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Art from the Sacred to the Profane
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Art from the Sacred to the Profane: East and West
Art from the Sacred to the Profane: East and West
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Comparative Religion

Price:  $24.95

ISBN:  978-1-933316-35-2
Book Size:  10 x 8
# of Pages:  160
Language:  English

This edition of Frithjof Schuon’s selected writings on art contains over 270 illustrations. He deals with the spiritual significance of the artistic productions of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Far-Eastern world, while also covering the subjects of beauty and the sense of the sacred, the crafts, poetry, music, and dance, and dress and ambience.
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Detailed Description of Art from the Sacred to the Profane

This edition of renowned philosopher Frithjof Schuon’s writings on the subject of art, selected and edited by his wife Catherine Schuon, contains over 270 photographs-200 color and 70 black and white. Keith Critchlow writes, “This beautiful book … has the broadest coverage of any of the books on art that this writer has seen in forty years of teaching art and architecture.” Frithjof Schuon, the foremost representative of the traditionalist school of thought, presents the universal principles and criteria with which to discern sacred from profane art, and traditional from merely “religious” art. He then deals with the spiritual significance of the artistic productions of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Far-Eastern world. Also covered are the subjects of beauty and the sense of the sacred, the crafts, poetry, music, dance, dress, and ambience..

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About the Author(s)

Frithjof Schuon

Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998) is best known as the foremost spokesman of the “Traditionalist” or “Perennialist” school and as a philosopher in the metaphysical current of Shankara and Plato. He wrote more than two dozen books on metaphysical, spiritual, artistic, and ethnic themes and was a regular contributor to journals on comparative religion in both Europe and America. Schuon’s writings have been consistently featured and reviewed in a wide range of scholarly and philosophical publications around the world, respected by both scholars and spiritual authorities. Besides his prose writings, Schuon was also a prolific poet (see a listing of Schuon's poetry books) and a gifted painter of images that always portrayed the beauty and power of the divine, and the nobility and virtue of primordial humanity.

World Wisdom features a series titled "The Writings of Frithjof Schuon", which includes many new editions of classic books by Schuon in new translations and with additional materials. Our online Library contains many articles and poems written by Frithjof Schuon, allowing readers to see a representative sample of his remarkable body of work.

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Catherine Schuon

Catherine Schuon’s interest in world religions and spirituality brought her into contact with Frithjof Schuon, the famous writer, whom she married in May 1949. She accompanied her husband on all of his travels and helped him to receive visits and answer correspondence from spiritual seekers who came to seek her husband’s counsel. Her work with her husband brought her into contact with people from diverse religions and from throughout the world. Gifted in languages, she also became fluent in English and conversant in Italian, in addition to the three languages of her youth: German, French and Spanish.

Catherine Schuon is the editor of Art from the Sacred to the Profane: East and West, a collection of Frithjof Schuon’s selected writings on art, and the co-editor of the forthcoming A King James Christmas: Biblical Selections with Illustrations from Around the World, which also features many of her paintings as illustrations.

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Keith Critchlow

Prof. Keith Critchlow is the cofounder of the journal Temenos, as well as the author of numerous books on sacred geometry, including Order in Space and Time Stands Still. He is Professor Emeritus at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London, and a former professor of Islamic Art at the Royal College of Art. Dr. Critchlow, a leading expert in sacred architecture, also founded Kairos, a society that investigates, studies, and promotes traditional values of art and science.

For World Wisdom, Dr. Crithchlow has written the forewords to:

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Reviews of Art from the Sacred to the Profane

“Catherine Schuon has assembled extracts from [Frithjof Schuon's] writings and, crucially, has fleshed out their insights and observations with a selection of pertinent and illuminating illustrations. These add a vital dimension to the texts which have hitherto been without the benefits illustration provides. There is also a useful Bibliography of the sources from which these excerpts are taken. The short but perceptive Foreword focuses perfectly on what essentially is required to approach these writings…. There is no more reliable guide to the profoundest implications of what this reciprocity of making and being made means than these texts. Schuon moves seamlessly from culture to culture, from art to art to show, always with an infallible grasp of the primordial reality underlying their manifold approaches and expressions, how we are, according to volition, either plunged into or excluded from the numinous order of Reality.”
Temenos Academy Review, issue #10

"This beautiful book allows us to glimpse the world of art through the eyes of Frithjof Schuon, for whom contemplation of the Real was at one with assimilation of the Beautiful. All of Schuon’s magisterial discourses on art are not only coherently integrated into this single volume; they are vividly complemented by appropriate illustrations, judiciously selected by one whose own artistic sensibility was fashioned entirely by Schuon’s vision of the beauty of Reality."
Reza Shah-Kazemi, author of Paths to Transcendence

"Frithjof Schuon's masterly writings on sacred art explicate immutable principles and illuminate their infinitely varied applications in religious iconography and in traditional arts and crafts. This sovereign metaphysician of the age was fully alive to the spiritual resonances of Beauty in all its manifestations; conversely, he exposed the sterility of a modernistic art which is never more than 'aesthetic'. We are indebted to Mrs Schuon for the loving care which has informed the editing, illustration and production of this resplendent volume. It is nothing less than a storehouse of insight and wisdom on the boundless realms of Tradition and the integral role of art in the spiritual life."
Harry Oldmeadow, La Trobe University Bendigo, Australia

"This beautiful book, whose words and images have been so lovingly and discriminatingly assembled by Catherine Schuon, has the broadest coverage of any of the books on art that this writer has seen in forty years of teaching art and architecture. It should become the fundamental reference book for all comprehensive teaching of the visual arts, anywhere in the world."
Keith Critchlow, Professor Emeritus, The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts from the foreword

"A beautiful volume in which the intellective beauty of Schuon’s texts is mirrored in the aesthetic truth of the illustrations."
Patrick Laude, author of Singing the Way: Insights in Poetry and Spiritual Transformation

"Frithjof Schuon’s writings and reflections on art are scattered throughout his many books. Given the nature of the composition of these books there is more than a good case for collecting these specific writings into a single volume. Their importance would then be matched by the accessibility they deserve. In lieu of the larger collection, Catherine Schuon has assembled extracts from these writings and, importantly, fleshed out their insights and observations with a selection of pertinent and illuminating illustrations. These add a vital dimension to the texts which, hither to, have been without the benefits illustrations provides. More or less every current enumeration of art scholarship and appreciation is, literally, turned inside out. It is not simply a question of recognizing that Schuon goes back to first principles, but of incidentally noting that what often passes for first principles are little more than humanist formulae based on deductive observation and aesthetic convention. Schuon’s approach to the Universal nature of art begins beyond such formulae, not with historically based scholarships, but in the recognition of the divine nature of Reality. In this view art is primarily the externalization of transcendent, cosmic principles and secondarily the normative and integral expression of man’s deiformity through the medium of human production. Every one of his insights is rooted in this twofold approach, which in turn allows him, by means of a series of profoundly distilled and ‘poetic’ insights, to pierce to the heart of what, in a given religious and spiritual context, art is and why it matters to our ultimate nature and destiny. It is not his method to embed a work of art and our understanding of it in an historical context (thereby losing it to the museum of past achievement, crowded as it is with the minutiae or personal and circumstantial accidents of creative production), but to distill the living essence of its substance. From the fundamental monuments and images of a sacred tradition to the spiritual resonances of its crafts, its clothing and social ambience (even to the nakedness of the human form) Schuon makes it possible to intuit, in keeping with that substance, what is given as well as what it takes to conform to that, our normality, which resides beyond the human.

"It is always and everywhere true that man makes works of art, and it thereby and in turn made by them. What we contemplate we become; which explains both the aberrational art of our time and its repercussions, as well as such inspirational norms as the monuments, images, scriptures, arts and crafts of the sacred traditions. There is no more reliable a guide to the profoundest implications of what this reciprocity of marking and being made means than these texts. Schuon moves seamlessly from culture to culture, from art to art to show, always with an infallible grasp of the primordial reality underlying their manifold approaches and expressions, to show how we are, according to volition, either plunged into or excluded from the numinous order of reality."
Brian Keeble, author of Every Man An Artist: Readings In The Traditional Philosophy of Art

"Unlike almost every other writer on art in the 20th and 21st centuries – who focus on the historical, archaeological and stylistic aspects of the subject – Schuon answers the questions that every art student and seeker after truth wants to ask, namely: ‘what does it mean?' 'what is it for?' 'what kind of people produced it?’ Like all of his other writings, Schuon sums up the essential, stating clearly that: ‘the foundations of art lie in the spirit, in metaphysical, theological and mystical knowledge’; if art is based on a knowledge that transcends it (without which it has no right to exist) then it may perform its rightful role as a communicator of fundamental truths. All art, as Schuon observes with luminous clarity and objectivity, should not only open our eyes but more importantly, our hearts. Its radiating beauty should propel each and every one of us to retrace our path back to the Divine spirit within.

"By not only drawing together most of Schuon’s writings on art into one volume, but also sensitively and with great discernment, selecting relevant visual material to illustrate his points, Catherine Schuon and World Wisdom Books have done a monumental service to anyone interested in the true function and meaning of art.

"This book is truly a treasure and one that should be on the shelf of every serious art teacher and student as well as all those interested in understanding what the true message of art should be."
Emma Clark, author of Underneath Which Rivers Flow: The Symbolism of the Islamic Garden and Path Through the Islamic Garden

“Traditional art derives from a creativity which combines heavenly inspiration with ethnic genius, and which does so in the manner of a science endowed with rules and not by way of individual improvisation.” So pronounces Swiss-born Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998), who authored more than twenty-five books about religion during his lifetime and was a painter and poet as well. In this collection of writings, he discusses sacred and profane art in traditional civilizations.

Schuon’s writings on art are so extensive that here his wife/editor Catherine Schuon organizes his work into logical chapters, such as “On Beauty and the Sense of the Sacred,” “Hindu Art,” and even “The Art of Dress and Ambience.” Apparently this was no easy task: she admits that since Schuon often wrote in the same paragraph about different arts, she sometimes extracted specific passages from several works. The editor is to be commended for picking relevant illustrations to bolster her husband’s ideas; in fact, much of the book’s appeal lies in her interesting selections. For example, one page is filled with a single primordial symbol that is found on such varying objects as a fifth-century Swedish picture stone, a fifteenth-century Nigerian wooden seat, an undated Ethiopian processional cross, and a seventh-century Irish book page.

What people need in order to find meaning in their lives, to discover earthly happiness, according to Schuon, are religion and the crafts. The editor illustrates this principle with images of people engaged in traditional crafts around the world, from an Apache basket maker to an Iranian carpet weaver. Schuon is quite emphatic about what constitute “the rights” of art, that is, its principles and criteria: the technical, spiritual, and intellectual qualities of the work.

Further, Schuon states, “True genius can develop without making innovations.” It follows that he dislikes non-traditional, or naturalistic art, finding it too individualistic. Included in this category are the classical arts of antiquity and art from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century. In short, he claims, “The least that one can say is that it is not this kind of grandeur that brings us closer to Heaven.”

Fans of art from these time periods might not be endeared to Schuon. Readers might also bristle at the author’s dated racist generalizations about, for example, “the yellow man” when he discusses Asian art. Putting these concerns aside, the book is useful for an in-depth study of comparative religious art. Even more, it beckons readers to return to short topics of special interest and to peruse the editor’s illustration choices. Whether or not readers agree with the author’s premises, his writings certainly provoke thought, resulting in a book that will be referred to repeatedly.
Beth Hemke Shapiro, ForeWord Reviews July/August 2007

"A blending of religious images and words from around the world which comes from a teacher with forty years teaching art and architecture. Nearly three hundred color and black and white illustrations are designed to pair with the text, providing both written and visual illumination and accompanying discussions of art's connection to sacred worlds."
Midwest Book Review, The Bookwatch June 2007

“The photographs are clear, concise, and of the highest quality. I wanted to linger in the pages as they drew me in.”
Benjamin Franklin Awards Committee

Table of Contents for Art from the Sacred to the Profane

Foreword (by Keith Critchlow)

Preface (by Catherine Schuon)

Introduction (by Barbara Perry)

Principles and Criteria of Art

On Beauty and the Sense of the Sacred

Man and Art

Sacred Art

Naturalistic Art

Christian Art

Islamic Art

Hindu Art

Buddhist Art

Far-Eastern Art

Poetry, Music, and Dance

The Art of Dress and Ambience

List of Illustrations

Biographical Notes


Excerpts from Art from the Sacred to the Profane

The following excerpt is taken from the first essay, "Principles and Criteria of Art,"
in the book Art from the Sacred to the Profane: East and West

The fundamental importance of art both in the life of a collectivity and in the contemplative life, arises from the fact that man is himself “made in the image of God”: only man is such a direct image, in the sense that his form is an “axial” and “ascendant” perfection and his content a totality. Man by his theomorphism is at the same time a work of art and also an artist; a work of art because he is an “image,” and an artist because this image is that of the divine Artist. Man alone among earthly beings can think, speak, and produce works; only he can contemplate and realize the Infinite. Human art, like divine Art, includes both determinate and indeterminate aspects, aspects of necessity and of freedom, of rigor and of joy.

This cosmic polarity enables us to establish a primary distinction, namely the distinction between sacred and profane art: in sacred art what takes precedence over everything else is the content and use of the work; whereas in profane art these are but a pretext for the joys of creation. If within the framework of a traditional civilization art doubtless is never wholly profane, it may however become relatively so precisely because its motive force is to be found less in symbolism than in the creative instinct; such art is thus profane through the absence of a sacred subject or a spiritual symbolism but traditional through the formal discipline that governs its style.[1]

The position of non-traditional art is quite different: here there can be no question of sacred art and at most it may be called profane religious art; moreover the motive of such art is “passional” in the sense that an individualistic and undisciplined sentimentality is placed at the service of religious belief. Whether profane art is naturalistic and “religious,” like Christian art of modern times, or both traditional and worldly, like medieval European or Indo-Persian miniatures or Japanese wood-cuts, it often presupposes an extra-sacerdotal point of view and so a worldliness such as makes its appearance at a relatively late stage in the theocratic civilizations. In primordial periods art always was limited to either objects of ritual use or working tools and household objects, but even such tools and objects were, like the activities they implied, eminently symbolical and so connected with ritual and with the realm of the sacred.

If sacred art expresses what is spiritual either directly or indirectly, profane art must also express some value, unless it is to lose all legitimacy; the value it expresses, apart from the value of which every traditional style is the vehicle, is, first, the cosmic quality of its content and, secondly, the virtue and intelligence of the artist. Here it is therefore the subjective value of the man which predominates, but—and this is essential—that value is determined by the sacred, by the fact that the artist is integrated into a traditional civilization the genius of which he inevitably expresses; in other words, he makes himself the exponent, not only of personal, but also of collective values, since both alike are determined by the tradition in question. The genius is at the same time traditional and collective, spiritual and racial, and then personal; personal genius is nothing without the concurrence of a deeper and wider genius. Sacred art represents above all the spirit, and profane art the collective soul or genius, but this of course presupposes that it is integrated into the tradition. Taken together spiritual and collective genius make up traditional genius which gives its imprint to the whole civilization.[2]

*             *

Before going further we should perhaps define the term “sacred”; what then is the sacred in relation to the world? It is the interference of the uncreate in the created, of the eternal in time, of the infinite in space, of the supraformal in forms; it is the mysterious introduction into one realm of existence of a presence which in reality contains and transcends that realm and could cause it to burst asunder in a sort of divine explosion. The sacred is the incommensurable, the transcendent, hidden within a fragile form belonging to this world; it has its own precise rules, its terrible aspects, and its merciful qualities; moreover any violation of the sacred, even in art, has incalculable repercussions. Intrinsically the sacred is inviolable, and so much so that any attempted violation recoils on the head of the violator.

The supernatural value of sacred art arises from the fact that it conveys and communicates an intelligence which is lacking in the collectivity. Like virgin nature it has a quality and function of intelligence which it manifests through beauty because in essence it belongs to the formal order; sacred art is the form of the Supraformal, it is the image of the Uncreate, the language of Silence. But as soon as artistic initiative becomes detached from tradition, which links it to the sacred, this guarantee of intelligence fails and stupidity shows through everywhere: aestheticism is moreover the very last thing that can preserve us from this danger.

An art is sacred, not through the personal intention of the artist, but through its content, its symbolism, and its style, that is, through objective elements. By its content: the subject represented must be as prescribed either when following a canonical model or in a wider sense; always, however, it must be canonically determined. By its symbolism: the sacred personage, or the anthropomorphic symbol, must be clothed or adorned in a given manner and not differently and may be making certain gestures but not others. By its style: the image must be expressed in a particular hieratic formal language and not in some foreign or imagined style. In brief, the image must be sacred in its content, symbolical in its detail, and hieratic in its treatment; otherwise it will be lacking in spiritual truth, in liturgical quality, and—for all the more reason—in sacramental character. On pain of losing all right to existence, art has no right to infringe these rules and has the less interest in doing so since these seeming restrictions confer on it, by their intellectual and aesthetic truth, qualities of depth and power. such as the individual artist has very small chance of drawing out of himself.


[1] In Masonic terminology God is “The Great Architect of the Universe,” but He is also a painter, sculptor, musician, and poet; there is a Hindu symbolism which represents Him as creating and destroying the worlds as He dances.

[2] In traditional art are to be found creations—or rather what might well be called revelations—which may appear unimportant to those who are prejudiced in favor of individual “masterpieces” as well as from the standpoint of the “classical” categories of art; but these creations are nonetheless among the irreplaceable works of human genius. Such are the Nordic decorations, so rich in primordial symbols, the motifs of which are also to be found in the folk art of most European countries, in Asia, and indeed even in the depths of the Sahara; such also are the Abyssinian processional crosses, the Shinto toriis, the majestic eagle-feather headdresses of the American Indians, and the Hindu saris in which splendid dignity is combined with grace.

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