Few authors in any tradition experienced as acutely as Dionysius the role that sacred art plays in the process of man’s theosis, his movement toward God. Nothing of a biographical nature is indisputably known about Dionysius, but he is thought to have written his major works at the turn of the sixth century in Syria, a Christian and Hellenized province of the Byzantine Empire. Assuming this to be true, he could not have known the remarkable mid-sixth-century art sponsored by Justinian-the wondrous Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the mastery of mosaic that created images of exquisite beauty from bits of marble and glass. But he would have known the precursor art from which Justinian’s chief artists and architects matured their own work, and it was powerful enough: a fluent architecture based on Classical Roman forms, an already splendid pictorial art. A mid-fifth-century mosaic in Ravenna, which magnificently transforms the night sky into a hierarchic pattern centered on a symbol of Christ, powerfully demonstrates the strength of art in his time. Theologian and religious seeker, saturated with such images, Dionysius came to think of them as “very holy poetic fictions,” ”sacred veils” which the wise man will both understand and, in the course of things, set aside. “It is indeed impossible,” he wrote, “for the thearchic ray to illuminate us otherwise than by concealing itself, for our elevation, beneath sacred veils …. In the measure to which we are like them, we may be raised through these very holy fictions to the simple and imageless heights, for our minds cannot rise to the immaterial imitation and contemplation of the celestial hierarchies without being led there by material images suited to their nature …. ” Much of Dionysius ‘s book is an interpretive inventory of sacred symbols, each reverently examined in its proper place, each ultimately viewed as a stepping stone toward an austere fulfillment which he called “the Darkness of Unknowing.” The whole spectacle of religious art is, for Dionysius, a prelude to an encounter with God that defies description.
We model ourselves best on Dionysius’s example by turning to art, as he first did. In the art of Christendom and of traditional religious cultures throughout history, the idea of hierarchy has been expressed by differences in size, place, and character, and through designs that define relationships. A purely architectural example, such as the Early Gothic choir at Vézelay, can help us to understand hierarchic patterns in simplest terms. Gothic style blends structural necessity with a poetry of form ultimately based on the architects’ appreciation of the beauty and truth of hierarchic patterns. At Vézelay, the eastern apse that closes off the choir both rises to a central height and issues from the height in a measured flow back to the pavement. Each segment of the elevation-the sturdy arcade below, the delicate triforium, the wide clerestory windows and rib-vaulted conch above them-has its own distinct nature and yet harmonizes with the other elements and joins them in a whole. The design breathes the spirit of hierarchy as Dionysius and Thomas understood it: an order that flows, a complex association in which each member receives its due.
Something of the genius of Gochie architecture entered into Piero della Francesca’s extraordinary painting, La Madonna della Misericordia, dating to about 1450. In this work, the hierarchic idea is communicated in part through the overwhelming size of the Madonna relative to her kneeling worshipers: as large as Mother Church herself, she is depicted in a sheltering pose that transforms her into a house of worship. Strengthening the architectural metaphor, cloak and gown fall in regular, columnar folds, and the cinch around her waist has the tidiness and angularity of architectural detail. The Virgin’s hieratic pose (yet another word that echoes the religious life of Classical Greece) distinguishes her in character from the anxious suppliants at her feet: theirs is the tension of living and yearning, hers the peace of heaven. But not altogether. Piero is a modern artist, and even while offering one of the most memorable hierarchic images in later Western art, he endows it with what must be his personal uneasiness and conviction. The face of the Virgin, like so many faces in Piero’s unique oeuvre, is beautiful and introspective, sad and still. While she utterly dominates the composition with hieratic dignity, her face implies reserves of privacy. She is Queen of Heaven and yet intensely individual. Were Dionysius to have seen this image, he might have recognized that it introduces an ambiguity into the tradition of sacred art chat foreshadows the end of the cycle of sacred art in the West of which he, in his era, had seen the beginning. The Madonna della Misericordia is a profitable image for our investigation precisely because, for Piero as for us, the reality of a supernatural hierarchy is no longer assumed. He endows it with a personal humanity, hence a fragility; we no longer endow it at all, if endowment means giving substantially of oneself.
Indian and Far Eastern religions developed celestial hierarchies and demonic orders of their own, but their representation in art is not radically different in structure from their counterparts in European art. On the other hand, Chinese and Japanese landscape painting often reflect an understanding of hierarchy unlike anything in the West. Li T’ang’s painting of a diminutive traveler in a soaring mountain landscape, where an almost absurd fence is the only other human trace, takes the measure of man in relation to the greatness of Nature. The tense energy of the foreground trees, the rocky embankment and rushing water, the peaks lost in the heights, the atmosphere itself that seems to enter the valley from a limitless sky—all speak of a reality other than man, in comparison with which his little comings and goings are hardly worthy of mention. Nonetheless, the suggestion pervades Asian religions that man can search out and find within himself the universal forces that shape the world. The grandeur of the landscape is an invitation.
The hierarchies of traditional religious art are not always gathered along a vertical axis. While there is Jacob’s Ladder, there is also Ezekiel’s visionary Wheel. Whether an Asian mandala, a European rose-window, or an Islamic shamsa, the pattern of the circle has been able over centuries to capture the intuition of hierarchy. Preserved from the art collection of Shah Jahan, the North Indian Muslim Emperor, the shamsa illustrated in figure 5 is perhaps not a specifically religious work, but it was created in a culture that developed abstract calligraphic arts to a high level in association with Koran decoration (shams = Arabic “sun”). Even an apparently secular application of those skills and aesthetic norms resulted in work that commands respect. In this case, the name of a living person, perhaps the Shah himself, might have been inscribed at the center, but the design as a whole, blending a multitude of details into a powerful and refined unity, speaks not of the Shah but of the unfolding of Divinity.
As modern people, almost nothing religious belongs to us; such things become “our own” by a passionate adoption that reaches past the secular scientific culture of the age and seizes on an ancient work of art or thought. Our essential poverty is attractive in the sense that it makes us citizens of the world; we can look with equally reverent, questing eyes at a Christian icon, a Muslim symbol of unity, or a Taoist landscape painting. Each can be “one’s own” without excluding the others, provided that one pays a fair price by attentively absorbing the image and gathering a reasonable body of information about it–less than a scholar, more than a tourist. But each ultimately is not one’s own, and returns one to present times with an often unspoken question.
We know too little about hierarchy for it to appear in our art. We have little to guide us, and it would be foolish to expect the picture of our aspirations to resemble the ancient hierarchies of Christianity or the East. We have reached a time without pictures, a lesser Darkness of Unknowing from which we begin. Traditional art offers a further clue in images now torn from the sanctuaries where they once stood, but still remarkably alive. Their attitude alone establishes a sure sense of hierarchy and of their dignity within it. They may be distant from their gods; but isn’t this always so? ♦
* Dionysius is known in scholarly literature, including common references such as encyclopedias, as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. His works were ascribed from an early date to Dionysius the Areopagite, a disciple of St. Paul.