How Does Art Relate to Spirituality and Religion?

spiritual art islamic emoji with a hijab

Is there a special relationship between Art and spirituality? How does religious art fit into this picture?

The first art was religious and used highly spiritual imagery.  It was made on caves miles deep within the earth, painting natural occurring cathedrals.  Chauvet Cave paintings are among the oldest examples of spiritual art. They are thought to have been used in ceremonial magicA sort of artist magic whereby shamans ventured deep into caves. Magic was the precursor to religion so there are deep roots between art and spirituality influencing religious art.   

See Our Picture Wall Spirituality and art
Finger painting in the Stone Age

Now why would anybody risk life and limb to go spelunking with stone age technology just to paint some buffalo stuff on the wall? Was it just art?  No, clearly there was some shamanistic element to the emergence of art. I think conclusively we can say that definitely art played a pivotal role in the events and coincidences that led to the rapid advances in human intelligence. It was a period known as “the minds big bang.”

Ah yes, Creative thinking. That’s the trigger word here.  An interconnected relationship arose whereby the abstract set of connections that could be surmised about the world were then transmogrified into art; ta-da!   So it therefore goes without question that the there is definitely  distinction of art being highly integral to spirituality.

Ok, art and spirituality go definitively hand in hand.  Indeed religion has always piggybacked on the elaborate genius of artists and their wondrous creations.  Just walk into your modern day Pentecostal church and watch the people in the pews completely wig out. Speaking in tongues is just pure fun.

Certainly the common everyday religious person gets a heavy does of sacred pictures, symbols, dances, chants, hymns, tunes and so on.  I haven’t even mentioned the creative meditative act of prayer. This is because the arts are vehicles for making these spiritual connections.  They function in order to highly invigorate the senses to be able to accept the doctrine.  Plato said that art was helpful for teaching and for appealing to the spirit.

Religious art has always been used to move the message.

It’s never really been about the images themselves in this way.  Just look at Islam & Judaism for example. Both use Aniconism which is actually the absence of material representations of both the natural and supernatural worlds.  However each employ a careful visual aesthetic which with all intents and purposes invigorates the spirit.   Making reference to the magic of art has become taboo in various cultures, particularly in the monotheistic Abrahamic religions . However despite that fact they all still employ a backlog of design elements and embellishments which  decorate and adorn places of worship.  So just looking at the history that art has played in the transformation of spirituality makes it safe to say that the art and spirituality are integral to one another.

 Get Medieval Christian on your ass

Illuminated Manuscript, Book of Hours, St. Margaret, Walters Manuscript W.168, fol. 222r
Little known part of the bible of Mother Mary’s pet dragon.


Art in the medieval period was representative of the beginning of the western worlds gradual movement towards christianity.  Indeed an immense volume of art in a multitude of forms was commissioned by the church.  Christians heavily used their symbolism like a weapon.  So in this sense the beginning of Christianity was a proliferation of artistic and viral ideals about the nature of reality.

Likewise the Catholic church was the biggest donor to the arts during this period.  By all means, it had become the largest pre-Disney cultural institution.  I say that because archetypes in Disney movies played the same role in molding peoples minds as they did in crafting the world from christianity.  As a result the power of the Catholic church slowly began to spread & influence all of Europe.

Consequently, the power and money with which the church was able to accumulate put it in a great place for commissioning works of art.  From this period a large variety of art works in many different forms emerged.  Paintings, frescoes, murals, sculptures and manuscripts came from this marvelous period of creativity.  What was left was an enormous body of work that survives to this day.  As a result Europe is peppered by this diverse artistic variety of art and spirituality.  Naturally this is probably the largest period of artistic spreading in history.

Early Christian Spiritual Art

Naturally, the birthplace of christianity was in the Roman Empire.  So of course Christian art had a direct influence from classic roman and greek designs.  Therefore Christian themes in art also include similar use of sacred statues and holy images.  Actually homes of christians were adorned with these images and like Greek shrines to Apollo the home became a hearth of their patron deity Jesus Christ.

Jesus, poster boy of perfect teeth

As a matter of fact it kind of brings to mind the modern day Christian households with these high end Thomas Kinkade prints. There is still this important element of adopting images.  Although modern christianity has become slightly an-iconic. Medieval Christianity, however, was replete with art.

Once Christianity was legalized in the 4th century these pieces of art started leaving the household and ended up inside of the churches.  Around this era artists depicted Biblical themes and developed its own style.  From here the Roman realism changed.  Christianity had its very own aesthetic.  That was religious idealism.  They traded the statuesque perfection of ancient Roman art for the hyper religious views of painted frescoes and what not.

How Christians Artists got Busy in the Byzantine Empire

So since the fall of Rome Byzantium aka “The Byzantine Empire” was the Europe version of “Make America Great Again.” It was huge and vast.  Without question, it was the greatest political super power in all of Europe.

Byzantium went about declaring Christianity as its official religion.  So for that reason between the 5th century to its epic demise in the 15th century, the Byzantine Empire started a campaign of rich and diverse creation of highly spiritual Christian art.   This art was actually declared to create by the Emperor of Byzantium himself. As a result it became a bastion of ritualistic & ceremonial cultural knick knacks.

From 5th century to its fall in the 15th century, the Byzantine Empire was home to a very rich and diverse range of Christian art, often patronized by the Eastern Orthodox Church or the Emperor himself. Indeed one could say that Constantinople was the capital of Europe.  It had some the most quintessential spiritual artwork of Christendom. Mainly mosaics.  Mosaics were the main attraction and they were everywhere.  They were on buildings, churches, street corners and were even brought into the homes of believers to help strengthen their spirituality.

Gothic art

To make  along story short, art got goth.  During the 12th to 14th centuries Christian art underwent another transformation.  I could make a whole blog on this.  But I’m just trying to show you the similarities in how spiritual art was utilized in religion.
 To think about gothic art think about gargoyles and massive cathedrals.  The flying buttress was a thing around this time and it kicked flying butt.

Religious Art Wears a Hijab

Pergamon Museum - Islamic Art Collection

Islam has a dress code. Fashion sense is art.So Islamic art, per se, characterizes the art and architecture produced in Muslim ruled lands.  Like I’ve said before; Islam is an-iconic.  Therefore there can be no religious idealism in the artworks themselves.  Hence the whole thing about not drawing the prophet Muhammad.  However islam was still able to foster and develop a very distinct artistic language that can be seen all over art and architecture of the Muslim world

spiritual art islamic emoji with a hijab
Fashion sense is artistic thought. Islam has a dress code.


 Muslims were conquerors.  Many of the lands that they conquered had their own pre-existing artistic traditions.  Muslim patrons commissioned artists in conquered lands and allowed them to work in their own indigenous styles.  The very first example of Islamic art was a blend of classical Iranian decorative themes and motifs.  Most early Islamic work is an amalgam of these other cultural artistic traditions.  Greco-Roman, Byzantine and Sassanian elements were heavily seen in early examples such as the dome of the rock.  

It wasn’t until the Umayyad Caliphate between 661 and 750 that a formal Islamic aesthetic emerged.  Muslim peoples conquered a lot of territory.  So inevitably there is a wide range of different styles and influences across the islamic art spectrum. However there is one central unifying characteristic about the art.  The four basic components of Islamic art are calligraphy, vegetal patterns, geometric patterns and figural representations.

Art of Sufi Islam

Sufi are like the Jedi of Islam. They have their own order and specialized symbols.

Indeed the Sufis are the mystical arm of Islam.  They have inspired poets and artists the world over.  Extraordinary verses and artworks have been made by them.  Sufis have made some of the most important artworks within islamic spiritual art.   I’m not going to go into too much detail about their background.  However the term “Sufi” is the Arabic word for wool and refers to the garment that the mystics wore.  Sufism is not a single movement, but a range of faiths, studies and practices in the Muslim community.

   Sufi ritual has become an important part of mainstream Muslim aesthetic.  It’s more like performance art than anything else.

Certain clothing and artifacts are central to the Sufi rituals. There is a long-sleeved robe known as a khirqa . It helped to indicate that a student had achieved a higher status in the order and indicated he was a full member.  There is a very important axe called a tarbar or tabarzin which had some practical and plenty of spiritual purposes. Not only was it a weapon but also more of a metaphorical weapon which  symbolized the separation  of the Sufi from the material world.  It was also an indicator of someone in high rank of the Sufi order.

Dervishes are probably the best known Sufi artistic dance practice.  It’s down right performance art.

Sufi understood God as experience.  Connection to that spiritual realm required experiencing it within themselves. 
“to break the ink-pots and tear the books”
-Sufi quote
   Sufi art appears as  a series of rituals and practices in order to teach and enlighten the adherent.  Khalwa:  It is a retreat to caves in the Hira Mountains near mecca.  There the Sufis can meditate on God.  It is seclusion.  Their rather meager rags are a symbol of their path in life. They renounce worlds desires.
   Sufi Poetry is some of the most widely understood forms of spiritual art in the Islamic world.  Poets such as Rumi, Hafiz, Farid al-Din ‘Attar, Nizami and Amir Khusrau Dihlavi.  They were masters of poetry and used verse and rhyme to help to bring their students to a higher state of spiritual being.
   Sufi music is huge.  They are proponents of dancing.  Music allows a Sufi experience to reach this higher transcendent state.  It also moves people and helps them to reach that euphoric state.  Dhikr is one of the highest forms of Sufi chanting.  they chant the Shahada which is a Mantra “there is not god but god.”

 Hinduism: Perfect Portrayals of God in Spiritual Art

religious art in hinduism the perfect triad of vishu, krishna and Shiva
The three amigos of Hinduism and Gods trinity; Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva


Hinduism has four Purusartha or “goals” on this earth.

  1. 1.Everyone must aspire for ones dharma. Dharma is the lifes’ goal and the righteous path.
  2. 2. Artha or a wealthy and successful pursuit of career.
  3. 3. Kama or erotic love.
  4. 4. Moksha or spiritual salvation.
  Indians view of art aligned with its totality. Spiritual and religious art play to the universal nature.  You see Hindus use their art to move devotees toward that ethereal state of moksha. 
Temples and artworks, though they glorify a given deity, mainly are erected to help focalize the mind towards achieving spiritual development.
This is why much of the Hindu aesthetic is centered around apparently secular themes.  They are meant to exalt the lifecycle and the important aspects of the Hindu .Hinduism is funny because it has no single leader.  There is no orthodoxy or one guru. It is a mixed and heterogeneous complex religion.  On the one hand you have sacred Sanskrit literature written by the Aryands, the Vedas and then are are some hymns in praise of deities.   However the deities are a multiplicity of different aspects of the nature of reality.  In this way the vast pantheon is more of personifications of natural elements.

  Christianity influencing Hinduism

For the early Hindu’s it was all hodgepodge.  But around the time of the Christian era, Hinduism began to adopt a little mix of the patriarchal image of God.  Indeed everyone is familiar with the Christian trinity or the three pronged image of God the father-God the Son-God the Holy Spirit.  Hinduism literally emphasized the supremacy of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma.

 Divine Portrait

Technically everyone is Hindu.  It is because Hinduism accepts pretty much all deities as personifications of the divine figure head.  For this reason Hinduism is a pluralistic religion.  There are many different paths towards the ultimate goal.  All rivers rush to the open ocean.

For this the Hindus have developed a cleverly spiritual artistic style which exemplifies their view of the divine.  Gods are portrayed with multiple arms and almost always engaged in combative scenes in phantasmagoric acts of cosmic decadence.  These motifs hold a strictly symbolic effect.  A bunch of arms emphasized the fantastic power that a deity had and his/her ability to carry out tremendous tasks at the same time.  Indian artists were always trying to effectively portray the omnipresence and omnipotence of God.

Demons in Hindu religious art are portrayed with multiple heads to show that they are superhuman.  This symbolic embellish was highly effective in expressing a divine character who could take on many different aspects.

The Hindu Temple

Architecture is often the pinnacle of religious art.  It establishes the central focal point for all adherents and in Hinduism it’s reached an almost god-like perfection. No pun intended. Singapore Hindu temple 2

You can’t talk about India without the lavish sculptured decorations and monuments.  In the Hindu temple there are large niches in the three exterior walls of the sanctum sanctorum that hold the statues known as murti that portray the aspects of the God that is enshrined within.  At its center is the ultimate expression of God.  Niches in a temple dedicate to vishnu, for example, may show his various incarnations; for Shiva, his varying death defying feats and those of Shakti, her fights with demons.

Temple walls show banks of scroll-like foliage, images of women and couples in loving embrace known as maithunas.  All of these carved images play their own role in further bringing the mind closer to god.  It is pure art magic.

Religious Art as a Philosophy

Hindu art is a mixture of imagery and philosophy that truly helps inspire and enliven the human soul.  Hindu art signifies growth, abundance, prosperity and a multitude of other auspicious motifs.

Of course there are different regional variations on these central themes. However they only add to the vast diversity of pluralistic religious beauty that the Hindu spiritual art aesthetic has to offer.  It’s amazing how many different portions of a Hindu temple are adorned with figural sculpture.  Most of these motifs exemplify the events of mythology that enshrine God.


New Age Spiritual Art Scene

So what do we say about art in the modernized secular west?  Has spiritual art become secularized. For me its true that the center of the arts has somewhat moved away from institutional religion.  Is this the reason why it has become so hard to find great spiritual religious art in the west?  But what of the arts in the modern, secular west? Have they also become secular? Amazingly the connection between art and spirituality has remained.

There is a legendary LACMA Catalogue that dates back to 1985.  In this catalogue all of the explosive power of modern art is compiled. It was the modern contemporary first attempt at a spiritual aesthetic for the 21st century.

This catalogue is filled with epic paintings.  It is a really well organized compendium of different artists and styles.  However it all might as well be placed under the umbrella term of “New Age.”

The New Age movement draws on a variety of different spiritual and religious studies.  These are all compiled together into one fluid philosophy and brought to market.

New Age Movement and the Market

New Age The New Age movement has hardly a fraction of the creative staying power that the Catholic Church does.  Spiritual art for new age movements is more kitsch. It’s a highly marketable segment.  Its very decentrilized and hasn’t gotten much ground yet. Christianity has been around for almost 2000 years.  They’ve had plenty of time to develop their aesthetics.

Sacred Geometry

Due to the fact that the New Age movement is highly decentralized, Sacred Geometry hasn’t become an official ‘motif’. However it’s highly used and over proliferated among many New Age organizations and influencers.  The idea of sacred geometry comes from the design and construction of religious structures like Churches and temples.  Sacred geometry though is different. It flows from the natural state of reality.  You can find geometric all over from the intricate patterns in a pine cone to the double helix in DNA.

Spirituality Erotic Art

There is this sort of erotic element to art. It’s definitely appealing to the senses.  Ergo it’s highly sensual.

Probably one of the all time most well known sensually and spiritually riveting artists would be Alex Grey. His art has a very impactful effect on the soul.

What is the Opposite of Spiritual Art?

In all respects, religion significantly relies on art.  However without an adequate theology, art becomes relatively flat.  I can’t say how many times I trill through instagram only to see the same mundane and lifeless images rehashed over and over again.  At some point art becomes just a never ending pastiche of images of Spider man. Lifeless cliche.  The whole lowbrow art scene meant to almost completely divest the spiritual from art all together.

Marcel Duchamp spoke heavily about the “retinal” art.  This was an art that had no appeal to the inner spectrum. Retinal means art that does nothing but add to embellish for the sake of embellishing.  Like I’d previously talked about when it came to the.

Religious art and Spirituality

All in all Spirituality and art are deeply intertwined.  Religions gravely need art in order to prop up the supernatural mental images that it constantly sells.  Art needs that supernatural dimension or else it is just lifeless repetitions of the natural world.   Spirituality is art and art is spirituality. End of story.

David Ex Machina

David Ex Machina


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