Art and Mysticism – Part 2

Paul continues his critique of the mystical experience of art, the direct perception of beauty open to all of us.

The Interior

[Read Part 1 here]

Now let’s return to State of Life for another level of interpretation.  What makes Perrault’s work so captivating is that it symbolises the aspect of reality most important to us all: the human interior.  He does this by placing a striking architectural form in a natural setting, and using it to express certain spiritual dynamics.  The form may be a room or a patio or an abstract boundary, as in State of Life.  In any case, it defines a precise geometric space, whose pristine walls evoke human qualities, such as vibrancy, honesty, and modesty.  This space contains metaphors for the state of the soul, often in the form of polarised principles.  The walls transition from light to dark; they express both containment and expansion; veiled passageways beckon, while sheer, impenetrable barriers resist progress; sharp angles are married to curves.  There is a profound relationship between interior and exterior.  While the form contains a world of opposites, it is open to another realm, and swept by exterior light.  Reflective places of cool and quiet reserve are suddenly broken by surprising views through doors and windows, effecting a change in emotional state.[1]  Idyllic vistas of perfect calm offer a promise of hope and peace.  As the artist puts it, “the self is not a room, it is a window.”  The otherness of this outer realm is underscored by the purity of the ideal form within it, a mysterious, surreal presence that hints at an other-worldly source.

From here we can ascend to yet another level of interpretation.  We can expand upon our awareness of the image to include our relationship with it.  The order and calm of State of Life encourages the viewer to meditate upon it, and to discover the meaning in it.  What is this strange structure?  What is the meaning of the red table?  Why frame the island in the distance?  The image becomes a mystery to be unfolded, engaging the viewer, and turning him into a participant in it.  In effect, we fall into the image, and become part of it.  In fact, in a brilliant touch, the bright red table in the painting symbolises this.  It is our own conscious awareness, as if it were standing in the scene itself.  This fascinating device is found throughout Perrault’s work, where it responds to its environment.  Here, contained by the form, it seeks the light.  In other works it seeks shade, or rest, or change, or even appears to be watching the view, reflecting various moods or states of being.

This growing awareness is encouraged by the simplicity of the white architectural form, which is so spare that it has effectively been reduced to a set of principles.  Liberated from distractions, the viewer focuses on what is essential, breeding spontaneous insight.  At some point, the subject of the painting becomes apparent, and insight becomes introspection.  We realize that in looking at State of Life, we are staring at ourselves. It is a burst of reflexive being: an image of our own interior, located in the external world, which we hold in our mind.  We are naturally moved to investigate the nature of this spiritual subject, to ponder questions of inner experience and vision, promoting self-discovery.  “A work of art,” says the artist, “can be a place to acquire truth not found in written words or teachings, but in personal insight.”  While exploring the dynamics of our own being, we may further catch sight of what lies beyond.  The soul is the well of all that we are, and at the same time the presence of that which we are not, a divine artifact drawn from the well of reality.

In this way, the experience of the painting becomes its own spiritual path, a model of the larger path we all must follow through our lives, and thus, another form of imaging.   In effect, when we study the painting we embark upon an inward journey, which, to an appreciative eye, offers its own rewards.  The fog of the interior lifts in the presence of the spare architectural form.  We are able to define ourselves.  Order, balance, and harmony promote a sense of well-being, of goodness.  We see the grand vista that surrounds our limited existence, reaffirming life’s value.  We are left feeling more hopeful about the world and ourselves, and thankful for it.  This gratitude passes from our eye, through the image, to the reality behind it, the transcendent source of “the way things are,” a presence that is communicating itself to us, with a glance back.


So we have discovered truth and goodness—but what about Beauty?  The term requires some explaining first.

To see Beauty is to be dazzled by Reality, as if by a blinding light. If a painting concentrates the principles of reality effectively, then the result is metaphysical amazement.  The mind of the viewer is simply overwhelmed, at least for awhile.  Unlike a blinding light, however, the mind enjoys this experience.  It likes being swept off its feet.  And it admires any artist that can manage to do it.  At the same time, the mind can be stunned by ugliness, too.  So Beauty has another quality.  It is an innately positive swamping, a deluge from above, as if the mind cannot climb so far so quickly.

This is where we connect to Reality.  The dynamic behind Beauty is the union of what and is that defines Reality itself.  Reality is what-is, a unified being, and when you add that hyphen you suddenly create One.  It is this sudden holistic integration that strikes us as Beauty, that connects us to Reality, that we define as Truth, that we feel as Good, and that provides certain works of art with their spiritual power—as Wordsworth put it, “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused.”[2]

In the case of State of Life, we are overwhelmed by the dazzling cloud of impressions that the painting generates, as if it were a living being.  This cloud contains tremendous meaning, encompassing the nature of our own human being.  Accordingly, it resonates with us.  It touches the mind, the self, the soul, all at once.  In effect, all of these positive aspects of being wonder at the image of themselves.  They are split open, forced outwards, and left in awe.  In opening up to Reality, we are left wondering about the meaning of our own existence.

In this way Beauty is inextricably bound up with the idea of spiritual progress, with the motion of the soul along life’s spiritual path.  Beauty enlightens us, and transforms us.  Like a metaphysical signpost, it shows the way.  It becomes our helper, our aide, our spiritual guide.  It is a means of spiritual formation, of purifying the soul.  In rare cases, it can even trigger an epiphany, a sudden spiritual transformation of the viewer, such as famously occurred to Paul Tillich when first seeing Botticelli’s The Virgin and Child with Singing Angels.  Years later he wrote: “That moment has affected my whole life, given me the keys for the interpretation of human existence, brought vital joy and spiritual truth.”[3]

Of course, power is something that can also be lessened.  In such cases, the dazzle dies down, the mind is able to process reality at a normal, humdrum rate, and we find ourselves staring at something that is merely pretty, like a lamp powered by a weak bulb.

State of Life further reveals Beauty in both of its earthly forms—and cleverly so.  The artist uses perspective to focus the eye through the window at a distant idyll.  In this way the artificial Beauty of the pristine architectural form is related to the natural Beauty of a tropical island.  The eye moves quickly from the former to the latter, a motion in depth, as if they were two different levels of the same principle—which, in a sense, they are.  In this same motion, the painting appeals to the soul’s innate longing for perfect Beauty.  Baudelaire explains:

It is at once through poetry and across poetry, through and across music, that the soul glimpses the splendors situated beyond the grave; and when an exquisite poem brings tears to the eyes, these tears are not proof of an excess of joy, they are rather the testimony of an irritated melancholy, a demand of the nerves, of a nature exiled in the imperfect and desiring to take possession immediately, even on this earth, of a revealed paradise.[4]

Here Baudelaire could be describing Michelangelo, whose artistic genius was accompanied by an immense dissatisfaction with the world.  Not surprising, for an idealist.


In the Academy, there is a field of study known as theological aesthetics, which has grown in recent years.  Ostensibly, the purpose of this field is to explore the link between aesthetic experience and divinity, to include explaining why contemplating a work of art may trigger a transcendent experience.  Upon closer inspection, however, we can see that this mission masks a deeply radical notion.  To put it bluntly, theological aesthetics rests upon the assumption that you can find God in art.  If such a thing were not possible, in whole or in part, then the entire field would have no raison d’etre.  At first glance, this enterprise would appear to be somewhat different than the mystical perception of art, clothed as it is in the language of reality.  But to the mystic, for whom Reality is God, there is no distinction to be made.  As one common formulation puts it, “The Real is the One.”  In this way, the mystical perception of art opens the door to the full range of theological inquiry.  The Western obsession with the verbal is broken, and balanced by the visual. Most importantly, the idea of reality is lifted out of the hands of physics, with its narrow, quantitative anti-mantra, “The Real is the 1,” and handed over to metaphysics, the purview of the mystic.  Now thank Reality for that.

Paul Stiles has spent considerable time researching the relationship between depth perception and reality.


[1] Perrault’s “artist’s statement” reveals or confirms some of these insights.  See

[2] From Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.

[3] Anthony Monti, A Natural Theology of the Arts (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003) 106-7.

[4] Maritain, Jacques.  Art and Scholasticism, Chapter 5.  Accessed 17 December 2010.