“All my scars are golden,” English musician Gabrielle Aplin sings in the lively pop anthem Kintsugi. In the song, she describes the state of personal vulnerability and resilience: “Now that I’m shattered, I’m all kinds of me / Was knocked off the shelf, but I’m also complete.” Aplin sings about taking pride in this state of brokenness, highlighting her scars as “golden” parts of herself. She lives with them, not despite them.
The song takes its inspiration from the ancient Japanese art of the same name or kintsukuroi, which, loosely translated, means “golden mending.” Aptly and perfectly named, this practice involves the reparation of broken items (such as ceramics and pottery) through a lacquer of powdered gold, silver, or platinum.
The idea is that breakage or imperfection is never a source of shame, but rather one of dignity and value. Instead of hiding away the cracks, these are emphasized and worn like badges of honor. Centuries later, kintsugi is still considered one of the most meaningful and innovative art techniques, making its mark throughout different periods and cultures.
The origins of kintsugi trace back to feudal Japan, during the Muromachi period in the 1400s. According to the story, the shogun (military lord and commander) Ashikaga Yoshimasa broke one of his precious teacups during a ceremony. Yoshimasa, a patron of the arts, promptly had it sent to China for repair.
When it was returned, he was enraged to see that it was stapled and sewn with iron fractures. For Yoshimasa, durability was not nearly as important as aesthetics. Indeed, the cup was once again functional and useful, but its allure was gone.
Adamant on restoring its former charm, he had Japanese ceramists repair it. They glued the broken pieces together using expensive lacquer made from tree sap called urushi, and highlighted the fragmented lines with gold dust. Yoshimasa was so happy with the result that the once-broken ceramic became his most favorite piece.
Such an innovative technique called the attention of other art patrons—not only for its novelty, but also because it took inspiration from a unique philosophy called wabi-sabi. This philosophy, rooted in Zen Buddhism (which was at its peak at the time), believes that a state of imperfection holds more beauty, meaning, and value than any lavish material or idea.
Nothing demonstrates wabi-sabi as much as kintsugi does. The idea that flaws should not be hidden but emphasized is a concept idiosyncratic to Zen practice. When a precious ceramic or pot is broken, to highlight its shattered fragments is to give meaning to its imperfection—and assign its unique value.
The beauty in each kintsugi piece lies in their differences. No work of art will look the same. But practitioners generally keep three methods in mind upon the creation of a piece.
Each of these methods utilizes the urushi lacquer or other forms of adhesive epoxy such as resin. To highlight the pieces, artisans make use of powder or dust made of gold, silver, or platinum.
The crack repair technique is the simplest and most common one in kintsugi. Here, minimal work is applied: the lacquer is simply used to glue the broken pieces together.
This also means that the fragments of the bowl or pot are complete, and that the epoxy—which will look like gold veins—holds the piece in its wholeness.
This kintsugi technique goes a bit further than crack repair. In a broken piece, some fragments may be missing. The piece recovery method replaces the entire missing piece with epoxy, so a whole section of gold, silver, or platinum stands out.
Unlike the minimalistic method of crack repair, it requires a bit more complex work because it specifically highlights a missing piece, not just its cracks.
The joint call technique is interesting because here, a broken piece from another item is used to fill in a missing piece. To keep the pieces together, the same lacquer and powdered metal are used.
This method is generally the most unconventional one because the different piece truly stands out from the ware. It must be ensured that the fragment from the other material is a precise fit; or, if not, the artist must adjust the thickness and amount of the lacquer.
Once used solely in ceramics, pottery, and tablewares, kintsugi has also extended its influence in other parts of life. Many people are drawn to this traditional handicraft, and it has started to evolve in parts of people’s lives. Sometimes, artists use it in functional objects and decorations, like trays and boxes. Other times, it is featured in fashion such as earrings and dresses.
To some artists, kintsugi is a way of paying homage to their Japanese roots. It is as cultural as it is symbolic. Mio Heki, an urushi artist and kintsugi restorer, told The Kyoto Journal that it is “crucial” for her to keep the craftsmanship of kintsugi alive. “We all have the spirit of our ancestors in our heart,” she said. “We just have to let it out, use it and nurse it so it grows and develops together with us.”
Other ceramic artists, such as Tomomi Kamoshita, see kintsugi as a way to keep connected to nature. Kamoshita gathers pieces of glass and broken ware from the sea, and makes her own uniquely shaped pieces from her collection. It is how she takes inspiration—literally—from the world, and creates pieces from its long-lost materials. It is her way of “reviving what the waves have sent us,” she said.
Aside from the philosophies it presents, kintsugi also helps nature because of its sustainability. Broken pieces, rather than being tossed and thrown away, are utilized again and beautified in unique ways. Such a view will help us keep in perspective if “useless” things can truly be repurposed.
It is also good to remember its connection with nature and wabi-sabi. Flowers, for instance, are not patterned after specific blueprints. Still, with every missing petal and every torn leaf, there is value, depth, and meaning. Nature produces with no standard of perfection—and this is something that might help us even further in life.
This poignant relationship between kintsugi and nature is something kept in mind by Heki, too: “Because urushi and kintsugi art is all-natural, it is a good way to remind ourselves that we are all part of nature, being pieces of our universe.”
And perhaps most important of all: we have witnessed far too much turmoil caused by the permanent state of imperfection. People find such flaws among themselves and in their environments. But kintsugi (and wabi-sabi) reminds us that there is value in these. Rather than tuck them away in disguise, we deal with them, take them in stride, and treat them like scars of pride we have gathered in battle.
Indeed, the complexity of kintsugi goes beyond its aesthetic merit. The principles behind this art help us navigate the world more wisely, reconnect with nature, and prompt us to reflect on less-than-ideal conditions of life.
Are we truly so weak when our flaws come to light? As Aplin sang: “Knocked off the shelf, but I’m also complete.” With the art of kintsugi, we are taught that imperfection does not take away our value. On the contrary: it adds to it.
“One day, you will be a painter.”
Is life a product of prophecy and pre-determinism? Does talent find an individual or do they discover it within themselves? There is no proven answer to either question. But one thing is certain: if a person’s “calling” is rooted in personal devotion, it will guide them for the rest of their lives. And in extraordinary cases, the stories of these lives will be passed down like folklore.
So goes the chronicle of art brut painter Augustin Lesage, whose spiritual guidance steered him towards the path of an artist. From childhood to his mid-thirties, he worked as a coal miner in a small mining commune. One fateful day, however, unknown voices from the dark tunnels called out to him: you will paint.
He followed the voices with pious obedience despite his doubts and naiveté. With time, Lesage’s skepticism turned into genuine faith and devotion, and he went on to produce over eight hundred works of art until his death in 1954.
He had written to his friends: “My only merit is sincerity. May men not tear that away from me.”
In 1876, Lesage was born in Rue Saint-Pierre, Auchel, a small industrial community in northern France. His life, though fairly mundane, was stable. He started working as a coal miner like the rest of his family at the tender age of fourteen. He would persevere for over two decades, although he briefly served in the military for some of those years.
In 1911, his life would change after a most peculiar circumstance. Deep within the dark mines of Pas-de-Calais, 35-year-old Lesage hears voices with a message: “Un jour, tu seras peintre.” One day, you will be a painter. The voices came from nowhere.
The incident was bizarre enough, but the revelation itself was just as curious. As a man who lived his entire life in a tiny, uneventful mining town, Lesage had never taken an interest in art. His only encounter with it had been a brief visit to a municipal museum called Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille when he was serving in the military.
Perturbed, Lesage had feared going and being labeled as insane. He kept the ordeal to himself for months. His curiosity, however, drove him to seek seances and healers that could help him explain it.
This turned out to be a pivotal moment in his life. During a spiritualist session that involved the practice of automatic writing, a shaken Lesage encounters the words on paper:
“The voices that you heard were real. You will be a painter. Fear not and heed our advice. Your mission will accomplish itself… do not try to understand.”
Lesage was convinced that the words were from significant spirits: one of which was his late sister Marie, who died at three years old. Among those spirits, he believed, included Leonardo da Vinci and Marius of Tyana.
The encounter did not answer most of the questions. Why Lesage? Why pursue art? What will he paint? How will he paint? And yet, in wholehearted duteousness, Lesage heeded the call. They’d said to him that very first time: Do not try to understand.
Thus began the course of his life as an artist. Still guided by the voices, he went to the store to buy colored pencils and a canvas ten times bigger than he’d intended. Despite being daunted by this, the spirit voices reassured him that all was well.
Lesage would draw repetitive patterns, such as lines and spirals, under the command of these “spirits.” He did not know what they meant and, listening to the voices, he did not attempt to find out. Over time, Lesage would shift from using pencils to oil paint, as his guides would tell him.
He began as an artist wholly untrained in the field, having only ever encountered a single insignificant trip to a museum. But despite his lack of talent—or so he thought—Lesage painted and painted. Do not try to understand.
“Before I start to create, I never have any idea as to what I will portray. I take a tube of paint; I do not know what color it is… I never have an overview of the work at any point of the execution. The spirits tell me: ‘Do not try to find out what you create. We are the ones tracing through your hand.’”
Kaleidoscopic patterns, hieroglyphic symbols, and architectural imagery became Lesage’s signature streak. French philosopher Christian Decalampagne described his work as “one of the most daring in modern art.” His technique was geometric, symmetrical, and repetitive.
“[It] explores almost all possibilities of abstraction—lyrical as well as geometric—at a time when the latter, among professional artists, was still in its infancy,” Decalampagne wrote, according to a translation by artist and historian Emily Pothast.
Lesage signed his pieces with ‘Leonardo Da Vinci,’ though he began to use his name after some years. In 1923, he gained a patron named Jean Meyer, who directed a spiritualist journal called La Revue Spirite. He then left his job at the mines and moved to Paris with his family, devoting the rest of his life to painting.
Lesage’s story had grown popular in his community, and his influence as an artist would turn crucial in art movements. Art brut, which translates to ‘outsider art’ in French, is characterized by “raw emotion.” This was coined by artist and collector Jean Dubuffet. (Incidentally, most of Lesage’s work now resides in Dubuffet’s Collection de l’Art Brut in Switzerland.)
Art brut is attributed with ambiguousness and, to an extent, secular abstraction. Graffiti and art made by the marginalized—prisoners, people with mental illnesses, children, primitive artists, and the like—fall under this movement.
The work of Lesage is considered “naïve art,” a concept that included artists with no professional training in the field. It is often regarded as “uncomplicated and simple.” But there is more to it than meets the eye: Lesage’s art, despite its equivocacy, had fully spiritual nuances. He was moved by what he believes are spirits, and he created through the means of these spirits.
Spirituality—no matter how absurd—is ubiquitous in the modern and contemporary art movement, from art brut to surrealism. It is expressed in more personal ways than the genres of centuries ago. “Spiritual” moved from tradition to individual, from convention to personal.
In 2019, the Museum of Everything curated The Medium’s Medium, an exhibition that displayed the work of artists who were said to be moved by spiritual influence. “Spiritualist art-making is revealed as a new pathway into our understanding of 20th century Modernism, and a lateral entry-point for contemporary artists today,” the gallery description reads.
Few others demonstrate this as profoundly as Lesage does, who allowed himself to be guided by unexplained forces at the dawn of secular thought and movement. His art continues to hold meaning, as absurd and ambiguous as they—and their sources—are.
In a time where cynicism and pragmatism rule as kings, people like Lesage remind us that the value of art lies in its incongruity. From the overt to the abstract, this is what art is: an expression of the intangible.
In the book of Exodus, God called Moses through a burning bush. “Do not be afraid,” said the voice. Though initially shaken with fear, Moses had listened, and his story became one of the greatest tales of miraculous hope. Was Lesage’s spiritual awakening similar to that of Moses’? Were the voices in the darkness higher powers calling him for a mission?
The answer is unknown. Perhaps there might be more rational ways to explain Lesage’s extraordinary process. Perhaps he was simply schizophrenic—as many believed—and those “spiritual voices” were symptoms.
Yet we remember that spirituality lies beyond reason, and whether Lesage had been moved by higher powers or a mental condition, he was, regardless, inspired. The details of it remain ambiguous and need no further explanation.
Lesage’s story reminds us that spirituality is transformative. When his fear, doubt, and suspicion dissipated, it transformed into something far more valuable: faith and confidence. If doubt were at the forefront of his mind, Lesage would have regarded the voices as demons. But his faith allowed him to listen to them as blessings, and they prompted him to strive for a life of transcendence.
In the same journal, he had written: “I understand that it is unbelievable, but my guides tell me, ‘Do not try to understand.’ I surrender to their impulse.”
Had he chosen to submit to reason, Lesage would have continued working as a coal miner. It would have been a life of ease, honesty, and determination, as an individual of his background would have had. Yet as valued as an honest life is, Lesage’s ‘blind’ faith allowed him to go beyond.
So goes the remarkable account of a humble miner to a devout spiritualist: with faith as his raison d’être, Lesage created, shared, and inspired monumental works of art for posterity.
Most of us do things out of sheer goodwill. But when “goodwill” doesn’t translate to good results, more problems are created rather than solved. Artworks fade over time, and many of those who value them would take a well-meaning initiative to bring them back to their former glory. But art restoration is incredibly complex — something that many people don’t realize until they try it themselves.
Unfortunately, instead of restoring it to life, some of these projects end up getting drastically butchered. Sometimes they are seen as blatant disrespect, but at best, they could give us a good laugh.
Here are some of the most atrocious — and iconic — restoration projects throughout Christian art history.
Photo from Catholic News Agency (Source)
Have you ever tried imagining a 15th-century sculpture of St. Anne (Mary’s mother) in fuchsia pink and baby Jesus in celery green? Well, no need to think too hard — these religious figures in Asturias, Spain, have been given a technicolor treatment by a local parishioner.
When María Luisa Menéndez, a regular visitor of the church and tobacco shop owner, proposed a painting job on the wooden sculptures, she said she was given the go signal.
“I am not a professional painter, but I’ve always liked it and the images needed to be painted,” she told Spanish news publication El Comercio. “So I painted them as I could with the colors that seemed right to me.”
Menéndez painted the sculptures in garish neons, adding extra details of what appears like lipstick and eyeliner on the figures. Like most uncanny restoration “projects,” it was met with harsh criticism by the art and history community. “The result is just staggering,” Luis Suárez Saro, the artist who restored the figures some 15 years ago, spoke of the effort. “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
But Menéndez’s feelings about her work do not waver. “The neighbors liked it,” she said. “Ask around and you’ll see.”
Photo from Smithsonian Magazine (Source)
A life-sized walnut wood statue of St. George, a valiant dragon-slaying saint and soldier, quickly turned into a laughingstock after a botched restoration attempt.
The 16th-century figure of the saint in Navarre, Spain had been in dire need of work. But instead of hiring a professional, the local parish and community entrusted the job to an art teacher.
Despite the clear zealousness and good intentions, St. George — who was depicted battling a mythical dragon to save townspeople — ended up looking like a side character from a 1940s cartoon.
Because of the controversy it faced, the local government’s historic heritage department pursued efforts to rectify the damage. The new project ended up costing around €33,000 — far higher than it would have been if a technician had been hired in the first place. Fortunately, the new project was a success, and the pink-skinned and beady-eyed statue is no more.
While the remorsefulness of those involved in the original restoration effort was clear and acknowledged, the ordeal served as a reminder to let more experts take charge of cultural preservation.
Photo from House and Garden (Source)
Yet another Catholic painting in Spain had fallen victim to amateur brushwork — twice.
This time, the painting in question was a copy of The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables, painted by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo in 1678.
According to a news report by Europa Press, an art collector in possession of the Baroque painting’s remarkable copy commissioned a furniture restorer to clean up the painting for €1,200. But, to his dismay and surprise, the painting had horrendously made Mary “unrecognizable.” Another attempt had been made to reverse the damage, but it was just as much, if not more, of a failure.
This incident — after one too many — led conservationists and art restorers to denounce these “well-intentioned mistakes.” Calling the failed restoration attempts “attacks on cultural heritage,” they expressed panic over the fact that some damages are irreversible.
“Paradoxically, it shows just how important professional restorers are,” expert and professor Fernando Carrera told The Guardian. “We need to invest in our heritage, but even before we talk about money, we need to make sure that the people who undertake this kind of work have been trained in it.”
Photo from The Daily Mail (Source)
St. Anthony of Padua, shantay, you stay.
When this 17th-century statue was “restored” in 2018, it made waves in the Colombian community after featuring one thing that wasn’t there before: loads and loads of makeup.
The artist who worked on the figure of St. Anthony — the “patron saint of lost things” — was reportedly paid $328. He obviously failed to use the very specific techniques required for an aged wooden statue.
While the painting job itself is technically a mess, waves in social media are quite mixed. Many parishioners in the area were angry about the “effeminate” treatment of the wooden statue. One reportedly commented, “He is no longer the same patron that I have prayed to for the last 12 years.”
The same Daily Mail article reports that some people, on the other hand, saw it as “a saint of modern times — a transsexual saint.” At least a few others found a silver lining in the whole situation.
‘Ecce Homo’ Fresco in Sanctuary of Mercy Church (Zaragoza, Spain)
Photo from Business Insider (Source)
Strangely enough, the world’s most infamous art restoration project is also unironically the most beloved.
As with most restoration efforts, it all started with a well-meaning desire to preserve a fading fresco, which was painted by Elias Garcia Martinez in the 1930s. Cecilia Giménez, a local parishioner in her 80s from Zaragoza, Spain, took on the challenge after securing permission from the parish clergy.
What came about would be one of the most notorious — and iconic — renders in Christian art history. The features of the odd-looking Jesus are often compared to that of a monkey’s.
The fresco, originally called ‘Ecce Homo’ (based on the famous lines of Pontius Pilate, meaning “Behold the man”), had been altered forever. Other unkind pseudonyms include: “Behold the Monkey,” “Beast Jesus,” “Monkey Jesus,” and “Potato Man.”
The fresco became a viral sensation, turned into a popular tourist attraction, and raised around £43,000 for charity. Overall, the effort certainly brought joy to the town.
Despite the initial feeling of humiliation over the incident, Giménez tells The Guardian that the work now brings her a sense of pride. She fondly calls it “a handsome face; a face that she loves.”
Photo from Time Magazine (Source)
Someone momentarily joined the Simpsons — or so the people of social media said.
Ste. Anne des Pins Church, located in Ontario, Canada, had been facing a decade-long vandalism problem with local delinquents. In 2015, the head of a baby Jesus statue outside the church was knocked off and stolen.
Dismayed by the disappearance, an artist named Heather Wise offered to fix the statue for free. “I was so sad,” Wise told Sudbury.com. “It’s just not a positive feeling to see that. I said, ‘I’m an artist, I would like to fix it.’”
But the statue ended up with a “temporary” terracotta head, which was a problem for many reasons. First, the rest of the statues were made of white stone, so the brownish-red clay looked out-of-place.
Second, the image itself was strikingly peculiar — many parishioners expressed their shock at the visual, and people on social media compared the head with cartoon character Maggie Simpson.
However, parish priest Gérald Lajeunesse remained optimistic — and it paid off. “It’s a first try. It’s a first go,” he told CBC News. “Hopefully what is done at the end will please everyone.”
Turns out there was no need for another sculpting attempt after all: the stone head of baby Jesus was safely returned by a woman, who reportedly took a personal interest in it. Lajeunesse no longer filed a complaint of theft — he was just more than happy to have it back.
Many experts and conservationists continue to insist on stricter laws and standards of restoration projects. Essentially, they argue, a piece of cultural heritage is at stake here. They’re right, of course: these significant relics should be taken far more seriously.
In the end, however, there might be a more hopeful way to view the botched art projects. Sure, they were atrocious, but at the very least, it got people talking. It’s not every day that people talk about religious art in a highly secular age.
In the words of Giménez, the hand behind ‘Ecce Homo’: “People from all over the world are visiting the sanctuary now — that’s the best medicine.”
Junk and throwaway tools? Not quite. For the most creative and unorthodox of minds, anything could be a medium of art — and an expression of secular philosophies.
Baptiste Debombourg, who describes his artistry as “a conveyer of encounters,” transforms everyday objects — like glass, wood, and metal — into unique and riveting art installations.
The Aggravure series, one of his most notable projects, involved Renaissance and Mannerist-inspired murals made entirely of staple wires.
According to the French artist, the medium itself was inspired by engraving, which is considered an archaic and ancient technique. However, the use of staple wires alters it into something entirely contemporary.
“What interests me in ancient engraving is the question of representation around themes developed in mythology, religion, and their potential echoes to our ideals today,” said Debombourg.
Aggravure, which was exhibited from 2005 to 2015, included “hundreds of thousands” of staple wires against walls and wooden panels. The murals were mostly re-imaginations of the works of famed Western artists like Renaissance painter Raphael, Dutch painter Harmensz Muller, and modernist Edouard Manet.
Like many of Debombourg’s thought-provoking projects, Aggravure juxtaposes a few things: differing artistic techniques — separated by centuries of practice — and differing views of human ideals.
“This work explores and associates ancient and contemporary themes around the notion of human representation,” reads the exhibit statement in Debombourg’s site.
His source materials often involve famous characters and heroes — historical and mythological — which serve as an allusion to the human ego. The flaws and resolutions of these subjects intrigue Debombourg, and he often expresses this fascination through his artworks.
“I am interested in individual repeated attempts, which sometimes lead to failure,” he wrote. “The impression of impotence generated by such situations and by the individuals themselves simply highlights the fragile and endearing nature of the human being.”
Finding meaning in these, Debombourg’s philosophical explorations would also involve construction and deconstruction — themes that were extremely present in the Aggravure series. “The recurring theme in these paintings revolves around the collapse that resonates with staples,” he said.
To him, staple wires had been the perfect symbolic material. The site describes staple engraving as a medium that “plays with contemporary aggression and everyday life’s profane utility.”
The action and concept of stapling against wood also represent a visual form of modern violence. “Five hundred thousand staples pierce the wooden support,” reads the exhibit statement, “like missiles.”
It goes to explain further: “The aestheticization of the unaccountable arises through a theatricalization of reality. His sophisticated compositions, staging intertwined bodies in an ever-actual violent action, denounce the world’s, and people’s instability.”
Christ with two heads by Baptiste Debombourg (Source)
One of the Aggravure series, ‘The Agony in the Garden’ — exhibited in 2012 at the Düsseldorf Cologne Open Galleries in Germany — meant to paint the Christian religion in a modernized, uncertain light.
Here, Debombourg puts his own spin on the iconic portrait of Christ on the cross. But unlike any other image of its kind, Christ was depicted with two heads.
“The subversive motive choice of a double-headed Jesus established a sensible moment of uncertainty that leaves room for metaphysical and spiritual doubt,” the exhibit description read, according to an art publication.
Its unconventionality is rooted in Debombourg’s fascination with human nature and relationships, and this time, it is with regard to divinity. The notions he expressed in these stapled portraits are tinged with another layer of depth — one rooted in curiosity and doubt.
‘Agony in the Garden’ by Baptiste Debombourg (Source)
Regardless of Debombourg’s ambiguous commentary on modern religion, the emotional themes of the Christian story needed to be retained.
“Through the use of staples carved in wood, the suffering of Christ is almost physically tangible,” said the installation’s official statement.
Although there are many novel ways of exploring these ideas, Debombourg ironically seeks the least novel materials for creative expression. After all, his oeuvre tackles human relations above all — and mundane, routinary objects are the perfect tool for these inquiries.
“My inspiration and influences come from everyday life and, more specifically, the day-to-day objects that condition our lives,” he said. With these, he also hopes to see “the behaviors and affective relationships [people] may have” with such objects.
For Debombourg, the value of throwaway items goes beyond mere creative tools — they also provide a threshold for exploring his ideas about reality and the human condition. By interjecting his philosophies with his unique artistry, his works become exceptionally meaningful.
And, of course, it gives leeway to an ever-evolving landscape of postmodern culture: “I believe it is also a way to examine the position and the function of what we define as contemporary art,” he said.
Check out our collection of contemporary spiritual wall art here.
“What am I in the eyes of most people — a non-entity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person, somebody who has no position in society and will never have. In short, the lowest of the low,” wrote Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo in 1882.
He continued: “All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.”
Many consider the life of Van Gogh a tragedy, which seemed like an irony since he is one of the most celebrated artists in history. Van Gogh took his life in 1890 when he was only thirty-seven years old. He was said to have suffered from mania and depression — conditions that were not unnoticed by his community.
In the years that preceded his death, he had completed beautiful, influential artworks; hundreds of them. Among these was the iconic Starry Night, which he painted during his confinement at an asylum in 1889.
“Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me,” he’d written to Theo.
Van Gogh was not the only artist who’d suffered from mental illness. In fact, there’s a long list of them, from his lifetime to the current era: Edvard Munch, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, to name a few. The “tortured artist” persona has become a popular trope in modern and postmodern media and all forms of art. It’s a term coined for creatives who constantly draw inspiration from emotional turmoil or mental illness.
Some believe that sadness and misery are prerequisites of great artistry, or that these two things are correlated. To this day, the discourse continues whether there is an ounce of truth to this claim, or if it is dangerous because of its implications.
Still, healthily addressing mental health and neurodivergence was novel during the dawn of modern art in the 20th century; there was no proper way to go about the matter without either demonizing or romanticizing it. Thankfully, the world is far more open about these conversations today.
It’s also been proven that art can be of great help to those dealing with such conditions. Vincent Van Gogh himself was a testament to that: his artworks were made out of a genuine desire to create — “to show what such an eccentric has in his heart.”
The surge of reported mental illnesses has exponentially gone up just last year, when the pandemic gripped the world and its systems. The pandemic itself, subsequent economic failure, and even protocols that mandate isolation have taken a toll on individuals, bringing about a sense of loneliness and anxiety.
People are finding ways to deal with such conditions, and art is among the simplest and most accessible hobbies there is. It is also among the most meditative. While it’s neither magic nor medicine, it helps: some psychologists even engage their patients in creative activities to improve their mental and emotional health. Art has become more than a hobby — it is a form of therapy.
Art therapy (which requires licensure and certification) traces its beginnings back to the 1940s, but the practice of creative activity being integrated into psychology has existed long before that. When Carl Jung learned about the mandala from Buddhism around the mid-1910s, he drew his own patterns in his notebook. Believing that there is something to be inferred in his patients’ psyches, he asked his patients to sketch their own.
Jung said that the mandala “compensates the disorder of the psychic state — namely through the construction of a central point to which everything is related.”
The similar principle of ‘compensating the disorder’ goes for other creative processes and outputs in art therapy. The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) listed the advantages of the practice, among which included “fostering self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivating emotional resilience, and promoting insight.”
They also said that art is a form of communication in itself, expressing emotions and ideas that language could not. “Visual and symbolic expression gives voice to experience and empowers individual, communal, and societal transformation,” AATA added.
Art therapy is offered not only to those with mental conditions, but to just about anyone who might need a boost in spirit. In 2018, a study published by the academic journal Frontiers in Psychology reported that most vulnerable groups who practiced art therapy — cancer patients, prison inmates, and the elderly, among others — had their quality of life improved.
Starry Night was not the only piece that Van Gogh created during his most mentally unstable years. The famous Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) was created when Van Gogh mutilated his own ear after a harrowing seizure and violent fight with Paul Gauguin. Gaining lucidity after the incident, he wrote a letter of apology to Gauguin.
Gauguin himself is no stranger to such health conditions. Another one who fit the “tortured artist” archetype, Gauguin — painter of the controversial The Yellow Christ (1889) — had survived a suicide attempt where he swallowed a copious amount of arsenic. The Post-Impressionist artist was believed to be dealing with depression.
These two tumultuous friends are a part of the long list of artists with mental illnesses. Another one is Edvard Munch, the artist behind the very well-known The Scream. The work is considered one of self-expression: based on his journal entries, Munch was likely suffering from bipolar disorder and psychosis. He’d written of the piece:
“I was walking along the road with two of my friends. Then the sun set. The sky suddenly turned into blood, and I felt something akin to a touch of melancholy. I stood still, leaned against the railing, dead tired. Above the blue-black fjord and city hung clouds of dripping, rippling blood. My friends went on and again I stood, frightened with an open wound in my breast. A great scream pierced through nature.”
The piece was no doubt inspired by a hallucination, but Munch was able to channel the distressing experience into his artistic imagination. Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry Albert Rothenberg, M.D. describes Munch’s creative process and work as “healthy and transformative.”
“Although the artwork began with the psychotic experience of a visual hallucination, it was necessary for the artist to transform his initial image in work and thought over the period of more than a year to produce a creative work of art,” Rothenberg wrote in Psychology Today. “The creative homospatial process involving superimposition of images is a conscious, intentional healthy form of cognition and not a product of the pathological condition.”
Today, stories of artists dealing with mental health struggles aren’t as “grand” as Van Gogh’s or Gauguin’s. But it doesn’t make the situation any less real or invalid. Perhaps the lack of novelty is a healthy thing — it’s high time to see and treat mental disorders as they are. Not a taboo, not a prerequisite of artistic inspiration, but a medical condition.
Still, openness certainly helps in navigating the sensitive topic. Some have gone forward to talk about these issues, such as American artist Derek Hess who designed for Mental Health America and participated in mental health efforts and advocacies. Hess discusses the artist’s role in raising awareness about these problems: “It seems like the curtain is beginning to be pulled back on mental illness in our current society. When creating pieces inspired by it, it is important for the artist to articulate the meaning behind it.”
Hess mentioned on his site that most of the emotions behind his work involve “angst, depression, loss, fear, and loneliness.” Of this, he said, “Drawing the essence of emotions is elemental — we as a species will always have heartache. It’d be deeply satisfying if my work stood the test of time, if it would be as relevant to someone in a hundred years as it felt to me the day I drew it.”
Another artist, Christie Begnell — who struggled and recovered from an eating disorder—spends her time sharing her works and knowledge on social media. It was initially a way for her to promote her book Me and My ED. Today, however, Begnell says of her Instagram account: “It’s a platform for me to support others, to provide recovery resources, to provide psychoeducation and help challenge ED and mental health stigmas.”
“I found drawing to be the most therapeutic thing for me, as I could visually express what I couldn’t verbalize,” she said. “One therapist actually asked if she could photocopy some of my drawings to use with her clients.” Later on, Begnell would share her works of art through her book.
But for all these artists, the goal of the creative seemed similar: to keep moving. The value of the art does not fall on the work itself — it is the process of creation that counts. Through the goal of self-expression, art becomes a therapeutic activity that offers an opportunity for contemplation, self-honesty, and vulnerability. So as long as one creates, one tries to get better.
In another letter to Theo, Van Gogh had written:
“On the road that I’m on, I must continue. If I do nothing, if I don’t study, if I don’t keep on trying, then I’m lost, then woe betide me. That’s how I see this, to keep on, keep on, that’s what’s needed
That goal will become clearer, will take shape slowly and surely, as the croquis becomes a sketch and the sketch a painting.”
Van Gogh found fulfillment in art; he vowed to share his work “out of love” despite a community that misunderstood and ostracized him. His moving words serve as a timely reminder for all of us, especially those who are struggling. “Keep on,” he’d said — and that’s precisely what the turbulent world asks of us today.
Do you recall what your dreams last night were? Most of the time, we hardly ever do. Most dreams aren’t stored in our hippocampus — our brain’s memory bank — so we’re quick to forget about them. But, as Carl Jung would posit, dreams can help an individual understand their psyches and emotional states. That’s why some people try hard to remember and understand their dreams.
And artists usually take it one step further: they look into their dreams as a source from which creative inspiration can be drawn. Those who are quick to remember their dreams can express them in canvasses and sketchbook pages.
Just the idea of dreaming and the subconscious has brought about a plethora of artworks, as well as an illustrious art genre in itself. Surrealism was said to be inspired by the ideas of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind, and surreal artists found that their dreams were a reservoir of creative imagination.
But even before all this, dreams have long been explored in all kinds of artworks. How have we done it through the years?
Before rational and scientific explanations, dreams were believed to be a thing of the supernatural and often interpreted as prophecies. Dreamers themselves were just as fascinating because, in this sense, they appeared to be intercessors between divinity and mankind.
Many artists, regardless of their beliefs about the nature of dreams, would be inspired by these people who seemed to have witnessed divine visions. They would often depict stories from the Bible (which contains a record of 21 dreams, all of which are formative to the faith).
French Renaissance painter Nicolas Dipre would paint the dream of Jacob (Gen. 28:10-17), for instance, where the forefather had seen a ladder to heaven. And it’s no wonder artists would draw inspiration from ideas like these — “a stairway to heaven” is such a preposterous idea that it became enough of a prompt, especially in the luminary days of the Renaissance.
Many artists also highlighted the role of Saint Joseph as a receiver of God’s messages. According to several accounts from the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph had four significant dreams. The first was the Annunciation where he was told to accept Mary as his wife; the second was what prompted the flight to Egypt; the third was when he was told to go back to Bethlehem; the fourth was the journey to Galilee instead of Judea.
Interestingly enough, Joseph was also the name of the biblical figure in the Old Testament (Genesis 37-44) who was renowned for being the “King of Dreams.”
But by the dawn of a more secular-leaning society, artists would come to express their own dreams and not just famous ones from literature. Artworks based on personal visions and insights — no longer just religious stories and values — would become characteristic of the Age of Enlightenment.
Artists would also venture towards more experimental (if not mildly disturbing) visions. The more absurd the themes are, the more inventive the artworks become. They would also come to see nightmares not only as a terror, but ironically — a muse.
Some artists in particular, such as Swiss painter Henry Fuseli — whose works have been described as “dramatic, original, and sensual” — would build a large fraction of their portfolios around supernatural themes. Fuseli’s most renowned work is called ‘The Nightmare’, an ominous piece featuring a lady in slumber, with a devilish imp atop her unconscious figure.
Fuseli added mystery and depth to this seemingly ordinary nightmare by employing the use of chiaroscuro, the masterful juxtaposition of dark and light colors in art. Such techniques dramatized the works exponentially, and translated a sinister idea into an equally sinister image.
But whereas Fuseli’s work was theatrical and extravagant, other artists would attempt raw and understated expressions of their nightmares. The prominent Spanish painter Francisco de Goya would etch a macabre image called ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’, featuring a sleeping figure surrounded by bat-like monsters.
The piece was part of a collection called Los Caprichos (The Caprices), a set of 80 prints that tackled subjects of superstitions and — at least to Goya — ludicrous whimsicality. Goya was creating a social message at a time when secularity is beginning to govern over religious traditions. ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’ is thus more than just an eerie etch: it is Goya’s way of critiquing society.
These works of art would undoubtedly contribute to one of the most illustrious literary genres from 19th century Europe: Gothic horror. Literary works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1823), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) would take center stage in popular culture.
Times past would probably have called such kinds of art an act of blasphemy. But through the exploration of dreams and nightmares as an art and literary genre, society learned to embrace these as a matter of life.
By the dawn of the 20th century, modern psychology would try to make sense of these strange, unconscious visions. Carl Jung, in particular, believed that there is something to be inferred about an individual who dreams.
“In the dream, the psyche speaks in images, and gives expression to instincts, which derive from the most primitive levels of nature,” Jung wrote in his collection of essays Civilization in Transition.
The beliefs of Jung, Sigmund Freud, and other 20th-century psychologists would give rise to surrealism: a modern art movement that explores and expresses the individual’s subconscious. The revolutionary artist Salvador Dalí would become one of the best-known vanguards of the genre.
Dalí described his works as “hand-painted dream photographs.” It was an apt description — his oeuvre consists of eclectic concepts and stories, seemingly whole but still quite abstract: just like a dream. Dalí himself had closely followed the studies of Freud, who had multitudes of theories about the subconscious mind.
‘The Persistence of Memory’ is among Dalí’s earliest and most illustrious works. The piece is a dreamlike concoction of melting clocks, a leafless tree, and an anthropomorphic figure on a scenic coast said to have been inspired by Catalonia, his hometown. But even as critics and experts try to interpret what Dalí might have meant in the painting, the Spanish artist himself would claim that he didn’t know.
Some decades later, Dalí would revisit and recreate the iconic work as ‘The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory’. This time, the piece featured more elements — and more striking ones as well — including blocks of bricks and the broken tree.
The painting reflects Dalí’s fascination with nuclear physics, but others perceive a deeper meaning within: a “disintegrating” society characterized by post-war confusion.
In 1944, Dalí created ‘Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening’. Like in most of his works, Gala, Dalí’s wife and muse, is the subject of the painting. She is depicted sleeping in the nude, floating above a rock in what looks like the sea. The painting features other peculiar elements — two tigers, a pomegranate, a fish, a bayonet, an elephant, and a bee — meshed together in a dreamlike seascape.
The prompt for this piece, said Dalí, was a theory from Freud. Dalí wanted the painting to “express for the first time in images Freud’s discovery of the typical dream with a lengthy narrative, the consequence of the instantaneousness of a chance event which causes the sleeper to wake up.”
Today, contemporary artists find inspiration in things that seem surreal, fantastic, and uncanny — like dreams, which are akin to fantasies. Bernarda Conič, one of Consecrea’s collaborative artists, was able to turn one of her fleeting visions into a moving piece.
“I was dreaming about this giant hand reaching from the sky,” she said. “But the theme of this dream was not scary, it was somehow enlightening and hopeful.” Thus, ‘Amor Fati’ — which features a central enlightened figure reaching out to a hand of the divine — was created.
There have been theories on why we dream in the first place, but that’s all they have been: theories. We might not get an answer at all, which only proves how complex the concept is. It’s no wonder that, despite modern research, many people still connect it with superstition and divinity.
While there’s no certain purpose of what dreaming does for us, we do know that we can turn it into significant things: a tool for self-reflection, a beautiful work of art.
“The only God-Love we know is human love,” Corita Kent, once Sister Mary Corita, painted in no one walks waters. For many religious artists, the theme of spirituality revolved around the intangible, the things that transcend human reality. But Corita is different: She finds inspiration within the grocery store, purpose in the streets, and God in all things ordinary.
Corita was a nun and Pop artist in the 1960s, just around the time the movement was at its peak. Her work was largely experimental in nature. Breaking free from the ropes of convention, it was even considered provocative to a degree — at least for one with a vocation within the Church.
Still, Corita continued to honor her own spirituality. She was involved in social movements, finding herself inspired and transformed by the dynamic nature of everyday life. When she was heading the art department at Immaculate Heart College, the motto (quoted from the Balinese) was: “We have no distinction of what is art and what is not art — we do everything as well as we can.”
To Corita, the value of creativity lies within its potential to be transformative. “We can all draw and paint and make things,” she wrote in Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit. “Doing and making are acts of hope, and as that hope grows, we stop feeling overwhelmed by the troubles of the world.”
Born Frances Elizabeth Kent in 1918, a five-year-old Corita with her family moved from Iowa to Hollywood, Los Angeles, California. Just as it is now, contemporary culture was at its apex in Hollywood; this was a fact that influenced Corita in great ways. As a young girl, Corita gravitated towards the arts. Her father encouraged it.
Although her fascination for the contemporary is her primary driving force, she was also influenced by medieval art. This is especially evident in some of her older work, such as in the lord is with thee, which she made a decade before adopting her signature Pop serigraphs.
Corita taught art in her alma mater, the Immaculate Heart College, until she became the department head in 1964. Her medium as an artist was serigraphy or silkscreen printing, which helped her in demonstrating and teaching. It also reflected her deep philosophy in art: that it’s meant to be shared with all.
Silkscreen printing allowed the production of a wider quantity of artworks, thereby making her art more accessible. “Screen printing, in and of itself, is a very democratic medium,” said Nellie Scott, director of the Corita Art Center.
The method also allowed students to create multitudes of works — an effort that’s far more challenging than it sounds. Corita would tell them to submit a hundred drawings by the next day — which would be met by groans and frustration — but, as Corita would instruct, they’d come the next day, a hundred pieces of drawings in hand.
But this isn’t rooted in a bureaucratic teaching process. Corita’s notorious assignments had a deeper, more ruminative purpose. “Sometimes you can take the whole of the world in, and sometimes you would need small pieces to take in,” she said.
The goal, therefore, isn’t to produce and produce mindlessly; rather, it’s to deconstruct the world in parts, instead of merely depicting it in its overwhelming entirety. Among her ten rules in the department is:
Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything — it might come in handy later.
“If you have ever watched a wave coming to shore, you will have a pretty good idea of how Corita taught,” wrote Jan Steward, friend and student of Corita, and co-author of Learning by Heart. “The wave’s approach is broad and inclusive rather than the arcing line of a shooting star… The mass of material is not meant to overwhelm, but to offer more than enough to work from.”
By this time, the school was becoming known as a liberal institution. Mary’s Day, once a demure and silent event, was adorned in bright colors, flower garlands, and vivid protest signs. It was a dramatic shift from customary to unorthodox, solemnity to jubilance.
Instead of reserving the celebration for Mary and other venerated Catholic traditions, they made it an avenue for advocacies: Their signs brought attention to issues like poverty and world hunger. “I think celebrations are always meant to instruct and inspire, to empower people to use their own creative skills through images and ritual to action,” she wrote.
Amid this growing view of a “liberal” Catholic institution, Corita remained central to it all. “You see this as kind of a prototype for what is later California culture,” said Scott.
The next year, Corita painted my people, a blatantly political piece that featured the Watts Rebellion and a quote from Catholic priest Maurice Ouellet:
Youth is a time of rebellion. Rather than squelch the rebellion, we might better enlist the rebels to join that greatest rebel of his time—Christ himself.
Another one of her serigraphs, the juiciest tomato of all, meant to humorously contextualize Mary through the iconic imagery of 60s pop culture. What was meant to be a double entendre of sorts — an appropriation of consumer language and promotion of the Vatican II’s efforts to bring attention to poverty — was received with blistering criticism from the religious clergy. On it, she painted:
If we are provided with a sign that declares Del Monte tomatoes are juiciest, it is not desecration to add: Mother Mary is the juiciest tomato of all.’ Perhaps this is what is meant when the slang term puts it, “She’s a peach,” or “What a tomato!”
The archdiocese thought it was frivolous and profane. More letters were sent to Corita, including one from the archbishop himself. “What pertains to the liturgy and to sacred art comes within my jurisdictions. We hereby request again that the activities of Sister Corita be confined to her classroom,” the letter said.
Exhausted and burned out by the pressure, Corita couldn’t, in good conscience, continue her life within the institution.“I don’t think she could ethically keep going without addressing what was happening around her,” Olivian Cha, curator and collections manager in the Corita Art Center, said.
Eventually, she sought dispensation from her vows and headed to Boston on her own. A year later, the Immaculate Heart Order — after facing similar criticisms — was reformed into the Immaculate Heart Community.
With more creative freedom than ever, Corita moved to her own apartment. She was able to go on large-scale artistic prospects, such as the Rainbow Swash for the Boston Gas Company in 1962. Corita’s idiosyncratic style turned a little more intimate. Scott described it as “somber, pastel, and minimalistic.”
Despite this newfound liberty, Corita was faced with a tragedy: a cancer diagnosis and, later on, the loss of her dear sister Mary Catherine (also to cancer). Such adversities steered the direction of her creative process even further, toward the more introspective.
This didn’t, however, deprive Corita of inspiration or faith. On the contrary, these continued to be her driving force and provided her with a sense of sustenance.
Steward wrote, “To work, play, see, touch, laugh, cry, build, and use it all — even the painful parts, and survive with style: that’s what Corita taught.” For her, movement was necessary: It kept her alive. To continue to create is to continue to live.
After she was diagnosed with cancer for the third time, Corita passed away in 1986. She left her works with the Immaculate Heart Community, which later founded the Corita Art Center where they’re all housed and preserved.
A theme that remained ever-present in Corita’s work — whether as the teacher-nun in California or the artist in Boston — was that of humanitarian love. Her activism was motivated by love; so was her profound creativity.
To Corita, the act of creating comes with a responsibility. She taught and shared her work in the hopes that artistic talent is cultivated enough to move and be moved by posterity:
“To dream about painting and not also to work at it doesn’t ever bring about a painting. To dream about creating a new world that is not teetering on the edge of total destruction and not to work at it doesn’t make a peaceful world. So it is important that we are creative people working daily on the greater picture as well, bringing to it all our skills of imagination and making…
And we work on it so that we and our children may have a world in which to fulfill our reason for being here — which is to create.”
Corita’s spirit lives on in vibrant silkscreen prints, in the dawn of pop culture, in the minds of the inspired. Her spirituality remains alive through the creative process that she shared so generously. In the words of Jan Steward: “The process is one of teaching, learning, growing, and doing things to make the world a better place. Whether that world is within you or as great as infinity.”
How much does it weigh to carry the title of being “God’s Architect”? The phrase suggests big shoes to fill, but Antoni Gaudí was more than happy to step up to the role. His devotion as an architect for La Sagrada Família, the great unfinished basilica in Barcelona, earned him the pious title.
The construction of this Roman Catholic basilica has been under Gaudí’s supervision since 1883 when he was called in by the church sponsor to spearhead it. Gaudí had not been religious at the beginning of the endeavor, but as time passed, he found himself drawn to it — and his Christian faith — almost devoutly. Eventually, Gaudí expressed that he wanted to create “the perfect temple” for the greater glory of God.
With determination, perfectionism, and passion, Gaudí had worked on La Sagrada Família for 43 years. He wanted to make the grand vision come to life — from the highest spire to the tiniest vector. But in 1926, during a walk saying his morning prayers, Gaudí had been struck by a tram. He didn’t live to see the completion of the basilica.
But even if he’d been spared from the accident, he probably wouldn’t have lived to see its completion at all. In 2020, only 70% of La Sagrada Família has been completed, although the building process was halted when the COVID-19 pandemic began. This was the only time construction was stopped since the Spanish Civil War.
Because of Gaudí’s imaginative — almost unattainable — ideas about the landmark, critics and historians had long contended on whether it was still an endeavor worth pursuing. But as it turns out, this had not been a problem for Gaudí: “My client is not in a hurry,” he said once. That client, of course, was God.
In time, efforts would be made to continue building the great basilica despite setbacks in funding and expert opinion. Some believed that Gaudí was far too ambitious with the project: La Sagrada Família was described as excessively intricate to the point of impracticality.
But it was Gaudí’s “ambitious” creative vision that would start revolutionizing art and architecture in 20th century Catalonia. Posterity would later come to know Gaudí as the “Father of Catalan Modernism,” a cultural movement along the lines of Art Nouveau.
The movement is a Renaissance in its own right — Barcelona is now one of the world’s most beloved cultural centers. The spawn of creative activity during Catalan Modernism (also known as Modernisme) is to thank for that.
From the earliest vestiges of his life as an architect, Gaudí had harbored ideas that were far from pragmatic. They were so unconventional that they were either dismissed as utter lunacy or recognized as illustriousness. Fresh out of the Barcelona School of Architecture, one of Gaudí’s mentors Elies Rogenth spoke of him: “I do not know if we have awarded this degree to a madman or to a genius; only time will tell.”
Even “the calling of Gaudí” for La Sagrada Família sounds like a prophecy of sorts. As the story goes, the Catholic philanthropist Josep Maria Bocabella had dreamt of a knight who would build the basilica. He’d then recognize Gaudí as the man in that dream and eventually convinced him to spearhead the construction.
Gaudí, in his early 30s, hardly had the professional experience to lead such a monumental project. But, as time would tell, it was his great dedication and raw talent that brought about the world-renowned basilica — and the dawn of a revolutionary art movement.
If Gaudí had not stepped in on the project, the construction of La Sagrada Família would have been finished far, far earlier — and drastically different from how culture knows it today.
The former architect for the project, Francisco de Paula del Villar, designed it to be of Neo-Gothic fashion. But when Gaudí took over after Del Villar’s resignation, he reimagined and redesigned it completely.
Gaudí patterned architectural techniques after his personal religious beliefs. As a Christian, he wanted to build a church that, as he’d believed, truly pleased God. Beyond his imaginative ideas, Gaudí took inspiration from nature and its laws, and his religious beliefs were among the primary reasons why the original concept of the project was overhauled.
“There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature. Therefore, the buildings must have no straight lines or sharp corners,” Gaudí reportedly said. The spires and the walls of the basilica had thus resembled the branches of trees. He experimented with more curves, arches, and ornate patterns, rather than the palatial medieval style of Gothic architecture.
Although beautiful, Gaudí’s revisions were as risky as they were ridiculous; ostentatious to the point of being almost implausible. But Gaudí hammered on, insisting that his client — God — “was not in a hurry” anyway. He didn’t want to rush such a delicate project, and fortunately, his painstaking effort did pay off. The result is nothing short of magnificent.
Gaudí had dedicated the majority of his life to bringing the Sagrada Família into fruition. But while the beautiful church remains the quintessential example of Catalan Modernism, Gaudí would also participate in other architectural prospects in Barcelona — such as the Casa Vicens — that would become definitive of the genre.
Architects of his time would also take inspiration from the ornamental quality of Modernisme. Other notable buildings of the style are the Palau de la Música Catalana and the Hospital de Sant Pau (now a museum). They featured patterns like paisleys and curves, brightened with myriads of color combinations.
La Sagrada Família is set to be finished in 2026 — almost a hundred and fifty years since the project first launched.
Gaudí had undoubtedly set quite a standard as “God’s Architect,” and the position is far from the easiest to fill. Still, Jordi Faulí, head architect for the Sagrada Família since 2012, finds that the challenge — as arduous as it is — is an optimistic one. After all, it should be faced with the enthusiasm Gaudí had so lovingly applied.
“We followed the path laid by Gaudí, and I believe it will be most valuable to follow his version of the church,” said Faulí in a conversation with STIRworld, an architectural publication.
In November 2010, pope emeritus Benedict XVI consecrated La Sagrada Família despite it being unfinished. And aside from the monumental church, several of Gaudí’s works have also been recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.
Extravagant, joyful, and luminescent: Gaudí’s architectural projects would come to define the diverse society and rich culture of Barcelona. It seems as if his transformative visions in art and architecture have always been integral to who he was. Whether he was truly sent by God in a dream to finish the Sagrada Família, or perhaps just as mere luck and raw talent would have it — there’s no denying that Gaudí’s creative visions were nothing short of revolutionary.
No other symbol in the world remains as universal as the circle. With an infinite number of sides and no beginning or end, it is often attributed to the concept of eternity and wholeness. Even early diagrams such as cosmic maps and stone calendars used the circle to refer to a then-indefinite understanding of the universe. Indeed, this figure is ever-present in countless cultures: the wheel of eternity, yin and yang, even the modern peace sign.
In Hindu and Buddhist traditions, the circle is appropriated in the form of a mandala. It is the quintessential symbol of the universe in its ideal form, a reminder of its transcendental presence. Because of its spiritual properties, it is an instrument of meditation and enlightenment.
Today, these diagrams are familiar even in non-religious contexts. Because of their decorative potential, mandalas are often seen as wallpaper patterns and on coloring book pages. But we do know that beyond its aesthetic complexity, the mandala contributes to the spiritual understanding of an individual—believer or not.
There is no official record of mandalas in religious texts or scripture. Most of its meanings and significance are inferred from how often it appeared in art, ritual practices, and architecture.
What we do know, though, is that the symbol was spread by Buddhist monks while trading in the Silk Road. Some centuries later, it began to appear in parts of Asia like China, Tibet, and Japan. It also began to be adopted by other religions like Hinduism.
There are several types of mandalas across cultures (and even within Buddhist and Hindu traditions alone), but the most common ones are recognized according to purpose.
The teaching mandala is a mandala created by student monks. These mandalas follow different principles of design and Buddhist concepts. Whatever they create serves as a culmination of their years of monastic education. In this sense, the teaching mandala is more personal than others; it reveals the creator’s insights and reverence for the religion.
The healing mandala is created for meditation. These mandalas are usually described as “intuitive,” evoking insights, a sense of wisdom, and a state of focus for the viewer. (It is worth noting, however, that all mandalas—regardless of their purpose—are inherently meditative in different ways.)
Perhaps most fascinating of all is the sand mandala, which involves both a process of creation and destruction. This practice originates from Tibet, where mandalas are known as kyil-khor (“center of all creation”). However, this practice has been adopted into other Buddhist cultures.
Here the act of creating is a collective one: a group of monks sits in a circle, sometimes spanning as large as three meters, tracing a pattern elaborately marked by chalk. To fill in the gaps, they extrude colored powders (made from crushed dyed rock or precious stone) from a thin piece of metal. This process is extremely meticulous and requires a great deal of patience and concentration.
Once the pattern is completed (this can take up to weeks), the monks say a prayer and pause for a moment of deep contemplation. Then, in a swift instant, the weeks of work are swept aside and ceremonially thrown into a body of water. This unique ritual is symbolic of the impermanence of life and all things.
The mandala is designed intricately for a purpose. From the center, the patterns become more and more elaborate as they diverge outwards. Each element within it symbolizes something to represent its entirety.
A mandala’s focal point is its center, representing the awakened being at the center of the universe. In Hindu traditions, this is a sacred symbol called the Bindu: the point in which all things unite, and at the same time, a manifestation of the infinite nature of the universe. This is the foundation of many principles within the religion—the art of the mandala is one of its most expressive demonstrations.
The dharma wheel, or the Wheel of the Law, is another frequent symbol represented with eight spokes. These spokes represent the Noble Eightfold Path, the central Buddhist philosophy believed to liberate an individual from the cycle of worldly suffering.
The lotus flower also bears great significance in both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. The lotus is known for its unique life cycle: it grows and rises from muddy waters. Similarly, it is believed that human life follows this process of growth and transformation.
Other shapes within the mandala are squares and triangles. Squares represent divine energy and existence within the material world. Triangles, depending on where they face, hold various meanings: upward-facing ones represent action and energy, and downward-facing ones represent wisdom and creativity.
Although the word ‘mandala’ stems from the Sanskrit language (meaning “circle”), it has become an umbrella term for circular ceremonial figures in religions across the world.
The dreamcatcher, for instance, is considered a mandala despite its Native American origins. Like mandalas in Hindu and Buddhist customs, dreamcatchers connote connections with spiritual forces. They are called as such because they are believed to “manipulate” spirits during a person’s slumber.
The Aztec Sun Stone is another mandala, this time used as a reference for communal beliefs. It is often called a “stone calendar,” although it is a typical misconception to regard it as a literal calendar. The stone is believed to be an altar dedicated to Tonatiuh, the sun god who sustains humanity.
The stone, which spans almost 12 feet in diameter, displays Aztec beliefs on creation and brutal portrayals of human sacrifice. Such details revealed a lot about the period’s culture, tradition, and political climate.
Here, the religious connotation of the mandala is contextualized within the theme of divine sustenance: Tonatiuh lives and dies with the rising and setting of the sun. The mandala represents the deity’s perpetual cycle of life and death.
In the 20th century, psychologist Carl Jung introduced the Eastern tradition of mandalas to Western thinking. He used it as a tool to study human orientations, comparing its characteristics to qualities of the “metaphysical” nature. He even shared his theories, musings, and drawings of mandalas in The Red Book.
“I sketched every morning in a notebook a small circular drawing, a mandala, which seemed to correspond to my inner situation at the time,” Jung wrote in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, his autobiography. “With the help of these drawings, I could observe my psychic transformations from day to day.” Later on, he would employ and observe the same line of thought during psychiatric treatments.
Jung believed that these complex patterns compensate for the disorder of the psychic state. He described it in The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious as “the construction of a central point to which everything is related; by a concentric arrangement of disordered multiplicity and of contradictory and irreconcilable elements.”
Such a sentiment reflects the original purpose of the mandala, rooted in Buddhism and Hinduism. The art and process of it try to make sense of a disordered universe by illustrating it within a central point surrounded by meaningful abstractions.
Today, the significance of the mandala persists: in architecture, through creative techniques, as meditative tools. Through Jungian influence, the mandala is used in therapy. Practitioners encourage their patients to keep a journal in which they draw their mandalas as a form of reflection and self-expression. This allows them to make sense of the patient’s emotional state.
Coloring books are also known to relieve stress and anxiety. Mandalas are frequently printed on these pages; dynamic patterns and shapes waiting to be filled with color. This activity is not as complex as creating, but it can offer an invaluable thing: peace of mind, even for just a few minutes.
Whether we revere the mandala as a religious symbol or make use of it in casual activities, it appears that the philosophy behind it is universal—just as it has always been.
The concept of impermanence is often explored in religions and philosophies. The universe, existing far longer than we have, is presumed to be ephemeral by our ancestors even before the existence of scientific proof. And yet it’s not an idea they were afraid of. Instead, it’s taken for what it is — a fact of life, something to celebrate, something to commemorate.
For the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the ritualistic art of mandala-making emphasizes the beauty and impermanence of the world. As avenues for both meditation and reflection, it’s a way to practice discipline and patience, as well as a means to express the universe’s transient nature.
Buddhism was brought to other parts of Asia from India around the 6th to 8th centuries C.E., becoming more widespread in the continent during the so-called period of “Tibetan Renaissance,” around the 10th and 11th centuries C.E. The history of Tibetan Buddhism is rooted in other traditions, such as Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna, before it became a religion of its own.
The earliest references to Tibetan sand mandalas were found in the literary work The Blue Annals, written by the scholar Gö Lotsawa Zhönnu-pel around the mid-1400s. At this time, the mandala wasn’t much of a concrete object; it was metaphysical or spiritual, often used to reference the power of meditation and enlightenment.
This meaning is still kept in mind even in mandalas of other Buddhist practices. Generally, mandalas are works of introspection and insight; they prompt meditation to both the creator and the viewer. It also symbolizes the journey of spiritual enlightenment, starting from the center point to the outward circles which represent the individual vis-a-vis the universe.
For the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, sand mandalas — also called dul-tson-kyil-khor — are a unique practice. More than a mere art form, the creation of mandalas is one of the many methods of spiritual expression. In fact, it’s more of a religious ceremony than artistic pursuit.
Upon the beginning of the ritual, a group of Buddhist monks sanctifies the space in which the mandala is made by burning incense, chanting sacred hymns, and playing traditional Tibetan instruments. The leader will then imprint the circle — sometimes spanning as large as four meters — with detailed, elaborate patterns using chalk.
These patterns are usually drawn from memory as the participants of this ritual are already incredibly skilled in the art. The designs within these circles are Buddhist symbols and iconography such as the lotus flower and the wheel of life. They can also contain deities such as the Dhyani buddhas.
In older times, monks usually made use of crushed colored rocks and gemstones to fill in these patterns. Today, however, other more available materials are sourced: crushed white rock dyed with ink, pulverized roots and flower pollen, and even cornmeal.
These are then placed in very thin metal sprouts, like small pens, and extruded into the pattern to fill in the colors. Starting from the center, the monks will work around the different parts of the diagram, most often in quadrants. This is an extremely meticulous step that can take up to weeks. It requires a rigorous amount of patience, concentration, and discipline. The monks go through this process silently, and the quietude prompts moments of reflection and meditation.
The closing ritual commences as soon as the mandala is finally completed. The monks say a short prayer, and after what can be weeks of painstaking work, the sand mandala is instantly swept away. It starts at the midpoint, evenly spread in order, and fanning outwards the circle. Afterward, the colored grains are gathered into a jar wrapped in silk.
The final steps of the ceremony involve throwing the jar containing the colored grains into a nearby body of water. The ritual’s close serves as a symbolic act and a way of blessing: The sweeping away of the sand mandala is a reminder of the universe’s ephemeral nature; the jar’s return to the ocean or the sea is a reunification of the pieces back to nature where they belong. This final ceremony stands to suggest that everything belongs to the universe and will return to the universe.
The fascinating art and ceremony of sand mandalas are interpretive of universal Buddhist doctrines. Buddhists believe in the journey of spiritual enlightenment and being one with the universe; to achieve this is to be liberated from suffering. There’s also the concept of worldly impermanence which, as believed, isn’t something to be afraid of but something to regard as truth in life.
The unique Tibetan sand mandala ceremony requires up to weeks of painstaking artistic work only for it to be swept away and thrown into the water.
The monks and their impermanent art remind us that existence’s fleeting nature isn’t something to mull over or feel regretful over. It’s a reminder to take on a transcendent interpretation of the universe’s impermanence, a reminder that all the world’s beauty continues with, within, and without us.
“All the knowledge that is not of the senses, not of the intellect, not of the heart, but is the property that exclusively belongs to the deepest aspect of your being… the knowledge of your spirit.” These words were reportedly uttered by a spiritual “High Master” from the beyond named Gregor during one of the meetings of De Fem (The Five), a group of women artists who were bound by their reverence for spiritism.
Among the women in this unorthodox group was Hilma af Klint: Swedish painter, dedicated follower of Theosophy, and one of the vanguards of the 20th-century abstract art movement.
All artists are visionaries in their own right, but there’s something strangely intriguing about works of art that find inspiration beyond the realm of tangible possibility. These works, it seems, leave more room for mystery than anything else — and perhaps that’s where much of their allure stems from.
For af Klint, the creative process is less about individualistic effort and more about intuitive guidance. Her view runs parallel to the philosophy of another forerunner of the genre, Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kadinsky (notable for being the “Father of Abstractionism”). Like af Klint, Kadinsky was inspired by Theosophy. In the book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he wrote:
“The true work of art is born from the ‘artist’: a mysterious, enigmatic, and mystical creation. It detaches itself from him, it acquires an autonomous life, becomes a personality, an independent subject, animated with a spiritual breath, the living subject of a real existence of being.”
The moniker for Kadinsky may be a little misleading, however. As a revolutionary abstract artist and theorist, he had contributions that were certainly requisite to the art movement, but his art and theories were preceded by af Klint’s work, which is generally regarded as the earlier (if not the earliest) contribution to the genre.
However, her art remained unknown — or, at the very least, unnoticed — for years, and she was unfortunately left behind her fellow abstract art pioneers. Part of this is because of af Klint herself, who, despite her achievements, felt that “the world was not ready for her work.”
Born in 1862 to a naval commander and a mathematician, af Klint was the fourth child in a Protestant family. She spent most of her childhood in the Karlberg Palace in the Solna municipality in Stockholm, Sweden. In the summer, she and her family would stay in their manor in Adelsö, a quiet island in the middle of Lake Mälaren.
It was at this early point in her youth that af Klint found herself fascinated and inspired by nature. She may have been known for her abstract spiritualist work, but she also painted a lot of realist subjects and landscapes, such as Eftersommar (meaning “Late Summer”).
Notably, af Klint was one of the first known women to have attended an art school. In 1880, she went to Tekniska Skolan or Technical School — now Konstfack (University of Arts, Crafts, and Designs) — for portrait painting classes under Kerstin Cardon.
These formative years would turn out to be vital to af Klint’s foundation as an artist as it was during this time she started taking an interest in religion and occultism. This was cultivated even further by the loss of her 10-year-old sister, Hermina. Af Klint started going to more séances and spiritual meetings.
Five years later, af Klint graduated from the Academy with honors and was awarded an art studio in Stockholm as her scholarship grant. Here, she was able to create and sell portraits and naturalist paintings, which helped her financially sustain herself.
With her growing art career, af Klint also started to explore her spiritual beliefs and interests even more. She joined the European Federation of the Theosophical Society and the ecumenical association the Edelweiss Society for a brief time. Later on, af Klint would gather with four other women to form their own spiritualist group called “The Five.” From 1896 to 1907, they met regularly for prayer, meditation, and reflections on New Testament scriptures.
Most notably, the group would engage in rounds of séances where they reported consulting with spiritual guides they called De Höga (the “High Masters”). Af Klint also started experiencing “automatic drawing,” a curious activity in which she claims to be directly guided by an unknown force while painting.
“The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force,” af Klint said. “I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict. Nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”
By this time, af Klint’s artistic work would start taking a more experimental direction. While her initial art style leaned towards naturalist references, the art she’d made “through the spirits” began to show signs of abstract idiosyncrasies: arbitrary geometrical shapes and patterns, seemingly formless.
In 1906, af Klint embarked on what would be considered her most monumental project: a series of paintings called “Paintings for the Temple,” which was “commissioned” to her by one of the High Masters named Amaliel. The oeuvre consisted of 193 paintings which started with theosophical influences until af Klint started incorporating Christian iconography towards the project’s latter years. Even the name doesn’t hold any clear meaning: The “Temple” doesn’t refer to a concrete “temple” in the conventional sense. Instead, the project is an allusion to af Klint’s spiritual journey and visions.
Within this oeuvre, she made a subgroup of paintings she called “The Ten Largest” which represented the different stages of life. Tracey Bashkoff, Senior Curator for the Guggenheim Museum in New York, said that the works were a middle point between the natural world and af Klint’s visions: “They combine elements of imagery that’s derived from organic forms, and botanicals, and creatures, and objects that one observes in the real world. So, there are representational elements to them. But they also take off into fantastical realms.”
Although she did say that she created directly through the spirits, in some cases, af Klint claimed that the activity wasn’t as mindless as it seems: “It was not the case that I was to blindly obey the High Lords of the Mysteries, but that I was to imagine that they were always standing by my side,” she’d written in her notebook.
Later on, af Klint presented her works to philosopher and anthroposophy leader Rudolf Steiner in the hope of taking his interest in them, but she was met with discouragement. Still, Steiner held a great influence on af Klint’s artistry as she became a member of the Anthroposophical Society.
By the latter years of her career, af Klint started veering away from pure spiritualist abstraction. She began to use watercolor as a medium and portrayed natural objects and concepts, going back to her roots and inspiration on flora and botany. But her idiosyncratic abstract style remained.
“It is quite different from the imagery that we’ve seen before this in many ways, particularly in the way that these works are created on this kind of wet-on-wet watercolor technique,” said Bashkoff. “But they are still connected to her earlier work in their ties to the natural world, and to the forms of flowers and light that tie back to the botanical studies that she did early in her life.”
For decades, af Klint remained an artist unknown to the world partly because of her own prescriptions. Before her death in 1944, she entrusted her works to her nephew Erik and told him that they should not be shared for 20 years. He conscientiously listened to this request and tried to donate these to museums in the late 1960s, but was unfortunately rejected several times. Still, Erik would exert his efforts in preserving the artworks even if they were never exhibited to the public.
It took around seven decades for the world to recognize her creative genius and talent. In 2013, her oeuvre was exhibited in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm — back to af Klint’s very own home. These works, previously unappreciated and almost gone, started being shown in other art shows and museums in the world as well.
That same year, filmmaker Halina Dyrschka pursued a creative project about the life and legacy of the Swedish abstract pioneer through a documentary called Hilma af Klint: Beyond the Visible. Dyrschka said she was profoundly inspired by af Klint’s story after reading about her in the news. Later, Dyrschka witnessed the works herself when it came to Berlin as an exhibition half a year after their debut in Stockholm.
Dyrschka was in disbelief that such a remarkable talent remained unseen for such a long time. “…I thought: who is responsible that I’m living for such a long time on this planet and nobody has told me about it?” she said. With resolve, Dyrschka decided to tell her story: “I thought I have to make a film about this.”
The paintings were fascinating enough, but af Klint’s character and inspiration also exhibited an exceptional novelty. “[Here] was a woman who consequently followed her own path in life that led to a unique oeuvre,” Dyrschka said. “A strong character and despite all restrictions, Hilma af Klint explored the possibilities that go beyond the visible.”
The world is in need of remedies.
Arash Javanbakht, a trauma specialist and professor of psychiatry, said that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected “all aspects of life.” While the pandemic itself remains the world’s top concern, it’s brought about repercussions in other areas of society. Businesses collapsed and millions lost their jobs. Quarantines triggered emotional lows even further by cultivating a sense of isolation.
Even mental health doctors are struggling with the demand, not to mention their own feelings of helplessness.
“Every single person I see needs therapy right now,” Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist and educator, told the New York Times. Colleen Cummings, licensed psychologist, also shared her struggles in an article from the USA Today: “I’m going through the same things that they’re going through.”
When it comes to matters of mental health, science and health systems can fall short. They’re necessary, of course, but these fields are run by people, too — people who deal with similar kinds of difficulties.
At a time where there seems to be little to no relief in the outside world, people start to seek leverage elsewhere. Some have turned back to spiritual, meditative practices, as well as entertainment like art, literature, and other forms of media. These don't “heal” them — not by a long mile — but they do help them make sense of a tumultuous world.
In 2020, the American Psychological Association (APA) published an article about people’s relationship with faith and spirituality during the crisis. Doctors and researchers have agreed that religious belief can be a healthy coping mechanism for some people (as long as prayer is balanced with pragmatism).
“Religion has been helping people get through hard times for thousands of years,” said Thomas Plante, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Santa Clara University. “Just read the psalms and you will see that it is all about people turning to God during troubled times.”
Themes of spirituality also began to re-emerge in works of art, even in public spaces. Artists have used graffiti to contextualize religiosity amid the period of pandemic distress. “Love is the cure, greed is the virus,” a wall in Amsterdam reads.
Another striking piece was one from Ernesto Muñiz who painted a rendition of The Virgin Crown in the streets of Madrid. Instead of the traditional Marian portrait, a melancholic Mary is depicted with a mask, the Immaculate Heart was replaced by a virus, and the Crown of Stars was replaced by the earth.
Despite its poignance, it stands as a message of hope: that Mary carries the weight of the world’s suffering, that her heart mourns for it, and that she serves as a reminder of faith and resilience.
Muñiz, a prizewinning Mexican artist, said that he tried his hand in collage art as a “more personal” form of expression during the crisis. When galleries closed down, Muñiz displayed his work on the streets as graffiti art, calling them his “guerilla shrines.” All of these — like the rest of his work — feature overtly religious imagery.
And he’s not the only one who tries to seek new ways of self-expression amid the pandemic. Others in the field — even writers, musicians, stage actors — are keeping in touch with their artistic selves by holding on to their spirituality.
“My artistic practice is all about other people,” artist-facilitator Tatiana Chaturji wrote for the YBCA zine. “With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, I felt anger at having to abandon these modes of being with others. I feel that my artist-self has gone into hiding.”
But Chaturji keeps going by looking for new ways to share her mode of art: converting to the digital space and conducting virtual workshops. “Hope is a slippery thing, but if art can magnetize us towards it, siphoning off the sorrow and despondence of these days, I’m there,” she said.
This is hardly the first time the world has gone through a sense of stagnancy. Putting life in perspective now requires us to recall human struggles — and victories — throughout history.
The Middle Ages, for instance, were characteristic of some of history’s most notorious upheavals. People suffered from plagues, poverty, famine, and severe inequality. During a time of loss and despair, religion was the foundation of society; indoctrination was the basis for governance. People held on to the belief that tragedies like the Black Plague were God’s punishment for immorality, and that the world was designed to be cruel.
But these centuries were followed by the Renaissance, a rather dramatic contrast to its macabre predecessor. It was the peak of iconic religious art, and this time, people depicted more themes of hope and light: God with humans rather than above them.
An article from Columbia University called God in Renaissance art “as human as art as ever seen him.” No longer was God depicted in settings of pure divinity like he was mostly seen in the Middle Ages. In the Renaissance, artists emphasized the life of Jesus and celebrated God within the human experience.
How did this new view of God help bring about a shift in ideology and culture? The answer lies in the fact that religion is alive and constantly transformative. During the Black Plague, religious art was characterized by the overarching theme of memento mori, a reminder of how bleak and ephemeral human life is. But by the dawn of the renaissance — which translates to “rebirth” — society began to view life as hopeful and transcendent.
In the same way, these trying times can be an opportunity for artists to reexamine and reinterpret their faith in new ways. A new, contextualized view of God can be a source of light and inspiration.
No one knows when the world will recover from the losses of this pandemic, but we do know that it will always find ways to flourish just as it did in the past. Perhaps it can prompt another era of renaissance.
Art, both for the creator and the viewer, is meditative. A study published in the US National Library of Medicine finds that artistic engagement — from visual arts to movements — has “significantly positive effects” on an individual’s wellbeing.
“Art can be a refuge from intense emotions associated with illness. There are no limits to the imagination in finding creative ways of expressing grief,” the study stated. This could explain the resurgence of art and the religious themes behind it. Faith and art understand sorrow the same way.
In a period characterized by isolation, people tend to look inward. Art helps people make sense of chaos and find something within them to be hopeful of. “The role of art becomes more central to our lives, whether we realise it or not,” said Louis Netter, an illustrator and professor at the University of Portsmouth. “Momentary joys, even in dire circumstances, often come through the arts and collective expression.”
But art is not only spiritual for the artist — the experience can be just as liberating for the viewer. Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp describes this as the creative act, where he says that the viewership of a piece is just as vital as its production.
“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone,” Duchamp wrote. “The spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
For artists who are religious by nature, this process can be considered a realization of their calling. Michelle Bradford, founder of Leaf Institute of Art and Vocation in South Carolina, considers her artistic profession as a mission in itself: “God commanded us [artists] to take the natural resources in this earth that he created and create culture,” she said.
And in turn, the viewer’s appreciation for the art can contribute a sense of fulfillment for the religious artist. “Artists want to know that they have a place in the church, that their creativity and their faithfulness to their calling is seen,” added Bradford.
The resurgence of religiosity in art helps us understand how society experiences loss and separation during the pandemic. People have started incorporating their faith into their work. Artists who display their pieces in churches and museums — which are now closed — share their creations on the streets.
They remind us that spiritual art, as much as it’s personal, is a collective healing experience. By sharing works of faith, artists fulfill the role of being visionaries.
“This rush to make stories out of madness can be a way for us to kid ourselves about circumstances that are difficult to confront or understand. But this instinct can also be a necessary survival tool,” film critic Alissa Wilkinson wrote in a Vox article.
Indeed, art and faith are forms of self-preservation — a concept that’s becoming increasingly vital now more than ever. Is this considered a “remedy” enough for our mental states? Perhaps not completely. But by making sense of grief, loss, and anxiety, spiritual art has done today’s time a remarkable service.
As much as it’s an artistic technique, color choice is a cultural tool — one that influences and communicates. In history, colors signified social ranks: Reds and purples were a sign of nobility in the Western world; yellow was the royal color of imperial China. Some colors are sacred and life-giving, and others represent sin and death.
Nothing manifests this as clearly as religion does. To this day, people associate certain religious iconography with their color meanings. But these meanings vary throughout different religions: The implications of the Virgin Mary’s blue cloak were different from Lord Krishna’s blue skin. How have we appropriated these meanings over time?
In medieval and Renaissance societies, religion governed all. Art, which is now generally considered an individualistic prospect, was an act of social service. Most religious artworks had to have some sort of societal purpose, and artists had to make use of techniques that were familiar and recognizable. Depictions of the divine were dynamic but consistent, and the use of colors was a way to maintain tradition.
Colors in Christian art helped people contextualize a Biblical character or a story. The blue cloak of Mary, for example, is tied with her identity. The color blue symbolized hope and purity and was the color of royalty in the Byzantine empire, along with red and purple. This gave believers an idea of who Mary should be: the embodiment of hope, the divine empress.
Sassoferrato, who painted one of the most iconic renditions of the Virgin Mary, painted her cloak in ultramarine, a shade of blue made from pulverized lapis lazuli. Interpretations like these further sealed Mary’s connection with divinity. In the words of Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kadinsky: “The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite.”
Themes like piety and passion were also highlighted in Christian art, often depicted in red. Besides the suffering of Christ, red was also the color of martyrdom — a fact recognized by pope emeritus Benedict XVI who wore this color during his tenure as a sign that he shared the faith.
Red also symbolizes the tongues of fire (a reference to Pentecost), thus representing spiritual awakening. Jean II Restout’s rendition of the Biblical event exhibited this clearly: Mary, the focal point of the piece, received the light of God in red and blue. Some apostles in the painting also wore red garments, which served as a stark contrast to the surrounding elements of white.
Although it’s not overtly expressed, the Catholic Church still makes use of color symbolisms. Every event in the liturgical calendar has a corresponding color. Red is for special Lenten days (such as Palm Sunday and Good Friday), Pentecost Sunday, and celebrations for martyrs. Violet indicates the Lenten and Advent seasons. White — the color of light and birth — signifies Christmas, Easter, and feast days of saints. Finally, green represents the rest of the calendar days.
For Buddhists, colors play an integral role in rituals. The Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism philosophizes that the world has five divine elements, each being components of “enlightened consciousness.” These intangible elements are personified by the Five Dhyani Buddhas.
Monks who conducted rituals for the divine beings wore crowns with their corresponding colors. These crowns were also worn for other purposes such as public performances and ceremonies.
Colors are also representative of core values: yellow, the closest color to daylight, represents enlightenment. It’s especially sacred because it was chosen by Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, to separate himself from the materialist society. Previously worn by criminals, this color, which was appropriated by Buddha, was indicative of humility and desirelessness.
No other religious tradition reveres color as much as Hinduism does — they have ceremonies and festivals dedicated just for it.
The Holi Festival is also known as the festival of colors, celebrated during the full moon of the 12th month of the Hindu Calendar. Vibrant and joyful, this festival welcomes spring and honors the triumph of good over evil. The revelry begins on the eve of the festival, where a bonfire is lit as a symbol of burning evil spirits. People gather around it to dance, pray, and playfully chase each other around with colored powder and water.
Another vibrant tradition is Diwali, the festival of light. Here, people decorate their homes and the streets with folk art called rangoli. Makeshift flower markets sell garlands of marigolds, which symbolize the sun and positive energy. At night, fireworks serve as a commemoration of light, hope, and high spirits.
The Hindus associated the color blue with divine creation as it made up two of nature’s most majestic domains: the sky and the sea. As such, this color was attributed to Vishnu, preserver and protector of the universe. His avatars Krishna and Rama, who also spent their lives protecting humanity, had blue skin to indicate their divine connection with him.
Although the meanings of colors vary across branches of Hinduism, saffron (a hue of yellow or orange, like that of fire) is considered a sacred color for all believers. Derived from the spice of the same name, it’s a symbol of religious abstinence and cleansing. It’s such an auspicious color that it makes up one of the tricolors of the Indian flag.
In the Muslim tradition, green is sacred. It’s believed that Islam founder and holy prophet Muhammad donned a cloak and turban of this shade. This color has been appropriated all across the contexts of the religion, including in art, ritualistic practices, and architecture (such as the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina).
It was also referenced several times in the Quran, especially when pertaining to the afterlife. It’s said that those who reach this paradise will be adorned in “green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade.”
Muhammad himself had said: “The people will be resurrected on the Day of Judgment, and my community and I will be on a hill. God Most Exalted will then clothe me in a green garment and permit me to supplicate Him and I will say whatever He wills I should say.”
White is also monumental in Muslim belief. It’s the color of ihram clothing, which one must wear before going on the Hajj Pilgrimage. The color signifies peace and holiness, which helps believers observe solemnity during the journey.
Today, color is used less for its symbolic significance and more because of its psychological impact. But this impact is also largely due to the meanings we have attached to them over time: blue is still a universal color of calmness; orange is still associated with energy. These were ingrained through centuries of tradition and repeated imagery.
“I finally came to consider colors as forces, to be assembled as inspiration dictates,” Henri Matisse told the Getty Research Institute in 1941. Indeed, the use of colors is no longer required to meet religious conventions, but it still upholds the same principle: to express emotions and human values in tangible ways.
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