Tuesday, August 14, 2007



Art historian E.H. Gombrich says those mummy wrapping Egyptians who painted the elaborate funerary scenes found on the tombs of royalty were not ‘artists’ in the contemporary sense of the word. They were the equivalent of modern assembly line factory workers. Their sketching, scripting, sculpting and painting were a means to insure a transition into a literal afterlife for those who could afford such elaborate burials. These artisans were trained like construction workers who produced Images which would bridge the seen world to the unseen. We might call them Image-engineers. They were not producing works of art to be critiqued in the New York Times, or to be sold and hung in living rooms or museums. They were not famous maestros like Michelangelo or Raphael, but ordinary employees, or even slaves.


Similarly, the images found on the villa walls at the ash-covered archaeological site of Pompeii were not just decorative, but considered to function as conduits between worlds. The Romans, like the Egyptians, believed there was an unseen realm that interfaced with the seen world of humans. To portray and display these divine images was to invoke and honor these influential realms populated by other-than-human beings. The same held true for the ubiquitous statuary, totems and temples from Greece to India, and from China to the Americas. The Apostle Paul was referring to this same notion when he said, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against Principalities and Powers (Archons) in high places (unseen realms).” [Epistle to the Ephesians 6]

Today we simply call it art. We prefer to look at the different styles: Classical, Renaissance, Expressionism, Impressionism, Modern, et al. Many people today are too educated and grounded in empirical scientism to fall for the simplistic views of the pre-scientific ancients. Rarely do we moderns think that art is actually connected to anything other than our own five senses and neural processes.

We might take an art course to learn how to appreciate the poem or painting, to learn the styles, forms and motifs, but rarely do we see through the art into the existence of another Realm which is just as real, or more real than the so called physical. Mircea Eliade called this invisible realm the 'Sacred Center', and Henry *Corbin called it the Mundus Imaginalis, or World of Living Images. We call it make believe.

Granted, we may get chills from beholding a particularly touching sunset or breathtaking statue, but we explain that as mere biochemical responses conveyed by appreciative synaptic connections originating in the brain and traveling along the spinal column. Seldom do we experience what the Hindus call ‘darshana’, or seeing and being seen by the gods. The ancient Greeks called it ‘theatre,’ a place where people might encounter the Religious Realm. Like ‘darshana, the Greek word theatron signified a "place for viewing the gods.” Gombrich says that the ancients would not have understood our modern term or concept of art, for they were looking to touch the invisible world of the Eidon or Idea/Image.


T.S. Eliot said, "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood." There is something happening in certain numinous encounters with art at the sub-rational or trans-rational level, so that the five senses and brain are the mediators rather than the source of the experience. Modern biological psychology tells me that my brain is assigning meaning and significance to the work of art. Really? Perhaps. But then perhaps the work of art becomes a conduit which actually allows the mind to cross over into another realm for a few moments. Perhaps that framed painting which captivates your gaze is actually a window which allows you to see into a very 'real' other world, as in C.S. Lewis's 'Voyage of the Dawn Treader' where Edmund and Lucy are drawn back into Narnia through a painting, together with their horrid cousin Eustace Scrubb. We see this motif showing up again and again: Alice through the looking glass into Wonderland and Dorothy through the tornado into Oz.

Literature acts similarly for many of us, transporting our mundane existence into another sort of reality. Again, we moderns usually explain the experience by saying the brain creates the place to which we retreat. But for the ancients, the place was more than just an intelligent blob of flesh between your ears. For them, words were alive - with births, parents and genealogies. Words, spoken and written, were bridges or magical cyphers. The Hebrew term for 'word' is also the word for a 'material thing' or object. Similarly, that's why the Egyptians used hiero (sacred) glyphs (symbols). To have a word symbol of a boat on your tomb was to assure the presence of an actual boat in the afterlife.

We must remember that humans do not invent words or numbers - we discover them. Nouns and verbs are archetypal, existing before the human brain was formed, just as numbers existed before there was a brain to think them. Some Russian researchers believe they have found evidence that the universal laws of grammar and syntax are in our DNA. It is possible that words may arise from the realm of Living Nouns and Verbs. When I remember that adjectives and adverbs are essential aspects of eternal verities like Plato's Beauty, Truth and The Good, then reading, writing and speaking actually connect us other realms. The Muses become more than nice little Greek myths; there is actually something, or someone whispering in my ear, opening my eyes to see the curious enchantment in a bird slicing the curved horizon, or the leaves weeping as they fall from their once secure limbs. I see the glories and horrors of Nature, and know that the same Anima which moves the galaxies, moves me.
*Corbin makes a distinction between imaginary (something made up), imaginative (an artistic creation) and imaginal (parallel Reality perceived by the Psyche).

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