A Buddhist monastery garden in Thailand greets its visitors with an enthusiastic, somber salutation. “You are now entering Hell,” the sign at the entrance reads. “Welcome!”
The Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden in Tambon Saen Suk, Thailand sits leisurely just outside the main temple. But where one might expect icons of exaltation and songs of praise, the otherwise beautiful landscape consists of grotesque scenes from the ‘Naraka’ or ‘Narok’ — also known as the Buddhist hell.
These sights, grisly as they are, make the garden especially interesting. Most people imagine places of worship featuring only the celebratory aspects of their religion, but the Wang Saen Suk puts a unique — yet equally profound — spin on this idea.
“I think it’s both fun and serious,” said Montree Sirarojananan, a Buddhist academic from the Thammasat University. “Parents believe that their children can get something from the morals.”
Despite its uniqueness, the Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden isn’t the only one of its kind. Other Buddhist spaces in Thailand have been emphasizing the concepts of hell, suffering, and punishment as a way to remind and discourage people from committing sins.
The Wat Mae Kaet Noi, built in the city of Chiang Mai, belongs in this category of “hell temples” — and claims to be the most gruesome one yet. In fact, it was made entirely to instill fear in people’s minds.
Founded by a monk named Pra Kru Vishanjalikon — also known as Sa’ad — the temple had been inspired by his horrifying visions of Naraka in his dreams. He wanted to share these visions with others.
“I want to scare people. I want to make them afraid of hell and sin, make them feel ashamed,” Sa’ad told travel publication Roads & Kingdoms. And perhaps the claim of being the most terrifying hell temple holds some merit: the imagery was so explicit that Sa’ad himself compared some of the scenes to “porno.”
The statues in Wat Mae Kaet Noi were displayed in brutal depictions of rape and torture in extremely detailed scenarios: self-inflicted abortions, bloody orgies with demons, and dismemberment, to name some.
Reading about the horrors of hell is one thing; seeing them in graphic, life-sized statue exhibits is another. These “hell temples” are accomplishing something far greater than just departing information on what awaits a life of sin — they are also making people cautious and afraid.
“It’s definitely not a place I want to visit again, here or in any life,” a visitor said.
But that only means that the place is achieving its intended purposes. Sa’ad, after all, had made it his life’s mission to warn people of the terrors of hell and purgatory. He said that he built the place after an evil demon showed himself in one of his dreams.
The monk narrates the account to Roads & Kingdoms: “A red demon spirit approached me. When he spoke, the ground trembled. He told me: ‘When you go back to the human world, you have to build a city like this.’”
Most people know Buddhism as quite a peaceful and temperate religion — gory and violent scenes don’t seem to fit anywhere within this belief system. But it does not take the concept of sin lightly.
According to tradition, the Naraka is reserved for those who break the essential doctrines. The Death King named Phaya Yom judges the individual based on the gravity of their moral errors, and the severity of the judgment depends on the sin. (Theft, for instance, equals dismembering a hand, and sexual misconduct equals some gory sexual punishment.)
However, unlike in other religions, this hell does not serve as an eternal punishment. Those who have “served” their time in the terror-filled domain are reincarnated, and a chance of reaching enlightenment is still given.
Sa’ad himself is a direct witness to sin, forgiveness, and repentance in the community. In recent years, he reported finding “real dead babies” by the statues that depicted women — covered in blood — murdering their children.
In Thailand, abortion was illegal and often deeply frowned upon. Women would perform it according to their own prescriptions, and some of them would leave the dead fetus by the statues “as an act of repentance.”
On one occasion, Sa’ad said that he’d seen a woman crying, mourning over her actions and the dead fetus. She asked him to bury it in the garden. Moved by her grief, the monk agreed. “She knew she had made a mistake,” he said. “She felt guilty and she was trying to repent.”
Still, of course, he hoped that such incidents would no longer occur. After all, that is the primary purpose of these hell temples — to remind people of the grisly afterlife that awaits sinners.
But perhaps there are more to these places than being tourist spots or warnings of hell. After all, Thailand has no shortage of strange, if slightly unorthodox, places of worship (such as the ‘David Beckham Temple’ and the serpent-clad Wat Samphran).
The Wang Saen Suk, the Wat Mae Kaet Noi, and the other “hell gardens” in the country fall under that category. The shock value is certainly there — as it always is — but these spaces challenge the conventional ways of religion. Most of the time, religion only features its most uplifting aspects: images of heaven and light, familiar stories from sacred texts that we often took comfort in. Rarely do we find eccentric, jarring images as its highlights.
While it’s important to celebrate the beautiful side of faith, it’s just as vital to be reminded of all its other facets — even if it’s less than pleasant.
Beyond the cautionary intent of these hell gardens, they stand as a foundation of an evolving group of believers. Sa’ad’s horrifying ideas for the temple had initially been met with scoffs and disbelief, but once the garden was built, he realized how meaningful it became to the community — uncanny as it was.
“Lots of Thais come here for birthdays, weddings, and funerals,” Sa’ad said of his work. “For them, it’s something different.”
Not a lot of women in Western medieval history have been recognized for their patriotic endeavors, let alone for their strength and fortitude in war. But at only seventeen years old, Jeanne d’Arc donned herself in men’s armor, marched off to battle on a horse, and led a group of French warriors to a victory against the Englishmen, their long-standing opponent.
Even more astonishingly, the peasant girl claimed that she was guided by voices in her head — voices that she recognized as God. Legend foretold that there would be a virgin destined to save the country; she believed that the shoes were hers to fill.
Despite her best efforts and victory, Joan of Arc — as she’s more popularly known — was later charged with witchcraft and heresy, among others. She was burned to the stake at a public marketplace at the tender age of nineteen.
The whole ordeal was a thankless duty for young Joan. Had it not been for her, Charles VII of France would not have risen to the throne, but the dauphin did not attempt to save her from punishment in fear of losing his legitimacy.
However, her death only caused more people to hear her story — and admire her for it. Charles VII eventually cleared the charges against her at a posthumous trial in 1456. Joan was declared innocent twenty years after her death.
Of course, it was far too late: she had already been severely punished for undue reasons.
But Joan’s heroism spread all around towns and cities, eventually gaining traction in the whole country. And it persevered for ages and ages. Joan of Arc may have had quite the tragic fate, but she became evermore known to the French as the Maid of Orléans.
Today, Joan is one of the country’s most celebrated heroines. And she was given a greater honor in 1920 — when Pope Benedict XV canonized her as one of the patron saints of France. Her unshakeable faith and character led more people to share her tale in meaningful ways, from literature to visual arts. Fernanda Maya’s ‘Juana de Arco’ is one of them.
Maya’s illustration, ‘Juana de Arco,’ dramatizes the extraordinary tale even further by painting Joan geared in battle armor. There are no pretenses here: Joan is a young woman, pridefully and unapologetically.
The original story recounted Joan dressing as a man — it had been one of the ‘crimes’ the young girl was charged with. After all, it was highly uncommon for women in medieval Europe to hold military positions, much less be in the frontlines. But Maya wanted to highlight Joan’s girlhood.
Women, after all, are the definitive subject in most of her works. She paints them alongside other symbolic elements, such as snakes and flowers. “Delicate yet persistent” were her words to describe them; these values are overtly expressed in ‘Juana de Arco,’ too.
“In the midst of battle, Joan of Arc was a source of light and motivation for the people surrounding her,” Maya explained. “Her determination and strong will on the battlefield were the main focus of what I wanted to show in her facial expression.”
Her other works, such as ‘Gaia’ and ‘Transmutation’, also show women in a very reverential light, although they’re portrayed as mothers here rather than warriors. Regardless of their role, though, Maya views women as “a huge source of power, stored behind a strong stare and a soft embrace.”
Like many other artists who portrayed Joan of Arc, Maya wanted to make sure that her piece is immersive and consistent with the themes of the original material. There should be nothing lost in translation here.
“I needed to search for references for armor and religious or symbols related to Joan, like her emblem. As someone who does graphic work, it’s always best to [find] resources to get a better grasp at what you want to represent,” she explained.
There was no need to try too hard anyway — Maya treats her subjects, especially real ones, with utmost respect. Everything in the creative process stems from there. “Though I was aware of who Joan of Arc was, it was necessary to refresh my memory and learn more about her,” she said. “When portraying a real person, it’s important to do some research to get a glimpse of their character.”
Unfortunately, not much is known about Joan beyond the glorified legends. She could have been as delicate as she was fierce; as soft as she was passionate. But whatever she might have been, Maya still found it apt to celebrate her for what she’s known for: her fighting spirit.
“The core message is the strength found in beliefs and the willpower to see them through,” said Maya. The portrait delivers “the power of a woman against dangerous situations, and the power to motivate others through your own actions.”
Rockin’ in Rio? The Metanóia Church gets the assignment — and takes it up a notch by dedicating rock n’ roll culture to their Christian faith.
Rock n’ roll and heavy metal are usually the furthest things one would associate with Christianity; some might even associate it directly with occultism and other opposing beliefs. But the church, located in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, prides itself on this unorthodox approach.
Even its communal events are unapologetically dark. Aside from the usual sacraments, the church promotes gatherings called “Blood Fest,” “Into the Infernal,” and “Night of the Massacre.”
The place is decked in death metal references, giving it a dark gothic feel through spiders, blades and daggers, skulls, and even black crucifixes. Where one might expect to find a line singing praise to the heavens, a banner reads: “Jesus is the Lord of the Underground.”
Despite the roughened exterior, the church is deeply devoted. The word metanóia itself, which originates from Greek, means “the transformative change of heart” — a profound concept usually associated with wayward men and women who found their way into the light (such as the beloved St. Paul from the New Testament’s latter books).
Of course, many attendees of the chapel resonate with the concept deeply. Enok Galvão, the founding pastor of the church, told The Guardian that he had been a heavy drug user in the 70s — but it didn’t take long for the calling of faith to come to him. A lover of rock music, he decided that this would be a good avenue to spread the message of Christianity.
It might have been deemed as strange — perhaps even sacrilegious to some — but Galvão pays the critics no mind. His way of praise, he says, is just as real and moving.
“The essence of God’s word, the doctrines and the teachings, are the same as any other church. The differences are just stylistic and cultural,” he said. “We put the message of God in the music, which is a very powerful tool.”
Galvão is not alone in this pursuit. With music being the most significant feature of the church, heavy metal bands and musicians mostly sing worship songs to fill in the role of a traditional choir.
Most of them are just like Galvão — clad in tattoos, lovers of music, witnesses to the miracle of metanóia. “For me, rock came first and then religion,” said José-Carlos Ribeira, band member and old friend to Galvão. “Enok [Galvão] took eight years to convert me. Now Jesus is the most important thing in my life.”
The novelty is the church’s most definitive factor. Praise and worship can appear quite tedious to those who don’t like to follow traditions, and that’s why Metanóia wants to step up. Many believers, musicians or not, are onboard.
“It’s the cultural offer that drew my attention,” said Taina Domingues, a teacher and regular churchgoer. She has been attending mass at Metanóia for more than a decade. “I feel comfortable here.”
Still, it’s clear that people don’t go there just for the mosh pit merrymaking, as unique as that is. After all, Metanóia is a church first and foremost; spirituality is a prerequisite to rock music, not the other way around. “We open a space for people who are rejected elsewhere,” Domingues’ partner and fellow churchgoer Everton Rodrigues said.
On the other hand, non-fans still find refuge and safety in the unlikely church. While it attracts people with more alternative lifestyles, even congregants on the more “conservative” side love the experience that Metanóia offers.
“I’m not into heavy metal,” said Vandernilda de Alexandra, a local parishioner. Described by The Guardian as “conservatively dressed,” Alexandra is loyal to Metanóia. She has been a regular there for twelve years, even with the abundance of choices of other parishes in her area. She’s more fond of ‘romantic ballads’ and festive music.
But that’s not why de Alexandra attends Mass, anyway. “I come here for spiritual nutrition,” she explained. If her twelve years of attending the Metanóia Church are any indication, then she certainly must have found it there.
The Metanóia Church is not the only one of its kind: rock-inspired worship is an “underground” but a steady culture. Crash Church, this time in the city of Sao Paulo, is also offering the heavy metal experience in Christianity. Located in a garage, the congregation is run by Antônio Carlos Batista — another tattoo-clad pastor and lead singer of a band called Antidemon. As one might infer from the name, they make a lot of Christian music, despite the religious taboos associated with the genre.
“This is part of God’s plan to cross barriers, which had a very closed-off format and were unable to reach many aspects of society,” Batista said.
A single glance at his piercings and tattoos might elicit some disapproving looks from conservative worshippers, but Batista is profoundly committed to his faith. His tattoos, his music, and his actions have heavy Christian significance — and he flaunts them proudly.
He, Galvão, and all the members of these heavy metal parishes are doing the same thing religious traditions call for. However, their expression of spirituality is just a bit more personal. “I see no reason not to use this kind of voice for worship,” Galvão remarked. “Music is a realm of complete freedom.”
And of course, there’s more to it than just being unapologetically different or unorthodox. The way Galvão sees it, it’s a beautiful opportunity to spread faith through a culture that God himself — contrary to popular belief — had crafted.
“The language of rock reaches a lot of people,” said Galvão. “God created music and art; the devil did not create anything. One can go and make use of this culture.”
On the morning of December 9, 1531, 57-year-old Juan Diego had been going about his usual journey around the hill of Tepeyac. A new convert to Catholicism, the indigenous man was a very ordinary townsfolk — he didn’t live in poverty, but he wasn’t influential either. But he was fervent and committed to his faith.
That fateful Saturday would turn out to be a life-changing experience. While walking by the hill, he encountered a glowing, ethereal lady. My dearest son, where are you going? The lady asked Diego, reportedly in his native language. I am the ever-virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the True God for whom we live.
She told him to build a church in that area to honor her. Diego then tried to reason with the Archbishop of the city, Juan de Zumárraga, who remained skeptical of the claims. He asked Diego to provide proof of the extraordinary story.
But the Holy Mother would continue to appear in Diego’s path, even when he purposely tried to avoid her by going another route. She was persistent in her mission and wanted Diego to partake in it.
Am I not your mother? She’d asked him.
Diego would be able to provide proof a few days later, after encountering the Virgin Mary for the fourth time. She told him to pick some flowers atop the hill — which would have been an impossible feat, since the land was normally barren and it was the dead of winter.
However, he did find the flowers and tucked them into his tilma (or cloak). Later on, upon meeting the Archbishop, Diego opened his cloak to reveal the flowers — Zumárraga identified them as Castillian roses, which were not native to Mexico — and they fell to the floor.
They also found that an image of the Virgin Mary herself had remarkably been imprinted on the cloak.
Many would contest the story’s veracity, but that’s hardly why it remains so significant. A chapel was erected in honor of the Holy Mother, but more than that, her portrait as the Lady of Guadalupe became a symbol of identity — not just for Mexico, but also for Continental America.
Diego’s tilma remains an important religious and cultural artifact to this day. No surprise here since Mexico is characterized by a colorful and lively fiesta culture — much like the portrait that first appeared on Diego’s cloak.
And, as it turns out, ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’ would be an all-encompassing point of reference for many Christian painters. Marian portraits, in general, tend to be replicated ever so often because of their distinctiveness, beauty, and versatility.
Claudia Talavera, an artist from Peru, got her creative namesake — Pintando Virgenes — from the Virgin Mary herself. Identifying as “a Catholic whose faith shows when she makes art,” Talavera doesn’t exclusively do Marian art, but she does dedicate most of her creative pursuits to the Holy Mother.
“If we consecrate ourselves to Mary, then we do everything with her, for her, and in her. She is the way to her son,” said Talavera. “I try to pray my daily rosary, put everything I am and what I have in her hands — from my children to my work.”
One of her favorite Marian portraits to paint is ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe,’ which she calls “a tangible miracle.” She’s talking about the miraculous tilma, which, in her words, is “the only apparition where the Virgin Mary remains on earth.”
In this rendition, Talavera puts a contemporary flair to it while not taking away its authenticity. Perhaps it’s even fair to say that she adds to it by incorporating more colors: the image, after all, is regarded for its detail and vibrance.
“I wanted to introduce some elements of my non-religious work constructed through superimposed spots, agile lines, and a lot of colors. The street culture is read between the lines,” Talavera explained.
She’d faced some challenges during the creation process, since there are so many recognizable portraits of the Holy Mother. Of course she wanted to bring something new to the table.
“Representing a sacred icon so well-known to people is difficult because you need a balance between your proposal and the original image, so that it remains a representation that the viewer recognizes,” she said. But Talavera is a seasoned artist — she can easily render any standard portrait in her unique style of wide strokes and bright hues.
“I’ve painted several portraits of the Virgin of Guadalupe, but this one, in particular, has a unique identity,” she told us. “It even differs from my own work, which at times becomes more conservative.”
But more than anything, Talavera saw this as an opportunity to engage more people into the Catholic faith and its seemingly archaic traditions. There’s always something to learn from them, Talavera believes, and it’s vital to pass them down to posterity.
Street culture is the way to go from here — veering away from conventional art styles, and introducing a fresh perspective on the age-old story. “This version of the Virgin of Guadalupe is an attempt to enter into dialogue with young people,” she said.
Faith and spirituality aren’t always perceived openly in the secular world. But Talavera’s ‘The Virgin of Guadalupe’ explores these nuances by contextualizing the Holy Mother in an age where her presence doesn’t seem so overt.
She’s still there, Talavera argues — and uses art to show it.
“I thought of young people, I thought of the way the Virgin is present, but at the same time, hidden,” she said. “A non-imposing presence: subtle and diffused.”
People have different ways of getting closer to God. To a Christian pastor in Hammelburg, Germany, the path to the divine involves a small community gathering — and some whiskey.
54-year-old Catholic priest Thomas Eschenbacher found that the most genuine conversations stem from drinking nights with friends. Thus, he thought of ways this could apply to spreading faith and developing spirituality within the community.
In 2019, he organized his first “whiskey retreat,” held on a quiet January evening at the Hammelburg Parish Center. The retreat offered thirty limited slots for €25 per head, all of which were filled almost immediately.
“A fundamental element of my personal spirituality is the art of discovering God’s traces in everyday life,” Eschenbacher said in a conversation published on the site of the Würzburg Diocese. “In many nice whiskey evenings with friends and acquaintances, I had already seen the beginnings of a culture of conversation, which I expect from [the seminar].”
The effort was certainly an unconventional move — not many people, let alone clergymen, would seek faith-based events in alcoholic consumption — but it is certainly not a “crazy” one. “Bible reading events don’t really work, but with whiskey I can reach the men. It’s a topic that interests them,” he said.
In fact, Eschenbacher believes that encounters with God should be joyful, like the first taste of a good drink.
“Drinking whiskey requires a culture of enjoyment that complements wonderfully with the thought of taking time for one’s faith,” Eschenbacher continued. “The personal encounter with God is a real taste experience.”
Eschenbacher isn’t the only whiskey enthusiast in the neighborhood. With how fast the retreat slots were booked out, many certainly shared the Christian pastor’s love for the beverage.
Among these people was Eschenbacher’s close friend Niko Grundhoefer, who also served as a co-organizer for the event. “The Bible says, ‘Speak what your heart is full of,’” he told Ananova News.
The thing “closest to his heart,” he said, was whiskey; the second thing was faith. Eschenbacher’s retreat was the perfect opportunity to meld the two together.
The gathering was limited to men, however, because Eschenbacher himself noticed that men particularly tend to gravitate towards the drink. “It seemed, to me, a good chance to deliberately have it [as a] spiritual offer for men,” he said.
Of course, having open conversations about faith is the retreat’s ultimate goal, but Eschenbacher also wants to make sure that the drinks themselves become a highlight for the attendees. So to make the most out of the gathering, he gave them no less than five kinds of whiskeys to taste. In between, he also handed out homemade snacks, which he prepared himself.
“When I feel that I give people something meaningful to taste, I always come very close to God,” said Eschenbacher. To the Franconian pastor, the alcoholic drink is supposed to be a spiritual experience in itself — and the socialization that arises from it is just as valuable.
“I become satisfied when we combine our personal culture of enjoyment with gratitude,” he said. “God has given us taste and intuition — not only for whiskey but also for the gift of communication.”
He noted that faith is an individual experience, regardless of the communal approach. Eschenbacher even correlates this with the drinking activity, saying: “As different as the types of whiskey are, the participants will also have their own experiences in this form of retreat.”
He also found another fitting, albeit uncanny, analogy: that the science of alcohol aging is similar to the nurturing of personal faith. “Our time today is so crammed. We always want to clear everything up in eight hours,” he said. “A whiskey takes at least ten years to be good — and so my message is not a short-term one either.”
Criticisms may have abounded for Eschenbacher and his unconventional methods: alcohol, after all, is quite unusual — if not taboo — for many rigid and austere religious communities. It was a concern that bugged his mind even before the retreat took place.
“I also don’t know what the outcome will be and whether the concept really fits. It could be a letdown,” he said. “But people live from risk.”
Eschenbacher, however, was confident that his mission is rooted in good faith — and he had been right. Unsurprisingly, Eschenbacher’s whiskey retreat was such a wild success that he organized another day for it. 17 people were already on the waiting list.
Turns out many Christians, just like Eschenbacher, find spiritual value in these alcohol-filled gatherings. “Drinking whiskey slows everything down. You start talking. If you can enjoy a whiskey in peace, you also make time for faith,” he told Bild.
As with all matters of faith, the spiritual journey is a continuous process — and no single glass of whiskey, no matter how good, could change that. Eschenbacher is not privy to this fact: “It is of course cheese if you think you can convert an atheist with just a small point.”
Either way, the goal remains. “The main thing is that God gets into the conversation,” he said. “I want to reach people for deeper experiences.”
An 84-year-old retired farmer found himself in the spotlight after being branded as an unlikely YouTube star for his meditative videos about faith and spirituality.
John Butler, who lives in the quiet county of Derbyshire, England, was an organic farmer — one of the first of its kind in the country — in the 1970s. Meditation had been a practice and lifestyle for him for over 50 years.
He recently found his niche in the online community thanks to a trend called ASMR, which stands for “auto sensory meridian response.” ASMR refers to the tingling sensation one can get from soft sounds, sometimes lulling them to sleep.
In Butler’s case, this sound would be his quiet, soothing voice — accompanied by topics of life, wisdom, and spirituality.
“I’m not religious or anything, but this man is very wise and he always thinks before he speaks,” a viewer commented on one of his videos. “His voice is so gentle and soothing, and it’s almost impossible for anyone to dislike him.”
Butler’s big break was an interview in a YouTube channel called Conscious TV, where he conversed with producer Iain McNay about “discovering stillness.” As of July 2021, four years after it was uploaded, Butler’s feature video is still the most popular on the channel, garnering over 2.6 million views.
Butler said that he was wholly unprepared for the fame. “I think if I was a younger man I would have been more excited about it,” he told BBC News. “I’d never heard of YouTube. Hardly knew what [the] internet was.”
Butler’s insights on life and spirituality are based on both contemplation and experience. In his earlier years, he grew his crops in the Lincolnshire Fends, being one of the forerunning organic farmers of the country. His work as a farmer no doubt contributed to his nature-based philosophies and reverence for the world.
But depression and a rather painful heartbreak prompted Butler to do some soul-searching. He began to take long trips to different parts of the world, which, little by little, left a significant impact on him.
“I’d been through a great love experience then, which didn’t work out but it completely took over,” he shared with the Derbyshire Times. “I couldn’t go on living as I had been previously. So, I left my farm and wandered off not knowing what to do with myself.”
Soon enough, Butler discovered what meditation could do for him and for others. He wrote several books about it, describing in detail all his discernment about the practice.
Butler himself, as his site reports, is not wholly subscribed to a particular religious tradition. He does relate many of his teachings to Christian principles, mainly because of his upbringing and his closeness to his local parish church.
But his personal beliefs speak volumes about his spirituality, and to him, the soul of the individual is keenly connected with the natural world.
“I have always loved nature. I have always thought of it as my first teacher,” said Butler. “I think there is no better teacher. I am not one for following human answers.”
One of the things he tells his followers repeatedly is the motto: “Feel your feet on the ground — listen and look.” To Butler, being present and connected with the world brings a sense of stability, which is necessary for one’s spiritual health.
“Connect with the ground and become aware of the depth of stillness that is beneath our feet, which supports us [and] bears us through all our trials and tribulations, in sorrow and in joy,” he said in one of his videos, called “The common sense guide to meditation,” which has had over a million views.
“Even if you're in a high-rise apartment — doesn’t matter, the principle is the same. The floor beneath your feet of the ground, or the naked earth beneath your feet, is still at least in relation to the agitation, which is such a feature of our minds. Immediately it stabilizes you, doesn’t it? It brings in some confidence,” he said.
Despite his unfamiliarity with the online world, the farmer-turned-YouTuber used the platform as an opportunity to teach people about faith and meditation — two things that helped him find his way at a time where he felt lost.
“So many people have this problem with an agitated mind, a restless mind, and because one instinctively seeks for some sort of balance, people look for rest or peace,” he said. “If something in my voice conveys that restfulness, then thank God for that. I don’t know quite how it happens.”
Even non-religious people are finding comfort in Butler’s wisdom. Or, if not his wisdom, his gentle, calming voice.
“The situation in the world right now… it’s pissing me off and [it’s] hard to believe, but after humbling myself, I realized [that] beauty is still around us at all times. And we have so much more than that,” a YouTube user had commented on one of his videos.
Another user — reminiscent of Butler himself in his youth — showed gratitude for Butler’s spiritual insights. “I am a young man who struggles a lot with being present and invading negative thoughts,” he said. “Thank you for the clarity.”
So what does all the stardom mean for Butler? “I’m just quietly glad to be able to share what I love,” he said.
Check out ‘Spiritual Unfoldment with John Butler’ here.
Our ancestors had their theories on the origins of the world, and we’ve known some of these by heart. We know of how God created the universe in seven days; how Adam and Eve lived in an ephemeral paradise. We know of the sacred lotus that grew on Vishnu’s navel and how Brahma achieved enlightenment to create the world as we know it.
No one knows how the world came about, and it’s probably going to be a mystery forever. But maybe there’s a silver lining in not knowing. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss: the less we know, the more we can ponder.
And what better way to explore all these musings than art? It’s the most expressive way to tell a story. If the story tries to imagine the beginnings of the universe, then wouldn’t that be a sight to behold?
“Genesis” means origin, source, and beginning in Greek and Latin. The word is all too familiar for those acquainted with the Bible, where it is the name of the very first book.
Among the many stories narrated in this book was the creation of the world, the first man and woman, and their first instance of falling from grace. One of the major backdrops here was Eden, the all-encompassing garden granted to Adam and Eve. It was the beginning of all things good — and all things sinful.
These categories aren’t quite the same, but they tackle the same questions regarding beginnings and the springing of life. Spirituality revolves around the idea of understanding the beginning — where we came from, and why we’re even here at all.
In both these categories, we explore the divine nature of the universe, the world, and all of life. Where did we come from? How did nothing become everything?
Our artists have their insightful ideas on these questions. Here are some of them.
What if the world blossomed into existence?
It’s not a scientific assumption, but it is a beautiful picture. ‘Vivogenesis’ by Seamless is a piece that envisions earth as one of its most beautiful products: a flower. Here, it blooms from a stem held by a divine hand.
Seamless, the artist behind the piece, also considers it as a tribute to human stewardship. He uses this strange, invisible hand to uplift the world — the same way he believes humans should. It’s not an easy task, of course, but he wants to help in the ways he can.
And for him, an artist, the most obvious avenue for sharing this message is through a painting. “There are many stumbles, but we always have to keep in mind [what] we are capable of,” he said. “At least, if we cannot manage our environment, we can manage things from a perspective indoors.”
He also brings up the topic of creation and solidarity, believing it as something to be achieved — not just given as a divine blessing. “We as human beings are capable of creating what we propose. This illustration represents a lot [of that], that we are capable of transforming our world, our life, as if it were a plant in a certain way,” he said.
The creation of earth can be considered microscopic in the grand scheme of things, but it’s certainly far from insignificant. Earth, after all, is the pinnacle of life as we know it.
That’s why we wanted to explore the garden of Eden — one of the most popular religious myths that tackle the omnipotent power of nature, as well as the beginnings of human life. But unlike in the common tradition of depicting Eden, this illuminative work by Christian Benavides re-imagines it from the perspective of Shintoism (and some Buddhism).
As such, it takes on a brighter and more hopeful tone, rather than focusing on man’s separation from the divine. Benavides, who is inspired by East Asian cultures, finds that there’s always something to pull from these ancient traditions.
“I like [that] the Shinto tradition has different rituals connected to nature, as rituals made with purpose can help us transform our subconscious,” he said. “I believe that way we can make everything in our life a ritual, but the Shinto torii gates, statues, shrines [all] have this mystical, magical aura, which is just so inspiring to me.”
Here, instead of Adam and Eve, he painted the first man and woman in Japanese mythology: Izanagi (“He Who Invites”) and Izanami (“She Who Invites”). Their stories could not be more different from the Christian one, but they both share one essential cultural value: an affinity and reverence for all things in nature.
This value is even more emphasized in Shintoism, and even Benavides himself thinks so. “The Shinto tradition places a strong bond between nature and humans — a combination of dimensions where each element of nature contains an individual spirit that comes from the source,” he explained.
Religion has the same goal after all — to connect with the divine. And it’s something Benavides achieved in this creative venture: “Interacting with nature is [akin to] interacting with the spirits, and in the end, [interacting] with the great spirit.”
Read our in-depth story about ‘Nippon Eden’ here.
Psychedelic contemporary artist Dorian Legret likes to explore elements of the cosmos in his work. From creation stories to musings about evolution, the universe is involved in some visceral way. (Even the abstract piece ‘Orestis’, which also belongs to our Genesis category, was inspired by images of NASA.)
‘Life’ is as subtle as it’s profound. Featuring elements of Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’, mainly manifested as disarranged bits and squares, Legret intended to express his thoughts on how everything began — and how everything is going.
Religion is not so much the subject here as it is just a component of the subject. For Legret, religions “have been created by humans to find a purpose in life; something that can be valuable enough to build a society [on].” That’s why he saw it fitting to use Michelangelo’s iconic Christian fresco as the main visual in the middle of the negative space.
But what's really being explored here is the idea of purpose and evolution. How far have we gone from this negative space, this “nothingness”? For Dorian, the answer is simple: the encoding of the human mind through modern technology.
“My inspiration for ‘Life’ is the evolution of the nature of our universe, starting from nothing to computing. To me, computing is the next step,” he said. “It’s become our new purpose, a way for the human mind to survive over time by saving our knowledge.”
Have our most pressing questions been answered by these pieces? Maybe not. But they do give us beautiful visuals to cope with the fact that we’ll probably never know.
And that maybe, in this case, it’s up to us to create the answers.
Check out our range of religious and spiritual framed wall art here.
What would heaven on earth look like? High above the clouds, the “Twin Temples” atop the sacred Mount Fanjing — “Brahma’s Pure Land” — in Guizhou, China might be the closest visual one could imagine.
Mount Fanjing, or Fanjingshan (meaning “Buddhist tranquility”), is the highest peak of the Wuling Mountains. On top of this peak is a solitary high spire called the Red Clouds Golden Summit, where the two Buddhist temples are perched.
The pair is separated by the Gold Sword Gorge, a narrow crevice adjoined only by a sturdy stone bridge. Together, they overlook the lush flora and fauna of the scenic mountain range.
The journey to the top of Fanjingshan is as much of an experience as seeing the temples themselves. To reach it, one must climb an astonishing 8,888 steps or ride a cable car directly to the so-called “Mushroom Rock.”
Along the way, visitors will enjoy not only spectacular views, but also ancient inscriptions that date as far back as the 15th century.
The dense forests covering the mountains are home to many unique plant and animal species, some of which are endangered. The rich biodiversity and religious history surrounding Fanjingshan led UNESCO to declare it as a World Heritage Site in 2018.
The Wuling Mountains, which stretch over 8,000 feet above sea level, have been a holy site for Buddhists since the Tang Dynasty when Buddhism was first introduced to China. Over 50 temples have been built around the area, although the raids of the Buzhou Rebellion destroyed many of them during the late 16th century.
But the most notable among these temples, of course, is the twin pair atop Fanjingshan. Their construction dates back as far as 500 years ago, during the Ming Dynasty, although it remains a mystery how they were built in the first place.
“The fact that these twin temples were built was nothing short of a miracle,” said an article from The Daily Mail.
Fanjingshan is recognized as the dwelling place or bodhimaṇḍa (“place of enlightenment”) of Maitreya. According to Buddhist traditions, Maitreya will descend from the heaven called Tushita to help other beings on earth reach enlightenment.
Many recognize that the two adjacent temples represent two integral things: the temple of Buddha embodies the present, and the temple of Maitreya embodies the future. The layout and construction of these temples are already very symbolic in themselves: To get to “the future,” one crosses the bridge “from the present.”
Beyond its majestic temples, the Wuling Mountains also boast a diverse ecological scene and remarkable rock formations. The Red Clouds Golden Summit and its narrow gorges (such as the Gold Sword) are already proof of that.
Many plant and animal species in the mountains are endemic — meaning they are only native to that specific area — and thus conserved to the highest degree. These include the unique Guizhou Snub-Nosed Monkey, as well as the endangered Forest Musk Deer and Reeve’s Pheasant.
The Guizhou province is also the homeland of many minority ethnic groups in China. According to an article by SHINE News, some have lived in the area for over a thousand years. Despite disturbances from commercialism and tourism projects, many villages have fortunately been able to preserve their rich traditions and cultures.
The article describes the surrounding areas as “a countryside painting writ large.” They are filled with wooden houses, quaint cottages, and a variety of crops grown carefully and organically.
Within these nearby villages are souvenir shops, restaurants, and bed and breakfast joints available to those who traverse the mountains for hours. There are also occasional community activities, such as feasts and bonfires, in which tourists are welcome to partake.
Despite all its splendor, Fanjingshan remains a relatively quiet and unvisited space. It is a popular tourist spot, but it is not as crowded as others because of how distant and isolated it is.
A pilgrimage to these holy sites requires a great deal of willpower and perseverance. Climbing to the top is no easy feat — some report stopping one-fourths, halfway, three-fourths through. A writer from a travel blog, who descended the steps after taking thousands, called it “a true test of character.”
Still, it’s a journey worth taking. The sight to behold is worth all the effort, and the way down is just as comforting. A trip to Buddha’s and Maitreya’s temples above the skies may just be the closest you can experience the divine on earth.
“When singing my praise, don't liken my talents to those of Apelles.
Say, rather, that, in the name of Christ, I gave all I had to the poor.
The deeds that count on Earth are not the ones that count in Heaven.
I, Giovanni, am the flower of Tuscany.”
So goes the epitaph of the Blessed Fra Angelico: Dominican friar, Renaissance painter, and — most recently — the Patron of All Catholic Artists. His moniker translates to ‘Angelic Brother’, a name he gained for living his Christian life in devotion and virtue.
Fra Angelico’s artistic genius was immeasurable — he was called “a rare and perfect talent” by artist and author Giorgio Vasari. He was renowned for a wide variety of luminescent religious artworks. He lived with the motto: “He who does Christ’s work must stay with Christ always.” His profession as a friar and artist was a true reflection of these words.
The earliest known records of Fra Angelico show that he has been a practicing artist at a very young age. Born around 1395 as Guido di Pietro, he was a trained illuminator along with his brother, Fra Benedetto, and they were reportedly taken under the wing of art master Lorenzo Monaco. He also did commission-based works in local parishes as early as 1418 — far before he was known as Fra Angelico.
When he joined the Dominican Order around the early 1420s, he had taken on the name Fra Giovanni Angelico, or “Angelic Brother John.” He was known to be a tremendously virtuous man who’d never shown any displays of anger, which earned him a title as saintly as an “angel.”
At the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole, Angelico would create his signature altarpieces — all of which would become definitive of his career. The Fiesole altarpiece, created during his early life as a friar, depicts an enthroned Virgin Mary carrying the child Christ. Angels and saints surround the two holy figures in worship.
Some parts of the tempera painting have chipped off and faded over time, and as early as 1501 it had already undergone repainting and restoration. While it is nearly impossible for some of its qualities to be replicated (the original background, for instance, was believed to be gilded), the piece is still immaculate in its own right.
Later on, Fra Angelico would be transferred to the Convent of San Marco, and the works he’d produced here would become some of his most celebrated oeuvres.
In 1439, he created another astonishing altarpiece: the San Marco Altarpiece, also highlighting the Virgin Mary and child Jesus. While it would be misleading to call the piece an “upgrade” from the Fiesole altarpiece, there is an enhancement — both in technique and theme — that was not present in the earlier artwork. Unlike in the Fiesole altarpiece, the San Marco Altarpiece depicted the surrounding holy figures seemingly speaking with each other.
This art motif or genre is called sacra conversazione, or “sacred conversations,” and would become a well-favored theme in the Italian Renaissance. The first known work of this genre is credited to Angelico himself. Years later, other renowned artists like Raphael and Giovanni Bellini would also create their own renditions of these sacred conversations.
Fra Angelico also produced a variety of artworks on various biblical events, but the one he seemed to be most inspired by was The Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38), where Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would conceive the Son of God.
One such artwork is still the pièce de résistance of the Convent of San Marco which Fra Angelico had painted in 1440. Whereas his previous works on The Annunciation also featured Adam and Eve, Fra Angelico depicted only Mary and Angel Gabriel here. It is considered among the most simplistic of his otherwise luminescent works, and yet it is also the most celebrated.
To this day, most of the paintings of the Annunciation are closely associated with Fra Angelico — and even future Catholic painters would use his oeuvre as a guide for their own interpretations of the subject.
Fra Angelico would continue building a monumental body of Catholic artworks, including some frescoes in some prominent chapels in the Vatican City. He would move to Rome to accommodate the extensive commissions of Pope Eugenius IV and Pope Nicholas V. The Cappella Niccolina (Niccoline Chapel), in particular, would be known far and wide for housing Angelico’s spectacular frescoes.
Angelico served God all his life through his duty and talent until his death in 1455. “He who does Christ’s work must stay with Christ always,” he’d said in his lifetime — and it’s clear that he applied this in all that he did.
As an artist, Fra Angelico moved away from the Gothic art style and instead depicted religious themes in a more naturalistic way. It may seem like a contradiction since Angelico’s art was bright and luminous — but he was more fond of turning these divine themes into “realistic” portrayals, which filled his works with even more life.
Fra Angelico’s striking and ethereal style would revolutionize Catholic art forever. In 1984, centuries after his life, his works remained so relevant to the faith that he would be beatified as Beato Angelico (“Blessed Angelico”) as the patron for all aspiring Catholic artists. Pope John Paul II himself commended Fra Angelico by honoring “the perfect integrity of his life” and “the almost divine beauty of the images he painted.” His feast day is on February 18.
What does it mean to live by intuition? In modern Western spaces, rationality governs society and the individual. But constantly relying on it may not always be the best driving force after all. To others, there is the art of letting things run their course according to nature. Instead, it is imperative to realize that peace and completeness are rooted in “not knowing,” and that the essence of life will be revealed not through words, opinions, or making sense of things.
That is the practice and state of Zen: to forego the egoistic desire to rationalize everything, and focus on the “truth” found only in the state of unawareness.
This does not mean, however, that one should live life mindlessly or emptily. On the contrary, Zen requires deep, intense discipline by detaching oneself from the ego. Zen is therefore viewed as a paradox: a state of ultimate freedom achieved only through enormous self-restraint. To achieve Zen is to keep a mental state of ‘don’t-know,’ as coined by the great Zen teacher and master Seung Sahn.
Contrary to popular belief, Zen is not a philosophy, a concept, or a doctrine. It is a state of mind, something to be—and should be—achieved. Renowned Zen scholar and author D.T. Suzuki wrote in Essays in Zen Buddhism, First Series:
“…while we know not definitely what the ultimate purport of life is, there is something in it that makes us feel infinitely blessed in the living of it and remain quite contented with it in all its evolution, without raising questions or entertaining pessimistic doubts.”
Even in art, such is the expression of Zen: simplicity, quietude, and the perfect condition of not being in constant motion.
In Zen, words—and images—are rendered useless, for they are not an essential part of one’s spiritual endeavors to achieve enlightenment. Still, they remain essential, if only as forms of expression and celebration.
Zen does not concern itself with the conventional sense of beauty. Here, aesthetics are conveyed through the principle of wabi-sabi which, loosely and very simplistically translated, means finding beauty in imperfection, incompletion, rusticity, and melancholy.
A pot aged by time and circumstance is more beautiful than a masterfully crafted one from the finest materials. A wilted flower holds just as much—if not more—meaning than a freshly bloomed one. Old things are infinitely more poignant than grand, ostentatious things. To live with wabi-sabi in mind is to find truth within things that are dirtied, broken, old, or misshapen.
As such, wabi-sabi does not aim to engage the senses and the aesthetic eye. Rather, it is to aid the individual to contemplate on the essence of the piece itself; to be aware of natural forces rather than to meet an unachievable state of perfection.
The philosophy of wabi-sabi is expressed in many art forms, not just traditional ones: ikebana or flower arrangement, calligraphy, tea ceremonies, and the like. Of course, it can also be seen in visual art—and Zen has a rich history of it.
Zen Buddhism originally traces its roots from India, but was brought to China around the 6th to 7th century C.E. where it was then called Ch’an. During the following periods, Zen Buddhism was met with persecution, although it was able to persevere. Despite this, Zen was eventually spread to other areas in East Asia, and by the 12th century C.E. Zen was widely practiced in Korea and Japan.
In Japan, Zen was very enthusiastically welcomed, so much so that a lot of the country’s aesthetic and philosophical influences trace their roots back to it. Ink monochromatic paintings were among the most common forms of visual art. The use of black ink was typical—but not necessarily a rule—because it was simplistic and versatile. This monochromatic style also allowed the portrayal of contrasting spaces and objects (or physical forms).
Zen artworks weren’t mediums for individual expressions or personal insights. This is, again, another essential characteristic of Zen: to detach oneself from the ego and egoistic thoughts. Thus Zen art is less about the individual and more about shared concepts from teachings and literature.
Artists drew inspiration from distinguished Zen figures (such as patriarchs and masters), things and objects, as well as natural landscapes. Artists preferred to depict mountains, plants and flowers, birds, and bodies of water. Most of these illustrations also included haikus to accompany the overarching theme of the image.
The concept of nature is central in Zen art and literature because nature, in and of itself, is Zen. Suzuki further wrote about it in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, advising the individual to practice discipline as if they were “an inanimate object of nature”:
“Putting your simple faith in this, discipline yourself accordingly; let your body and mind be turned into an inanimate object of nature like a stone or a piece of wood; when a state of perfect motionlessness and unawareness is obtained all the signs of life will depart and also every trace of limitation will vanish. Not a single idea will disturb your consciousness, when lo! all of a sudden you will come to realize a light abounding in full gladness.”
Nature itself is thus a reflection of the nature of mankind, which is why there is so much emphasis placed on it. Here, there is only one essence: one of unawareness, the same way man shares no thoughts and holds no great opinion. It is in this single essence that the universe is “one.”
Hitsuzendō calligraphy (“the way of the brush”) also became another popular art form over time. Here, the paintings were less illustrative with imagery, and instead filled with characters, words, and symbols.
One of the most common symbols drawn in these paintings was the ensō, a single- or double-drawn circular brush stroke. It is sometimes referred to as the “circle of togetherness.” These figures are versatile, fluid, and balanced in their simplicity—simultaneously complete, yet never-ending.
The characteristics and values of these aesthetics are so great of an influence in the contemporary world that Zen became a new genre of interior design in itself. It is widely admired and utilized not only by Zen practitioners in East Asia, but by people all around the world. Many, it seems, find merit and potential in this culture of minimalism—even in urban spaces.
As an interior design style, Zen emphasizes openness, neutrality, and natural light. Wood, plants, and big windows are characteristic of these interior spaces; they invite and prompt one to be in a state of tranquility and balance. And as such, they are ideal areas for meditation and introspection.
These ideas, adopted into visual concepts, are still rooted in the fundamental intent of Zen: to find value in “less” and incompletion, to minimize noise and clutter from the external world, and to encourage an individual to be one with nature.
But these spaces are anything but “empty,” despite all these contrasting elements. Instead, they are whole, they are complete—like Zen itself. Zen does not concern itself with the idea of emptiness, but the idea of knowing truth and completion are found beyond the physical forms of things.
“Zen is a live fact, it is not like an inorganic rock or like an empty space,” said Suzuki in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. “To come into contact with this living fact—nay, to take hold of it in every phase of life—is the aim of all Zen discipline.”
Zen, as an art form or as an action or goal, remains timelier than ever. It can be a response—and a challenge—to the ever-growing culture of materialism, where matter is prioritized over essence. Today’s world relies on attachment to possessions, an unachievable state of “perfection,” and the desire to put self-driven thoughts and ideas at the forefront of all. Perhaps the principles behind Zen can help put life in perspective, both for the individual and the world at large.
Can God possibly be a part of an infinite universe? Is he somewhere there, is he the universe itself, or is he even beyond our comprehension of “infinity”?
Some may say that the answer is none of the above — there’s no such thing as a divine being. But innately curious minds could wonder otherwise. We can’t possibly prove one thing or the other, but we can always think on the side of the ‘what if’.
These ‘what ifs’ aren’t irrational at all: on the contrary, they make us gather more possibilities and allow us to be open to the extraordinary. If there’s one thing modern life has taught us, it’s that science and faith can coexist.
And maybe it doesn’t even end at coexistence — they might just be deeply intertwined. In his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, planetary scientist Carl Sagan had written: “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”
Modern artists seem to agree with the assertion. They work with a diverse range of elements, subjects, and ideas; some are more natural with their approaches, while some are more surreal. Both can turn to the divine for inspiration.
That’s the case with Mike Cuomo: a lover of space, sci-fi, and everything the galaxy has to offer. But he also loves to explore the questions of spirituality and religion within them. For example: Where do they lie in the middle of it all?
Cuomo — who also goes by his alias and project Reliquaire Fusion — is by no means devoutly religious. But he still finds the value in these ventures, and perhaps even revels in it in his own way (that is, through visual art).
“Religion has always been a difficult subject for people for hundreds of reasons. However, where most saw differences, I saw a huge similarity,” said Cuomo. “That similarity is hope.”
In Cuomo’s immersive Reliquaire Fusion series, space is always the backdrop, and the astronaut is the protagonist. He doesn’t have a name, doesn’t represent a narrative; but he is the epitome of Cuomo’s inquisitive nature.
“My love for everything cosmic has been with me since I was a kid. The cosmonaut represents my own curiosity to explore what could lie beyond life as we know it,” he said.
Cuomo did mention that he’s not practicing a particular religion but he’s learned to appreciate it for what it offers. He was “raised with religion, but not spirituality.” Later in his life, he questioned and rejected its conventions, but eventually realized that he had the freedom to define his spiritual life.
“[This time around], it’s been more of a personal exploration,” he told us. “I’ve learned it’s okay to have my own interpretation.”
His vehicle for these explorations, of course, was visual art. Cuomo’s analogy for his creative process was “finding clarity through the chaos” — and this was the exact principle he had in mind for the piece ‘You Might Not Believe It But I Still Talk to Jesus.’ Cuomo made it during the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak after mulling over religion and its role in a turbulent world.
The answer he found was simple: religion was the tightrope that kept people from falling into despair.
“It’s in our greatest moments of darkness we all say some sort of prayer with hopes to get through whatever we are dealing with because we feel as though we’ve exhausted all of our options,” Cuomo pondered.
So, despite being ambivalent to religion himself, he created several pieces that explored his thoughts — among them ‘You Might Not Believe It,’ which has more overt religious undertones. He said that it “depicts the contemplation of someone exploring the possibility of faith helping them, despite their disbelief.”
Cuomo is not the only artist who has qualms about faith — the title ‘You Might Not Believe It…’ borrows from a song called ‘i still talk to jesus’ by American indie-pop band LANY. Unlike Cuomo, though, they don’t ruminate on religion as a whole — they sing about their relationship with God.
“I was raised in church, but there are things I do now that I grew up thinking I would go to hell over. This is my confession,” said lead vocalist Paul Jason Klein in a Genius commentary. “I wanna believe that prayer works. However, I think they’re answered in ways we don’t expect or recognize.”
Cuomo said he shared Klein’s sentiments. “[LANY’s] curiosity to know whether or not he was worthy of heaven had moved me,” he remarked thoughtfully. “As the song continues, you are brought through the trials and tribulations of someone trying to be a better person. Even though he never seems to do the right thing, there still is a genuine apologetic tone that creates some sympathy.”
It was the same depth of emotion he tried to explore in ‘You Might Not Believe It.’ Although the message isn’t too explicit, Cuomo hopes, at least, that it starts more conversations about the modern person, all the worlds we have discovered and yet to discover — and where our spirituality lies amidst it all.
“If you trace everything back to their origins, there are quite a few things that don’t make sense,” he said. “Science and faith may have more in common than we realize.”
Check out our full collection of religious and spiritual wall art here.
“Ordinary life does not interest me. I seek only the high moments. I am in accord with the surrealists, searching for the marvelous,” Anaïs Nin, a French-Cuban-American author in the 1950s, wrote in one of her diaries.
It was the roaring idea for the rapidly flourishing modern art genre at the time. While Nin was no visual artist, others shared the same principle — among them were Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, René Magritte, and Frida Kahlo. All had something else in common: they were pioneers of the Surrealist movement.
Surrealism is closely tied with the subconscious or any other form of bizarre, otherworldly realities. Many Surrealist artists say that their works are products of their dreams. There’s no strict distinction on what qualifies as Surrealist art (especially since the genre itself is closely tied with the Dadaist movement, which is defined by its “irrationality”).
Today, the gap for creative freedom became wider than it already was thanks to contemporary tools and the digital medium. Artists are merging concepts, ideas, and materials from different time periods and different worlds, and turning them into a different one of their own.
Here are some of our favorite contemporary alternate reality artworks from our current collection.
Shørsh — whose real name is Jorge Luis Miraldo — is an illustrator of surreal worlds, which are somewhat like altered memories. He’s a traveler as much as an artist, and places are his ultimate source of inspiration. “I keep my eyes wide open and fill all my senses with new and unknown colors, shapes, aromas, and sounds,” he told us. “Everything about [traveling] makes me feel more alive.”
‘House of God’, his Consecrea original, borrows elements from the supernatural. The souls enter a bright sky where the sun shines — where they will be bound to the gift of divinity forever. Shørsh described it as “a vibrant depiction of the entrance of paradise.”
Like his other works — such as the compelling life-and-death exploration piece ‘Sacrifice’ — it’s a whole new world. “You can tell that they feel familiar, somehow a part of reality, but there is also something about these landscapes that feels strange and new,” he said.
But surrealism isn’t the only concept Shørsh was channeling here. He’s also trying to express the spirituality he feels as an artist. “I think that there’s something supernatural about the process of making and giving birth to something new,” he remarked. “It elevates our soul to a divine condition and gives us the possibility to speak a universal language.”
An enlightened being walks amidst a steel edifice: an individual has found their purpose amidst an urban world. Cielmot told us that this piece was inspired by a song and music video called ‘Bye Bye Macadam’ by Rone. The Spanish-based publication Metalocus describes this music video as “a mystical ritual space, between the dream and the hallucination” — something ‘Macadam’ has expressed just as vividly.
Cielmot has a penchant for exploring “mysterious, suspenseful, and uneasy” worlds, and ‘Macadam’ is no exception. It’s certainly a spiritual and mysterious piece, one riddled with a mythical anecdote: “The steel building with a weird pattern is an ancient structure used for rituals,” said Cielmot. “[The] subject is glowing because he’s a conscious being in a mythical space, maybe in the world of spirits.”
But that’s just his interpretation, and he wants viewers to have their own ideas about it. “I won't explain too much about the message,” he continued. “Too much explanation ruins the fun.”
Read more about Cielmot’s creative process here.
A culmination of realism and surrealism, ‘The Calling’ by Kevin Carden borrows familiar elements from iconic art and combines them with his rich religious imagination. The result? A realistic image that depicts divine worlds — and divine ideas.
He’s done his magic on the image, but upon a closer look, you might realize that the two hands in the piece are the same hands from Michelangelo’s beloved fresco, ‘The Creation of Adam’ (1510). It’s a recurring adaptation in many artists’ works; Carden believes that it “shows the essence of Christianity — God reaching out to humanity.”
For ‘The Calling,’ he wanted to interpret this theme with the idea of light and darkness. “The contrast between the values is very powerful, especially in digital art, and it also creates an emotional response,” he said.
Although he likes to infuse the real world in his art (he’s a photographer after all), the insights he wants to express can’t simply be conveyed by realism. His creativity is based on the principle of “showing the supernatural qualities of God and His love” — and that’s only properly shown through surrealistic elements.
“These types of places don’t really exist in the real world, but that’s not the point. I want to express a thought or an idea with my photos, rather than to be 100% accurate with how the world actually appears,” Carden told us.
Check out our full range of spiritual alternate reality art here.
Silence is the ultimate sign of reverence in most religions, but sometimes, noise can be just as profound and impactful. Yogetsu Akasaka, a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, combines his religious profession and duties with his penchant for music and beatboxing.
To do this, he uses a loop machine, a device that lets one record an instrument or voice in real-time and allows instant playback. It can be used both in professional studios or live performances.
Akasaka records sacred chants and melodies using this machine — which he had mastered since his first purchase of it in 2011 — and combines them with his unique beatboxing skills.
The Tokyo-based monk made waves in 2020 when he went viral in a YouTube video playing a ‘Heart Sutra’ chant remix. The video had garnered almost 3 and a half million views since its release.
“I was kind of afraid because this was something no one had done before — it was out of the tradition,” Akasaka told the South China Morning Post (SCMP). “But I just tried it and it sounded really good to me, so I thought maybe I should do it for other people. And when I played in front of other people, they liked it.”
Akasaka had been an experienced musician far before he committed himself to his religious profession. He spent his early 20s traveling around the world — including Australia and the United States — as a busker and, occasionally, a theater actor.
He discovered his penchant for music in his teens when he was given a CD of Afra, a Japanese beatboxer. “I was absolutely shocked that people could do such things, and so I was interested in trying it. And then I realized I was pretty good at it,” he told VICE.
But he wanted to heed a particular spiritual calling, too. His father had been an abbott in one of the temples in the Iwate Prefecture — a factor that was significantly impactful for young Akasaka.
“Usually in Japan, people become monks because their family lives in a temple,” he said in the same VICE article. “But for my father, he was just a normal person who decided to become a monk.”
Inspired, Akasaka decided that he wanted to pursue the same religious path. He was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 2015 in the same temple his father served in.
But his love for music remained just as powerful, and Akasaka did not want to let it go. Thankfully, he didn’t have to choose — he realized that he could use music as a powerful tool to express the tenets of his faith.
“As a Buddhist, I believe people need to do meditation and experience something more than the material. What I’m actually trying to do is to make people experience something spiritual or maybe a certain state of consciousness,” he said.
As uncanny as his work is, Akasaka is not the only one rocking the boat of religious practices. In recent years, other faith leaders in the country had also been trying to cast a light on more unconventional approaches of worship.
Gyōsen Asakura, for instance, turns his services into techno “raves” — mixing blinding lights, playing electronic music fused with Buddhist chants, and so on. “Priests are publicity agents for Buddha. I want to reach out to people in my own way,” the DJ-turned-priest told The Jakarta Post.
The same could be said for Akasaka, who is also drawing in more people — especially younger ones — into the Buddhist ways of life. The lively and electronic ambiance certainly contributes to a newer portrayal of the religion.
“I think in Japan, people often associate Buddhism with funerals, and the sutra has a little bit of a negative and sad image,” he said. Like many others — including Asakura — Akasaka wanted to break the notion of religious affairs being purely solemn.
And it’s working in many ways: people from all over the world — religious and non-religious — are drawn to the music he presents, if the comments on his YouTube channel are any indication.
“I’m happy that [the] church can move together with [the] new generation and allow Yogetsu to pray [through] the music he plays,” one commented, which Akasaka acknowledged himself through a ‘like’. Another one said: “How cool would it be if there [were] temples that taught the art of making dope mixes like this?”
Akasaka’s story proves that there should be no limit to religious intent. If his talent — no matter how “unorthodox” it may seem in the face of traditional worship — allows him to express his faith deeper, why not share it with the rest of the world?
He now has around 128,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, where he still regularly posts his musical work, sometimes accompanied by psychedelic ceremonies and visuals.
“It’s not that I wanted to gain attention for my ‘uniqueness,’ I just wanted to continue my passion for music,” said Akasaka. “In the same way someone plays the guitar or the drums, I am just a normal performer.”
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