Traditions emerge from the Infinite like flowers; they can no more be fabricated than the sacred art which is their witness and their proof.
No art in itself is a human creation; but sacred art has this particularity, that its essential content is a revelation, that it manifests a properly sacramental form of heavenly reality, such as the icon of the Virgin and Child, painted by an angel, or by Saint Luke inspired by an angel, and such as the icon of the Holy Face which goes back to the Holy Shroud and to Saint Veronica; or such as the statue of Shiva dancing or the painted or carved images of the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Taras. To the same category—in the widest acceptation of the term—belong ritual psalmody in a sacred language—among others Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Arabic—and, in certain cases, the calligraphic copying—likewise ritual—of the sacred Books; architecture, or at least the decoration of sanctuaries, liturgical objects, and sacerdotal vestments are in general of a less direct order. It would be difficult to do justice in a few lines to all possible types of sacred expression, which comprises such diverse modes as recitation, writing, architecture, painting, sculpture, dance, the art of gestures, clothing.
Sacred art is first of all the visible and audible form of Revelation and then also its indispensable liturgical vesture. The form must be an adequate expression of its content; in no case should it contradict it, it cannot be abandoned to the arbitrary decisions of individuals, to their ignorance and their passions. But we must distinguish different degrees in sacred art, thus different levels of absoluteness or of relativity, and in addition we must take account of the relative character of form as such. The spiritual integrity of the form is a “categorical imperative” but this cannot prevent the formal order from being subject to certain vicissitudes; the fact that the masterpieces of sacred art are sublime expressions of the Spirit must not make us forget that, seen from the standpoint of this same Spirit, these works already appear, in their more ponderous exteriorizations, as concessions to the world. Indeed, when the Spirit has need of such a degree of exteriorization, it is already well on the way to being lost; exteriorization as such bears within itself the poison of outwardness, and so of exhaustion, fragility, and decrepitude; the masterpiece is as it were laden with regrets and is already a swan song; one sometimes has the impression that art—through the very surplus of its perfections—is there to make up for the absence of wisdom or of sanctity. The Desert Fathers had no need of colonnades and stained glass windows; but, on the other hand, those who today despise sacred art in the name of “pure spirit” are the very people who least understand it and have most need of it. Be this as it may, nothing noble can ever be lost: all the treasures of art and those of nature too are found again, in perfection and infinitely, in the divine Beatitude; a man who is fully conscious of this truth cannot fail to be detached from sensory crystallizations as such.
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.
It is to be remembered that according to the Eastern Church the icon is not properly speaking a human work, but rather a manifestation of the heavenly Model itself. The icon has been compared to a window from earth to Heaven and from Heaven to earth; the gold background of the paintings reflects the celestial aura, the luminous substance that envelops deified beings and thus in certain respects rejoins the symbolism of the “light of Tabor.”
The first aim of sacred art is didactic, whether it be a pictorial catechism for the use of the unlettered or, on the contrary, a metaphysical or mystical doctrine suggested by symbols, which does not mean that the two things are separate. Sacerdotal art sets out to express a symbolism that is either simple or complex, and in so doing it transmits at the same time, and inevitably since its language is one of form, an influence of beauty, hence of joyous “expansion”; if it sought visible harmony for its own sake, it would fall into arbitrariness and into that individualistic and sterile impasse which is naturalism. The error of naturalism is not that it is blind to aesthetic qualities, certainly, but, in the first place, that it lacks sufficient reason insofar as it takes itself for an end in itself, or what amounts to the same thing, insofar as it attributes glory to the artist or to the sensible model alone; and secondly, that it violates the rules resulting from tradition on the one hand, and from the nature of things on the other.
On the plane of spiritual values no two things are more divergent than wisdom, which is inward, and art, which is outward; between them is all the distance separating essence and form. Yet “extremes meet,” and nothing is closer to wisdom and sanctity than sacred art, or the liturgy, in the widest sense of these terms, which explains the value, in no way disproportionate, that traditional civilizations attach to these disciplines. The image of the Divine, including sacred calligraphy as well as anthropomorphic representations,1 is like the visible face of the Truth: in a language both direct and graduated, it renders transparent that which spirituality hides in the depths of hearts.
Side by side with their intrinsic qualities, the forms of art answer a strictly useful purpose. In order that spiritual influences may be able to manifest themselves without encumbrance, they have need of a formal setting which corresponds to them analogically and without which they cannot radiate, even if they remain always present. It is true that in the soul of a holy man they can shine in spite of everything, but not everyone is a saint, and a sanctuary is constructed to facilitate resonances of the spirit, not to oppose them.2
Sacred art is made as a vehicle for spiritual presences, it is made at one and the same time for God, for angels, and for man; profane art on the other hand exists only for man and by that very fact betrays him.
Sacred art helps man to find his own center, that kernel whose nature is to love God.
Sacred art, of which a particular saint personally has no need, nonetheless exteriorizes his sanctity, or precisely that something which can make artistic exteriorization superfluous for that saint himself. Through art, this sanctity or wisdom has become miraculously tangible with all its human materia which virgin nature could not provide; in a sense, the dilating and refreshing virtue of nature is that of being not human but angelic. To say that one prefers the works of God to the works of man would be to simplify the problem unduly, given that in any art meriting the epithet “sacred” it is God who is the author; man is merely the instrument and what is human is merely the material.
If sacred art appeals to contemplative intelligence, it likewise appeals to normal human sensibility. This means that such art alone possesses a universal language, and that none is better fitted to appeal, not only to an elite, but also to the people at large. Let us remember, too, as far as the apparently childlike aspect of the traditional mentality is concerned, Christ’s injunction to be “as little children” and “simple as doves,” words that, no matter what may be their spiritual meaning, also quite plainly refer to psychological realities.
The Fathers of the eighth century, very different from those religious authorities of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries who betrayed Christian art by abandoning it to the impure passions of worldly men and the ignorant imagination of the profane, were fully conscious of the holiness of all the means of expression belonging to their religion. They stipulated, at the second council of Nicaea, that “art (the integral perfection of work) alone belongs to the painter, while ordinance (the choice of the subject) and disposition (the treatment of the subject from the symbolical as well as the technical or material points of view) belongs to the Fathers.”
It is important to understand, first of all, that the purpose of art is not a priori to induce aesthetic emotions, but to transmit, together with these, a more or less direct spiritual message, and thus suggestions emanating from, and leading back to, the liberating truth. Certainly art belongs by very definition to the formal order, and who says perfection of form, says beauty; to claim that art has nothing to do with beauty, on the pretext that its immediate end is spiritual, is as false as to affirm the contrary: that beauty is the exclusive end of the work of art. Beauty essentially implies a container and a content: as to the container, it is represented by conformity to the laws of harmony, or regularity of structure, whereas the content is a manifestation of “Being” or of “Knowledge” or again of “Beatitude” or more precisely a varied combination of the three elements; it is, moreover, these contents that determine a priori the container. To speak of beauty “pure and simple” with pejorative intent is a contradiction in terms since beauty cannot but manifest truth or an aspect or mode of it; if sensible harmony “delivers” after its own manner and under certain conditions, it is because it is truth.
Profane art, if it is not sacred art, is nonetheless not to be identified with anti-traditional art: it may perfectly well, on the one hand, respect at least the negative rules of universal art, and, on the other hand, assume a function analogous to sacerdotal art, even while being no doubt much less central than the latter; between sacerdotal and profane art there are, moreover, intermediate modes. It should be added that in the case of the artist an initial subjective preoccupation with a particular aesthetic value—if the need arises—is in no wise opposed to the profound function of art nor consequently to the spiritual perfection of the work, for, all things being interrelated, it goes without saying that aesthetic emotion may convey, as it did for Ramakrishna, a spiritual intuition or even a truth which the artist may not necessarily be conscious of, but which will be transmitted none the less.3
If traditional art cannot be always and everywhere at a peak of attainment, this is not because of any principial insufficiency, but because of man’s intellectual and moral insufficiencies which cannot fail to become exteriorized in art as in his other activities.
If we start from the idea that perfect art can be recognized by three main criteria: nobility of content—this being a spiritual condition apart from which art has no right to exist—then exactness of symbolism or at least, in the case of profane works of art, harmony of composition, and finally purity of style or elegance of line and color, we can discern with the help of these criteria the qualities and defects of any work of art whether sacred or not. It goes without saying that some modern work may, as if by chance, possess these qualities; nonetheless it would be a mistake to see in this any justification of an art that is deprived of all positive principles; the exceptional qualities of such a work are in any case far from being characteristic of the art in question when viewed as a whole, but appear only incidentally under cover of the eclecticism which goes with anarchy. The existence of such works proves, however, that a legitimate profane art is conceivable in the West without any need to return purely and simply to the miniatures of the Middle Ages or to peasant painting, for a healthy state of soul and a normal treatment of materials always guarantee the rectitude of an art devoid of pretensions. It is the nature of things—on the spiritual and on the psychological as well as on the material and technical level—which demands that each of the constituent elements of art should fulfill certain elementary conditions, these being precisely the ones by which all traditional art is governed.
First there is sacred art in the strictest sense, as it appears in the Tabernacle of Moses, where God Himself prescribed both the form and the materials; then there is the sacred art which has been developed in conformity with a particular ethnic genius; and finally there are decorative aspects of sacred art in which the ethnic genius is more freely expressed, though always in conformity with a spirit that transcends it. Genius is nothing unless determined by a spiritual perspective.
1 Not forgetting categories of art such as the Buddhist mandala, where geometry combines with calligraphy and, if need be, with human figures.
2 It will be said that angels are at ease in a stable. But a stable, precisely, is not a baroque or surrealist church.
3 When one compares the blustering and heavily carnal paintings of a Rubens with noble, correct, and profound works such as the profile of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Ghirlandaio or the screens with plum-trees by Korin, one may wonder whether the term “profane art” can serve as a common denominator for productions that are so fundamentally different. In the case of noble works impregnated with contemplative spirit one would prefer to speak of “extra-liturgical art,” without having to specify whether it is profane or not, or to what extent it is. Moreover one must distinguish between normal profane art and a profane art which is deviated and which has thereby ceased to be a term of comparison.