In Art as a Universal Language, Parts 1 and 2, I address some of the universal visual symbolism artists have used since the beginning of human civilization. Certain symbols have become “visual code,” allowing people from vastly different cultures and generations, to comprehend each others’ values and challenges. In this, Part 3, of Art as a Universal Language, I explore how art evinces the universal similarities of our deepest human spiritual beliefs, and how important it is to use this shared symbolism to unite us, rather than as a weapon to divide us.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” ~ William Blake, from Marriage of Heaven and Hell
painting of Seraphim,
from Judaeo-Christian religious art
Hindu goddess Durga
The Resurrection of Christ,
from the Right Wing of the
Isenheim Altarpiece, circa 1512-16,
Gonkar Gyatso (born Lhasa 1961),
Inner Sun, Saba Barnard,
Native American drawing
of ceremonial costume
It’s obvious from the Judaic, Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Native American, and Buddhist images above, that most of the world’s great spiritual philosophies share the use of the sun symbol, or halo, to depict the sanctity of their subject. In the first image, the Serafim (“burning ones”) heads are surrounded by golden halos that glow like the sun. The Serafim represent the Judaeo-Christian religion. The Hindu artist who created the next image of Hindu goddess Durga has glorified her with a glowing halo, as well as a gesture of blessing. The risen Christ is surrounded by a halo so large and brilliant that the artist’s passionate message is clear–he declares that Jesus has risen to save the world. Equally joyous, is the image by contemporary Muslim feminist artist, Saba Barnard. In her “Inner Sun,” a halo radiates outward from the artist’s ecstatic smile, embellished with the glorious gold leaf and calligraphy that adorn the finest works of Islamic art. The seated Buddha, again shows the halo of enlightenment, surrounding the head of the Buddha. True to the nature of Buddhist philosophy, the image of the Buddha is “dissected”–a potent reminder of the importance not to hold on too tightly to the objects or dogma of this material world. On the right, the Native American drawing shows a ceremonial costume of a dancer wearing an elaborate headdress. The headdress looks remarkably like a halo, and we know that Native American religions profoundly honor the sun.
This universal visual language of the halo or sun communicates our global similarity on a deep human level. Though our spiritual philosophies have grown to differ, they originate from the same impulse–to honor that which we hold most sacred, and often the spiritual leaders we regard as most enlightened.
The Victory stele of Naram-Sin (c. 2250 BCE),
Collection of the Louvre, Paris
Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their children
blessed by the Aten (Solar Disc)
Chumash Indian Cave Painting,
Santa Barbara, California,
image courtesy Getty Images,
Marilyn Angel Wynn
c. 1700 BCE, Crete
Mosaic from the House of Amphitrite,
Bulla Regia, Tunisia, image courtesy Euratlas.com,
miniature painting by Mughal artist Bichitr,
c. 1620 watercolour and gold on paper
Greek deity image
Incan deity image, Peru
Illuminated manuscript featuring Jesus as sun
Golden mosaic of Jesus with halo from Ravenna, Italy
Ascension of Christ, Salvador Dali, 1958
Stories of the Passion of Christ of
The Resurrection, by Giotto, 1304
Hope, 2015 painting by Muslim
female artist, Saba Barnard
Gold and stone tile mosaic of bearded Jesus,
Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy
Photo by Xuan Che, Amitabha (buddha of love
and compassion) with halo, c.500 AD.
The Longmen Grottoes, Henan, China
image of Indian god Vishnu
The images above feature artworks from Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu spiritual philosophy. The images include not only the solar disc/halo of enlightenment. They include another important element of visual symbolism–the gesture with the right hand. This hand blessing is universal visual code for blessing and protection. Since Mesopotamian times, the hand has been used in visual renderings to signify protection.
Below, you’ll see the Hamesh hand (Judism), or the Hand of Fatima (Islam), which has been used since ancient times to signify protection in Jewish and Islamic spiritual cultures.
Hamesh Hand, image by David Yohanan
It is my sincere hope that this exploration of universally shared visual symbols for our spirituality will help us appreciate each other as human beings. Regardless of what spiritual philosophy we may practice as individuals, the images I’ve included in this post remind us that humanity has always valued the predictability of the life-giving force, enlightened thought, and protection, above all else. This is what we seek through our spiritual practices. May we use these spiritual practices to better appreciate and understand our fellow (and equal) global citizens, rather to condemn them for their differences from ourselves.