Participators of Sacred Things, by Roger Lipsey

The structure of traditional art

Vault mosiac, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

Participators of sacred thingsthe phrase is from St. Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century theologian remembered today as the preeminent Scholastic, his works to be avoided at all cost. Yet the ancient idea of hierarchy was lovingly and brilliantly focused by medieval thinkers: it governed their picture of the natural cos­mos and of the supernatural order from which cosmos derived; it structured art, endowing images with the clarity of a map; and it pervaded the ecclesiastic and feudal social orders. “Hierarchy means a sacred principality,” wrote St. Thomas. “Now principality includes two things; the prince himself and the multitude ordered under the prince …. Because there is one God, the Prince not only of all the angels but also of men and all creatures; so there is one hierarchy, not only of all the angels, but also of all rational creatures, who can be participators of sacred things” (Summa, Q. 108.1 ). This structure is eternal and fixed, but within it occur endless giving and receiving, and consequent movement. The sixth-century Christian author, Dio­nysius,* to whom St. Thomas turned more often than to any other on the question of hierarchy, expressed the nature of this movement in confident prose. “Hierarchi­cal order implies that some are purified and others purify, some are illuminated and others illuminate, some are perfect and others work for perfection” (Celestial Hier­archy, 3.2). And some fall. In the Summa, St. Thomas follows the discussion of hierarchy with inquiries into “the ordering of the bad angels,” “the demons’ assaults on man,” and “that exterior help granted by God to the whole human race-namely the guard­ianship of angels.” The word hierarchy, composed of Greek roots meaning holy and rule, was not applied to the demonic order, but for the medieval mind it was evident that man occupies the midpoint between two worlds: a sacred hierarchy above, a demonic order below. Both solicit him.

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.

Piero della Francesca, La Madonna della Misericordia

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.

Li T’ang, Landscape

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 skyall 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.

Rosette, Titles of Sha Jahan

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.

From Parabola Volume 9, No. 1, “Hierarchy,” Spring 1984. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing

By Roger Lipsey

Roger Lipsey is a longtime contributor to Parabola. Among his recent books are Make Peace Before the Sun Goes Down and Hammarskjöld: A  Life. In February 2019, Shambhala will publish his Gurdjieff Reconsidered: the Life, the Teachings, the Legacy.