Up until the Renaissance, art was almost exclusively informed by religious motifs. Yet, as the Italian Renaissance progressed, Western culture began to change drastically, allowing for a certain type of secular art to emerge. Artists and scholars were inspired to go back to the roots of the classical Greek and Roman societies as a means of influencing a new culture. As the new idea of humanism became prevalent, giving rise to a more secular society, this caused a shift away from a traditional one in which the Church was dominant. Reflecting on this new society and its mores, the early secular painting was crucial to the development of modern ideas of art. Thus, the emergence of the modern Western artwork is sometimes cast as a slow process of secularization, with the devotional charge of images giving way in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to a focus on the beauty and innovation of the artwork itself. But what exactly is secular art? Scholars often contrast the term with that of sacred or religious art. So it seems that in order to understand secular art, we need to define sacred art and its role first.
The term sacred is commonly used in Western society in two ways. Firstly, sacred can refer to something that has been marked off for some religious purpose, whether being for a ritual or devotion. The second usage occurs among believers who conceive the term as the God himself, the absolute being or divine force. Recognized in vague human terms as an indefinable experience of Being, it is referred to as sacred or holy. Rudolph Otto, one of the most eminent scholars of religion, defined the experience of the Holy as the Wholly Other as simultaneously having a mysterium fascinans (attracting element) and a mysterium tremendum (awe-inspiring element). Thus, the sacred has a fascinating yet awe-inspiring sense of mystery.
Following this definition of the sacred, sacred art refers to imagery that uses religious inspiration and motifs with an intent to uplift the mind to the spiritual. It should provide spiritual realization within the artist's religious tradition. Throughout the history of art, the function of sacred art has been to lead one to experience something of this mysterium. Besides being a representation of a saint or an illustration of a certain Bible story, sacred art should present a window into the spiritual realm. Not perceived as a mere decoration, it should draw the viewer into an encounter with the holy. Being at once transcendent and down to earth, it is regarded that the work of sacred art should be humble and do not draw attention to itself since it serves a greater purpose.
Contrasted with the conception of the sacred, is that of the profane. The term comes from the Latin compound profanum, literally meaning before or outside the temple. Thus profane in its most general sense has meant that which is not holy, or that which does not pertain to a place marked off or an object related to religious practice. The modern idea of art has its roots in the Italian Renaissance. Through the study of the art, poetry, philosophy, and science of ancient Greece and Rome, Renaissance humanists revived the notion that man, rather than God, is the measure of all things. The dependence on the Church gave away to the confidence that humans can shape their own individual destinies and the future of the world. As the society was moving away from the dominance of the church, Renaissance artists started turning towards the profane, depicting ordinary mundane scenes and objects. The Renaissance saw an increase in monumental secular works, but a secular, non-sectarian, universal notion of art arose in 19th century Western Europe. From the beginnings of recognizable avantgarde in the nineteenth century, art has been antithetical to religious observation. It was claimed that art possessed its own intrinsic value and should not have to be made to satisfy any edifying, utilitarian, or moral function.
Thus, secular art can be defined as art that has no religious reference points and is, in fact, oblivious to organized religion. Having an aesthetic appeal in a non-religious context, it neither denies or affirms the existence of God, but focuses on human agency. As Sartre wrote, “Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result, the man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to.”  Yet, even secular art can be deeply spiritual, but not in the religious sense. Various theorists have discussed how art, in general, has a certain spiritual prestige, an aura or indefinable magic.
Art has a power unlike other human endeavors – it seems to open a door to a realm of ideas and emotions not accessible through any other route. A great deal of the experience of a painting is aesthetic and even intellectual – one enjoys the structure of forms, textures and colors and you respond to the story, or ideas, or emotions the artist is eager to communicate. But also, the artwork is a site in which you are charmed by a peculiar artistic spell. In short, art has a spiritual element. Spiritual is here defined not as a religious experience, but as the urge to transcend self or the present moment, to connect with the universe in some larger way. Thus, art viewing can create an experience that can be defined by deep engagement or transcendence, empathy, awe or reverence or a state of wonder or resonance. The English philosopher R. G. Collingwood explained that the artist obtains catharsis from producing art. He extends this point by claiming that the artist is oppressed by the unexplored, unexpressed emotion. It is in the self-discovery of the experience through the chosen medium that the artist is freed from this oppression.
Many creatives speak about the relationship between their art and the spiritual. In 1910, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky published Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Here he explored the deepest and most authentic motives for making art, the internal necessity that impels artists to create as a spiritual impulse and audiences to admire art as spiritual hunger. Mark Rothko, a contemporary artist whose work promises depth and invites introspective reflection, was in search of an alternative language of spiritual expression to that offered by traditional religious imagery. In conversation with the artist and art critic Selden Rodman, he explained: “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on, and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions... The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!” The German painter Gerhard Richter, a professed atheist, compared the experience of creating art to the religious search for God. In 1964, he wrote: “Art is not a substitute religion: it is a religion (in the true sense of the word: ‘binding back’, ‘binding’ to the unknowable, transcending reason, transcendent being). But the church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcendental, and of making religion real – and so art has been transformed from a means into the sole provider of religion: which means religion itself.”
The American curator and critic Robert Storr stated that “a painting can help us think something that goes beyond this senseless existence”. Indeed, art can move an audience to catharsis and clarify our emotional responses. The desire to create or look at art might be powered by the same eternal, spiritual need that drives one to the church. It facilitates an encounter with the presence of mystery in our lives and nurtures a relationship with it.
Editors’ Tip: Concerning the Spiritual by Wassily Kandinsky
A pioneering work in the movement to free art from its traditional bonds to material reality, this book is one of the most important documents in the history of modern art. Written by the famous nonobjective painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), it explains Kandinsky's own theory of painting and crystallizes the ideas that were influencing many other modern artists of the period. Along with his own groundbreaking paintings, this book had a tremendous impact on the development of modern art. Kandinsky's ideas are presented in two parts. The first part, called "About General Aesthetic," issues a call for a spiritual revolution in painting that will let artists express their own inner lives in abstract, non-material terms. In the second part, "About Painting," Kandinsky discusses the psychology of colors, the language of form and color, and the responsibilities of the artist. An Introduction by the translator, Michael T. H. Sadler, offers an additional explanation of Kandinsky's art and theories, while a new Preface by Richard Stratton discusses Kandinsky's career as a whole and the impact of the book.
Featured image: Wassily Kandinsky - Composition X, 1939, via ibiblio.com; Mark Rothko - Untitled, 1964, via markrothko.org. All images used for illustrative purposes only.