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  What is Sacred Art ? Back to the List of Slideshows

The Datasha Gallery of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

Burckhardt wrote another defining book on sacred art, this one titled Art of  Islam: Language and Meaning  (Islamic Festival Trust Ltd., 1976). This book, too, can add much to our understanding of sacred art in general as well as how it is manifested within the Islamic tradtion.

Here are some more insights into the sacred architecture of Islam from Sacred Art in East and West :

"Some people reproach Islamic architecture with failing to accentuate the functional aspect of the elements of a building, as does the architecture of the Renaissance, which reinforces heavily loaded elements and lines of tension, thus conferring on constructional elements a sort of organic consciousness. But according to the perspective of Islam, to do so implies nothing than a confusion between two orders of reality and a lack of intellectual sincerity: if slender columns can in fact carry the load of a vault, what is the good of artificially attributing to them a state of tension, which anyhow is not in the nature of a mineral? In another aspect, Islamic architecture does not seek to do away with the heaviness of stone by giving it an ascending movement, as does Gothic art; static equilibrium demands immobility, but the crude material is as it were lightened and rendered diaphanous by the chiseling of the arabesques and by carvings in the form of stalactites and hollows, which present thousands of facets to the light and confer on stone and stucco the quality of precious jewels. The arcades of a court of the Alhambra, for example, or of certain Northwest African mosques, repose in perfect calm; at the same time they seem to be woven of luminous vibrations. They are like light made crystalline; their innermost substance one might say, is not stone but the Divine Light, the creative Intelligence that resides mysteriously in all things."


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As we have seen, sacred art must respect the metaphysics and cosmology of the tradition from which it springs. When presented to outsiders, this may create, understandably, a lack of comprehension. Like much else about Islam, at first glance its restriction on the depiction of people in its sacred art is difficult for many Westerners to comprehend. In Chapter 4 of Sacred Art in East and West , The Foundation of Islamic Art, Burckhardt explains that the style of the art of Islam flows naturally from the view of the awesome transcendence, unity, and independence of God and the lack of comparison between this and all other creation:

"Unity, in itself eminently ‘concrete,’ nevertheless presents itself to the human mind as an abstract idea. This fact, together with certain considerations, connected with the Semitic mentality, explains the abstract character of Islamic art. Islam is centered on Unity, and Unity is not expressible in terms of any image.

"The prohibition of images in Islam is not however absolute. A plane image is tolerated as an element in profane art, on condition that it represents neither God nor the face of the Prophet; on the other hand an image ‘that casts a shadow’ is only tolerated exceptionally, when it represents a stylized animal, as may happen in the architecture of palaces or in jewelry. In a general way the representation of plants and fantastic animals is expressly allowed, but in sacred art stylized plant forms are alone admitted.

"The absence of images in mosques has two purposes. One is negative, namely, that of eliminating a ’presence’ which might set itself up against the Presence—albeit invisible—of God, and which might in addition become a source of error because of the imperfection of all symbols; the other and positive purpose is that of affirming the transcendence of God, since the Divine Essence cannot be compared with anything whatsoever."

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