Religious and Spiritual Movements and the Visual Arts

Massimo Introvigne
Center for Studies on New Religions


The Special Project of the World Religion and Spirituality Project, Religious and Spiritual Movements and the Visual Arts, explores the relationships between contemporary religious movements and the visual arts.

There are different concepts of “visual arts,” and copyright laws define them differently in Europe and North America. Most notably, U.S. copyright law (Copyright Act 1976, Article 1) excludes filmmaking from the field of the visual arts, while most European laws do include it—some would even add theatre and ballet. We would adopt a somewhat broad definition of the visual arts, including filmmaking, but focusing in particular on the traditional visual arts: painting, sculpture, architecture, ceramics, designs, crafts, with the more modern addition of photography.

The fact that we focus on contemporary movements means that we would mostly explore their relations with modern art. Until a few decades ago, most art historians would have argued that this relationship is minimal or non-existent, because modern art is, almost by definition, secular. In 1948, Austrian art historian Hans Sedlmayr (1896–1984) published his most important work, Verlust der Mitte (Loss of the Center: Sedlmayr 1949). He argued that, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, art had progressively lost its religious “center” and was becoming increasingly anti-religious. Even more influential was a book published one year earlier by a British-born American decorator, Terence Harold Robsjohn-Gibbings (1905–1976), Mona Lisa’s Mustache. The book’s thesis was that modern art was against traditional religion, but largely originated in an esoteric and occult spirituality (Robsjohn-Gibbings 1947). Robsjohn-Gibbings was a vitriolic critic of modern, particularly abstract, art. His book was so successful that, for decades, defenders of abstract art avoided mentioning the esoteric connections of its pioneers, in order not to give ammunition to Evangelical and other detractors who relied on Robsjohn-Gibbings’ book.

Finnish art historian Sixten Ringbom (1935–1992) wrote in 1990 in a letter that he “had a feeling that the whole question of the irrational sources of modernism had been swept under the carpet by a scholarly community anxious to save the respectability of the modern movement” (Väätäinen 2010:69). Ringbom himself had published a seminal article in 1966, emphasizing the influence of the Theosophical Society on Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) and the birth of abstract art (Ringbom 1996). Art historian Rose-Carol Washton (later Washton-Long) developed the same argument in her 1968 dissertation on Kandinski (Washton 1968). Ringbom followed in 1970, with a book-length treatment of Kandinsky, The Sounding Cosmos (Ringbom 1970).

These pioneer works were met with ostracism by members of the art history academic community, fearful that acknowledging Kandinsky’s debt to Theosophy would open the door to the criticism and ridicule, of which Robsjohn-Gibbings’ book was an egregious example. The Sounding Cosmos did not get a single review in a scholarly journal during Ringbom’s lifetime and it was never reprinted (Väätainen 2010:69–70).

Apologists for abstract art simply denied that Theosophical and other occult interests were important for its founders. As late as 1990, Yve-Alain Bois, a leading scholar of Dutch abstract pioneer Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), wrote that happily “the theosophical nonsense with which the artist’s mind was momentarily encumbered” disappeared quite rapidly from his art (Bois 1990:247–48). In fact, Mondrian himself wrote, “I got everything from The Secret Doctrine” (Blotkamp 1994:13), referring to the Theosophical Society’s main theoretical work, published by Helena P. Blavatsky (1831–1891) in 1888. About his artistic style known as Neo-Plasticism, Mondrian wrote: “It is Neo-Plasticism that exemplifies theosophical art (in the true sense of the word)” (Blotkamp 1994:132), and he remained a member of the Theosophical Society until the end of his life (Introvigne 2014a:47–59).

The bias against connecting the origins of modern art with Theosophy still exists. Waldemar Januszczak, the star critic of London’s Times, wrote in 2010: “The fact is, theosophy (…) is embarrassing. If there is one thing you do not want your hardcore modernist to be, it is a member of an occult cult (…) Theosophy takes art into Dan Brown territory. No serious student of art history wants to touch it” (Januszczak 2010). The same critic insisted in 2014 that Theosophy was “fraudulent” and “ridiculous” and that “one day, someone will write a big book on the remarkable influence of theosophy on modern art” and “its nonsensical spell” on so many modern artists (Januszczak 2014).

A book deserves to be written indeed, but in the meantime scholars from different fields have addressed the issue of how influential not only Theosophy, but a number of new religious movements, and religion in general, have been on the birth and development of modern visual arts. Little by little, the myth of a largely anti-religious or irreligious modern art has been eroded in terms of three different research topics: artists faithful to mainstream religious traditions; artists who created new religious movements; and artists whose work was influenced by new religious movements.


The first area of research is the discovery that mainstream religions are by no means foreign to modern visual arts. Although some leading early modern artists were secular humanists or Marxists, many were devoted Christians. Particularly when their art was non-figurative, their work was not easily accepted by their churches. In the Roman Catholic Church, the first confrontation happened during the Holy Year 1950. Prelates variously hostile and favorable to abstract art organized competing exhibitions in Rome, with some controversies centering on the work of the French abstract painter Alfred Manessier (1911–1993: Drugeon n.d.). While some bishops considered abstract art as inherently anti-religious or iconoclastic, others embraced it enthusiastically (Mercier 1964). Some of the bishops remembered that the main manifesto of Italian abstract art, KN (Belli 1935), hailed by Kandinsky as one of the must-read books on the subject (se Belli 1988:18–19), had been written in 1935 by a conservative Catholic intellectual, Carlo Belli (1903–1991).

In France, abstract art was for several years largely a Catholic affair, with artists such as Manessier, Georges Mathieu (1921–2012), Simon Hantaï (1922–2008), and Aurélie Nemours (1910–2005). If Manessier was a liberal Catholic, Mathieu and Hantaï were, or became, quite conservative (Drugeon 2007). One of the leading Korean abstract painters, Kim En Joong (b. 1940), is a Catholic convert and a Dominican priest (Thuillier 2004). Not only Catholicism, but also Protestantism (Harries 2013) and Islam (Holm and Kallehauge 2014) have had a significant influence on twentieth- and twenty-first-century avant-garde visual arts. As for Judaism, it would be enough to mention Marc Chagall (1887–1985), an enormously influential artist and a deeply religious Jew (Wullschlager 2008).

After some initial resistance, the Catholic hierarchy welcomed modern art. Pope Pius XII (1876–1958) decided to open the Vatican Museums to modern artists. He also wrote in his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei: “recent works of art (…) should not be universally despised and rejected through prejudice. Modern art should be given free scope,” although with some caution (Pius XII 1947:135). This position on modern art was reaffirmed by subsequent Popes, up to Pope Francis (b. 1936; Francis 2013:167; Francis 2015:103).


The second line of scholarly studies about religion and modern art concerns artists who tried to establish new forms of religion. Some founders of new religious movements were or are artists, including Oberto Airaudi (1950–2013), who led the Italian community of Damanhur and was a painter of recognized skills, Grand Master Hun Yuan (b. 1944) of Weixin Shengjiao, and Adi Da Samraj (Franklin Jones, 1939–2008), of Adidam. Esoteric teachers Julius Evola (1898–1974) and Bô Yin Râ (Joseph Anton Schneiderfranken, 1876–1943) were also reputed painters. Nicholas Roerich (1874–1947), a leading Russian painter, was the co-founder of Agni Yoga with his wife Helena Ivanovna Roerich (1879–1955: Andreyev 2014). In some cases, artists founded and led for several years the local branches of the Theosophical Society, including Jean Delville (1867–1953) in Belgium (Introvigne 2014b) and Kazimierz Stabrowski (1869–1929) in Poland (Hess and Dulska 2017).

Other artists believed that their art might actually function as a religion, and eventually replace traditional religions. The first example of these was Mondrian. Although a member of the Theosophical Society, he was disillusioned by the lack of appreciation of his art by the leaders of the society in the Netherlands (Introvigne 2014a:53). In fact, Mondrian saw his artistic current, Neo-Plasticism, as a millenarian religious project for transforming the whole of society. He believed that, just as the Neo-Plastic way of painting had disposed of the old art and created an entirely new one, so Neo-Plasticism would end up destroying the old forms of state, religion, and family and creating new, simpler and better ones (Mondrian 1986:268).

The second, and perhaps most significant, example is Russian painter Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935), the founder of Suprematism. In 1920, Malevich wrote God Is Not Cast Down, in which he argued that the idea of God as spiritual essence and energy was compatible with the Communist Revolution, and that only his own brand of art, Suprematism, opened the door to experiencing this new concept of God (Malevich 1969:188–223). In the same year 1920, Malevich wrote in a letter: “Now, I have returned, or entered into the world of religion (…) I see in myself, and perhaps in the whole world that the moment for religious change is beginning. I have seen that just as painting went towards its pure form of action, so the religious world is going towards the religion of pure action (…) I see in Suprematism a beginning that is not just pictorial, but encompasses everything” (Lodder 2007:201).

The Soviet regime did not believe that Malevich’s new religion was compatible with Communism. On September 20, 1930, he was arrested and remained in jail for six months. Upon his release, however, Malevich continued to cultivate Suprematism as a new spirituality within a small circle of friends (Taidre 2014). He came to believe that Suprematist art, through its international spread, would eventually create a new world and even a new nature. He wrote:

“Our globe, the surface of the Earth, is disorganized (…) There exists some nature, but I want to instead create Suprematist nature, which will be built according to Suprematist laws” (Taidre 2014:124). In short, Malevich saw Suprematism as “a base not only for painting, but for everything, and the new religion” (Taidre 2014:130).

The new religion also had its rituals. In 1929, the death of his pupil, the artist Ilya Chashnik (1902–1929), was the impetus for Malevich’s first attempt to create a Suprematist rite for funerals. It was used for Malevich’s own funeral in 1935 (see Kudriavtseva 2010).

Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism and Malevich’s Suprematism are examples of explicit new religions proposed by artists. They have not disappeared. A leading exponent of Italy’s Arte Povera movement, Michelangelo Pistoletto (b. 1933), proposed more recently a new “secular religion” he called Omnitheism (Pistoletto 2012). Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović teaches something called “the Abramović Method,” which, while not a religion, is a very articulated New-Age-style system of spiritual doctrines and practices (Pešić 2016).

In fact, these artists’ proposals for new religions met with limited success. On the other hand, in postmodern and post-secular societies there may be an audience for new religious proposals based on art. This was probably what Philip Hook, a senior director at the international auction house Sotheby’s, had in mind, when he wrote in 2014,

art—even in its most secular form— has become the religion of the 21st century. Art meets a spiritual need in people that was previously met elsewhere. It has filled a vacuum in our society left by religion. The great art galleries of the land are its new cathedrals. A large number of the people who a generation or two ago might have taken their children to church on Sundays now take them to an art gallery instead (Hook 2014).

Perhaps Hook exaggerated, but these new spiritual phenomena are not limited to modern art. In December 2014, I visited the Ognissanti (All Saints) Church in Florence, where visitors from all around the world leave messages and requests for help at the burial place of Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), as they would do for a Catholic saint. Botticelli, however, was not a saint, and most messages were far away from Christianity. They rather suggested the birth of a non-organized new religious cult, celebrating the Italian painter as a prophet of beauty. 


Finally, the third line of investigation is about the influence of new religious movements on visual artists. It is perhaps true that many modern Western artists were alienated from traditional Christianity, but only a few exhibited a lack of interest in religion and spirituality. Many found a source of inspiration in the new religious and esoteric movements. This was argued in 1986 by American curator Maurice Tuchman, when he organized in Los Angeles the exhibition The Spiritual in Art (Tuchman 1986). Sixten Ringbom was invited to lecture and contribute to the mammoth catalogue (Ringbom 1986) and felt finally vindicated. Tuchman was in turn controversial within the art establishment for his promotion of artists previously regarded as marginal, but his command of a network of influential relationships in the art world was much wider than Ringbom’s. He held his own against critics (see Gelt 2015), and gradually it became fashionable in several circles to claim that modern art, particularly abstract, had something to do with new religious movements and esotericism. This was evidenced by several exhibitions, including Okkultismus und Avantgarde in Frankfurt in 1995 (Okkultismus und Avantgarde. Von Munch bis Mondrian 1900–1915 1995). These scholarly efforts mentioned a few other esoteric movements, but focused mostly on the Theosophical Society.

The considerable scholarly work that led to the catalogues of the 1986 and 1995 exhibitions was continued in the twenty-first century, particularly at the University of Amsterdam under the leadership of Wouter Hanegraaff and Marco Pasi, both scholars of Western Esotericism. In 2013, University of Amsterdam hosted the first conference of the Enchanted Modernities Network, led by art historian Sarah Victoria Turner, a lecturer at the University of York and later Deputy Director of Research at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. The network organized several important conferences in the three years between 2013 and 2015. The aim of Enchanted Modernities was to explore the relationship between Theosophy and the visual arts. It succeeded admirably, generating dozens of valuable papers on all aspects of this relationship internationally.

However, the influence of new religious and esoteric movements on the visual arts is by no means restricted to Theosophy. Anthroposophy, founded in 1912 by Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) after he broke away from the Theosophical Society, was in several countries no less important in its impact on artists. In 2015, the Museum of Modern Art of Olomouc, Czech Republic, organized the exhibition Aenigma: A Hundred Years of Anthroposophic Art. It displayed works by internationally famous artists who were members of the Anthroposophical Society, such as Joseph Beuys (1921–1986), and of lesser known Anthroposophist painters and sculptors (Fäth and Voda 2015).

Aenigma was the first exhibition to collect and display works by artists who had in common the membership in a new religious or esoteric movement, and to discuss how this affiliation influenced their art. It would be both interesting and fruitful to organize similar exhibitions for other religious movements. Something has been done with respect to Spiritualism (see e.g. Audinet, Godeau, Viau, Evrard and Méheust 2012), but perhaps a future exhibition might put together the artists who actually claimed that their hands were guided by spirits, including Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) in Sweden (Rousseau 2013), Ethel Le Rossignol (1873–1970), Anna Mary Howitt-Watts (1824–1884), and Georgiana Houghton (1814–1884) in England (Oberter 2007), and several others in a number of different countries.

The influence of the different Rosicrucian orders and movements on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art has been studied with reference mostly to Joséphin Péladan (1858–1918) in France and his Salons de la Rose+Croix (Slavkin 2014). However, Rosicrucian groups maintained an influence on the visual arts well after Péladan. One example is the Rosicrucian Fellowship founded by Danish American Max Heindel (pseud. of Carl Louis von Grasshoff, 1865–1919). Such an important French contemporary artist as Yves Klein (1928–1962) was a member of the fellowship, and was influenced by Heindel’s theory of colors, although later he abandoned Rosicrucianism and returned to Catholicism (McEvilley 2000).

Comparatively unexplored are the influences of other esoteric movements on modern artists. French esoteric teacher René Guénon (1886–1951) had a long association with the Swedish artist Ivan Aguéli (1869–1917) and participated in the esoteric circle that met in the home of the French painter Maurice Chabas (1862–1947: de Palma 2009:17). Pyotr D. Ouspensky (1878–1947), a former Theosophist who became an associate of the esoteric teacher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866?–1949), wrote textbooks that were read with interest by many artists, including Malevich and other Russian modernists (Douglas 1986) and the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986: Whalen 2006).The paintings of British magus Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) have received mixed reviews (Pasi 2008), but one of his close associates was an artist of international fame, Italian-Argentinian Xul Solar (pseud. of Oscar Augustín Alejandro Schulz Solari, 1887–1963: Nelson 2012). Crowley was also a significant influence on a number of other artists. Giuliano Kremmerz (pseud. of Ciro Formisano, 1861–1930), an Italian occult teacher, founded the Brotherhood of Miriam, which had among its members Italian painter Emanuele Cavalli (1904–1981), and influenced other well-known artists, including Giuseppe Capogrossi (1900–1972) (Iah-Hel 2014:35–36).

The Church of Scientology offers courses for artists in its Celebrity Centers that teach the distinctive theory of aesthetics formulated by its founder, L. Ron Hubbard (1911–1986). Well-known contemporary artists, including the Austrian Gottfried Helnwein (b. 1948), have been variously involved with Scientology (Introvigne 2015b). MISA, the Movement for the Spiritual Integration into the Absolute, has also developed a course about the arts, and has within its fold several professional artists. Earlier on, Christian Science was a crucial influence on artists who became members of the church, including American muralist Violet Oakley (1874–1961), British colorist Winifred Nicholson (1893–1981), and American assemblage artist Joseph Cornell (1903–1972) (Introvigne 2015a).

In 2015 in Reykjavik, I interviewed Birta Gudjonsdottir, chief curator at the National Gallery of Iceland, who told me about the influence of Sahaja Yoga, as well as of Theosophy, on the vibrant Icelandic contemporary art scene. In 2017, I visited the museum ISKCON, popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement, operates in its Italian headquarters near Florence, which exhibits works of art inspired by the group or created by members. The purpose of this Special Project is precisely to expand the list. However, some further distinctions should be proposed.

What is the purpose of religious movements when they deal with arts and artists? Groups such as the Church of Scientology consciously try to recruit artists and offer courses custom-tailored for them. But such cases are rare. Most movements limit themselves to teachings on the beauty, the form, aesthetics, and do not organize the activities of their artists. With all its immense influence on modern art, the Theosophical Society for several decades did not realize how many artists were interested in its ideas, and its attempt to put Theosophist artists in touch with each other were limited, late, and not entirely successful. Other groups produced significant art, but exclusively for the purposes of decorating their places of worship or illustrating their publications.

Leaving aside the question of how traditional religions with millions of members interact with the visual arts, normally in different ways according to different times and places, I would focus here on new religious and spiritual movements, and distinguish between three different modes of production, respectively of internal, semi-external and external art.

Internal art is the art created for the purposes of the movement. Although there are groups meeting in hotels or emphasizing the extreme simplicity of their places of worship (but minimalism is an artistic style, too), most religious and spiritual movements try to attract followers by building and decorating attractive headquarters, centers, churches, or temples, and by illustrating their publications with vivid pictures. It would be wrong to exclude internal art from the field of art. Historically, most religious art was internal art. In the Middle Ages, painters and sculptors decorated the cathedrals and the churches for the benefit of the devotees, and certainly did not anticipate that in future centuries some of their works would be removed from the original places of worship and exhibited in museums. The same is true for countless temples of religions other than Christianity, and for the ornate illustrations of precious editions of the Bible and other rare books.

The Family, once known as the Children of God and now reduced to a minuscule movement, and such large organizations as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of the Almighty God are examples of groups that created a very distinctive, and immediately recognizable, style of illustrations for their publications. Although the Jehovah’s Witnesses now realize the value of their artworks, and exhibit the most valuable for the benefit of visitors in their educational center of Patterson, New York, it is clear that they were created for the purpose of evangelization rather than for being exhibited and appreciated as works of art.

While these movements produce illustrations, others focus on the beautification of their places of worship. For example, a large Korean new religion, Daesoon Jinrihoe, has created a network of temples that today are part of several tourist itineraries devoted to the Korean heritage. They are appreciated not only for their architecture but for the sculptures and paintings they include. However, the purpose of Daesoon Jinrihoe was not to contribute to Korean tourism, and the distinctive style of the buildings, paintings, and sculpture evolved as a response to the need of organizing the worship and the prayer and creating pilgrimage centers for the movement.

At the other extreme of the spectrum, the Church of Scientology is a clear, and even extreme, example, of the conscious creation of an external art. Scientology offers to the artists courses in its Celebrity Centers, where participants are explicitly told that the purpose is not to incite them to represent subjects related to Scientology, but to motivate them to become better artists and human beings. The courses are based on the aesthetics of the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, and include general notions on rhythm, colors, and forms. But it is suggested that each artist applies these notions in his or her personal way. A few Scientologist artists have produced murals or paintings for the Church’s buildings and centers, but it is highly significant that for the renovation of its Flag building in Clearwater, Florida, Scientology has asked non-Scientologist sculptors to complete an ambitious project of sculptures depicting the Church’s theology (Introvigne 2015b). There are respected sculptors who are Scientologists, such as D. Yoshikawa Wright, but perhaps the choice of non-Scientologists emphasized the fact that, in gathering artists through the Celebrity Centers, the purpose of Scientology is different from motivating them to contribute to the beauty of its buildings.

Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and Christian Science have similarly inspired and motivated hundreds of painters, sculptors, architects, photographs, and filmmakers, but these artists have mostly worked for purposes other than decorating the centers of these movements or illustrating their books.

Somewhere in the middle between internal and external art lies what I propose to call a semi-external artistic production. In these cases, art was born as internal, for the usual purposes of illustrating the movement’s teachings or decorating its places of gathering or worship. However, the value of the artistic production was recognized by external critics or curators, and little by little some works acquired a life outside of the original purposes of their creators. This is the case for the paintings of Grand Master Hun Yuan, the founder of Weixin Shengjiao, while Oberto Airaudi of Damanhur and Adi Da Samraj of Adidam had a more complex and regular interaction with the professional artistic milieu and were at the border between internal and external art. Spiritualism is a very peculiar case. Paintings allegedly produced by the spirits are mostly internal art, but artists who proclaimed that their hands were guided by the spirits such as Georgiana Houghton (1814–1884) have triumphantly entered the world of mainline art galleries and museums, if only decades after their death.

Much of what is commonly called “outsider art” or art brut, in the cases where its creators claimed to be guided by spirits or divine revelations, may also be included in the category of semi-external art. Often, its creators did not plan to exhibit or sell their works, and simply followed the urge of obeying to the mandate they believed had received from spirits, angels, or divine beings. However, in most cases after their deaths, the outsider art circuit “discovered” their works, which today may command high prices in auctions, gallery sales, and art fairs, and become part of the collections of mainline museums (Wojcik 2016). Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900–1980), Madge Gill (1882–1961), or the Prophet Royal Robertson (1936–1997) are cases in point.

I am aware of the fragility of the distinction between internal, semi-external, and external art. Not only do grey areas abound, but the distinction only makes sense from the point of view of the external observer. For the artists who operate within a religious or spiritual movement, all art may be external and internal at the same time. If there is beauty, they would argue, this derives and is part of the movement’s spiritual experience, and it is only normal that it speaks and appears as persuasive to non-members. Traditional art theory emphasized “severability,” i.e. the possibility of appreciating and enjoying the aesthetic value of a work independently from its original purpose. Perhaps an illustration created by the Jehovah’s Witnesses for The Watch Tower or a painting intended for a temple of a Korean new religion will never be exhibited in an art gallery or a museum. But this, proponents of the doctrine of severability would argue, is not important. The test is whether, in the hypothetical case that such a work would be exhibited in a museum or gallery, the audience might appreciate it as a work of art even without knowing the original context and the purpose for which it was created.

Eventually, the severability test became important outside the field of art criticism. It was used by courts of law to determine whether a work of art could be regarded as copyrightable. However, modern technologies made the test hardly applicable even in copyright law (Fu 2017). Sociologists of art, in the meantime, increasingly noticed that boundaries between what is, and is not, art are now increasingly porous so that the severability test is quickly becoming obsolete (Heinich 1999).

The distinction between internal, semi-external, and external art is proposed here as a mere tool to investigate the complicated relationship between religious and spiritual movements and modern visual arts. It does not pretend to classify religious movements in a fixed and immutable way, and does not claim that the question of what works can be defined as art may still be settled through the severability test in a contemporary context.

A final methodological comment may be in order. Most, although not all, contributors to this Special Project are scholars of religion rather than art historians. As such, they focus on biographical data and the artists’ own writings more than on iconographic analysis. Years ago, this was a frequent criticism by art historians of those sociologists and historians of religions who became aware of the crucial influences of new religious movements on modern art and ventured into the art field. Conversely, historians and sociologists of religions often noticed that iconographic analysis, when not grounded in systematic study of the movements with which artists were involved, might lead to doubtful conclusions. Although these complaints are still occasionally heard, the Enchanted Modernities project and other similar enterprises and conferences were instrumental in creating a sustained conversation between art historians and scholars of religion, evidencing how much their cooperation may be fruitful in this field, with each group of scholars utilizing the methodologies of their discipline. We hope that the Special Section will also contribute to this dialogue.


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Post Date:
17 October 2017