The Invention of the Sacrosanct or ‘Sacred Making’ as an Aesthetic Praxis

A very short voyage from Barthes to Agamben via Eliade

By Avinoam Shalem
  • Avinoam Shalem

    Avinoam Shalem is a professor of Islamic art at the University of Munich and, since 2007, professor fellow at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence - Max Planck Institute. He studied history of art in the universities of Tel Aviv, Munich and Edinburgh. His main field of interest is in medieval artistic interactions in the Mediterranean basin and medieval aesthetics. He has published extensively on Islamic and Jewish art including  Islam Christianized (Peter Lang, second. ed. 1998); The Oliphant (Brill, 2004); Facing the Wall: The Palestinian-Israeli Barriers (Cologne, Walter König, 2011), and edited several books: 'Austausch diplomatischer Geschenke in Spätantike und Byzanz', in the Mitteilungen zur Spätantiken Archäologie und Byzantinischen Kunstgeschichte, 4(2005); Facts and Artefacts: Art in the Islamic World. Festschrift for Jens Kröger on his 65th Birthday with Annette Hagedorn (Leiden, 2007); 'After One Hundred Years: The 1910.' Exhibition "Meisterwerke muhammedanischer Kunst" Reconsidered, with Andrea Lermer (Leiden 2010); The Future of Tradition: The Tradition of Future. With Chris Dercon and León Krempel, exhibition catalogue, Haus der Kunst (Munich, 2010); Kunststadt München? Unterbrochene Lebenswege. Guest editor of volume 2 (2012) of Münchner Beiträge zur jüdischen Geschichte und Kultur; and recently: Constructing the Image of Muhammad in Europe (Berlin, 2013). He is currently directing the research projects: Crossing Boundaries, Creating Images: In Search of the Prophet Muhammad in Literary and Visual Traditions and Gazing Otherwise: Modalities of Seeing in the Islamic World. From September of 2013 he will hold the Riggio Professorship in Islamic art at the Columbia University in NYC.

(Fig 1.) A group of Japanese tourists in front of the relics of the Buddha from the Sakyan Stupa in Nigrodhavan Vihara in Nepal. The National Museum of New Delhi (February 2011). Photo: Avinoam Shalem.

For Kavita, a friend in New Delhi.

The idea for writing this short article was born in February 2011, on a visit that Kavita Singh, a professor at the school of arts and aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and I paid to the National Museum in New Delhi. We were both struck by a group of Japanese tourists, who, confronted by the relatively large golden reliquary in front of which relics of the Buddha from the Sakyan Stupa in Nigrodhavan Vihara in Nepal were displayed, started to pray in front of the showcase exhibiting these holy objects (Fig. 1). At the same time, on the other side of the room, two Buddhist monks carefully studied a medieval stone sculpture of the standing Buddha and precisely read the specific information provided by the museum’s curators on this object (Fig. 2). Both scenes appear as two rather different attitudes of what can be described as ‘cult meets culture.’ But, at the same time they raise many questions regarding the process of aestheticization of sacred objects in museums today and the consequences of this world-wide method, which helps in constructing the museum as the contemporary qualifier for sacredness.

In the opening paragraph of his concluding article Myth Today, which accompanied the publication of short monthly essays written between the years 1954 and 1956 and known as Mythologies, Roland Barthes explained in a clear, short and very sharp manner that myth, when he was writing, “is a type of speech.” He argued that myth is a system of communication, a message, and should be explained therefore within the system of semiology. 1Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. By Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972),109. Moreover, developing his arguments on making myth today in this article, he discussed what he defined as “the privation of history” and says:

“Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all History. In it, history evaporates. It is a kind of ideal servant: it prepares all things, brings them, lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is to enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from. Or even better: it can only come from eternity… Nothing is produced, nothing is chosen: all one has to do is to possess these new objects from which all soiling trace of origin or choice has been removed. This miraculous evaporation of history is another form of a concept common to most bourgeois myths: the irresponsibility of man.” 2Ibid, 151.

In fact, I could have ended my article here, with this very starting point, if only simply replacing the word ‘myth’ in Barthes’ paragraph by the words ‘sacred’ or ‘sacrosanct’. Of course the scope of this article is too narrow to delve into Barthes’ affinity to contemporaneous semiotic and communication theories in general. Nevertheless, let’s follow his contention and argue that the idea of the sacred as something embodied within any object of religious veneration, be it tangible or intangible, or even any venerated sacred space or time is a myth. Moreover, according to Barthes, myth, (and to which I add, the sacred) are both products of human praxis; in the case of the latter, the praxis exercised in the creation of the sacred is an external action directed precisely on a deliberately chosen object. Thus, my field of investigation is here reduced to the praxis of the making of the sacred. I would like to exclude then any queries as to what is the nature or qualities of the sacred or sacredness and rather shift the focus to the question of how it is produced or even invented. By avoiding the minefield that is defining the sacred, a field which has been tremendously violated and manipulated by historians and art historians alike in the last century, I call attention to a critical gaze on our process of its making.

To some extent, my approach recalls Mircea Eliade’s credo in the introduction to his book on The Sacred and the Profane 3Mircea Eliade, Das Heilige und das Profane. Vom Wesen des Religiösen (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1990), 13-20., in which he revised Rudolf Otto’s thesis on Das Heilige 4Rudolf Otto, Das Heilige (Breslau: 1917). See the online fourth edition: http://archive.org/details/RudolfOtto_dasHeilige.. While Otto sees the holy as a mysterium and fascinosum –incredible, unreal and beyond our world and expression – Eliade, is more interested in the manifold characters of the holy in its full totality and not exclusively as something different, other and beyond. Yet, he defines the first and major classification of the holy in very opposition to the profane. Moreover, according to Eliade, he also argues that the holy manifests itself to us in what he calls “hierophany”, or rather “hierophanies” and that these so-called hierophanies create opposing zones to the profane world in which we live 5Eliade, Das Heilige und das Profane, 14-16.. On the contrary, I would argue that, first of all, it is not the holy that manifests itself to us but it is rather we who define, or demarcate it as such. Moreover, although it is true that, historically speaking, we have been demarcating the holy and building it in juxtaposition to the profane, I would like to reconsider Eliade’s dialectic thinking and our historical assumption of the existence of two worlds: the divine and the earthly.

The black and white division between the way Judeo-Christian cultures have imagined and depicted heavenly Jerusalem, paradise and the celestial domain of god, angelic creatures and saints and our profane world distorts the process of defining the sacred. 6See the Introduction of Alicia_Walker_and_Amanda_Luyster, „Mapping the heavens and treading the Earth: negotiating secular and sacred in medieval art,“ in their edited book, Negotiating Secular and Sacred in Medieval Art: Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009. In fact, the sacred is identified within the profane, namely within our real world. We create isolated islands of sacred qualities by building around them borders, which seclude and separate them from our daily life, our secular world. In this sense, the making of the borders and barriers is the major act of making the sacred, providing it with a room in time or space.

Eliade’s theory of the hierophany is easy to condemn because he took for granted the existence of the holy as an entity, which can appear and disappear and has its own desires and needs. From my point of view, it is he, the beholder, who decided upon making the profane into sacred or even vice versa. Any acceptance of Eliade’s supposition of the existence of a manifest holy, can lead us to esoteric theories in which one can argue about the invisibility of the sacred and how only specific beholders in a particular spiritual state can witness it.

In other words, the sacred emerges from the profane. In fact it goes through a process, which I call aestheticization, in which it is reborn or reinvented as sacred. Two important examples are the Biblical stories of the dream of Jacob, and Moses witnessing the burning bush. Thrilled by the vision of angels climbing the ladder to Heaven, Jacob declared the spot on which his head rested overnight as holy. Here, as Eliade suggested, is the shortest, almost express, link between heaven and earth, symbolized through a ladder that provides a highway for angels to take. 7Mircea Eliade, Ewige Bilder und Sinnbilder (Frankfurt a. Main: Insel, 1986), 46-51, especially 50. And yet, his decision to oil this spot marks the original moment of the making of things sacred. The rock is anointed with this substance and is given therefore a glow to the stone. This is an aesthetic praxis. The stone will be now both visible and invisible. On the one hand, the gloss makes the stone shine, and serves to separate it from, and elevate it above the other stones. But at the same time the gloss annuls the materiality of the stone as we are so blurred by the shine that the stone cannot be grasped, just its glow, its shine, its aura can be seen. Thus, the eye of the beholder is able to capture just lustre. Light replaces material. 8There is another aspect of animation, which is beyond the scope of this article. See my discussion of anointing sculptures and the modern museum praxis of using spotlights to ‘illuminate’ exhibited artifacts: Avinoam Shalem, “Multivalent Paradigm of Interpretation and the Aura or Anima of the Object,” in: Benoît Junod et al (eds.), Islamic Art and the Museum: Approaches to Art and Archaeology of the Muslim World in the Twenty-First Century (London: Saqi, 2012), 101-115, especially 111. The story of Moses and the burning bush is equally interesting. Here, amazed by the surreal vision of a bush burning but not withering, Moses is unaware of the holy space he enters. God’s demand that one takes off one’s shoes on this holy place is again an aesthetic praxis. Moses signifies through a specific code of behavior and dress that this specific zone is sacred.

*Visual Reference(Fig 2.) Two Buddhist monks carefully studying a medieval stone sculpture of the standing Buddha. The National Museum of New Delhi (February 2011). Photo: Avinoam Shalem.(Fig 2.) Two Buddhist monks carefully studying a medieval stone sculpture of the standing Buddha. The National Museum of New Delhi (February 2011). Photo: Avinoam Shalem.

The story of the sacred in Islamic art is well illustrated by the history of the most sacred, the Ka ‘aba in Mecca, and is paradigmatic for sacred-making as an aesthetic praxis. The account of Muhammad and Ali eradicating the idols of Mecca, washing the walls of the Ka ‘aba and cleaning its figurative decoration, though deliberately leaving some images, clearly attests to a new aesthetic code for Muslim worship being born. But of course, the very immediate act of defining the sacred is the marking of borders, thus separating it from the profane. This can be done by adding walls around the Ka ‘aba and thus creating a room called Haram, namely forbidden, as opposed to prohibited. The framing of the sacred is therefore another aesthetic act. In the case of a sacred object, take for example a two-dimensional image of the word Allah or Muhammad or any page of the Holy Quran; this could actually be the painted frame, the marked border, around the sacred image. Further praxis concerns the elevation of the sacred. This can be done by elevating the object of veneration physically, for example building a platform around the holy sanctuary, as seen in the Dome of the Rock, or elevating the whole structure. In the case of artifacts, a delicate foot or an extra pedestal might be added. Qurans, for example, are usually displayed on stands (rihla or Kursi). Accentuating the sacred through an extra covering case, mounting or even a dome, are the next steps, while veiling constitutes another aesthetic rite, which is probably bound to the idea of the forbidden and the permissible view of the sacred. But one of the most important procedures of the shaping of the holy is the one concerning the making of its image, namely its display as the subject of the viewers’ gaze in a specific manner, one in which the beholder experiences detachment from the subject of their gaze. This can be termed as the distant, in some cases the remote or alienated, gaze. The sacred appears then as remote and untouchable, “however near it may be”, and gains its holy auratic halo; as Walter Benjamin says: “What is an aura? A peculiar web of space and time: the unique manifestation of a distance, however near it may be.” 9“Was ist eigentlich Aura? Ein sonderbares Gespinst von raum und Zeit: einmalige Erscheinung einer Ferne, so nah sie auch sein mag.” See: Walter Benjamin, Kleine Geschichte der Photographie, published in idem, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (Frankfurt a. Main .: Suhrkamp,1977, first edition 1963), 57.

In fact, these aesthetic habits somehow recall museums’ exhibition praxis today. The exclusiveness of the collected objects in the museum, all of which form part of institutions’ compendium of the beauties of culture; the framing, elevation on podiums and pedestals, emphasis through extra projected light, and even the veiling — which, in some cases, is used in order to avoid an easy and direct view of the masterpiece — create an aesthetic experience not dissimilar to that in front of the sacred. In addition, the formation of the detached gaze, usually achieved through the image, icon, and the making of the object in the museum into an iconic object by the museum’s publicizing and exhibiting techniques is no less important in endowing a secular halo, so to speak, on the displayed artefact. 10For several discussion and curatorial approaches on the display of Islamic works of art in museums today, see Benoît Junod et al (eds.), Islamic Art and the Museum: Approaches to Art and Archaeology of the Muslim World in the Twenty-First Century (London: Saqi, 2012).

What emerges therefore is that the making of the sacred can be compared to the aesthetic habitus of the modern museum. Moreover, the ripping of the museum object from its former functional religious or spiritual context, the abolishment of its utility and its replacement by aesthetic values, contribute to the shaping of its new modern aura in the museum. Similarly, the isolation of the sacred object from the profane and its definition as part of a sacred entity, objecthood, geography and even time, rips it from the material world, nature and experienced time and sets it in an a-historical, super-natural if not apocalyptic context. The sacred object lost its history and authenticity in this aesthetic process of becoming holy but it gains a major position in providing the pious beholder with the possibility to celebrate his or her “aesthetic epiphany” (to use Agamben’s terminology p. 140), or aesthetic catharsis. 11“This is to say: the work of art loses the authority and the guarantees it derived from belonging to a tradition for which it built the places and objects that incessantly weld past and present together. However, far from giving up its authenticity in order to become reproducible (thus fulfilling Hölderlin’s wish that poetry might again become something that one could calculate and teach), the work of art instead becomes the locus of the most ineffable of mysteries, the epiphany of aesthetic beauty.“ In: Giorgio Agamben, Der Mensch ohne Inhalt (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2012), 140. For the English translation see: http://www.thebestrevenge.info/3126-the_man_without_content.pdf.

I will end with Agamben’s reflections on the aesthetic spaces of our modern era, reflections that are proper to this discussion of the sacred, and by replacing in Agamben’s paragraph the word “tradition” with “religion”, the whole journey in the history of the making of the sacred as an aesthetic praxis, is re-explained.

“Aesthetics, then, in a way performs the same task that tradition performed before its interruption: knotting up again the broken thread in the plot of the past, it resolves the conflict between old and new, which without their reconciliation, the man – this being that has lost himself in time and must find himself again, and for whom therefore at every instant his past and future are at stake – is unable to live. By destroying the transmissibility of the past, aesthetics recuperates it in modo negativo and makes intransmissibility a value in itself in the image of aesthetic beauty, in this way opening for man a space between past and future in which he can found his action and his knowledge.” 12Giorgio Agamben, The Man without Content, first published as L’uomu senza contenuto (Milano: Rizzoli, 1970). The English translation given here is based on the English translation found on the website: http://www.thebestrevenge.info/3126-the_man_without_content.pdf (p. 68, with some modifications of mine). For further reading see mainly, Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” in Michael Banton (ed), Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion (London: Routledge, 1966), 1-46 (see also: http://depthome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/anthro/faculty/mitrovic/geertz_religion.pdf); C. Jason Throop, “Interpretation and the Limits of Interpretability: On Rethinking Clifford Geertz’s Semiotics of Religious Experience,” in The Journal of North African Studies 14,3 (2009), 369-384.