Finding the Sacred in Contemporary Art

Book of hours imageToday I was thinking about how to define what makes a art work spiritual. As I’ve said before, spirituality in art has nothing to do with the content of a piece. You could pack 100 angels and 20 crucifixions into a painting and that wouldn’t necessary mean it’s spiritual or sacred. Spirituality is not about thinking. (One might ask why blog then… but that’s a topic for another post!) You can think rationally about what your idea of spirituality is and perhaps you will paint an angel. But that angel will never be spiritual if you have not touched God in your creative process. I don’t mean artists have to have be full-time mystics, but I they do have to enter into Divine mystery and be transformed.

I’d like to use illumination to explain what the sacred in art means to me. When most people think of illumination, they think of medieval manuscripts which have traditionally spiritual images. But it’s not the images that make them holy, it’s the process. I will describe two examples:
Looking Inside
1) Gilding: Gilding is the process of adhering a thin sheet of gold leaf to a panel, parchment or other painting surface. First the artist applies gesso which a paste made basically of clay and glue. Because the gold leaf is so thin, applying it to this wet surface would cause the gesso to seep up through the microscopic holes in the gold, dulling its shine. So the gesso is allowed to dry and then its glue reactivated by breathing deeply upon it. This gesso is likened the clay from which the Divine formed Adam the first man. When the artist breathes, it symbolizes the Divine blowing the breath of life into Adam.

Gilding is not easy. It requires the proper deep diaphragmatic breath or it will not work. To create this breath, the artist must achieve a calm focused meditative state. The symbolism of Divine creation, becomes more that a symbol. It is a road map telling the artist to tap the Divine well of creativity from which everything comes. The artist must release the self, to tap the Self. This is the transformation I speak about when I say something is spiritual art.
The Binding of Issac
2) My next example is my experience working on my Binding of Isaac piece (pictured to the right). Again, another traditionally spiritual image made spiritual through process not content. It has an Islamic-style illuminated border. These borders are steeped in sacred geometry, in God as Divine Intellect. While I was painting this piece, and the same with other pieces I’ve done using those borders as inspiration, I felt my mind elevated. It is somewhat difficult to explain this. It was almost as it my mind was being pulled up, expanded. I felt larger was I completed this piece. There was more space inside me to accept the world into. This piece transformed me, increase my ability to love. It is the artist’s transformation that is the key to spiritual work.
This type of spirituality is built into the long tradition of manuscript illumination, icon painting and other sacred arts. But all art has the potential to be sacred if, as artists, we approach our process as part of our own spiritual journey.

Update: For more on art technique & spirituality check my book Lapis & Gold: Unlocking the secrets of Medieval Painters & Illuminators.

3 Responses “Finding the Sacred in Contemporary Art”

  1. gartenfische says:

    Your art is simply amazing. And this is a beautiful post. As a writer and poet-wannabe, this speaks deeply to me.

    “The artist must release the self, to tap the Self.” Wow. Yes.

  2. Thank you for your generous comments about my work!

  3. vemaentitle says:

    What a comment!! Very informative… Looking for more posts like this!! Keep you the goodwork!
    Anyway thank you for this blog.

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