Mysticism & Visuality

Spiritual vs. Mystical Art

Clearly, we cannot just call every piece of art that has a religious theme mystical. That would encompass almost all the art in Europe in the Middle Ages, and a great deal after that as well. But much of this art falls into categories other than mystical:

1. Some art is didactic, that is, its intention is to teach. In particular, it is to convey religious stories to the illiterate masses.

2. Some art is moral/allegorical, that is, it is meant to illustrate and narrate the religious life. In particular, some of this draws comparisons between religious stories or situations and the audience's own situation. Visions of the torments of hell, for example, serve as warnings against sin and injunctions to live a holy life.

3. Some art is symbolic, or filled with symbols. This is different from art that is allegorical. Symbolic religious art uses mundane or familiar images, or geometrical shapes and images, to stand in for spiritual content. This content might be cosmological (having to do with the structure and order of the universe) or narrative/historical (having to do with past or future events).

4. Some art is merely imaginative. It may have been created to illustrate religious or secular stories. In some cases, imagination depicts complex, hidden versions of reality, secret systems or structures that purport to be the "real" nature of the world. To the extent that these images suggest that this is a power to be discovered and wielded, it is not mystical, but magical. Mysticism necessarily connects the self to the cosmos.

5. Some art is mythological. In other words, it may attempt to portray central cultural stories or meanings. There may be didactic or moral content, or there may not.

6. Some art is commentary, satire, or social criticism. Such work may use stories and images from the past, but are meant to address a contemporary social, political, or cultural concern.


Mystical art, while it may have elements of all of these, must also speak to the central idea of mysticism, that is, the connection of the soul or the self to reality/God. That may take the Augustinian route of turning away from the senses, but obviously then art would be a poor vehicle for communicating mysticism.

What is mystical art meant to do? It is meant to contribute to the mystical life, that is, be an aid to attaining mystical experience. The soul must be led to contemplation. The work might also have some of the other effects mentioned above, but the central issue is the connection between self and reality, between individual and universal, or part and whole, or self and (radical) other. Historically, images have played a role in mystical experience itself. Of course, the image may also be a mystic's attempt to report a mystical experience.

Common mystical images in the Middle Ages and Renaissance:

Romanticism in the late 18th and 19th century drew on some of these earlier forms, but tended to see mysticism using different (sometimes more "secular" or imaginative) images.



Medieval and Before

Hildegard of Bingen

Joachim Fiore

Rothschild Canticles (Belgium, ~1300)

Heinrich Suso


Renaissance and Reformation



R&R to Romanticism


William Blake - for more images see

Philip Otto Runge

Caspar David Friedrich

John Constable (1776-1837).


Albert Bierstadt

Albert Pinkham Ryder


20th Century - Today

Wassily Kandinsky

Concerning the Spiritual in Art

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko (National Gallery Images)

Color field paintings

Late Work

Barnett Newman

Friedrich Hundertwasser

Hundertwasser House

30 Day Fax Picture

Anselm Kiefer

Georgia O'Keeffe


Alchemy Images