Art & Meaning

For millennia, images and form in art and architecture have carried meaning, inspired people to accomplish enormous feats and been the medium through which hidden realities could be realised. Today it may seem an odd concept to move beyond just looking at art to perceiving it as a means with which we can wake up, transform consciousness and be informed with a sense of purpose. Works of art often only scratch the surface of our thoughts as we flit past them in galleries and museums.

Yet there are those occasions when we do encounter art, images or architectural form and space where our heart and imagination flies. We feel we are touching on something quite special and meaningful and we may even have a sense of wonderment, of the sublime, that can bring us to our literal and metaphorical knees.

Without realising it, we have entered a different way of looking where we begin to really see both the image and something other beyond it.

How do we make sense of what we have felt

But after the encounter what do we do with it?

As the image lingers in our memory it may fill a once empty well which nourishes us in forgotten feelings but frequently the experience fades. What we seem to lack is the visionary capacity, intuitive wisdom and the practical application to move our feeling response into something bigger than just an emotion. How do we make sense of what we have felt or glean greater psychological insight from a transcendent flicker beyond the mundane?

Art therapy, quite rightfully so, is now recognised as an essential bridge between emotion, cognition and self understanding, helping to heal wounds in the psyche.

But for the observer and appreciator of art, the inherent power and presence in images has been removed here in Western Europe. As our eyes have been stripped of their visionary ability, images have been relegated for aesthetic purposes or something to be over analysed.

To reach beneath the surface of images, beyond just literal and allegorical interpretation, requires inquiry, patience, a focused imagination and ultimately a willingness to bring forth something different within ourselves.

In fact, it requires every part of us which comprises the entirety of our existence. Art has its own language if we choose to listen with our inner ear and see with the visionary eyes William Blake described.

Speaking to the intellect and soul

Art is a medium which embodies the material/ physical, the transcendent or hidden and is imagination incarnate. It speaks to the intellect and the soul, it is both symbolic and real. What we see in painting, sculpture and architecture reveal our intrinsic nature seeking expression through form.

As Anthony Gormley says, “the alchemy that you are turning lead into gold is merely a metaphor for what art does which turns gross matter into imagination” and conversely, art can be understood as the creative spirit which is held and hidden within the material form.

There are many scientific studies today which have surveyed the impact of deep observation, appreciation and imaginative engagement with art. It has been medically proven to awaken dormant parts of consciousness, helping to heal the body and emotional state by lowering stress hormones.

Contemplating and taking in the beauty of an image you love stimulates pleasure centres in the brain and alters brain chemistry leading to greater levels of consciousness.

Another study discovered that “mirror neurons” were fired in the brain when observing a great piece of art. Mirror neurons are neurons that fire both when a person acts and when the person observes the same action performed by someone else.

Images create an empirically proven affective state

Allowing oneself to be drawn into a painting, imagining yourself in the painterly scene or communing with the statue, has been shown to access some of the most advanced processes of intuitive response and inspiration.

The scientific evidence as such is very useful in recognising that images create an empirically proven affective state. But little is upheld in the main institutions about the relevance of soul and the imagination – because they exist in a form beyond empirical reasoning.

Leonardo da Vinci describes the painter’s ability as “useless” if it does not move the beholder in the same way as the protagonists in the scene – not just in a psychological way but also in that one’s movements and actions should imitate those in the image, thus the image becomes a moral and sacred guide.

What Leonardo describes involves the mediating faculty of the imagination, fantasia, which was considered a fundamental and inherent force in both artist and beholder of art.

Today, we have a variety of concepts about the imagination and as a result, to that which is intrinsically part of it, images and art. We view the imagination as something “not real”, or imaginary. It is also associated with fantasy and daydreaming. But this was not always the case.

Before the Age of Reason and the Reformation, the imagination was highly regarded because it was an aspect of the world soul and psyche. Images were considered to be animate, not inanimate objects. But with the Enlightenment a new scientific worldview placed man outside of nature, as a spectator looking in on a world operating like a machine.

The anima mundi, the world soul was extracted. With it went the validation of the unseen, rich inner realms to be found in the memory and imagination – because these were understood as both part of and doorways into the anima mundi.

Today the world of the seen is more important

Today, the world of the seen is more important. It is as if we have pulled the insides out and in doing so, lost all mystery and subtlety. In the same way that we over interpret dreams, we can over analyse art and images.

During the Italian Renaissance the unseen, the hidden and the ethereal were honoured and as such, the qualities in a person that may detect these subtleties were also revered. That of the intuitive, empathetic, implicit, innate, perceptive, visionary and so forth were highly valued in contrast to the very explicit approach we have towards knowing the workings of nature and the world today.

The separation that we understand now between art and science, mathematics and alchemy, astronomy and cosmology, did not exist in Renaissance Italy because everything was understood as different threads in the same fabric of a cosmological make- up. At its heart, the macrocosmic worldview sat in place and everything else, seen as a microcosm stemming from a greater and harmonious order.

The Renaissance was an expression of the metaphorical coming together of inner and outer knowing and seeing. They were inherently connected.

For the Renaissance artist, their external senses were open, bristling with alertness and receptive to the world around them, and in particular the eye was considered the window to the soul. Nature was seen as maestra (mistress), and above man.

Beauty was appreciated as an indicator of something creative and mysterious beyond.

Looking to the richness of the past

Most importantly perhaps, the Renaissance looked back to ancient times, to Egypt, Greece and Rome, realising that depth, wisdom and ontological understanding could be found in the past. Looking back did not mean being stuck in the past, in fact looking to the richness of the past was seen as progress itself because it gave everything depth and substance.

We hear of the importance of the soul infused through images from Renaissance magus Marsilio Ficino. He describes spiritus, a fine subtle substance which permeated through, in and around the anima mundi, which was its manifest spirit and describes how spiritus could be drawn down into an artist’s creation of an image.

Leonardo da Vinci describes the process of skilled draughtsmanship not as a science but a goddess descending onto the page.

For the artist invenzione did not mean invention as we understand it but as a discovery of what is already present and alive, waiting to be uncovered.

When an artist worked with pigment, clay or stone it was a process of honouring and feeling the inherent qualities within the materials themselves which guided the artist/sculptor/architect into how to co-create with it. To reach into the hidden workings behind the physical world then required both imagination and intelleto. One was not abandoned for the other, but rather were mutually valuable and essential.

The concept of the Renaissance multi-disciplinary genius sets up a high pedestal. It should not be forgotten here that the artist’s dedication to practical skill was fundamentally intertwined with being able to paint or sculpt ever more convincing naturalistic figures and forms as a means with which to convey both narrative and mystery.

And being human, encountered many human difficulties along the way. Leonardo himself, whose painting, Salvator Mundi, recently sold for $450 million at auction, was living on credit for a period of time in his life. It is a sobering and also inspiring model of both greatness and humanness to contemplate. The Renaissance ideal of the active life and the inner life is a metaphor for holding in balance two aspects of our existence.

Many people commented on the experience they had standing face to face with the Salvator Mundi. Some were brought to tears, others moved by the hype surrounding the image, some able to see its essence.

Most people describe being moved by feelings that are indescribable. The affect of great art on us is one that is often difficult to describe because we are brought into the same space from where the art is derived.

It is the doorway and the threshold between different realms of existence simultaneously. The imaginal realm which was termed as such by Henri Corbin is this in-between world, the realm of the soul, of the archetype. But because it requires our attention in the present moment it holds two dualities in balance.

The imagination therefore becomes a mediating force between the temporal and the timeless. Since art embodies all these components we therefore need all these elements ourselves to really “see” art. We need our open, alert senses, a desire to see and the imagination; we need our heart and soul.

But once we may have had an encounter or really seen through a work of art, or even studied it intellectually in great detail, what purpose does it serve? We can reflect on our experience and make meaning from insights. Reflections can be written down, contemplated or researched into historical and /or philosophical context.

Carl Jung said that we had a “moral and ethical obligation” to do so because it prevents images from overwhelming us and re-establishes them in their original archetypal framework.

Images are expansive, larger and wiser than us, which goes some way to healing existential angst, feelings of isolation and an over subjectivism of heavy emotions.

Engaging deeply with art requires a different mode of response between our outer eye, an inner tuning to our feeling response and the imagination. The oscillation back and forth between us and the image activates something in both.

Referring to an image in the memory or with the outer eye anchors us in a safe form of meditation while the ebb and flow takes us into participation where, as James Elkins describes, “the seer and the seen are altered.” Such participation is synonymous with Goethe’s “active seeing” where with insight and imagination he experienced the inherent aliveness in

Strasbourg Cathedral. He saw the world from the inside out, rather than than the outside looking in, realising that another “non-sensory world which is the intelligible origin of what appears as the sensory world”, existed.

Such experiences do not take away the ability to discern, rather it is strengthened.

We begin to recognise aspects of the works in the world around us, in nature, in our responses and fine tune our inner filter.

We become aware that a broader consciousness exists which comprehends in images and symbols.

A deeper way of knowing is revealed, of intuition, empathy, creativity and insight and we move into the realm of the heart, the psyche, of the soul which are able to hold larger transcendent experiences while being comfortable with the subtler, ambiguous nature of existence.

A visionary state does not come at the expense of the personal. Rather, the visionary state embraces the personal in a greater context of metaphor and symbolic meaning.

And not every image we encounter today will resonate with us in such a way. Be attuned to those works you feel attracted to. Some images may play on the periphery of your responses, almost mischievously, or ignite a spark of familiarity of something forgotten. Yet if an image keeps catching your attention then it may be worth devoting some time with it to see what may unravel.