Principles and Criteria of Art

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 [see ills. 8, 9, and 10], 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 [see ills. 18 and 19], 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.
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; ars sine scientia nihil.
      Within the framework of a traditional civilization, there is as already mentioned a distinction to be made between sacred art and profane art. The purpose of the first is to communicate, on the one hand, spiritual truths and, on the other hand, a celestial presence; sacerdotal art has in principle a truly sacramental function. The function of profane art is obviously more modest: it consists in providing what theologians call “sensible consolations,” with a view to an equilibrium conducive to the spiritual life, rather in the manner of the flowers and birds in a garden. The purpose of art of every kind—and this includes craftsmanship—is to create a climate and forge a mentality; it thus rejoins, directly or indirectly, the function of interiorizing contemplation, the Hindu darshan: contemplation of a holy man, of a sacred place, of a venerable object, of a Divine image.
      Sacred art is vertical and ascending, whereas profane art is horizontal and equilibrating. In the beginning, nothing was profane; each tool was a symbol, and even decoration was symbolistic and sacral. With the passage of time, however, the imagination increasingly spread itself on the earthly plane, and man felt the need for an art that was for him and not for Heaven alone; the earth too, which in the beginning was experienced as a prolongation or an image of Heaven, progressively became earth pure and simple, that is to say that the human being increasingly felt himself to possess the right to be merely human. If religion tolerates this art, it is because it nevertheless has its legitimate function in the economy of spiritual means, within the horizontal or earthly dimension, and with the vertical or heavenly dimension in view.
      However, it must be reiterated here that the distinction between a sacred and a profane art is inadequate and too precipitate when one wishes to take account of all artistic possibilities;3 and it is therefore necessary to have recourse to a supplementary distinction, namely that between a liturgical and an extra-liturgical art: in the first, although in principle it coincides with sacred art, there may be modalities that are more or less profane, just as inversely, extra-liturgical art may comprise some sacred manifestations.
      Sacred art is far from always being perfect, although it is necessarily so in its principles and in the best of its productions; nevertheless in the great majority of imperfect works, the principles compensate for the accidental weaknesses, rather as gold, from a certain point of view, can compensate for the but slight artistic value of a given object. Two pitfalls lie in wait for sacred art and for traditional art in general: a virtuosity tending towards the outward and the superficial, and a conventionalism without intelligence and without soul; but this, it must be stressed, rarely deprives sacred art of its overall efficacy, and in particular of its capacity to create a stabilizing and interiorizing atmosphere. As for imperfection, one of its causes can be the inexperience, if not the incompetence of the artist; the most primitive works are rarely the most perfect, for in the history of art there are periods of apprenticeship just as later there are periods of decadence, the latter often being due to virtuosity. Another cause of imperfection is unintelligence, either individual or collective: the image may be lacking in quality because the artist—the word here having an approximate meaning—is lacking in intelligence or spirituality, but it may likewise bear the imprint of a certain collective unintelligence that comes from the sentimental conventionalization of the common religion; in this case, the collective psychism clothes the spiritual element with a kind of “pious stupidity,” for if there is a naïveté that is charming, there is also a naïveté that is moralistic and irritating. This must be said lest anyone should think that artistic expressions of the sacred dispense us from discernment and oblige us to be prejudiced, and so that no one should forget that in the traditional domain in general, there is on all planes a constant struggle between a solidifying tendency and a tendency towards transparency which draws the psychic back to the spiritual. All of this may be summed up by saying that sacred art is sacred in itself, but that it is not necessarily so in all its expressions.
The rights of art, or more exactly of the artist, lie in the technical, spiritual, and intellectual qualities of the work; these three qualities are so many modes of originality. In other words the artist can be original through the aesthetic quality of his work, by the nobility or piety reflected in it, and by the intelligence or knowledge which enables him to find inexhaustible variations within the framework laid down by tradition. sacred art proves that this framework is relatively wide: it does indeed restrict incapacity but not either talent or intelligence. True genius can develop without making innovations: it attains perfection, depth, and power of expression almost imperceptibly by means of the imponderables of truth and beauty ripened in that humility without which there can be no true greatness. From the point of view of sacred art or even from that of merely traditional art, to know whether a work is an original or a copy is a matter of no concern: in a series of copies of a single canonical model one of them, which may be less “original” than some other, is a work of genius through a concatenation of precious conditions which have nothing to do with any affectation of originality or other mind-set of the ego.
      Apart from its function as a direct aid to spirituality, sacred art is indispensable as a support for the intelligence of the collectivity: to abolish sacred art as was done in the Renaissance, or in Greece in the fifth century B.C., is to abolish that intelligence—one might say that intellectuality—and so to give free rein to a sensibility that is passional and henceforth ungovernable.4 Moreover the theological function of religious art must not be overlooked: art should by its determinate aspects teach revealed truths, that is, by its types or models, and it should suggest spiritual perfumes by subtle aspects which will depend on the intuition of the artist. Now, naturalistic religious art makes truth hard to believe and virtue odious for the simple reason that in it truth is overwhelmed by the stridency of a necessarily false description and virtue is drowned in an almost unavoidable hypocrisy; naturalism compels the artist to represent what he could not have seen as if he had seen it, and to manifest sublime virtue as if he himself possessed it [see ills. 31, 32, and 33].
      This teaching function is also incumbent, though far less directly, on profane art when it is linked to the tradition by its style and by the mentality of the artist; in European medieval miniatures can be discerned an expression of the Christian spirit doubtless indirect, but nonetheless intelligible. The opportuneness of profane art is, however, psychological rather than spiritual, so that it always remains something of a two-edged sword or a “lesser ill” and one must not be surprised at the severe condemnations launched against profane art in periods still stamped with a sacerdotal outlook. Here as in other fields the functions of things may vary according to circumstances.
Scriptures, anagogy, and art are derived from Revelation, though at very different degrees. Scriptures are the direct expression of the Speech of Heaven, whereas anagogy is its inspired and indispensable commentary;5 art constitutes as it were the extreme limit or material shell of the tradition and thus, by virtue of the law that “extremes meet,” rejoins what is most inward in it, so that art is itself inseparable from inspiration. Anagogy is the vehicle for metaphysical and mystical intelligence—aside from its purely legal interpretation—whereas art is the support of the collective intelligence and is contingent to the same degree as is the collectivity as such. In other words, scriptural Revelation is accompanied by two secondary currents, the one inward and indispensable for contemplative men, the other outward and indispensable for the generality of people. For the sage there is no common measure between the commentary on Scripture and art; he may even do without the latter provided it be replaced by a void or by virgin nature and not by a falsified art. For the tradition as a whole, however, art assumes an importance almost as great as exegesis, since tradition cannot manifest itself apart from forms. Again, if the elite have far more need of exegesis than of art, the generality of people have on the contrary far more need of art than of metaphysical and mystical doctrines; but, since the elite depend “physically” on the whole collectivity, they too indirectly have need of art.
      Commentary in the widest sense, however, comprises an aspect that is outward because it treats, among other things, of exoteric questions. Conversely, art has an aspect that is inward and profound by virtue of its symbolism; it then fulfills a different function and speaks directly to the contemplative mind: in this way it becomes a support for intellection, thanks to its non-mental, concrete, and direct language. Besides the metaphysical and mystical commentary on Scripture there is a legal and moral commentary addressed to the community as a whole, just as there is, besides the formal and collective function of art, a function that is strictly spiritual and esoteric. Seen from the latter point of view, art will be more inward and more profound than verbal expositions, and this explains the central function which a sacred image, such as that of the Buddha, can assume. There is a highly significant connection between the loss of a sacred art and the loss of anagogy, as is shown by the Renaissance: naturalism could not kill symbolism—sacred art—without humanism killing anagogy and, with it, gnosis. This is so because these two elements, anagogical science and symbolical art, are essentially related to pure intellectuality.
We have already seen that the definition, laws, and criteria of art cannot be derived from art itself, that is, from the competence of the artist as such; the foundations of art lie in the spirit, in metaphysical, theological, and mystical knowledge, not in knowledge of the craft alone nor yet in genius, for this may be just anything; in other words the intrinsic principles of art are essentially subordinate to extrinsic principles of a higher order. Art is an activity, an exteriorization, and thus depends by definition on a knowledge that transcends it and gives it order; apart from such knowledge, art has no justification: it is knowledge which determines action, manifestation, form, and not the reverse.
What defenders of surrealist tendencies either forget or do not know is above all that forms, whether in pictures, in sculpture, in architecture, or in some other medium, arise from a hierarchy of cosmic values and translate either truths or errors so that there is no place here for adventuring; the psychological efficacy of forms, so beneficial when they are true, makes them on the contrary deadly if they are false.
      When art ceases to be traditional and becomes human, individual, and therefore arbitrary, that is infallibly the sign—and secondarily the cause—of an intellectual decline, a weakening, which, in the sight of those who are skilled in the “discernment of spirits” and who look upon things with an unprejudiced eye, is expressed by the more or less in­coherent and spiritually insignificant, we would go even as far as to say unintelligible character of the forms.
      We are referring here to the decadence of certain branches of religious art during the Gothic period, especially in its latter part, and to Western art as a whole from the Renaissance onward: Christian art ( architecture, sculp­ture, painting, liturgical goldsmithery, and so on) which formerly was sacred, symbolical, and spiritual, had to give way before the invasion of neo-­antique and naturalistic, individualistic, and sentimental art [see ills. 31, 32, and 33]; this art, which contained absolutely nothing “miraculous”—no matter what those who be­lieve in the “Greek miracle” may care to think—is quite unfitted for the transmission of intellectual intuitions and no longer answers to anything higher than collective psychic aspirations; it is thus as far removed as can be from intellectual contemplation and takes into consideration senti­mentality only; moreover, sentimentality debases itself in the measure that it caters to the needs of the masses, until it ends in a saccharine and pathetic vulgarity. It is strange that no one has understood to what a degree this barbarism of forms, which reached a zenith of hollow and miserable boasting in the period of Louis XV, contributed—and still contributes­—to driving many souls (and by no means the worst) away from the Church; they feel literally choked in surroundings that do not allow their intel­ligence room to breathe. Nothing is able to offer to irreligion a more immediately tangible nour­ishment than the insipid hypocrisy of religious images; that which was meant to stimulate piety in the believer but serves to confirm unbelievers in their impiety, whereas it must be recognized that genuinely sacred art does not possess this character of a “two-edged sword,” for being itself more ab­stract, it offers less hold to hostile psychological reactions.
      It is solely and exclusively traditional art [see ill. 34]—in the widest sense of the word, implying all that is of an externally formal order, and therefore a fortiori everything that belongs in some way or other to the ritual domain—it is only this art, transmitted with tradition and by tradition, that can guarantee the adequate analogical correspondence between the Divine and the cosmic orders, on the one hand, and the human or artistic order on the other. As a result, the traditional artist does not limit himself simply to imitating nature, but to “imitating nature in her manner of operation” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I. qu. 177, a. I) and it goes without saying that the artist cannot, with his own individual means, improvise such a cosmological operation. It is by the entirely adequate conformity of the artist to this “manner of operation,” a conformity that is subordinated to the rules of tradition, that the masterpiece is created.                     
      Thus forms, even the most unimportant, are the work of human hands in a secondary manner only; they originate first and foremost from the same suprahuman source from which all tradition origi­nates, which is another way of saying that the artist who lives in a traditional world without fissures works under the discipline or the inspiration of a genius that surpasses him; fundamentally he is but the instrument of this genius, if only from the fact of his craftsman’s qualification.
      In a world where traditional art is dead, where consequently form itself is invaded by everything that is contrary to spirituality and where nearly every formal expression is corrupted at its very roots, the traditional regularity of forms takes on a very special spiritual importance that it could not have possessed at the beginning, since the absence of the spirit in forms was then inconceivable.
Let us, however, return to the plastic arts and add the following, which will at the same time serve as a conclusion: for contemporary artists and insofar as profane art is concerned, there can be no question of just “going back,” for one never gets back to one’s starting point; rather should the valid experiments of naturalism and impressionism be combined with the principles of normal and normalizing art as is in fact done by some artists who are in general little known; modern art—starting from the Renaissance—does include some more or less isolated works which, though they fit into the style of their period, are in a deeper sense opposed to it and neutralize its errors by their own qualities.6 However, in the case of sacred art resort to canonical models and treatment is called for without reservation, for if there is in modern man an originality to which a human being may have a right, this will not fail to show itself within the framework of tradition, as already happened in the Middle Ages according to the diverse mentalities in space and time. But above all, it is necessary to relearn how to see and to look, and to understand that the sacred belongs to the field of the immutable and not to that of change.
      Insofar as profane art can be legitimate—and it can be, more than ever before, in this period of disfigurement and vulgarity—its mission is one of transmitting qualities of intelligence, beauty, and nobility; and this is something which cannot be realized apart from the rules which are imposed on us, not only by the very nature of the art in question, but also by the spiritual truth flowing from the divine prototype of every human creation.


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 [see ill. 11].
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.
3 Traditional profane art never loses all contact with the sacred; in the prints of a Hokusai, an Utamaro, or Hiroshige, there exists something contemplative and rigorous which makes one think of Zen Taoism; the same holds true—a fortiori perhaps—for tools, clothing, houses, where the sacred and profane are often intimately linked. The primitive tool is often a revelation and a symbol and thus also a “spiritual instrument.”
4 It is, of course, the “collective intelligence” which is here in question, not intelligence in itself: Greek decadence did not affect the spirit of a man like Plato. If, however, the collective intelligence is compromised, that clearly will render the unfolding of particular intelligences more uncertain. What Greek decadence had destroyed, Christianity recreated to last for a thousand years.
5 We are referring to essential commentaries whose inspiration, though secondary, is nonetheless a necessary concomitant of Revelation; other commentaries, whether metaphysical, mystical, or legal, may not be indispensable.
6 Of famous or well-known painters the elder Brueghel’s snow scenes may be quoted and, nearer to our day, Gauguin, some of whose canvases are almost perfect, Van Gogh’s flower paintings, Douanier Rousseau with his exotic forests akin to folk painting, and, among our contemporaries, Covarrubias with his Mexican and Balinese subjects. We might perhaps also allude to certain American Indian painters whose work shows, through a naturalistic influence, a vision close to that of the ancient pictography. Conversely, equivalents of the positive experiments of modern art can be found in the most varied of traditional art, which proves not only that these experiments are compatible with the universal principles of art, but also that—once again— “there is nothing new under the sun.”