“In the beginning God created man, then man returned the favor,” states a witty quip. To me, that conjures up images of all types of art of a spiritual nature. Humanity has been making depictions of gods and goddesses as well as magickal beings for untold thousands of years. Few religions, notably Judaism and Islam, forbid such art. Sometimes the practice has been denounced as idolatry, but it has been found in an amazing variety of cultures, belief systems, locations and time periods.
Perhaps the oldest such depiction is the Venus of Willendorf, carved about 25,000 years ago and discovered in 1908 in Austria. This statuette is only about 4 1/2 inches high, depicting a curvy nude woman with her arms resting on her breasts, an elaborate hairstyle, but no face. While it is popular among Pagans to claim that she is a fertility or mother goddess, we can’t be certain what she represents. She could have been an important lady in the local tribe, a fertility charm or simply a depiction of feminine beauty, possibly exaggerated by psychological effects of the then occurring ice age. (1) (2)
A common thread running thru such art is that it reflects the society in which it was created. Images, whether drawn, painted, or sculpted reflect the appearance and behavior of the society in which they were produced. There is an African American church in my town of Anderson, IN which has two paintings facing each other in the narthex. One is The Last Supper and the other depicts Jesus body being taken down from the cross. Every person in both of these beautiful paintings is African, even Jesus. Who is to say that these are any less valid as spiritual art even though we know historically that the people there were olive skinned Jews? The members of this church see people in the paintings who look like them. However, I saw a painting of the Nativity somewhere online in which the village of Bethlehem appears to be in renaissance Italy, so the effect can also look illogical to those outside the society.
In a similar vein, Buddas produced in the Orient generally have East Asian features while those produced in India are quite different. Siddhartha Gautama, more commonly known as The Budda, was born on the outskirts of ancient India, but the great majority of Buddhists live in China and neighboring countries. From what we know of The Budda’s appearance, few statues of him could be historically accurate but again that does not make them any less valid as spiritual art. Even among those which depict East Asian racial features, there are variations, with some being jolly and having big bellies, some serene and muscular, and others intent and lean. I know The Budda never claimed to be a deity, but the multitude of art depicting him provides excellent examples of spiritual art imitating the maker. (3)
Christianity has produced a huge amount of spiritual art as well as some markedly differing viewpoints. There are a multitude of images of Jesus Christ, which are remarkably similar considering that there is no firsthand description of his appearance. Some say that artists were inspired by the image on the Shroud of Turin, but considering that scientific dating places the age over a thousand years too late to be the burial cloth of Christ, it appears that it too is spiritual art. Another popular theme is the Madonna and Child, which some say was inspired by images of Isis suckling Horus in Egypt. (4) The Catholic Church made great use of imagery in statues, paintings, stained glass and other items for use in churches, schools, abbeys and homes. The Reformation changed the use of these images among the new Protestant churches. While they tended to be plainer than their Catholic counterparts, there were differences of opinion regarding images. Some, like Martin Luther, saw them as an aid to teaching and devotion as long as the church did not spend too much money on them (5), while others like Huldrych Zwingli, one of the of the founders of the Reformed churches, feared idolatry and frowned upon their use. Even today, Lutheran churches will have depictions of Jesus, angels and saints in the sanctuary while Presbyterian churches can have them anywhere in the building except the sanctuary. The Orthodox churches developed their own style of spiritual imagery known as iconography. There are monasteries which produce icons for sale with this being not only a spiritual and artistic endeavor for the monks but a source of income.
When looking at spiritual art, notice the information related to the viewer. We can learn about the deity or being by noticing racial features, costuming, animal familiars, props or background scenes. As I explained earlier, humans portray the gods as similar to themselves, so ethnicity is the first clue to understanding the image. Costuming is not only a reflection of the culture, but also the time period and the role of the subject. A god(dess) of war will of course be dressed far differently than one of agriculture or magick. Those who have animals associated with them are often depicted with those familiars such as Athena with Her owl or the Morrighan with Her raven. What would a depiction of Neptune/Poseidon be without His trident, Cerridwen without Her cauldron or Themis without Her scales? While we take it for granted that Pan is in the forest, Freya is in Her chariot and Hectate is at the crossroads; these all relate important aspects of the legends. The next time you see a depiction of a deity or magickal being, study the art for clues and see how much it can teach you before doing your normal research.
art can bring people together to discuss it, share their art, help aspiring artists to improve and share stories on how art relates to their spiritual beliefs. I had the opportunity several years ago to participate in an online group sponsored by fantasy artist Jessica Galbreth. Since I had raised the question as to the spiritual aspects of fantasy art, she asked me to be the moderator of the spirituality lounge section of the forum. We had discussions in this section in which Pagans, Christians, Christian witches and those who identified as “spiritual not religious” offered their various viewpoints in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The two most memorable discussions were in regards to religious affiliation and art and the identity of a woman in the Sistene Chapel paintings. Jessica Galbreth said that at one time she issued her angel virtues prints under a different name as she was tired of accusations that she was being inconsistent by painting angels as well as goddesses and fairies. There were Christian artists who thought it was funny when people at art shows assumed they were Pagan because they painted or drew fantasy themes. If you look carefully at a panel in the Sistene Chapel where God is reaching out to touch Adam, you can see a woman who is clearly not an angel to the right of God on the same cloud. (6) After reading a theory in a book by A J Drew claiming that she is the Goddess, I shared this on the forum and stared a discussion. There were those who supported the theory but wondered why the woman appeared passive, those who felt that she was Eve waiting to be created and those who were baffled. After the discussion, I came to the conclusion that she was Eve because of a lack of evidence that Michaelangelo believed in the Goddess, and the woman in the creation of Eve panel looks like she could be the same model. (7)
Many people feel inspiration from spiritual art they have in their homes. I have seen depictions of the Last Supper, Jesus, Virgin Mary and similar themes in Christian homes as well as gods, goddesses, witches and magickal beings in Pagan homes and occasionally spiritual art as tattoos. Most altars I have seen also have a representation of the Lady and Lord as well as specific deities and sometimes fairies or dragons. art is an expression of spirituality in its display as well as its creation and a way for us to learn about the gods and magickal beings.
(1) “Venus of Willendorf Still Hot at Ripe Old Age of 25,000”
(2) “Venus of Willendorf: Exaggerated Beauty”
(3) “The Life of Buddha in Legend and art”
(4) “Ancient Egypt: The Mythology, Isis” http://www.egyptianmyths.net/isis.htm
(5) “Martin Luther and the Visual Culture of the Reformation”
(6) Vatican Museums: Creation of Adam
(7) A Visit to the Sistene Chapel: Creation of Eve