Everything within manifestation is intermingled and all its various aspects influence one another. The goal of spiritual realization may lie outside of manifestation, but the means and path are within it, and the consequences of these truths are far-reaching. It means that religious forms and the means of grace are not independent of context, and that place matters as much as dogma when it comes to spiritual realization. One cannot transplant the man of a particular spiritual nature into an alien environment and expect him to flourish, even if he has his native doctrine with him. Nor can we transplant an alien doctrine into an alien place. Spiritual realization means dispelling confusion, and when forms and places are treated as interchangeable, ambience and method become confused, and the inner life reflects this as much as the external character of today’s “cosmopolitan” environments.
5.9. Art and Doctrine
Before a Cathedral, one stands at the center of all things; before a work of the Renaissance, one simply feels oneself to be standing somewhere in Europe. The Cathedral transports to the Divine; the Renaissance merely calls forth nostalgia for a time or a place. In other words, one affects the Intellect, the other the emotions.
St. Paul lamented the decadence of the Greeks who had an aimless lust for “something new.” There is an obsession for anything novel that accompanies a decadent age, and this all the more as the Dark Age progresses. This is one explanation for a fascination with the bizarre in art, and even the ugly, in that these answer to certain unexhausted possibilities and so they fascinate a decadent civilization, although not for long, since they have no value in themselves aside from their novelty. They certainly do not delivery beauty, or intelligence.
The work itself must conform its intended use; any superadded symbolism must conform to the symbolism inherent in the object or medium; what is essential and what is accessory in the work must be harmoniously arranged and not opposed; just as the material must conform to the use of the work, the treatment of the material must conform to the nature of that material; finally, the work must not give an illusion of being other than what it is. Obvious things like artificial antiquing to satisfy a consumerist nostalgia would be out of the question, but also less obvious things like naturalistic sculpture wherein inert matter is treated as if endowed with life. Foreshortening and the use of shadows have the same effect and break the same rules when used in painting upon a plane surface. These examples alone should make it clear why the art of the Egyptians, for example, is superior, from a Sacred point of view and as a support for contemplation, than the works of the Renaissance.
Naturalistic art does convey beauty, but the beauty it conveys is that of the object it imitates or portrays, and so the value of such art is reduced to that of an inferior copy of some phenomenon. This is distinguished from traditional art, of which the same cannot be said and where the beauty of the work resides in the work itself.
Icons, such as those depicting the Virgin, are despised in the West because they are misunderstood both in intention and in use. For example, in the West they will be automatically assumed to be a type of “portrait” that gives us a view of a particular subject’s physical form. If that be the Virgin, then we are given a reproduction of the physical characteristics of the Virgin, at least as they existed in the artist’s imagination. In this respect, both the work and the artist come off as inferior and even childish in comparison to the portraits of the Renaissance. But that is to judge them by a standard that does not apply, and it is in fact quite arrogant to assume that, had the intent of the creator on an icon matched that of the Renaissance painter, that the former’s skill would be so inferior as to have failed so miserably.
In actuality, the intent of an icon of the Virgin is to convey the universal reality of which the Virgin herself was only an expression within history. In other words, the icon conveys or at least supports the contemplation of an eternal truth, whereas naturalistic art reproduces a fact. The first approach supports the intelligence, the second merely shows us that Mary was a woman. Or, if the subject is Jesus Christ, the icon shows us the God in the man, whereas the portrait only shows us the man. At the risk of sounding repetitive, we can summarize by saying that the naturalistic portrait depicts a historical fact, while the icon conveys the transcendent principle that gave rise to that fact, hence its concern for symbolism over detail and realism.
What we’ve said about icons holds true for icons, but this does not mean that actual portraits, in the modern sense, of the saints have no value. The contemplation of the faces of the saints does convey their holiness and can be used with spiritual benefit, but only within a special and disciplined context.
Renaissance art is at the same time technically fantastic and intellectually bankrupt. This is a perfect example of the imbalance that characterizes the modern West. It is a matter of the spiritual superficiality of a civilization combined with a merely mental virtuosity. Minds that excel in technical skill and the comprehension of facts but have lost the ability to perceive the transcendent.
We’ve tried to explain elsewhere that religion without a metaphysics or a living esoteric element will tend to reduce itself exclusively to the moral point of view and may sooner or later even identify its doctrine with morality plain and simple. This is because, as said elsewhere, the exoteric element in a religion stresses merit over contemplation. When this happens, the use of art also shifts from something that conveys intellectual content to something that “inspires” action of a certain kind. In other words, it shifts to order of sentiment and emotion with the aim of motivating virtuous acts. That is not to say that morality or virtue do not come into play in traditional art, only that the relationship is somewhat reversed, so that we do not find “art in the service of morality” but rather “asceticism in the service of art” and all for the sake of contemplative ends. And this is the meaning behind the fasting of icon painters before going to work, and the Hindu yantra.
Surrealism can be taken as the decomposing body of art, the ‘satanic’ end of the previous Luciferian stage of naturalism. Luciferian here denotes the denial of a higher principle, reducing all values to the individual level. This must end in the satanic “inversion” of values, where the lower is worshipped in itself and the higher disdained.