The Inner Tradition
This is perhaps the most difficult part of your journey towards looking at art through the artist’s own eyes, especially if you believe in Christ and belong to an established Church. It is important because so much of Western art, especially in the Renaissance, depicts religious themes. Few people know that there are at least two ways of reading the Bible: the conventional exoteric tradition favored by the various Churches and the esoteric tradition practised, often in secrecy, by individual mystics, saints, prophets, poets and visual artists too. It is little known because over the centuries many of its practitioners have been denounced as heretics by the Church and their writings destroyed. Nevertheless their approach was practised by many of the early Church Fathers, including Origen in the second century AD. In the exoteric tradition, favored by the Church, the Bible is read at face value as though it is an historical account of divine events. This makes makes their followers into believers who must suspend their critical faculties to accept, paradoxically, the unbelievable.
Within the Inner Tradition, a group that includes a wide assortment of esoteric traditions, the Bible, other gospels and religious works are read independently, not as an historical account but as an instruction manual or guide for the reader’s own soul. Each story is treated as an allegory. Through this method the practitioner (no longer a believer) identifies with each character in the story and either seeks to imitate them, if they are positive, or avoid them. Nevertheless, even the bad characters like Judas are part of us. Behavior, not belief, is what matters and by using their faculties independently, followers of the Inner Tradition can find heaven in this life and a potential union with the divine. The most accomplished practitioners are the mystic saints and poets like Dante but anyone can try. Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ was one of the best-read books of the Middle Ages and many other devotional books of the time also encouraged their readers, all of whom were thought to contain a divine spark, to identify with Christ. Within the Inner Tradition Christ, whether or not he ever existed as we think of him, represents that ultimate mental state that few Christians can ever attain but that all thinking ones should strive for. Buddhists call it nirvana.
Even St. Luke makes this two-way approach to spiritual development clear in his Gospel by having Jesus tell his chosen disciples, all mystics, that: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand” (Luke 8:10) Artists, mostly mystics too, have long depicted the Christian story as a guide for like-minded individuals, a visual parable that their successors and other perceptive viewers must unravel in order to follow. Ordinary spectators may have been entertained by art’s apparent scenes but the scenes are constructed “so that seeing (the viewer) may not see.” The artists’ patrons, often important figures in the Church, seem to have accepted the resulting images as an interpretation in tune with their own beliefs. Perhaps, like many others, they overlooked the visual problems that contradicted their own understanding. Over the centuries there have been many forms of the Inner Tradition, both inside and outside the Church. from Spiritual Alchemy and Neoplatonism in the Renaissance to Theosophy in the nineteenth century. All have been practised by well-known artists and have certain elements in common. Among these characteristics are the promise of a more peaceful spiritual life and intellectual barriers which, as in difficult poetry, require the practitioner to study at length before their eyes are opened. Many are practised in secret or their truths kept secret by a small core of adherents. Interest in esoteric matters flourished in the late twentieth century but because Christianity’s own inner traditons had been long forgotten (or deemed heretical), Christians who could have satisfied their intellectual curiosity within their their own culture, were forced to seek out Asian practices. Only more recently, with the arrival of popular books on Gnosticism and the varied sects of early Christianity, has a Christian alternative become more widely known.
It is also worth noting that, for a long time, the Church was pulled in both directions because the mystics who followed the Inner Tradition were often important people inside the Church or, like St. Francis, so widely popular that his new monastic order could not be denied. Joscleyn Godwin tracks that history in The Golden Thread: “Once, men and women of high spiritual attainment and profound esoteric knowledge had worked as leaders in the Church and were revered as saints. There were Pope Sylvester II (c.945-1003), architect of the Holy Roman Empire; Abbot Suger, father of the Gothic cathedral; women mystics with practical and political influence like Hildegard of Bingen and Theresa of Avila; philosophers like Aquinas, Bonaventura, Nicholas of Cusa; saints like Bernard and Francis; and the Order of the Knights Templar. But the Catholic Church has [now] lost the dimensions represented by such people, while few of the innumerable Protestant sects ever wanted them.” He notes that all these people had one thing else in common, a mental characteristic that they would have shared with artists as well: imagination. "The Western esoteric tradition has always emphasized the imagination as the primary way of access to higher worlds. All esoteric schools train students in visualization and active imagination…the inner senses can be strengthened, just as the muscles of an athlete can."1
All this is important for art lovers to know because once you look at great art through the eyes of the artists themselves, so many of them followers or admirers of the Inner Tradition in one form or another, you see things as you would never have seen them before. Just as the New Testament aims to please both ordinary minds seeking solace in the superficial story and more sophisticated minds searching for a deeper truth and greater understanding, so too does art. Remember this and, over time, as you consider the examples on this website and in your local museum, your eyes will open.
1. Joscelyn Godwin, The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions (Wheaton, IL.: Theosophical Publishing House) 2007, pp. 87, 123-4
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