Mysticism and the Visual Arts

Ingrid Falque, FNRS – UCLouvain, Ingrid.falque@uclouvain.be

Elliott D. Wise, Brigham Young University, elliott_wise@byu.edu

Mysticism – or the soul’s ascent towards transcendent unification with the divine – occupies an important, albeit often unstable, position in many religions. In Christianity, mysticism straddles a liminal space, blurring dichotomies of darkness and light, life and death, active and contemplative, clerical authority and revelation. Mysticism is often rooted in personal experience, and textually or visually recording it presents unique challenges. Sometimes, in fact, mysticism shuns pictorial images. At other times, it embraces them as instruments of purgation and illumination, didactic tools and ‘stepping-stones’ to exalted vision. Elaborate iconographies undergird mysticism in Tantric Buddhism, and even within less image-based faiths, such as Islam, Sufi mystics use calligraphic ‘pictures’ of words – or even the abstract beauty of a single letter – to meditate on Quranic truths. In Judaism, too, though generally image-averse, adherents of Kabbalah have tied mystical experience to biblical prototypes such as Ezekiel’s vision of God’s chariot (merkavah).

Given the varying degrees of dependence and hostility between mysticism and images, scholars have employed a range of methodologies to investigate mystical visual culture. Close studies of images alongside mystical texts have proved particularly fruitful. This session invites papers that consider the visual alongside the textual as tools of medieval and early modern mystical discourse. Among other things, topics could address visual exegesis through typology, parables and allegory; Christian images inspired by vernacular spiritual texts; mental images, such as depictions of sefirot in Kabbalah; creation and destruction, as in Tibetan mandalas; materiality; verbal image-making, such as ekphrasis; reformations of the soul; and aniconic vision.


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