Art and Mysticism

Interfaces in the Medieval and Modern Periods

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Louise Nelstrop, Helen Appleton
Contemporary Theological Explorations in Mysticism
  • New York, NY: 
    , June
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Throughout this remarkable book, Art & Mysticism: Interface in the Medieval and Modern Periods, edited by Helen Appleton and Louise Nelstrop, the reader is invited to consider the significance of the interplay between art and spirituality across philosophical, theological, and artistic sources in a way that is at once exciting and profound. In the Introduction, the editors argue that the dialogical encounter between material image and spiritual reality is—for the Christian imagination—grounded in the theological significance of Christ’s incarnation. Therefore, rather than relegating mysticism to a realm outside of empirical consciousness and sensual immediacy—in implicit (or explicit) opposition to material representation—Appleton and Nelstrop inaugurate this collection of essays by affirming the incarnational hermeneutic underlying the plurality of scholarly efforts to lend tangible expression to the hidden and transcendent. Indeed, the editors observe that early and medieval Christians often accessed their spirituality through material mediation and described their experiences of union with God in the language of bodily affect in excess of mere intellection. Thus, this volumewagers that the task of engaging the relation between art and mysticism cannot be adequately undertaken by simply applying rigidly historicized and monolithic conceptions of mysticism and art, but must embrace the inherent contemporaneity and polyvalence of creative endeavors arising from a perception of the world as interlaced with the sacred.

This polyvalence manifests itself in a diverse collection of essays which explore a variety of artistic media and contexts, that bring together the historic with the contemporary, and the apparently sacred with the seemingly profane. The volume is divided into four sections, each devoted to examining a particular aspect of art and mysticism. In section 1, “Art, Aesthetics and Mysticism in Theory and Practice,” the three contributing authors each address central questions on the process of artistic creation as a form of meaning-making and contemplative play. In the opening chapter, Kate Kirkpatrick explores the manner in which mysticism demands an encounter with art that transcends the passive gaze of the spectator and invites us to participate in the lived experience of the creative process. Interweaving the thought of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and William James with the art of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, Kirkpatrick argues that the irreducible particularity of making art resists transparent explanation and universalization, and like mysticism, calls us forth into a coinciding field of interior cultivation and attentiveness to the world.

The two middle sections of the book each undertake sustained reflections on the intersection between mysticism and the mundane yet proceed from opposing directions. In section 2, “Art, mysticism and everyday,” the collected essays examine varieties of mysticism and art oriented toward concrete engagements with daily life. In the first chapter of the section, Inigo Bocken argues that early modern theologies emphasizing the immanent presence of God in quotidian life, such as those of Nicholas of Cusa and Thomas Akempis, are reflected in Jan Van Eyck’s portrayal of the Divine as already present within the familiar and commonplace. This section’s theme is strikingly treated by Jewell Homad Johnson in her essay, “Medieval Pop: Warhol’s Byzantine Iconography.” This chapter, which is my favorite of the volume, recasts Warhol’s seemingly superficial display of Brillo Boxes and prints of Campbell’s Soup cans in light of his Byzantine Catholic heritage. Johnson claims the apparently secular subject matter of Warhol’s art is, in fact, intended as a kind of iconography which at once aims to uncover the spiritual and ritualized dimensions of modern life, yet also—like Byzantine iconography—serves to expose the inherent limitations of representational imagery. In contrast to Section II, the essays contained in section 3, “Metaphor, making, and transcendence,” seek to traverse the everyday, extricating us from the familiar and recontextualizing it in relation to the sacred. To this end, Sheila Gallagher’s chapter, “An artist’s notes on the art and articulation of the mystical moment,” is particularly successful. Gallagher provides an intimate and sophisticated account of the theological and philosophical inspirations which animate her creative process. Using her piece Pneuma Hostis—a mandala meets Eucharistic host constructed entirely from gold-leafed cigarette butts—as an example, Gallagher describes her work as emerging from amidst the dialectical interlacing of apophasis and kataphasis, immanence and transcendence, word and image. By elevating cigarette butts into a shape suggesting a sacrament, Gallagher explicates her transformation of trash into a chiasmic medium of encounter, a double passageway that crosses the threshold of the Divine and the disposable.

The final section of the volume, “Into the darkness,” attends to themes which are not readily associated with the Divine or aesthetics: negativity, suffering, and darkness. However, in each of the collected essays within this section the various authors argue that these spaces also provide a space of spiritual encounter and artistic expression. Bernard McGinn’s contribution is especially remarkable. McGinn’s essay, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there,” referencing Bob Dylan’s song of the same name, explores the employment of images of darkness and negation by medieval mystics such as Pseudo-Dionysius, Angela of Foligno, and Meister Eckhart. McGinn locates within the paradoxical, chiastic metaphors of visionary blindness and luminous darkness, a conception of Divine union as an interplay between hiddenness and manifestation which crucially underpins medieval theologies of the image.

Ultimately, Art and Mysticism offers a worthy contribution to contemporary discussions of both art and theology, in ways that are often strikingly original and consistently thought provoking. Moreover, by situating the array of presented subject matter within the broader conversation concerning the role of mediation, representation, and perception in religious thought and practice, this book makes the compelling claim that the study of mysticism is crucial to the study (and practice) of art, and that art illuminates mystical traditions in ways that have been neglected for too long.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jack Louis Pappas is a doctoral candidate in Theology at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
January 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Helen Appleton is Career Development Fellow in Old and Early Medieval English at Balliol College, Oxford. She has published on early medieval poetry and hagiography, and is also a co-organiser of The Oxford Psalms Network. Her principal research area is the relationship between religious devotion and the environment in Anglo-Saxon England. 

Louise Nelstrop is Lecturer in Religion, Philosophy and Ethics at York St John University and a College Lecturer in Theology at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford. She is co-editor of several earlier volumes in the series, most recently Mysticism in the French Tradition: Eruptions from France with Bradley B. Onishi. She has published several articles on the English Mystics and is also a convenor of The Mystical Theology Network.


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