Dr. Patrick Ringgenberg's English Presentation: The Complex Relation between Art and Religion
13 February 2024
Dr. Patrick Ringgenberg's English Presentation: The Complex Relation between Art and Religion

Here is the report of Dr. Patrick Ringgenberg's (faculty member at the University of Lausanne) English presentation at the first pre-con meeting of the conference “Imam Reza (PBUH) and Interreligious Dialogue" which was held by Astan Quds Razavi’s Foundation of Islamic Researches at Mashhad on  June 9, 2022. 


The Complex Relation between Art and Religion 

It is not my intention here to deal with a subject that would require a whole book, and on which thousands of volumes have been written. I would like to make some general remarks, which will perhaps go beyond the strict paradigmatic framework of this seminar.

First of all, we do not have a unanimous definition of either religion or art. Our Western conception of religion, which has long prevailed even in the humanities, derives from an originally Christian view of the phenomenon of religion, but there are many religious currents that do not correspond to a monotheistic definition of religion. In fact, Buddhism or shamanism, for instance, more or less escape a Christian definition of religion, and what we call “Hinduism” (a general and catch-all word, created by 19th-century orientalism to designate a myriad of religious currents in India) falsely suggests a monolithic, fixed, sometimes “ideological” vision of spiritualities, modes of understanding, and hermeneutic perceptions that are in fact kaleidoscopic, dynamic, at times mutant, and pluralist. In short, we readily have an oriented, narrow, possibly retrospective, and “modern” interpretation of past religions (the so-called “polytheisms”, for example) or of “religions” that do not belong to our own - monotheistic - religious sphere.

The same applies to art. We have no universal definition, even if dictionaries give us minimal definitions (we have no choice: we have to use words) which are a priori practical but often insufficient and sometimes even irrelevant. It is a fact that our modern conception of art is the fruit of a specific consciousness, of a romantic and post-impressionist heritage (art as an individualist imaginative reflection of an Idea), of a multitude of aesthetic experiences since prehistoric times and of which we have, thanks to printing and reproduction technologies, an encyclopedic and globalized knowledge. It is enough to remember that we can see more images in one hour than a man five hundred years ago could see in his entire life; that civilizations had what we now call “arts”, but that they did not have our concept of “art” or “artistic expressions”; that “aesthetics”, i.e. a certain sense and conceptualization of beauty, is an 18th-century European development, but before that, people saw beauty, created beauty, but did not do “aesthetics” or think about beauty in aesthetic terms as we do in our time. If you add to this the modern situation of the arts - quite unique in the history of mankind - , where sometimes “anything” is considered (at least by some “art critics”) as “art” or “genius”, the complexity of the subject requires remarkable analytical precautions and conceptual subtleties to understand the issues of “art”, past or present.

When one wants to think about the relationship between religion and art, one must be aware of this complex web of philosophical and historical, even linguistic, issues, not to mention questions of taste, perception, and intellectual, sociological, or political contexts. The example of Islamic art is quite exemplary. How much “Islamic” is Islamic art, apart from Koranic calligraphy, which is the true sacred, founding, central, omnipresent, structuring, radiating, and dynamic principle of artistic expression in the countries and regions living in the Muslim faith? What is the meaning of the Islamic character of a Shiite Emamzadeh, whose figurative murals were painted by an Armenian Christian (who adapted Christian iconographic traditions to Shiite themes), or of a geometrical or floral decoration that can be found in a mosque (“sacred”) as well as in a palace (“profane”)? The shrine of Imam Reza is of course “Islamic art” and more specifically Shi’ite, but it is so at different levels of interpretation and perception and is in fact the result of different creative, historical, spiritual, political, and economic strata, which form a complex network of interactions and possibilities of meaning. Its basic architectural forms (iwans and domes) derive from Parthian and Sassanid antiquity, its decorative motifs are the reworking of motifs often of pre-Islamic origin, and the mausoleum owes its first essential development to a dynasty - Timurid - which was Sunni and whose sympathies for Shi’ism were part of a cultural and mystical paradigm in which the boundaries between Sunni and Shi’ite were less strict and hardened than they are today. Indeed, the Islamic character of Imam Reza ’s shrine is at once obvious and mysterious, aesthetic and interior, tangible and hermeneutic, intricate and specific.

The relationship between art and religion is also complex when one tries to reflect on the intimate relationship between a person ’s religious or spiritual quality and his creative ideas and artistic choices. In the Chinese tradition of painting, for example, which has been influenced by Taoism and Buddhism, many treatises establish a relationship between spirituality and the quality of painting, between the contemplative purity of the heart and the spiritual fulfillment of aesthetic achievements: the more the heart is purified by meditation, the more the painting resonates with a present and living sense of the Infinite, the Tao, and can capture what lies beyond or behind appearances and words. But the history of the arts shows us that the spiritual depth of an artist or his display of piety does not guarantee the aesthetic value of his or her work, and that a talented - but perhaps not very religious and even not spiritual - artist can produce works of greater spiritual value, meaning and efficacy than those of a devout artist lacking in imagination, talent, or technical skill. This problem was well illustrated in Miloš Forman ’s film Amadeus (1984): Salieri is pious, Mozart is not, but it is Mozart who has genius, Salieri has “only” talent.

Now, if we place ourselves in a perspective of interreligious dialogue or dialogue among civilizations, we can see only too well the considerable stakes and problems that must be faced. Of course, humans are universal, and so is communication. However, beyond this unifying evidence, cultural, religious and human paradigms create borders, which at the same time delimit and highlight, give meaning and strength and separate and divide, in space and in time. Thus a Muslim can dialogue with a Hindu, but although they live on the same earth, they live in two different worlds, and their perception and even the meaning they give to words have different contents, not to mention the prejudices that will lead one to think that representing gods as the Hindus do (the elephant Ganesh, Shiva with multiple arms, etc.) is an aberration (the only Reality is beyond any representation), or will lead the Hindu to think that Islamic monotheism is conceptually less rich, open, and therefore relevant than the notion of non-duality (advaita), which preserves a Mystery of infinity and allows a metaphysical inclusiveness and social tolerance that a monotheistic theology does not always allow? And insofar as an art is - to different degrees - connected to rituals and symbols, more broadly to a religious experience, the difficulty of understanding the art of a religion other than one ’s own is rooted in the fundamental problematic of understanding other spiritual paths, other religious magnetic fields, other existential and hermeneutic paradigms. To what extent can we really feel what a Quranic calligraphy or a statue of the Buddha means if we do not belong to the living, invisible, and profound spiritual sphere and intellection to which both belong, not to mention that each individual, within a religious environment, will perceive the objectivity of the forms according to his or her own personality, state of conscience, existential orientation, depending on his or her spiritual psychology, state of being, ultimately on his or her destiny, cosmic function, and relationship with the Absolute, Tao or Nirvana? Even in European history, we can see along the centuries thresholds of misunderstanding, due to breaks in religious and cultural paradigms: in the Renaissance or Baroque periods people no longer understood medieval art (Romanesque and Gothic), and it was not until the 19th century and Romanticism that medieval cathedrals were rediscovered and appreciated again, but often interpreted in a modernist sense - romantic, nationalistic, aestheticizing, sometimes ethnic - which was probably not the meaning that medieval men themselves gave to their works.  

In the 20th century, the current of thought called “traditionalism” or “perennialism”, founded by René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Titus Burckhardt, and to which Seyyed Hossein Nasr belongs, tried to restore a metaphysical privilege to arts. Their conceptions are often typically Western and modern - paradoxically for metaphysicians opposed to the modern West - and their attempt is questionable, insofar as they impose a too scholastic, dogmatic, sometimes poorly argued vision on the ancient arts. On the other hand, their contribution - especially in the field of the so-called “Islamic” arts - seems to me to be fundamental, provided one understands it well. Titus Burckhardt proposed a general hermeneutic of Islamic arts, riddled with flaws - for instance he ignored Persian arts and their rich symbolism -, too Arabocentric and Sunnitocentric. Burckhardt ’s interpretation should not be understood as a historical explanation of the pre-modern arts of Muslim countries (although many of his analyses have also a historical relevance), but as a hermeneutic revival allowing us to see and experience, here and now, some forms of art as connections of beauty to the Divine and as spiritual ways based on a “neoplatonic” recognition of the terrestrial beauties. This is the essential point, for which it is a prerequisite to adopt an impeccable rigor of thought and discriminating awareness. As a historian, I am fully aware of the historical and philosophical issues of the arts, including the central questions of their perception and interpretation; but as a spiritual person, I know that one must live in the Present and in the Divine Presence, and this requires a contemplative receptivity. This is how I love and understand the shrine of Imam Reza: its completeness corresponds to my human completeness, and if this shrine is the visible face of an invisible Light, if it is the node of beauty of an axis connecting the exterior to the interior, then it is the ideal acoustic for finding oneself in the beam of the Imam, at once transcendent and immanent, present in Mashhad and omnipresent, in the heart of the heart and beyond all beyond.  

It is in this sense that each person, with his or her human and spiritual trajectory, is able to experience the arts, not only as a mere aesthete or depending on an archaeological interest in the past, but as the central actor of a spiritual vitality of the arts, which live and revive only in the inner - contemplative, hermeneutic - mirror of each Man.