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In 2011, the British Museum ran a highly popular and acclaimed exhibition, showcasing some of the finest sacred artifacts and relics of Byzantium. The show, titled ‘Treasures from Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe’, received a record number of visitors, many of whom traveled a considerable distance to see the exhibit. The exquisite items evoked unexpected responses from many viewers, who often stopped to venerate and pray before certain icons and relics. A few days into the opening of the show, the museum staff found itself facing a unique challenge of keeping the display cases free from kiss marks left behind by viewers as an expression of devotional piety. Additional staff had to be hired to supplement daily cleaning duties.


These unexpected responses of devotion and veneration are a clear indicator of the sacred and spiritual power that certain artifacts may possess. It is not merely an artifact’s historical significance but more specifically the transcendental ‘affects’ it inspires in viewers. The exclusivity of acts of veneration reserved for such artifacts, such as kissing out of devotion, starkly differentiates them from other on-display artworks and objects in a typical museum collection.


It is a rather curious thing to witness a grown adult of an obviously modern disposition performing an intimate act of piety before an object of a bygone era. But what exactly inspires this responsive spectatorship in certain viewers? And this, whatever this is, certainly presents some serious food for thought for the contemporary mind.


Over a vast stretch of eras from prehistoric pre-literate times, much before cultures developed writing and modes of record keeping, up until the recent age of Science, there had always been a living organic connection between artistic expression and religious experience. This symbiotic relation is evidenced in numerous relics of antiquity, such as fertility sculptures and cave paintings, archaic statuary and carvings. There was an apparent aesthetic aspect in religious ceremonies and ritual practices such as pagan solstice and equinox celebrations, elaborate sand paintings made for healing rituals and decorative body scarring during initiations and rites of passage in many aboriginal cultures. This union is also self-evident in great architectural expressions ranging from the megalithic monument of Stonehenge to the early Greek and Hindu temples, the Egyptian Pyramids, Christian cathedrals, and even the iconic cube of the Ka’aba.


However, the notion of art as we know and understand it today has entered our contemporary vocabulary and communal consciousness fairly recently. Traditional cultures upheld the idea that Divine inspiration was the source of all creative activity. The inner faculty of imagination, or fantasia, which inspired spiders to spin their webs and bees to produce their honeycombs, was also considered responsible for artistic creation, dreams and prophetic visions.[1] Human experience and expression held consistently to a sacred order. Prior to the concept of ‘art for its own sake’, craft was idealized as a labor of love, a higher calling in service to the sacred and ‘art objects’ were considered conduits to the Divine.


Many art historians believe that the dissolution of this essential bond between religion and art began in the west during the Renaissance. This was the era when new concepts such as the cult of the individual and the artist as celebrity gained popularity in society and highly individualistic renderings of religious themes became fashionable. “Thus was planted a seed,” comments art critic Alan G. Artner about the sixteenth century Western artistic culture, “that one day would make an artist’s interpretation of a Biblical scene as venerated as the scene itself. The seed fully blossomed at the end of the last century, when artists interpreted religious imagery in all sorts of ways that departed from specific theological teachings to become broadly spiritual.”


The great shift towards secularization accelerated rapidly in the last few centuries: we witnessed industrialization, the so-called death of God, immense socio-political upheavals, and in the arts, specifically, a fundamental transformation in modes of artistic patronage, the rise of art institutions and museums alongside the fatal decline of artistic traditions and crafts.[2] The start of the twentieth century saw the emergence of large numbers of institutionally trained professional artists, critics and curators, practicing and promoting an increasingly secularized discourse.


Oddly enough, however, artistic forms and symbolic practices that were once rooted firmly in religion were now being readily adopted within this brave new world. The existence of sacred themes and motifs in contemporary artistic oeuvres today is by no means accidental. The militant secularism of artists and art critics in the twentieth century, cultivated art praxis and discourse where the notion of religious was replaced by that of spiritual. The latter was a more subjective, free-floating and combinatory alternative to the tradition-bound rigidity and specificity of religious art. The goal however at the end was to invoke the same extra-material, transcendent experience.


The life’s work of many twentieth century artists can be seen as an accumulation and refinement of symbolizations that were once central to religious art. With the advent of Abstract art early in the last century, spiritual yearning went hand-in-glove with the most advanced artistic thinking of the times.[3] Other popular trends along these lines have included themes of symbolic ritual and repetition, the use of the body as a medium, physical endurance as catalyst to alternate states of being, and Installation and Performance as a form of immersive communal union and witnessing.


Consider for example the grammar and syntax of Yugoslavian artist Mariana Abramovich’s oeuvre. For her the human body serves as an agent for transformation through acts of endurance and extreme discipline. To achieve a heightened state of being, she undertakes ritual performances that build up through progression until her body either gives way and collapses or viewers are forced to intervene out of concern for her safety.  There is often extreme physical and mental stress, symbolic self-mutilation, and even self-inflicted exile into the desert as an arduous release from societal conditioning.


Abramovich claims that physical discipline and prolonged periods of deprivation are crucial to restore the spirit. This is a clear parallel to the recorded practices and attitudes of shamans, mystics, monks and prophets who suffered, often in extreme ways to gain insight into the mysteries of reality. Examples include the Desert Fathers (early Christian hermits and monks) who took to the Scetes desert in Egypt to lead a life of renunciation. These monks earned widespread renown for their extreme discipline and ascetic practices, such as prolonged fasting, being chained to rocks days on end, praying while seated motionless on tall pillars exposed to the elements, self-inflicted pain and voluntary suffering as penance.


There is also the use of ritual as a mediary to the immaterial in the practice of many artists, a symbolization that is central in many religious doctrines as well. Wolfgang Laib is a German artist with a prolific art practice who has exhibited in many important galleries and museums today.  He takes up ritual and contemplation in a series of sculptures using unconventional materials (such as pollen, beeswax and milk), which are symbolically potent and have sacramental value. For Pollen from Hazelnut, 2003 presented at the MoMa, Laib’s process required him to spend extensive amounts of time in the natural world, several years in fact, collecting copious amounts of pollen by hand. The preciousness of the material, symbolically linked to life and resurrection, brought a solemn intensity to its display on the museum floor, where the pollen was scattered in a soft rectangle of luminous yellow. The quiet, laborious nature of this task speaks of ritualistic commitment and patience. ‘In Laib’s forms we witness the sacred, or the ultimate, as revealed in the mundane world, while Laib’s process, or action, affords him transcendence.’[4]


Agnes Martin is another big name in contemporary minimalist/abstract expressionist circles. She retreated from the New York art world in 1967, to settle in New Mexico for a quiet reclusive life until her death in 2004. She occupied two homes during her time in Mexico, laying the brickwork for both herself. Martin consciously withdrew from the public eye, specifically when her paintings began gaining attention in the art community. She was drawn to Taoist and Zen Buddhist philosophies and even collaborated with Navajo craftswomen to create works inspired by the desert.


Martin often spoke of her muted and restrained style in terms of purity and mysticism. Following Mark Rothko’s example, whose work she greatly admired, Martin in her art also ‘pared down to the most reductive elements to encourage a perception of perfection and to emphasize transcendent reality’.[5] She used a subdued and restricted color palette and created visual planes of great subtlety with repetitive grids and lines. She held a decidedly monkish view of her vocation, and once wrote, “Art work is the only work in the world that is unmaterialistic.”[6]


Another approach to transcending materiality in modern-day artworks is rooted in the ephemeral as a catalyst to mindfulness and presence (both in artist and viewer) – quite similar to Yogic and Buddhist notions of Smṛti and Sati.[7] There are a number of artworks concerned with themes of temporariness/nothingness that have punctuated just the last fifty years.


Take for example the British artist Richard Wright who makes understated site-specific paintings rooted in the fine-art tradition. He won the 2009 Turner Prize, with his deliberately temporary fresco in gold leaf on a wall in Tate Britain. The artist spoke about his work: “I am interested in the fragility of the moment of engagement – in heightening that moment.” To see a work knowing that it will not last, he said, “emphasizes that moment of its existence”.[8] The prize-winning work was painted over at the end of the show and now exists only in photographs.


There is also the practice of Sir Richard Long, knighted and critically acclaimed sculptor who ventures into landscapes and makes minimal interventions by rearranging natural materials found at the site (such as stones, branches, mud). Long is against the notion of art as a permanent object and his creations are often left to be reclaimed by nature. Long’s most iconic work, A Line Made By Walking, 1967, is a photographic record of his walk in a field in Wiltshire, where the artist walked back and forth till a clear line formed in the turf. Many of his interventions in nature speak of (corporeal) absence.


These examples highlight a clear trend over the course of time where, although semantics and medium may have changed, the underlying impulses and the forms aesthetic expression takes have remained more or less constant. This resonates with the insight of Mercia Eliade, a prominent twentieth century historian of religion, who coined the term Homo Religiosus to describe an interior religious predisposition in man. Eliade claims that this inherent condition is responsible firstly for making man become aware of the Sacred, and consequently desire communion with it – an ambition common to most communities in most faiths, irrespective of time and geography.


It can thus be deduced, that the recurring urge to escape materiality and experience something higher may lie at the heart of all human endeavor, irrespective of how one tries to situate or deconstruct it. This holds true for a repertoire of contemporary heavyweights including Mark Rothko, Constantin Brancuzi, Joseph Bouys, Anslem Keifer, Ad Reinhart, Bill Viola, who have spiritual themes at the center of their art practices. Vladimir Kandinsky, theorist and artist, pioneer of the abstract art movement, went so far as to claim that abstraction, deeply immersed in religious language, had redemptive powers and would save us from the tyranny of the material world.


He wrote, “When religion, science and morality are shaken … and when the outer supports threaten to fall, man turns his gaze from externals in on to himself. Literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt. They reflect the dark picture of the present time and show the importance of what at first was only a little point of light noticed by few and for the great majority non-existent. Perhaps they even grow dark in their turn, but on the other hand they turn away from the soulless life of the present towards those substances and ideas which give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul.”[9]





[1] Necipoglu. Gulru, The Topikapi Scroll – Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture (Sketchbooks & albums), New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 197

[2] Hect. Richard D., and Linda Ekstrom. Linda, Unveiling the Sacred in Contemporary Art, Cultural Turn III: The Profane and the Sacred, University of California, Santa Barbara, 24 February 2001.

[3] Artner. Alan G., What has become of Religious Art?, The Chicago Tribune, 12 April 1998.

[4] Hect. Richard D., and Linda Ekstrom. Linda, Unveiling the Sacred in Contemporary Art, Cultural Turn III: The Profane and the Sacred, University of California, Santa Barbara, 24 February 2001.

[5] “Agnes Martin, Untitled #1 (1989)”. Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, New York: Christie’s. November 12, 2008. Retrieved September 20, 2018.

[6], Retrieved September 20, 2018.

[7] Sati (Sanskrit: स्मृति smṛti) is mindfulness or awareness, a spiritual or psychological faculty that forms an essential part of Buddhist practice. It is the first factor of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. Wikipedia: Retrieved September 20, 2018.

[8] Retrieved September 20, 2018.

[9] Kandinsky. Wassily, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Empire Art Press, 2011.


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