On the traditional conception of figurative art and its sacral function

As stated by historians of religions such as Coomaraswamy, Zimmer, Eliade and by esotericists such as Guénon and Evola, in traditional societies every profane art or science is always accompanied by a "sacred science", which had "an organic-qualitative character and considering the nature as a whole, in a hierarchy of degrees of reality and forms of experience, of which forms the one linked to the physical senses is only a particular ». Examples of this conception of art can be found in the bas-reliefs of Hindu times, but also in the rock representations dating back to the Cromagnon era.

di Marco Maculotti
originally published on the Daily Alchemist Magazine
cover: bas-reliefs from Māmallapuram, India

Fu Julius Evola to note how in ancient times, since the age of Cro-Magnon, figurative art had always been characterized by the "inseparability of the naturalistic element from a magical and symbolic intention" [1]. Taking the strings from this observation, it is immediately worth noting how in the traditional world art was never considered an end in itself nor founded solely on merely external concepts such as beauty or pleasantness: on the contrary, it can be said that the main purpose of ancient figurative art - such as eg. in the case of the cave paintings representing hunting scenes - it was always of a magical-apotropaic character.

In other words, traditionally the pictorial representation had the purpose of concentrating the "magical" attention of the members of the tribal society, e.g. on the prey that was painted. This convergence of attention and will on the part of all the associates would have led to the desired result, and conveyed by the painting: the capture of game. Always Evola points out how [2]

"The ancient arts [...] were traditionally" sacred "to particular gods or heroes, always for analogical reasons, so much so as to present themselves as potentially containing the possibility of realizing" ritually ", that is, in the symbolic value of a transcendent action or meaning, variety of material action ".


And this is not true only for what concerns painting: in the example of the Cromagnon to which we have mentioned, a very important function also had the ritual dance. A so to speak complementary vision of the sacred and the profane - as we modern men usually understand them - survived for a long time: still in the classical period, Luciano reports that the dancers had knowledge of the "sacred mysteries", which is why they were often assimilated to priests.

It must therefore be emphasized that, in traditional societies (and by this we intend to include a time band lasting several tens of millennia) every profane art or science is always accompanied by a "sacred science", which had, to say it with Evola "an organic-qualitative character and considering nature as a whole, in a hierarchy of degrees of reality and forms of experience, of which forms the one linked to the physical senses is only a particular" [3].

In this sense Ananda K. Coomaraswamy could affirm that "religion and art are therefore different names for the same experience: an intuition of reality and identity" [4]. Identifying themselves with the anthropomorphic figures of rock painting, but also and above all with the representations of the prey (a reindeer, for example), the Cromagnon hunters ensured the success of the expedition: in this magical-apotropaic operation, identification with the situation itself was essential, and therefore with all the factors on which the outcome would depend - hunters as well as prey.


Think also of the first Mediterranean forms of theatrical arts: on the one hand they were related to a very ancient complex of ceremonials aimed at obtaining and guaranteeing the fertility of the natural world (one can think in this regard to rituals of the type of Lupercalia, which behind the outward appearance of pantomime conveyed a magical function very little dissimilar from that implied by the dances and paintings of the Cromagnon); on the other, if they resulted in the "Sacred dramas" of the tragedy type (from τραγῳδία, lit. “song of the goat”), the reason in all probability is to be found in their origins.

We believe in fact that the substrate from which thears Mediterranean theater should be sought in the context of the Sacred, and in particular in the initiations and gatherings of the mystery brotherhoods of the ancient world - such as the Dionysias and the Thesmophorias - as well as in the “masquerades” at the end of the year and in other traditional recurrences of the cosmic-agrarian calendar.

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The same French esotericist René Guénon was able to affirm that [5]

"All the arts at their origin are essentially symbolic and ritual, and it is only due to a later degeneration, actually very recent, that they lose their sacred character to eventually become the purely profane" game "to which they are reduced to near our contemporaries ".


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A sacred vision of figurative art is perhaps found at its highest levels in ancient India. In this regard, the studies of the aforementioned Coomaraswamy are central, for whom the only essential element of art, in the traditional Hindu conception, must be found in what the Indians call rasa ("taste") [6].

From this term derives the adjective rasavat ("With rasa"), which is said of those works of art (figurative, poetic, etc.) that are considered capable of arousing a feeling of ecstatic contemplation that leads to a kind of instant participation and understanding on the part of the observer: rāsāsvādava ("Savoring the rasa"). He who in front of a work of art is able to connect with its most intimate and transcendent meaning is said rasika, that is to say "one who enjoys rasa". So writes the Anglo-Sinhalese scholar [7]:

"The savoring of rasa - the vision of beauty - is something that is enjoyed, says Viśvanātha," only by those who have the competence ": and he quotes Dharmadatta, according to which" in the theater those who are unimaginative are like wooden objects, walls and stones "».

An illuminating definition of what exactly the rasa it is given to us by Viśvanatha in Sahitya Darpana: the nature of this experience

"It is pure, indivisible, self-evident, composed in equal parts of joy and awareness, free from mixing with any other perception, twin sister of mystical experience, and its very life is the supersensible wonder".

Shiva Nataraja

Take into account, as Coomaraswamy points out, that in Hindu thought, wonder is defined as "a sort of expansion of the mind in" admiration "" [8]. It is therefore a so to speak an elitist conception of artistic fruition: even more than the author of the same, who, as Coomaraswamy points out, "is absorbed by his theme" [9], central and fundamental in the experience of artistic fruition is the role of the observer, which appears in this sense as a real active part of the artistic experience. In fact, continues the Author, technical elaboration, realism and even beauty are not the determining causes of rasa, the receptive state of the devoted observer being rather decisive. [10].

As proof of this, he cites the maxim of Śukrācārya according to which "the imperfections of images are constantly destroyed by the power of the virtue of the devotee who has his heart always turned to God", that is, by his ability to savor the rasa, to connect to the higher and more impersonal levels of artistic creation. Beauty does not exist without perception: and yet, according to Coomaraswamy, "it is atemporal and, moreover, supersensible and transcendent physics, and the only proof of its reality is to be sought in experience" [11]. The words of the Anglo-Sinhalese scholar are also illuminating as regards the question of predominance of the work of art, seen as a "vehicle" towards the rāsāsvādava, on the artist himself [12]:

«The traditional artist is unconditionally dedicated to the good of the work. Making him is a rite, the celebrant of which expresses himself in a way that is neither intentional nor conscious. The works of traditional, Christian, oriental or popular art are almost never marked by temporal accidents but produced in harmony with a dominant conception of the meaning of life, whose objective is well expressed in the affirmation of St. Paul, "vivo autem iam not ego "; the artist is anonymous, and even when his name is recorded, we ignore almost everything about the man. This applies to literary works as well as to plastic art. In the traditional arts, the question that matters is never: "Who said?", But only: "What was said?", Since "everything that is true, by whomever has been told, originates in the Spirit"».


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To better understand the "spirit" of Indian figurative art it may be useful to consult Myths and symbols of India by the German orientalist Heinrich Zimmer, a text that provides an interpretation and a general vision of the main myths and gods of the Hindu pantheon, with an eye to the artistic dimension - thanks to a large appendix of photographs and illustrations. Thus, e.g., the bas-relief depicting Indra, king of the gods, seated on the gigantic elephant Airāvata, located in a XNUMXnd century BC Buddhist cave-monastery near Bhājā, provides Zimmer with the opportunity to exhibit the representation of the Hindu conception of Māyā in figurative art [13]:

«The figures emerge from the rock and cover its surface in thin undulating layers, similar to ripples of a nebulous substance, so that, although carved in the living rock, they give the impression of a sort of mirage. The substance of the stone seems to have assumed the vaguely evanescent contours of an emanation. It is as if the anonymous, shapeless and undifferentiated rock were about to transform into individualized and animated forms. The basic idea of ​​māyā is thus reflected in this style. It represents the appearance of living forms from a shapeless original substance; illustrates the phenomenal, mirage-like character of every existence, earthly or divine».

The same figurative technique can be found in the bas-relief, executed directly in the bare rock at Māmallapuram, depicting the "celestial descent of the Ganges", dated to the beginning of the XNUMXth century AD The figures, although differentiated and characterized, are not defined in the smallest details, but rather appear as coming from a single source, the celestial Ganges in fact, an image of the perennial (source of) divine creation, from which they draw life and form. Detect Zimmer [14]:

“By neglecting the features and minute details, this work of art aims to render the typical attitudes, movements or resting positions of the beings it depicts. Insists onfundamental affinity of all creatures. They all originate from that one reservoir of life and are kept alive on their different planes, celestial or earthly, by that one vital energy. This is an art inspired by the monistic view of life that appears everywhere in Hindu philosophy and myth. Everything is alive. The whole universe is alive: only the degrees of life vary. Everything proceeds from the divine substance-and-life-energy as a temporary transformation. Everything is part of the universal unfolding of God's māyā».

Indra on the Airavata elephant in the cave-monastery of Bhājā (XNUMXnd century AD)

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After having spent many words on the work of art itself and on the role of the observer, it will now be good to say something about the traditional role of the artist. We could begin by saying that he who, through his work, is able to confer a higher meaning on matter is comparable to the hero who enters the underworld, the Jüngerian "original fund" of all things: the "source of the celestial Ganges".

Like a new Orpheus, the artist performs a catabasis inside the recesses of his conscience, to then go up again transformed, following a revelation that he will try to represent figuratively. The resulting transformation of matter will - in fact - only be a consequence of his primary experience, but it will also act as a vehicle through which others will be able to experience the same sacred experience. In this sense Mircea eliade noted how [15]

«The artist does not behave passively towards the Cosmos or towards the unconscious. Without telling us, perhaps without knowing it, the artist penetrates, sometimes dangerously, into the depths of the world and of his own psyche [...] we are witnessing a desperate effort by the artist to get rid of the "surface" of things and penetrate into matter in order to reveal their ultimate structures. Abolishing forms and volumes, descending into the substance, revealing its secret or larval modalities are not, for the artist, operations undertaken in view of an objective knowledge, but the adventures provoked by his desire to grasp the profound meaning of its plastic universe ".

Triple Faced Shiva, Elephanta Caves

From this perspective, it could be said that the artist who knows how to do this descend to hell as well as a new Orpheus, he is also comparable to an alchemist, obsessed with the mystery of the transmutation of raw material into gold. We certainly agree with Eliade when he states that [16]

"In some cases, the artist's behavior towards matter rediscovers and recovers an extremely archaic type of religiosity, which has disappeared for millennia in the Western world [...] The hierophanization of matter, that is the discovery of the sacred manifested through the substance, characterizes what is called "cosmic religiosity", the kind of religious experience that has dominated the world up to Judaism and that is still alive in “primitive” and Asian societies ”.

Through this sacralization of the substance, the artist has the possibility of alchemically transforming the bare raw material into something endowed with a form that, before being physical, is above all ideal., visualized and indeed experienced on a level so to speak "subtle". In fact, this form is nothing other than the externalization of an experience had in other realms, which the artist in this plane of reality boldly tries to imprint on the material, giving it a form.

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Whoever knows how to do this, in the final analysis, undoubtedly lives an experience of himself rāsāsvādava during the creation of the artistic work itself, the last phase of the creative process through which anyone who is able to connect to the same level to which the artist ascended at the moment of creation will also have the opportunity to experience the same sacred experience.

In this sense, the artwork has traditionally been a kind of portal to ascension to purer and higher, and certainly superpersonal, levels of consciousness.: and this - as we have seen - applies to both the observer and the artist. This affects not only the pictorial or statuary art, but also the architectural one. As he was able to point out Ernst Junger in his diary (August 1965), meditating on the "concealment of the divine" and on the function of temples in today's world,

«it is not so much the encounter with the gods that counts, but what is concentrated in them or behind them. The ancestors of Shintoism are there, on the paintings or on the tablets; the appearance and the name merge: the path they open leads to very large distances. It is only at that point that it does not matter whether you are dealing with a photograph, any engraving or a masterpiece. Temples are portals and entrances».

Ernst Junger


[1] Julius Evola, Revolt against the modern world (Mediterranee, Rome, 1984), p. 136

[2] Ibid, p. 137

[3] Ibid, p. 134

[4] Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The dance of Śiva (Adelphi, Milan, 2011), p. 71

[5] Rene Guenon, The reign of quantity and the signs of the times (Adelphi, Milan), p. 179

[6] Coomaraswamy, The dance of Śiva, P. 62

[7] Ibid, p. 66

[8] Ibid, p. 70, note 4

[9] Ibid, p. 54

[10] Ibid, pp. 67-68

[11] Ibid, p. 71

[12] Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, "Truth and universality of the Christian and Eastern philosophy of art", in The philosophy of Christian and Eastern art (Abscondita, Milan, 2005), p. 47

[13] Heinrich Zimmer, Myths and symbols of India (Adelphi, Milan, 2012), p. 57

[14] Ibid, p. 111

[15] Mircea Eliade, “The permanence of the sacred in contemporary art”, in Break off the roof of the house. Creativity and its symbols (Jaca Book, Milan, 2016), p. 21

[16] Ibidem

[17] Ernst Junger, Siebzig verweht (Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart, 1980). Translation by Andrea Scarabelli

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