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1995. Vol. 12. Pan 2. pp. 49-54

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19951-brwood Ac~ic Publishes GmbH


Printfll in Mal.o)"iol

The Sacred in Art


10hn Tavener

1M westO'm lfI('ept Qf the Cfi'alve genius is in di~ oppo6irion \O tl>ie ~ s "pon .... hich the
Cfi'aliM Qf an within ~ Iradition is ~_ In Orthodol< Ch~nity, t i in <'Ither traditiom. tl>ie
s.ocred .rtis! must <ira .... f.om and Ieam within rus Indition brlCft lruot NCI'fd art Is pouib~ ~t
tenden~ ln t~ ""el ha"" been (l)rItrary 10 !h~ idul roncemo:d w!th ~ 'jnl'lQYation' and ladcing
t~ tl>eocenm.: on...tation and tran,~ ~ry 10 bec<lme. dwonne for u.... divme.
KEY WORDS

$aoCfi'd tradition,

Onhoduq, Plato. Primo<dial simplidty. CnoIis

My subject is he sacre<! in arto Art that is alhanatos, without dealh, wil hout
chaoge, wilhout besiooiog aod wilhout eod; so difficult lo talk about io a time
when Mao has lost his bclief not only in God, bul also in himscl. We live in a
culture io ruios.
The modero roncepl o the artisl as creative genius would probably have
exdudoo him rom Plalo's Creece, because aoy aMist who produced a work o
sacred art cou.ld ntver think o himse!f as a creative geoius in Ihe modem 5ense of
Ihe word. The artiSI of Ihe sacred roncreates, reproduces, must submil lo the
discipline of practising. through endless repetition of a given fonn unti! he has
mastered all of it, so tha! ils original transcendente begins 10 fiow Ihrough him; no
looger a matler of e:d ema! copying or repetition, but a malter of directing their
rorces o primordial inspiralion, of which he is now the vehide, into Conna!
patlcms Ihat long practice and meditalion ha\'e enablcd him 10 master inwardly
and outwardl y. These obsl'rvations are paraphrased fmm a receol book by Philip
Sherrard, lo which ! shall conlinue 10 al!ude quile free!y al some poinls.1
1 should say Ihat Ihe dictum for al! sacred Christian art must be, as 5t Paul
expresses il in another rontul: "11 is no( I who live, bul Ch risl in me."
As a romposer living and workiog Ihrough Ihese secular times, 1 work of course
in a sma!l area. I also work in an area which does not seem to roncem maoy
peop!e. My ioereasiog concem for the sacre<! needs some explanatioo. For an artisl
lO work in a sacred tradition he must flrsl believe in the divine realities which
infonn thal particular tradition. This is a sine qua non: nol, of course, a guarante-e
for greal art, bul a sinr qUII non. Secondly, he musl know Ihe traditio05 of Ihe art
he works io. He musl koow Ihe lools, so that he can work with material thal i5
primordial. aod Ihcrefore nol /lis; oot his expression, bul Ihe tradition working
Ihmugh him.
To bl'gio wilh, the artist concemoo wilh Ihe sacroo musl make 3n ael of flth .
In my own case, it was a rommilmenllo the Orthodox Church. First and foremosl,
a commilmenl lO ChrislGod. as expressed through the eyes of the Orthodox
Church. This is radical in the puresl sense of (he word, and demands a gradual
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Iosing of sell Ihrough a work of endless repentance, conslanlly falling bul picldng
oncself up, pointing ever morc God-wards, lo provide the vehide Ihrough which
only Ihe CrealO!" can work. There is nOlh.i ng 'pie in the sky' about Ihis; the task is
daunting. awesome, and exigent; and al the end of the day one can expect nolhing
bul crucifixion and (ailure, because our strength, unique aS Ch ristiaN, lies in our
weakness, our (rail ty, and our vulnerability,
I am aware as [ write Iha! Ihis way of speaking. in a technological, profane,
ego-base<!, athcistic and psrcho1ogically orientated world, makes me sound like a
CTank. Bu! i( I hlZl't gOl it 0111 wrong. then God is my Judge.
I ofte n wonder why Ihe sacred musc of any age should sound very differenlly,
The answer is thal it should noto Ir the compase:rs in Ihe West concemed wit h
sacred lradilion were Irained in Ihe discipUnes of Byuntium, s.acred India, Judaic
chanl, O!" any o Ihe great Orthodoxies, loslead of leaming aboul 5choenbcrg's
'innovalions' ... pause here: 'innovation' has nol hing to do with tradition; tha t is
why no innovatory art can possess magnificence or magisterial primordial beauty
(emanating (rom Ihe divine magnificence of God), making us CTeatures through
whi<.h a theophany can pass.
Poople lal k about composcf'S finding their own voice. This is anothcr utterly
misleading concept. Not misleading. I might say, if the compaser does nOI believe
in divine real ities; Ihen, of course, he can be lotally promiscuous in his artistic
pursuits. And Ihere is nOlbing wrong in this. II only becomes wrong f he believes
in divine rea Hles and, al the same time, digs fmm the endless so-called
innovations of Ihe lasl hree hundred years or so.
The kon is the supreme eumple of Christian art, and o transcendence and
transfiguration. It posscsses simplicity, magnificence, transfigured beauly, and
austerity. Auslerity bccause the man ner of painting has remained unchanged since
the firsl mandtlioll (or ikon not painled with human hands) bearing Ihe race of
Christ miraculously imprinled on a piece of material, and sent to the King of
Edessa . kon painting is a slrict discipline, requiring fasting and constant
communion. An kon does nol express emotion (it is geometric and its colour
palelle is severely limiled) and yet to the beever it inspires awe, wonder, and the
fi'verencl' o kissing. The ikon is in one sense beyond art, because it plunges us
straight into Iiturgical time and s.acred history. But what makes a great ikan? 1
believe Ihat it is the Holy Spiri! working Ihrough the paloter. 1 can say no more.
I! is a mystery.
How far can the 3rt of ikon painting relate lo musid I will suggest sorne ways,
upon which Ihe composer might medila te. If the composer knows Ihe sacred
'tones' of Ihe Orthodox Church, he will have the materiaL If he undcrstands the
significance of Ihe i5l.ln or drone, representing Ihe etemal, then he will ha ve sorne
clues, The compaser may 'dance' out of or back into the {son (etemity note), bul
il must be somewhere presentoHe musl also limit the tonal and colour palelte, but
always kn owing where he must insert the divine archetype by a fully assimilated
knowledge of Ihe Iones. Al1 thi$ has, al any ra te, given me sorne ideas fO!" Ihe small
patch Ihal, as a composer, I leel compelled 10 work.
I SCC! the act ol re-creating in Ihe end as a mirade. After Ihe aseetic pain of
labouring 10 find the besl way 1 can to depict the subject, Ihen this 'mirade'
happens. But also l'ach new piece s an acl of repenlance, stripping away
inessentlals, ever more naked.. ever more simple . one might say, ever more
' foolish'.

ThI.'T(! comes a more practica] qucstion. How does one communicate this to a
world that has forgotten and has liule time for rcpenlancc, simplidly, or
' foolishness'? The foolishness o Christ~God, he foolishness af he Malher of Cod,
and Ihe foolishncss o all th e crowds o Martys. $aints and Holy FooIs? [ said Ihal
Ihe world had forgotten. and lhis scems to me to be the operativ!' word: !here is
a profound amnesia o simple and eterna! truths in fa"OUT of an iMane,
lechnological. psychoJogical, intellectual culture. A culture in roins. devoid of
gnosis. As T.S. E1iol PrroK:ted, ' a civilization which re)ects what il cannot
diminish', Ir, as l .Yy, he operative word is 'forgottcn'. then there mus! be a ray
o f hopeo. To re-awaKen Ihe primordial oonsciousness Ihal Hes dorman! in al! of us,
somehow we have lo provide a ttmtnos, or sacre<! spaa:! in which te WO!"k. The
concert hall, Ihe opera house, and the art gallcry are aH glaring reminder$ of how
fragmenled and dislocaled we have become. Stockhausen h ~s said Ihat he
chun:hes wil1 berome he ooncert halls of the future, and there is more Ihan iI nng
of lrul h about this. To move the Itrntnos back into he cathedrals and chun:hes is
nOI 10 popu!arize, bul to allow sacred art lo breathe gently on Ihe ancient stoncs.
As an Orthodox Christian, I am not partkularly concemed aboul the presenl slale
of he Anglican Church, but iI has frequently provided me with a platfonn, and
for Ihis I am ever graleiuJ. Let he great Mediaeval cathedrals oi England Ix! uscd
lo brealhe back the Mediaeval lhoughl or gnosi!; that fonned Ihem.
Adherence lo primordial tradition requires a very deep humilit)', a humility
which al the end o f the da)' says, in the Platonic senS(', " we know nothing"; a
humility which requ ires a complete dismant!ing o( the whole present sdentific,
popu!arisl, pro fane and radical deh umani7.ation of O\Ir 5Ociety, which has of course
dislocalro the whole rosmic realm. Theology in the Orthodox East has alwa)'s been
rega rded as the expression of a given reality. But in the West, l;lrgely due lo Ihe
disastrous leachings of Aristotle, Christian theology was iorced into a philosoph.
ieal framework. Instead of the Plalonic elements which had serve<! earl), eastem
theologia ns as a vehicle for exprcssing an understanding oi man ronfirmed
through a liie oi prayer and eontemplation, westem Aristotelian thought entered
a ruinous epoch of abstraction and theory.
This is surcl)' the roo! of the malaise. This is the cause oi the apparcnt impotellCC
o f weslem Christianit)', w.-stem Iife, and westem sacred arto Impotent because art
has ~ abs!raded and removed from ils eucharislk funct1of\. removed al50
from natUfe, froro lIS s.acramen!al roots, and, finally, removt.-d froro Jife ilself. 15
Ihere anywhe.re in Ihe wor!d toda y where the ' righl notes' Of Iones h,ve 10 Ix!
found before Parliamenl can be opened? This was Ihe norm in PI,IO'! Gr~ .
I beUevl' thal we are in an abnormal state. There is a split bctween imagination
and rcason, art and metaphysics. An art scparate from sacred cosmology and
anthropological asperts o f such doctrine that affirrn the sacramental nature o
Crealion_ [ know Ihat, lor instance, English hymns have reJerences to God and Ihe
Sain!,;, bu! !hey ha ve nothing to do with sacred art, As Phmp Sherrard SIIyS, a
greal deal of ar! expres6CS intimations of the divine, aspirations towards the d ivine,
glimpses of the divine, ei!her in the human soul or in the world of nature. And he
gOt.'S on 10 say thal the qua li t)' that distinguishes a work o sacred ar! and Iha! 5ctS
il apart from other worKs of art is one that can only be described by a word IIke
'kn owledge' or gnosis'. As Dan!e writes:

52 1, T""~tr

" You ",ho have 50und intellects


Set!k oul he doctrine that oonceals tseU
Bo.-nealh Ihe veil of the slrange verses, , ,"1
Indeed, this invites us lo seek out ' the intellec of love', a disposition of beng thal
induces and pe.rmilS Ihe pre5('nce of God Who constantly desires lO reveal Himself
(if only we could see) in ou r 5Oul, divinizing our power of vision. This is Ihe only
way out of the spirilual and artistic cataslrophe lhal faces us al the close o Ihe
twentieth cenluT)',
l am neilher philosopher nor Iheologian, bUI my worlc. - my worlc. o repenlanC't
Ihal mOl)' or ma y no! ead me towards a sacred art - can only be judged on how
near Ihe musc Iha! 1 wri te comes to its primordial origins, This, J have come lo sce
and believc, 5 my tasI<., This 5 my worlc. within the area frem whch 1 must
continuc lo dg and labour, lO try and find agan something o Ihe immeasurable
magnificance, simplidt)'. and magisterial beauty and power thal emana tes from
Cod, Who is Ihe Source of E\'erylhing.

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"'J,.te la don""" eh" . 'a!K'O!\de

Sono iJ ,'eJam~ deUi veni 5f ... n~


Infrnto, CallfO IX, 01-63,