from appreciating the traditional doctrines of art and the nonhuman and celestial origin of the forms with which traditional art is concerned.
According to the principles of traditional art, the source of the forms which are dealt with by the artist is ultimately divine. As Plato, who along with Plotinus has provided some of the most profound teachings on traditional art in the West, asserts, art is the imitation of paradigms which, whether visible or invisible, reflect ultimately the world of ideas.18
At the heart of tradition lies the doctrine that art is the nemesis of paradeigma
, the invisible model or exemplar. But to produce a work of art which possesses beauty and perfection the artist must gaze at the invisible for as Plato says, “The work of the creator, whenever he looks to the unchangeable and fashions the form and nature of his work after an unchangeable partem, must necessarily be made fair and perfect, but when he looks to the created order only, and uses a created pattern, it is not fair or perfect.”19
Likewise in India, the origin of the form later externalized by the artist in stone or bronze, on wood or paper, has always been considered to be of a supraindividual origin belonging to the level of reality which Platonism identified with the world of ideas. The appropriate art form is considered to be accessible only through contemplation and inner purification. It is only through them that the artist is able to gain that angelic vision which is the source of all traditional art for at the beginning of the tradition the first works of sacred art, including both the plastic and the sonoral, were made by the angels or devas
themselves. In the well-known Śukranītisāra
of Śukrācarya, for example, it is stated, “One should make use of the visual-formulae proper to the angels whose images are to be made. It is for the successful accomplishment of this practice (yoga
) of visual-formulation that the lineaments of images are prescribed. The human-imager should be expert in this visual-contemplation, since thus, and in no other way, and verily not by direct observation, [can the end be achieved].”20
The same type of teachings can be found in all traditions which have produced a sacred art. If the origin of the forms used by this art were not “celestial,” how could an Indian statue convey the very principle of life from within? How could we look at an icon and experience ourselves being looked upon by the gaze of eternity? How could a Chinese or Japanese butterfly capture the very essence of the state of being a butterfly? How could Islamic ornamentation reveal on the physical plane the splendor of the mathematical world considered not as abstraction but as concrete archetypal reality? How could one stand at the portal of the Chartres Cathedral and experience standing in the center of the cosmic order if the makers of that cathedral had not had a vision of that center from whose perspective they built the cathedral? Anyone who grasps the significance of traditional art will understand that the origin of the forms with which this art deals is nothing other than that immutable world of the essences or ideas which are also the source of our thoughts and knowledge. That is why the loss of sacred knowledge or gnosis and the ability to think anagogically—not only analogically—goes hand in hand with the destruction of traditional art and its hieratic formal style.21
The origin of forms in traditional art can perhaps be better understood if the production of works of art is compared to the constitution of natural objects. According to the Peripatetic philosophies of the medieval period, whether Islamic, Judaic, or Christian, and following Aristotle and his Neoplatonic commentators, objects are composed of form and matter which in the sublunar region undergo constant change. Hence this world is called that of generation and corruption. Whenever a new object comes into being the old form “returns” to the Tenth Intellect, which is called the “Giver of forms” (wahib al-ṣuwar
in Arabic), and a new form is cast by this Intellect upon the matter in question.22
Therefore, the origin of forms in the natural world is the Intellect. Now, the form of art must be conceived in the same way as far as traditional art is concerned. The source of these forms is the Intellect which illuminates the mind of the artist or the original artist who is emulated by members of a particular school; the artist in turn imposes the form upon the matter in question, matter here being not the philosophical hylē
the material in question, whether it be stone, wood, or anything else which is being fashioned.; In this way the artist imitates the operation of nature23
rather than her external forms.
Moreover, the form which is wed with matter and the form which is the “idea” in the mind of the artist are from the same origin and of the same nature except on different levels of existence. The Greek eidos expresses this doctrine of correspondence perfectly since it means at once form and idea whose origin is ultimately the Logos.
Traditional art, therefore, is concerned with both knowledge and the sacred. It is concerned with the sacred in as much as it is from the domain of the sacred that issue both the tradition itself and the forms and styles which define the formal homogeneity of a particular traditional world.24
It is also concerned with knowledge in as much as man must know the manner of operation of nature before being able to imitate it. The traditional artist, whether he possesses direct knowledge of those cosmic laws and principles which determine that “manner of operation” or has simply an indirect knowledge which he has received through transmission, needs such a knowledge of a purely intellectual nature which only tradition can provide. Traditional art is essentially a science just as traditional science is an art. The ars sine scientia nihil of Saint Thomas holds true for all traditions and the scientia in question here is none other than the scientia sacra and its cosmological applications.
Anyone who has studied traditional art becomes aware of the presence of an impressive amount of science which makes such an art possible. Some of this science is of a technical character which nevertheless remains both amazing and mysterious. When one asks how Muslim or Byzantine architects created the domes they did create with the endurance that they have had, or how such perfect acoustics were developed in certain Greek amphitheatres or cathedrals, or how the various angles of the pyramids were made to correlate so exactly with astronomical configurations, or how to build a shaking minaret in Isfahan which goes into sympathetic vibration when the minaret next to it is shaken, one is already facing knowledge of an extraordinary complexity which should at least remove those who possessed it from the ranks of naive simpletons. Even on this level, however, despite all the attempts at “demystification” by positivist historians of art or science, there are amazing questions which remain unanswered. The basic one is that these feats, even if they were to be repeated today, could only be done according to physical laws and discoveries which belong to the past two or three centuries and, as far as we know, simply were not known when these structures were constructed. This fact taken in itself implies that there must be other sciences of nature upon which one can build monuments of outstanding durability and remarkable quality. This would also hold for the preparation of dyes whose colors are dazzling to the eye and which cannot be reproduced today, or steel blades, the knowledge of whose metallurgical processes has been lost.
But these are not the only sciences we have in mind. The scientia
without which art would be nothing is not just another kind of physics which we happen to have forgotten. It is a science of cosmic harmony, of correspondences, of the multidimensional reality of forms, of sympathy between earthly forms and celestial influences, of the rapport between colors, orientations, configurations, shapes, and also sounds and smells and the soul of man. It is a science which differs from modern science not only in its approach and method but in its nature. Yet it is a science, essentially a sacred science accessible only in the cadre of tradition which alone enables the intellect in its human reflection to realize its full potentialities.25
The difference between this science and modern science is that this science cannot be attained save through intellectual intuition, which in turn requires a certain nobility of character and the acquiring of virtues which are inseparable from knowledge in the traditional context as attested to by the very manner in which both the traditional arts and sciences are taught by the master to the disciple. There are of course exceptions but that is only because the “Spirit bloweth where it listeth.”
with which art is concerned is therefore related to the esoteric dimension of tradition and not the exoteric. As man is a being who acts and makes things, religion must provide principles and norms for both the world of moral action and the activity of making. Usually exoterism is concerned with that world in which man must act for the good and against evil, but it is not concerned with those principles and norms which govern the correct making of things. These principles cannot but issue from the inner or esoteric dimension of the tradition. That is why the most profound expositions of the meaning of Christian art are found in the writings of such a figure as Meister Eckhart26
or the masters of apophatic and mystical theology in the Orthodox Church.27
That is why also Western Islamicists and historians of art have had such difficulty in finding sources for the Islamic philosophy, or rather metaphysics, of art while they have been searching in treatises of theology and jurisprudence. Besides the oral tradition which still continues in some parts of the Islamic world, as far as certain cosmological principles pertaining to art are concerned, the written sources do also exist, except that they are not usually seen for what they are. The most profound explanation of the significance of Islamic art is to be found in a work such as the Mathnawī
of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī and not in books of either jurisprudence or kalām
which, although very important, concern man's actions and religious beliefs rather than the principles of an interiorizing art which leads man back to the One. There are also treatises of an “occult” nature concerning those arts which can be comprehended only in the light of esoterism.28
Likewise, in Japan it is Zen which has produced the greatest masterpieces of Japanese art, from rock gardens to screen paintings, while those Sung paintings which are among the greatest masterpieces of world art are products of Taoism and not the social aspect of the Chinese tradition associated with Confucian ethics. As Wang Yu, the Chi'ing painter said, “Although painting is only one of the fine arts, it contains the Tao.”29
All art has its Tao, its principle which is related to the principles which dominate the cosmos, while painting being the traditional art par excellence in China manifests the Tao most directly. To paint according to the Tao is not to emulate the outward but the inner principles of things; hence again, the science with the aid of which the Chinese painter captures the very essence of natural forms is by definition related to the esoteric dimension of the tradition. The fruit and application of such an inward science of the cosmos is the Sung painting, the Hindu temple, the mosque or cathedral or all the other masterpieces of traditional art which are immersed in a beauty of celestial origin, while the application of an outward and externalized science of nature which rebelled against the Christian tradition once its esoteric dimension was eclipsed is the subway and the skyscraper. Even when there is some element of beauty in the works produced as a result of the applications of such a science, it is of a fragmented nature and manifests itself only here and there because beauty is an aspect of reality and cannot but manifest itself whenever and wherever there is something which possesses a degree of reality.
There is, however, another basic reason why art which deals with the material plane is related to the esoteric or most inward dimension of tradition. According to the well-known Hermetic saying, “that which is lowest symbolizes that which is highest,” material existence which is the lowest level symbolizes and reflects the Intellect or the archetypal essences which represent the highest level. Through this fundamental cosmological law upon which the science of symbols is based, material form reflects the Intellect in a more direct manner than the subtle level or the pysche which is ontologically higher but which does not reflect the highest level as directly. In various traditions it is taught that the revelation descends not only into the mind and soul but also into the body of the prophet or founder, not to speak of traditions in which the founder as incarnation or avatār is himself the message. In this case the avatār saves not only through his words and thoughts but also through the beauty of his body which, in the case of Buddhism, is the origin of the whole of Buddhist iconography. In Christianity also it is the blood and body of Christ that is consumed in the Eucharist and not his thoughts, which means that the revelation penetrated into his bodily form.
Even in Islam where the message is clearly distinguished from the messenger, traditional sources teach that the revelation did not only enter the mind but also the body of the Prophet to the extent that, when he received the revelation on horseback, his horse could hardly support the weight and would buckle under it. Also the night of the descent of the Quranic revelation, called “The Night of Power” (laylat al-qadr), is associated with the very body of the Prophet while his nocturnal ascent to Heaven (al-mi‘rāj) is also considered to have been bodily (al-mi‘rāj al-jismānī) according to all traditional sources. All of these instances point to the fact, fundamental for the understanding of traditional art, that the material is the direct reflection of the highest level which is the spiritual and not the intermediate psychic state and that art, although concerned with the most outward plane of existence which is the material, is related by token of this very principle of inversion to what is most inward in a tradition. That is why a canvas as icon can become the locus of Divine Presence and support for the contemplation of the formless; why the mantle of the Holy Virgin performs miracles and attracts pilgrims for centuries; why the face of the earthly beloved is the perfect mirror wherein is reflected the face of that Beloved who is above all form; why man can bow before a symbol of a material nature which has become the locus for the manifestation of an angelic or divine influence. It is also why traditional art and its principles are related to the esoteric and inward dimension of tradition and why it is through traditional art that the esoteric manifests itself upon the plane of the collectivity and makes possible an equilibrium which the exoteric alone could not maintain. It is through the channel of traditional art that a knowledge of a sacred character manifests itself, outwardly cloaked in the dress of beauty which attracts the sensibility of even those who are not able to understand its tenets intellectually, while providing an indispensible spiritual climate and contemplative support for those who do understand its veridical message and whose vocation is to follow the sapiential path.
Traditional art is of course concerned with beauty which, far from being a luxury or a subjective state, is inseparable from reality and is related to the inner dimension of the Real as such. As stated earlier, scientia sacra
sees the Ultimate Reality as the Absolute, the Infinite and Perfection or Goodness. Beauty is related to all these hypostases of the Real. It reflects absoluteness in its regularity and order, infinity in its sense of inwardness and mystery, and demands perfection. A masterpiece of traditional art is at once perfect, orderly, and mysterious.30
It reflects the perfection and goodness of the Source, the harmony and order which are also reflected in the cosmos and which are the imprint of the absoluteness of the Principle in manifestation and the mystery and inwardness which open unto the Divine Infinitude Itself. In the sapiential dimension, it is this interiorizing power of beauty that is emphasized and God is seen especially in His inward “dimension” which is beauty. That is why that great masterpiece of Orthodox spirituality is entitled Philokalia
or love of beauty and the famous ḥadīth
asserts “God is beautiful and loves beauty.”31
Intelligence which is the instrument and also primary concern of the sapiential path cannot be separated from beauty. Ugliness is also unintelligibility. The illuminated human intellect cannot but be intertwined with that beauty which removes from things their opacity and enables them to shine forth as transparent images and reflections which reveal rather than veil the archetypal realities that are the concern of the intellect, the Logos or Divine Intellect which is the source of the human intellect, being itself both order and mystery and in a sense, the beauty of God. That is why beauty satisfies the human intelligence and provides it with certitude and protection from doubt. There is no skepticism in beauty. The rays of its splendor evaporate all shadows of doubt and the wavering of the uncertain mind. Beauty bestows upon intelligence that highest gift which is certitude. It also melts the hardness of the human soul and brings about the taste of that union which is the fruit of gnosis. The knowledge of the sacred cannot therefore be separated from beauty. Beauty is of course both moral and intellectual. That is why man must possess moral beauty in order to be able to benefit fully from the sacramental function of intelligence. But once the moral conditions are present and beauty becomes a divine attraction rather than seduction, it is able to communicate something of the Center in the periphery, of the Substance in accidents, of the formless Essence in forms.32
In this sense beauty not only transmits knowledge but is inseparable from knowledge of the sacred and sacred knowledge.
Beauty attracts because it is true, for as Plato said, beauty is the splendor of truth. Since beauty is ultimately related to the Infinite, it accompanies that emanation and irradiation of the Real which constitute the levels of existence down to the earthly. As māyā
is the shakti
, beauty as the Divine māyā
or Divine Femininity may be said to be the consort of the Real and the aura of the Absolute. All manifestations of the Ultimate Reality are accompanied by this aura which is beauty. One cannot speak of reality in the metaphysical sense without this splendor and radiance which surround it like a halo and which constitute beauty itself. That is why creation is overwhelmingly beautiful. Being and its irradiation as existence cannot but be beautiful, for ugliness, like evil,33
is nothing but the manifestation of a relative nothingness. In the same way that goodness is more real than evil, beauty is more real than ugliness. If one meditates on the beauty of the vast heavens on a starry night and the inexhaustible beauty of the earth during a shining day, one realizes how limited is the domain of ugliness in relation to that beauty, how petty are the ugly monstrosities of human invention through the productions of the machine in comparison with the grandeur of the beauty of the cosmic order, not to speak of the transcendent beauty of the Divine Order, a glimpse of which is occasionally afforded to mortal men on those rare occasions when the beauty of a human face, a natural scene, or a work of sacred art leaves an indelible mark upon the human soul for the whole of life and melts the hard shell of the human ego. That is why beauty seen in the sapiential perspective, which always envisages beauty in its rapport with God, is a sacrament that elevates man to the realm of the sacred.
Oh Lord thou knowest that even now and again
We never gazed except at Thy beautiful Face.
The beauties of this world are all mirrors of Thy Beauty
In these mirrors we only saw the Face of the King
AWHAD AL-DĪN KIRMĀNĪ
It is in the nature of beauty to attract spiritual presence to itself or, in the language of Neoplatonists, to receive the participation of the World Soul. From the gnostic point of view, the earthly function of beauty is therefore to guide man back to the source of this earthly beauty, that is, back to the principial domain. Beautiful forms are an occasion for the recollection of the essences in the Platonic sense.35
They are means of remembrance (anamnēsis
) of what man is and the celestial abode from which he has descended and which he carries still within the depth of his being. In this sense, beauty is the means of gaining knowledge; for certain human beings particularly sensitive to beauty, the central means. That is why some of the masters of the sapiential path have gone so far as to assert that a beautiful melody or poem or for that matter any creation of traditional art can crystallize a state of contemplation and bring about a degree of intuitive knowledge in a single moment that would be impossible to even conceive through long periods of study, provided of course the person in question has already purified his soul and clothed it with the beauty of spiritual virtues so as to be qualified for the appreciation of earthly beauty as the reflection of celestial beauty. That is why traditional art is a source of knowledge and grace. It makes possible a return to the world of archetypes and the paradisal abode which is the source of both principial knowledge and the sacred, for beauty is the reflection of the Immutable in the stream of becoming.
Consider creation as pure and crystalline water
In which is reflected the Beauty of the Possessor of Majesty
Although the water of this stream continues to flow
The image of the moon and the stars remain reflected in it
The power of beauty to carry man upon its wing to the world of the essences and toward the embrace of union with the Beloved is particularly strong in those arts which are concerned with sonority and movement, arts which for that reason are also the most dangerous for those not qualified to bear the powerful attraction which they wield upon the human soul. Such arts as music and dance, which are connected with sound and movement, are like wine that can both inebriate in the spiritual sense of removing the veil of separative consciousness and cause the loss of even normal consciousness and bring about a further fall toward negligence and forgetfulness. That is why in Islam wine is forbidden in this world and reserved for paradise, while music and dancing are confined to Sufism or the esoteric dimension of the tradition, where they play an important role in the operative aspect of the path.
In memory of the banquet of union with Him, in yearning for His Beauty
They have fallen inebriated from the wine which Thou knowest
Traditional music has a cosmological foundation and reflects the structure of manifested reality. It commences from silence, the unmanifested Reality and returns to silence. The musical work itself is like the cosmos which issues from the One and returns to the One, except that in music the tissues out of which the world is woven are sounds that echo the primordial silence and reflect the harmony that characterizes all that the absolute and infinite Reality manifests.38
Music is not only the first art brought by Śiva into the world, the art through which the asrār-i alast
or the mystery of the primordial covenant between man and God in that preeternal dawn of the day of cosmic manifestation is revealed;39
but it is also the key to the understanding of the harmony that pervades the cosmos. It is the handmaid of wisdom itself.40
Moreover, as described in a well-known Muslim popular tale, the soul of Adam was wooed into the temple of the body through the melody of a simple two-stringed instrument,41
and it is through music that the soul is able to flee again from the prison of its earthly confinement. The gnostic hears in music the melodies of the paradise whose ecstasies the music brings about once again. That is why music is like the mystical wine. It cures body and soul, but above all it enables the contemplative to recollect the supernal realities which lie within the root of the very substance of the human soul. Traditional music is a powerful spiritual instrument and, for that very reason, also one which poses a danger for those not prepared to receive its liberating grace.42
That is why music which has turned against cosmic laws and its celestial origins cannot but be an instrument for the demonic and cannot but be the bearer of the dissolving influence of that cacophany which the modern world knows only too well.
As for dance, it, like music, is a direct vehicle for the realization of union. The sacred dance unifies man with the Divine at the meeting point of time and space at that eternal now and immutable center which is the locus of Divine Presence. From the sacred art of dance is born not only those great masterpieces of Hindu art in which Śiva performs the cosmic dance upon the body of his consort Parvati43
but also the temple dances of Bali, the cosmic dances of the American Indians and the native Africans, and, on the highest levels, those esoteric dances connected with initiatic practices leading to union. Among these, one can mention the Sufi dance where the art of sacred dance and music are combined in bringing about recollection and placing man in a point above all time and space in the Divine Presence.
In this form, traditional art complements the quintessence of spiritual practice, which is the prayer of the heart, in actualizing the Divine Light in the body of man seen as the temple of God and in placing man beyond all forms in that now which is none other than eternity.
Since beauty is the splendor of truth, the expression of truth is always accompanied by beauty. The grand expressions of metaphysics are clothed in the garment of beauty whether they be in the language of plastic forms or sounds-such as a Chinese landscape painting or a raga-or in human words such as the Gīta
or Sufi poetry. What in fact distinguishes metaphysics and gnosis from profane philosophy is not only the question of truth but also beauty. Gnosis is the only common ground between poetry and logic, whether formal or mathematical. Wherever one discovers a doctrine which possesses at once mathematical and logical rigor and poetic beauty, it must possess a gnostic aspect. If Khayyām was at once a great poet and an outstanding mathematician, it was because he was first and foremost a gnostic.44
It is only in gnosis or scientia sacra
that the rigor of logic and the perfume of poetry meet, for this science is concerned with the truth. The great masterpieces of Oriental metaphysics such as the works of Śankara or Ibn ‘Arabī are also literary masterpieces, a work such as the Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam
of Ibn ‘Arabī possessing a remarkable perfection of form to complement the content.45
In the case of Sufism the wedding between truth and beauty is fully manifested in the numerous works which are at once outstanding expressions of sacred knowledge and masterpieces of art. The Gulshan-i rāz (The Rose Garden of Divine Mysteries) of Maḥmūd Shabistarī, written in a few days under direct inspiration of Heaven, is at once a summary of metaphysics and a poem of unparalleled beauty. The poetry of Ibn al-Fāriḍ in Arabic and the Divan of Ḥāfiẓ in Persian represent the most harmonious wedding between expression of esoteric doctrines and perfection of form with the result that this poetry is itself like the wine which inebriates and transmutes the soul. The Mathnawī and Dīwān-i Shams of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī are oceans of gnosis whose every wave reflects beauty of celestial origin. Its rhymes and rhythms, its rhapsodic trance uplift the soul and elevate it to that peak where alone it is able to grasp the sublime intellectual message of the great poet-saint. In the traditional world, and especially in the Orient, it has always been taken for granted that the truth descends upon the human plane with the aura of beauty which radiates from its presence and expression, like revelation itself which cannot but be beautiful whether that revelation be in the form of the Arabic Quran, Hebrew Torah, and Sanskrit Vedas, or the Buddha and Christ who are themselves considered as the message in their own traditions.
To be sensitive to the beauty of forms, whether natural or belonging to the domain of art, to see in the eye of the child, the wing of the eagle, the crystalline peaks of the mountains which touch the void, as well as in a page of Mamluk Quranic calligraphy, a Japanese Buddha image, or the rosette of the Chartres Cathedral, the signs of the Divine Hand, is to be blessed with a contemplative spirit. To remain aware of the liberating beauty of forms of traditional art as channels of grace of a particular tradition and to be open to the message of these forms is to be blessed with the possibility of reception of sacred knowledge. Traditional art is a source of this sacred knowledge and accompanies all its authentic expressions. The person who has realized sacred knowledge and who, through the path of knowledge, has reached the sacred is himself the best witness to the inextricable bond between knowledge and beauty, for such a person embodies in himself, by virtue of realized sapience, beauty and grace. Realization of sacred knowledge enables man to become himself a work of art, the supreme work of art of the Supreme Artist. To become such a work of art is to become a fountain of knowledge and grace, the prototype of all traditional art in which the artist emulates the Supreme Artisan and hence produces a work which is at once support for the realization of sacred knowledge, means for its transmission, and an externalization of the perfection which man himself can be if only he were to become what he truly is.
To behold a masterpiece of traditional art is to gain a vision of that reality which constitutes the inner nature of man as a work of the Divine Artisan, of that inner nature which man can reach through knowledge of the sacred and the realization of sacred knowledge. A great work of traditional art is a testament to the beauty of God and an exemplar of what man can be when he becomes himself, as God made him, a perfect work of art, a fountain of knowledge, and a channel of grace for the world in which he lives as the central and axial being that he is by his nature and his destiny. For man to become himself a work of art, as traditionally understood, is for him to become the pontifical man that he is and cannot ultimately cease to be.