Mysticism and the Visual Arts

Ingrid Falque, FNRS – UCLouvain,

Elliott D. Wise, Brigham Young University,

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.

Speakers & Abstracts

Mirror Calligraphy: A path of return to the Source

Esra Akın-Kıvanç (University of South Florida, College of The Arts, School of Art and Art History)

Composed of a source text and its mirror image arranged in bilateral symmetry, muthanna (mirror writing) is a compelling calligraphic design in Islamic art. Despite its 13th-century history and ubiquitous presence in diverse locales from Jerusalem to Spain, the meaning of muthanna has eluded scholars, who have described it as a symbol of God or the human being, or simply as an enigma. Focusing on non-figural muthannas featuring Qur’anic texts and interpreting them in relation to Islamic eschatology, this paper argues that the art form is a visual expression of Islamic belief in the ultimate condition of life: return to the Source. To elucidate muthanna’s conceptual framework, the paper begins with a discussion of the competing theories of ‘unity of being’ and ‘unity of appearance’ by Ibn al-‘Arabi and Ahmad Sirhindi, respectively. A consideration of al-‘Arabi’s argument for the possibility of union with God and Sirhindi’s vehement rejection of it facilitates my entry into a Foucauldian ‘third space’ wherein I locate muthanna’s modus operandi. Within that third space, muthanna artists transcend the boundaries of unilinear calligraphy that allow for only aesthetic representation without interpretation; and they re-present God’s word to mirror the relationship between the Creator and his creation: what has come from him will return to him. In these text-images with two sides that may touch or overlap, but never annihilate one another, calligraphers offer the viewer visible, tangible and lasting encounters beyond mystical experiences and philosophical discourses. In form and meaning, mirror calligraphy thus comprises an aesthetic exegesis of the Qur’an.

The Body of Christ in Early Modern Passion Narratives: Image, relic and experience

Andrew Horn (University of St. Andrews)

Early modern Catholic religious culture is known for a widely popularised method of prayer which involves employing the inner senses to recall scenes from Christ’s life in the most vivid possible terms, in order to enter the sacred narrative and imagine oneself present as a participant. This method of prayer, often associated with the Spiritual Exercises (1548) of St Ignatius of Loyola, is based on a centuries-old tradition evidenced in late medieval Franciscan, Carthusian and Benedictine texts. At the centre of such narratives, and at the centre of Christian belief, is the body of Christ: one is called to adore his divinity as represented in his bodily perfection but also to identify with his humanity as represented in his bodily suffering. In this paper I propose a kind of mysticism not divorced from or seeking to transcend the body or the physical senses, but in fact centring on them, as one engages in an embodied, performed response to both relics and works of art representing or associated with the Passion and Christ’s suffering. This process, guided by relevant devotional texts, is meant to lead the believer to identification with Christ’s experience as well as greater understanding of the meaning of his sacrifice. As I consider the relics of the Passion in Carlo Borromeo’s Milan and the rituals and devotions associated with them, paintings of the tortured and dead Christ by artists including Caravaggio and Zurbarán, and the striking multimedia Passion scenes of the Sacro Monte of Varallo, I will argue that the physical senses and bodily experience – including movement, gesture and penitential practice – function together with the inner senses and the imagination to achieve the ultimate goal of union with Christ.

Potent Piety: A Marian altarpiece (1577–78) at the Innsbruck Court

Stella Wisgrill (University of Cambridge)

In 1577, Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol (1529–95), best known to scholars today for his Ambras Kunst- and Wunderkammer collection, commissioned an extraordinary Marian altarpiece for his sepulchral chapel in the Innsbruck Court Church. In its initial setting, the retable became a devotional climax to both a physical and mental upward journey, a simile frequently found in Christian mystical traditions. After ascending the steps from the main church space to the chapel, the beholder would have been confronted with the ostentatious use of silver in the altarpiece, which materially visualises Mary’s ascent as Queen of Heavenly Jerusalem. At the centre, the chased reliefs show Mary being crowned by two angels, while the outer reliefs expound her immaculacy both pictorially and in script, in the popular iconographic type of the Virgin tota pulchra. The silver, with its associations of purity, symbolically praises Mary as Virgin of Virgins. Moreover, the costly precious metal also pictures her queenship. While the altar’s iconography is deeply embedded within local traditions of piety, it is also informed by the latest theological developments and meditative practices. Similarly, the bright red ceiling and its angelic detail make tangible the Virgin’s proximity to the divine, stressing her potency as intercessor. By considering the chapel’s ritual and spatial context, this paper analyses how these elements became potent tools for the beholder to use in making sense of ontological states, both human and divine, and how devotional practice could guide their pious souls on their journey both in this world and beyond.

‘Fixing Our Eyes on Thee’: Sight, presence and mystical communion in El Greco’s St. Veronica’s Veil

Katharine Davidson Bekker (Brigham Young University)

Images of Christ’s Holy Face, originating with the sudarium forged on the Via dolorosa when Christ miraculously imprinted his likeness on the cloth proffered by St. Veronica, are widely utilised in late medieval and early modern Christian art as a means of encouraging devotion. With their allusions to the gaze of Christ, the mystery of Incarnation and the paradox of hypostatic union, images of the sudarium often accompany mystical theology and experience.

El Greco (1541–1614) was a Greek-born painter who spent much of his career in Toledo, Spain, during the Tridentine Reform and who frequently treated the subject of the sudarium. El Greco’s St. Veronica’s Veil (ca. 1580) is atypical of sudarium depictions in that it is signed: an artist’s signature is unusual on an image of something that was created non manufactum. Expanding on a current understanding of such images as this as ‘artful icons’, I argue that the signature creates a mystical relationship between painter and subject that typifies and precedes a similar relationship between the beholder and the depicted Christ. The image thus becomes a catalyst for imaginative communion with the Saviour. The nature of Holy Face images as a genre, as well as the unique attributes of this particular painting, read in the context of writings from contemporary Spanish mystics and pertinent optical philosophers, allows El Greco’s image of St. Veronica’s Veil to become a means of intimate and reciprocal exchange between the lover and the beloved, the saved and the Saviour, the disciple and the Lord.

Sensing the Numinous: Ascension, descension and transformation in the Roman artistic imagination

Erik Yingling (Stanford Department of Art and Art History)

Roman artistic and literary representations of metamorphosis often depict gods descending to earth or mortals ascending to heaven. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, mortals such as Romulus ascend and are changed into divine forms in a blaze of light, while gods like Jupiter often descend to earth disguised in altered bodily forms (e.g. animals, poor wayfarers). Although scholars have studied the iconography of metamorphosis (positing helpful typologies and adducing mythological sources), such approaches do not account for the tensions, which I maintain, are central to metamorphic representation. How could an image depict visible skins yet hidden souls, fleshy materiality yet soulful immateriality, and unchanging identity within a world of fluctuating forms? And how could mortals perceive divine epiphanies when divine disguises so frequently thwarted the sense of sight? Such questions guide my thinking about the numinous and mystical aspects of the metamorphic image in Roman art, as I explore the image’s morphology, evocative material qualities and sensory possibilities.

Artistic examples include a representation of Europa and the Bull (Pompeii), cameos that envision deified mortals and comparanda, including a well-head that depicts the myth of Narcissus and Echo (c. 100 BCE–200 CE). If we seek a better understanding of transformative ascent and divine epiphany in the Roman artistic imagination, it will be critical to probe the phenomenological aspects of metamorphic representation.

The Science of Light in the Spiritualist Works of Evelyn De Morgan

Emily Snow (Independent Scholar)

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) was an English painter and, behind closed doors, a practised spirit medium. Her paintings have historically been characterised by a unique amalgamation of her association with the Pre-Raphaelites, her time in Great Britain and Italy, and her involvement in Victorian-era spiritualism, a movement that became fairly mainstream in her lifetime. De Morgan was especially fascinated by the ascent of the soul beyond the physical world and increasingly explored this subject in her later works.

From about 1900 until her death in 1919, De Morgan’s paintings demonstrate the height of her desire to reconcile the material and the mystical realms. To visually express her personal theology as it evolved, De Morgan gravitated towards the concept of light both spiritually and scientifically. I will discuss how De Morgan likely gleaned concepts and imagery from 19th-century science publications on light, including well-known writings on prismatic refraction and chromo-mentalism, to formulate and legitimise the unique spiritualist iconography present in her later works. I will also discuss how she viewed and utilised scientific principles in tandem with contemporary spiritualist discourse, including an anonymously published compilation of her own automatic writing transcripts, aptly titled The Result of an Experiment.

Much like a glass prism can be used to expand the scope of the visible world, the act of studying and painting light was the means by which Evelyn De Morgan attempted to materialise the mystical and bridge the gap between science and spiritualism.

The Ghostly Other: A Study of the relationship between spiritualism, psychoanalysis and Surrealism through reflections of mortality

Alexa Jade Frankelis (Stony Brook University)

During the 19th century, death was a present theme in writings about spiritualism and mediums, which revived interest in metaphysical texts due to quickly developing media and communication technologies during the Second Industrial Revolution. With technologies that either suspended time visually, or allowed people to communicate with others almost instantaneously through coded electrical messages, a new belief system developed as responses to these new modes of communications. Instead of using these technologies in their practice, spiritualists adapted some of the principles of these devices into themselves, so their bodies could serve as an autonomous conduit between the living and dead. It was this inquiry into the uncanny that first attracted Breton to access the unconscious through automatic practices adapted from the methodology of telecommunication technologies. This utilisation of automatic techniques, in the areas of spiritualism, psychoanalysis and surrealism, often revolved around producing an uncanny or ghostly other: the ‘other’ being repressed within the individual (self). The uncanny of death induced by scientific peculiarities of new telecommunications technologies led to widespread exploration of ghostly phenomena in religion, science and art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whether it is spirit photography, hysterical fits or automatic messages, all shared must be regarded as both hallucinations of the imagination and repressions of the unconscious mind. Our preoccupation with the postmodern notions of the spectacle and disembodiment sparks our fascination with the dissociative activities in our consciousness, and this ongoing exploration defines the true conception of the recesses of our minds.







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