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What is Sacred Art?
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Shakyamuni Buddha, on a Tibetan "thangka" (cloth painting), from the mid-15th century. In the words of Titus Burckhardt, depictions of the Buddha seated on the lotus throne are meant to express "the immense calm of the Spirit awakened to Itself."

All elements of the painting, including gestures, are symbolic of spiritual or cosmic realities--nothing is gratuitous or simply decorative. The dimensions of the holy body of the Buddha are rigorously determined by tradition, and, Burckhardt notes, there is a "hidden analogy" between images of the Buddha and the shape of Tibetan stupas.

For a wonderful, in-depth key to understanding Buddhist iconography, see Chapter 5 of Burckhardt's Sacred Art in East and West.


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To create sacred art, an artist must do no less than to give form to realities that are, in the Divine Realm, formless. Just as the Word of God is sent down to a specific people in a language and form that is intelligible and compelling to them, so, too, reciprocally, must the practitioner of sacred art utilize a particular 'language' and form to consecrate his or her work in order that it might ascend to rejoin its heavenly archetype and 'transport' other believers in the community there as well. This very difficult task requires contemplative intelligence, artistic skill, knowledge of the traditional framework within which the work is validated, and, perhaps most difficult of all, an ego that does not impose itself upon the process!

Clearly, not just any artist can be the catalyst in giving shape to the Divine. It requires a person who knows and can work within his or her tradition, who can perceive God's Presence in the world, and who has mastery of the chosen art. Implicit in all this is the need for that artist to hold in check the impulses of the ego to control the production of the piece of art, instead turning in full humility to God and the Tradition to guide him or her in producing the work of sacred art. Such qualifications and conditions for their development rarely spring from an individual working in isolation, but are almost always the result of affiliation with a traditional "school" of some type.

Such traditional schools offer a link with the earliest days of the tradition and, through a Master-student model, sometimes bear striking resemblance to schools of esoteric spiritual transmission. The student/apprentice may learn special spiritual disciplines—which will probably include, for example, some type of purifying prayers—that will prepare him to undertake the sacred task of representing the Divine in earthbound media. There will be a science of proportions, materials, and so on, transmitted to the student. The craft guilds of the Middle Ages that were responsible for the creation of Europe's great cathedrals over the passage of several generations, as well as the monastery-run schools in traditional Tibet where such masterpieces as the thangka pictured to the left, are two examples of how the creation of sacred art is guaranteed by a living tradition.
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