Religion and the Arts:
The Cyclical Theory in the Bahá'í Faith

By Moojan Momen

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #18
Trent Park Campus: London, England
August 21–24, 1998
(see list of papers from #18)

    Art is a sensitive indicator of the spiritual state of a society. It can, because of its sensitivity, pick up changes before they are evident in other areas. In the Christian world, the art of the Renaissance had picked up the change to a more naturalistic more materialistically-oriented world at the beginning of the fifteenth century, long before it became evident in the political and scientific sphere.

    In the Bahá'í teachings there is the concept of a spiritual cycle in which religion goes through a spring-time, summer, autumn, and winter. In this paper, it has been suggested that the art associated with each religion can be seen to reflect and parallel this religious cycle.

    In the spring-time vigour of a religion, when there is the sense of a direct contact between the individual believer and the Transcendent, the art tends to be in the form of simple symbols representing eternal spiritual truths. With the passing of time and, in particular, with the emergence of a religious professional class and of a religion of love and devotion, the art moves towards being more representational. The icon shows the form of the founder of the religion, but in a traditional form, stressing still the spiritual and eternal aspects. The third stage in the development of religious art sees the emphasis change to a naturalistic and" life-like" representation of the founder of the religion. Here the spiritual aspects are suppressed in favour of human emotions and of the physical surroundings. While the symbolic and iconic art sought to act as a support for meditation and contemplation of spiritual truths, to take the human being up into the spiritual realm, naturalistic art emphasises the human and emotional, bringing the spiritual and heavenly down to earth.

    In this paper, examples are presented from Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism to demonstrate this process of the evolution of religious art (although it has not proceeded equally in all religions). It is suggested that we may be seeing the evidences of a new spiritual spring-time emerging in the tendency in modern art to move away from figuration and naturalism and towards more abstract, symbolic art.

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