This week’s text will work on the idea of Tradition in the Sacred Arts. Examples will be brought and compared so that the reader understands the essential premises that make an art “traditional” and I emphasize that there is no judgment of any value in relation to the samples, they serve only as an illustrative character. Next, I would like to present the perspective of the contemporary traditional artist in relation to their time.
At first, the word “Tradition ‘’ can be understood as the expression of customs and solidified acts over the ages with minimal space for modification. This may sound backward at first, but the care in preserving the paradigms is important in the clarity in that the original ideas are transmitted. It is also necessary to emphasize that the traditional arts have little interest in individual self-expression, but in the expression of collective culture, as a whole.
Etymologically, “tradition” comes from the Latin “traditio”, which means the act of transmitting, of delivering something. In Sacred Arts, what is delivered is a divine message in accordance with the dogmatic plot of a given religion. This means that, for a work to be considered traditional and sacred, it needs to be in tune with two things: the narrative (the idea) and the form (the image or sound). Titus Burckhardt, art historian, states that “(…) An art cannot properly be called ‘sacred’ solely on the grounds that its subjects originate in a spiritual truth; its formal language also must bear witness to a similar origin”. This becomes clearer when the historian compares Iconography with the art of the Renaissance; on the one hand, we have the expression of a narrative of spiritual, metaphysical origin and, accordingly, its formal solutions are hardly allusive to the physical world because they do not come from here, as in the case of Iconography; whereas, in the case of Renaissance art, there is a similar narrative because the ideas are the same, therefore “based on a spiritual truth”, but the formal solutions are naturalistic and make a direct allusion to the physical world. images below (in very brief analysis) the difference between a Slavic icon and a painting by the Renaissance master Piero della Francesca depicting the same theme, baptism in the Jordan River; we see that, in the icon, everything is stylized, from the human body to the scenery , even the proportion of the characters has a symbolic hierarchy (the figure of the Christ is visibly larger), while in della Francesca, the figures are anatomical and their proportions cohesive with the perspective, exactly as we would see if we were physically present at the event. parallel expresses that an art does not become “sacred” because its themes are of a religious nature (as in Renaissance art), but its formal aspects also need to be divided from the same metaphysical principle (in the case of the icon).
Each era has its spirit, in Philosophy this term is called “Zeitgeist”, it alludes to a humor, to a dynamic that governs each time in history and, although tradition is shown to be “rigid”, naturally it undergoes adaptations according to this “Spirit of the time”. In today’s world, submitting to tradition can pass for an anachronistic, redundant act; however, the work of the “traditional contemporary artist” (it sounds like a paradox), is to access this golden transmission line and make these ideas become present through the means available at the time. A great model of this is a beautiful Victorian church (from 1859) called “All Saints Margaret Street” that is part of the “Neo-Gothic” movement in England and that I had the pleasure of visiting. Its architect, William Butterfield, designed a Gothic church that was built with the advent of the technology of the time; its brick masonry (typical of 19th century England) is an example of the technology applied in Victorian Gothic in contrast to the heavy stone structures of ancient Gothic found in continental Europe. Inside, geometry is a show of architectural polychromy, each material composing a rich geometric mosaic that beautifies every corner of the building. Michael Bowie, the church priest, said he had already seen Muslims visiting this Christian temple and, touched by the geometry of its mosaics, they felt familiar (as in mosques) and prayed. Another important influence for All Saints Margaret Street is Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which is contemporary with the construction of the church. Its architect, Butterfield, familiar with such ideas, adapted an architectural solution inspired by his time discoveries; he used stones filled with fossils on the steps towards the altar to represent that all creation exalts the “Holy of Holies”. Butterfield makes a reference to the Jewish tradition that Cherubs surround God and claim “Holy, Holy!”, Described by the vision of the prophet Ezekiel of the “Glory of God” (Ezekiel 1: 4–28). Cherubs are portrayed as earthly creatures with wings (usually in the figures of a lion, a bull, a man and an eagle); they are the allegory that all Creation sanctifies God and that everything is for his glory.
The challenge of the traditional contemporary artist is to engage with the perennial archetypes transmitted by past traditions and, according to the capacity of the time in which he is inserted, to promote the delivery of the ideas that guide the Original Truth, to the Divine.