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The Sermon of All Creation: Christians on Nature
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What is Sacred Art?
Spiritual Poetry
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  What is Sacred Art ? Back to the List of Slideshows

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What modern Westerners ask of art, and see in art, is a far cry from the purpose and power of traditional art in the Far East, as exemplified, for example, by Taoist-Buddhist landscape paintings. A sensitive viewer cannot help but feel the 'mystery' of a Taoist painting, but it is another matter to enter into the spirit of this sacred art and to see the painting, and through it the natural world around us, as a reflection of a Reality that both entices and eludes us. Here are some excerpts from Chapter 6 of Sacred Art in East and West  that offer us glimpses of what lies behind the mists of this evocative art:

"In the earliest Chinese representations of landscapes, engraved on metal mirrors, on bowls or on funereal slabs, beings and objects seem to be subordinated to the play of the elements, wind, fire, water and earth. To express the movement of clouds, water and fire, various kinds of curvilinear methods are used; rocks are conceived as an ascending movement of the earth; trees are defined less by their static outlines than by their structure, which reveals the rhythm of their growth. The cosmic alternation of Yang and Yin, the active and the passive, is apparent in every form or composition."

"All the elements, mountains, trees and clouds, are there only in order to emphasize by contrast the void out of which they seem to have arisen at that very instant, and from which they are detached like ephemeral islets."

"The composition is made up of allusions and evocations, in accordance with this saying from the Tao T King: 'The greatest perfection must appear imperfect, and then it will be infinite in its effect; the greatest abundance must appear empty, and then it will be inexhaustible in its effect.' Never does a Chinese or Japanese painter represent the world in the likeness of a finished cosmos, and in this respect his vision is as different as possible from that of a Westerner, even of a traditional Westerner, whose conception of the world is always more or less ‘architectural.' A Far Eastern painter is a contemplative, and for him the world is as if it were made of snowflakes, quickly crystallized and soon dissolved. Since he is never unconscious of the non-manifested, the least solidified physical conditions are for him the nearer to the Reality underlying all phenomena; hence the subtle observation of atmosphere that we admire in Chinese paintings in ink and wash."

A mountain landscape from a Taoist painting attributed to Fan K'uan, from the Sung Dynasty period.

Of this type of Eastern painting, whether Taoist or dhyana  Buddhist, Burkhardt observes:

"In this style of painting there is no strict perspective, centered on a single point, but space is suggested by a sort of ‘progressive vision.’ When looking at a ‘vertical’ picture, hung on the wall at the height of a seated observer, the eye as it were climbs up the steps of the distance, from bottom to top; a ‘horizontal picture is unrolled from one end to the other as it is examined, and the eye follows the movement. This ‘progressive vision’ does not separate space completely from time, and for that reason it is nearer to the truth of experience than is a perspective artificially arrested on a single ‘viewpoint.’ Moreover all traditional arts, whatever their methods, work towards a synthesis of space and time."

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