Image by Ruth Gledhill
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VOLUME 6

PORTRAITS OF THE GODS: THE BRAID OF RELIGION & ART 

BY JONATHON CLARK

WHAT IS RELIGIOUS ART, 
AND WHAT MAKES ART RELIGIOUS?


If we go back far enough in history, the line between religion and art becomes blurry 
at times and completely erased at others. It appears that in humanity, there is a deep and abiding connection between these realms.


When we talk about religious art, what do we really mean? Are we simply talking about any art that means to be religious? Or is there something else that makes art religious beyond the intention of the artist?


To begin to understand these questions, let’s look at religious art across cultures and see 
if we find commonalities that might uncover something more fundamental to religious art than intent.


ART AS A SPIRITUAL TECHNOLOGY


First, consider the icons of the Russian Orthodox church.


An icon might depict Mary holding baby Jesus. Of course, we know this is religious art. After all, it is art and the content is religious. But these icons were not just made to depict the mother of God and Christ, they were also made as a kind of spiritual technology, where a worshipper could meditate on the image and enter into a more profound connection with the divine.


In many icons, every detail — from the color choices to the sightlines of the people depicted — is crafted to transmit truths about the ultimate nature of reality.
Now consider the yantra, a form of Hindu art. At first glance, this might seem less like 
a work of religious art when your first look at its striking geometric forms. A series of interlocking triangles are encircled by lotus petals, and these by a frame with protrusions pointing to the four directions.


But like the Russian icon, the yantra is a piece of spiritual technology. To study and meditate upon it, viewers are brought into a more profound understanding of existence, each geometric detail enfolding more and more information about the unity of being and the illusion of forms that clouds our senses.


There might not seem to be much connection between the two forms at first. We might consider the icons as portraits and the yantras as abstract geometric works. In the contemporary understanding of art, these genres could not be further from one another.
But in both the icon and the yantra, the artists are making art that serves as a doorway.

 

THE SYMBOL HOLDS THE POWER
 

If some artwork can act as spiritual technology, can artwork go even further, holding spiritual power on its own?


For many cultures, this is exactly the case. In the 20th century, chaos magicians popularized a new form of creating sigils. A sigil is a symbol produced by the magician, connected to a phrase of intention — i.e. My mother will experience happiness, or I will receive a promotion at work. Through meditation and consciousness-expanding practices, the magician endows these symbols with an enormous amount of power. The outcome is a sigil, said to produce a magical effect on its own.

 

This is only the latest form of a practice we see around the world. Symbols used as magical seals or as invocations to certain deities have been used for thousands of years — from the plains of North America to New Kingdom Egypt to the Jewish kabbalists of the Renaissance.


Unlike the icon or the yantra, these symbols do not teach the viewer. Rather, they exude spiritual power themselves.


RETURNING TO THE SOURCE


Can a work meant to be secular end up containing the power of the works described above?


Mark Rothko (1903–1970) came to his trademark color field style gradually. He began painting scenes from mythology in increasingly abstract ways, gradually placing similar elements in bands across the canvas that presaged his later style of richly colored large blocks.


These works were soon celebrated for their spiritual power, though Rothko’s work was secular. Because of the potency of his work, John and Dominique de Menil collaborated with the artist for their non-denominational chapel to be built in Houston, Texas. Rothko created fourteen black paintings, alive with multiple colors dancing under the dominant hue. The artist committed suicide before seeing the chapel’s completion, but today, the Rothko Chapel sees countless visitors. They marvel at the interior that Rothko defined with his paintings.


Here, we have a story of a secular artist whose trademark style arose through the interaction with mythology, finally arriving to a religious context through the spiritual potency of his work.


So, might we say Rothko made religious art?
Much of his work is entirely abstract. But despite the compositional simplicity of his painting, they still stand out as strikingly perceptive. It is as if the artist is peering through the world of forms into some deeper experience of existence. So it has some claim to the spiritual technology of a yantra or icon. It is that quality, no doubt, that drew the 
de Menils to the artist when creating their chapel. And so, at the end of his life, Rothko’s work came to have a religious intent, as if it was being called to it over his career — like the work of a sigil formed over years of serious meditation in the studio, made by an unknowing magician, calling out for a chapel to rise out of the dusty earth of Houston.

 

WHEN THE MUSE ARRIVES


The similarity of religious art across cultures, as we touched on briefly earlier, suggests there might be a certain in-born mode of creating art for spiritual ends. And when we do this, we seem to return to certain forms and recreate certain effects.


If an artist is inspired to create in this mode, whether they understand it to be religious 
or not, their work will repeat the forms and effects of intentional religious art. And if this is the case, what do we call their work?