The Art of Being A God

It’s interesting having one foot in reconstructionist religion and one foot in religious witchcraft, for a lot of reasons. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about lately is the shape of how the gods appear within the context of each system. This isn’t even a different of identity, it often isn’t a difference in theology, but there’s this different effect, different flavor of effect, I’ve been struggling with language for it.

I think I’ve got a metaphor now: artistic periods.

For better or for worse, a lot of reconstructionist sorts have their model of What A God Looks Like as sort of Neoclassical. There’s a particular sort of realism and poise expected there, a sort of distant and idealised perfection, even in cases where the art itself was conveying passion or movement. And, of course, the thing that Neoclassical art did that was “pick some exemplars of the tradition and hold forth that these are the true and authentic Classical form to be emulated.” Ahem.

Anton Raphael Mengs 001

(Anton Raphael Mengs, “The Judgement of Paris”)

Of course, modern paganism itself has a lot of roots in the Romantic period and its art. Rather than the stately and perfected Neoclassical poise, Romantic art was engaged with passion and emotion, holy terror, and the natural world, and while it drew from the Classical repertoire, it leavened that with the influence of folk art and sought a spontaneity and dynamism that was not desirable in a Neoclassical format.

Eugène Delacroix - Le 28 Juillet. La Liberté guidant le peuple

Caspar David Friedrich - Wanderer above the sea of fogRomantic art ranged rather broadly in subject, including such works as “Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix (above), in which a modern Goddess of Liberty stands tall after the 1830 July Revolution, Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (left), a more intimate and fraught engagement with the natural world than, say, one of Jean-Victor Bertin’s serene and perfected landscapes, or Thomas Cole’s rather cryptic “Titan’s Goblet” (below).

Cole, Thomas - Der Pokal des Riesen - hi res - 1833

Both of these styles, though, have a certain specificity to them, and strive for a representational realism. In the metaphor of views of religion, the gods portrayed in this style Are The Gods, perhaps distant and abstract and untouchable by mortal understanding, or more visceral and mysterious and present in the workings of the world – whether human, natural, or entirely esoteric – but their very specificity is laid out and understood. Even historical syncretisms sometimes feel a little off in this light, as if they blur the paint too much from proper portraiture. Unless, of course, they are drawn in the detail, the evocative precision, which these styles demand.

So if that is the reconstructionist imagining of the gods, what of the religious witch?

Gods in a religious witchcraft mode have, in my experience, a broad, slightly abstracted quality. At times that I have addressed the gods of Egypt with my witch hat on, they have been not less themselves, but more encompassing of other forms, other details, more inclined to shapeshift, less tidily contained with all of that specific detail. Gods I have met purely within a Craft context have been very like that, defying me to put a straightforward face on them, one with cleanly painted lines.

In short, the gods in a religious witchcraft framework strike me as more Impressionist, or Post-Impressionist.

Which isn’t to say that they are not operating in a mode of realism. Impressionist artists felt themselves more bound to reality – more likely, for one thing, to paint from the world outside their studios – in all of its messy uncleanliness. Those precision lines and careful shades that earlier painters used are not how people see the world, composed of fleeting impressions of ever-changing light.

John Constable, a Romantic painter, might do multiple paintings of Salisbury cathedral, but it was always with that same attention to specific detail and a sort of representational form. Claude Monet, an Impressionist, would paint the same subject, from the same angle, over and over again, producing many images of the Houses of Parliament or Rouen Cathedral or some haystacks, exploring different levels of light and attention and the effects of the weather and other matters, much like a modern witch might discuss the many faces of The Goddess <tm>.

Vincent van Gogh - Self-Portrait - Google Art Project

Anyone with some familiarity with art (or, I suppose, with Dr. Who, these days) who looks at that painting would recognise a portrait of Vincent Van Gogh, done by Vincent Van Gogh. It is clearly himself, but it is not the sort of attempt at realism that a Neoclassical artist or even a Romantic painter would have made. The brush strokes are too visible, the palette too simplified.

And of course it goes on, with other metaphors. The Post-Impressionist Paul Ranson has in some of his work, including Christ and Buddha, a sort of proto-Fauvism, setting up a place where bringing out color as a feature that did not have to be strictly representational. André Derain’s Mountains at Colliure went well beyond representation and into increasing abstraction while still being, quite recognisably, a landscape.

What would a Fauvist perspective on the gods look like? All vibrant, with color defining mood rather than strict denotation. What does it mean when this god turns up wearing red? How about blue? Same god, one can make a same portrait, but there are theologies that have these images and afterimages, these visions of the same power in a different color.

Do the particularly Jungian images of the divine, rooting in the unconscious and the nature of dream, have parallels in Surrealist art, which likewise rooted its vision in the unconscious, the nonrational, and the intimately personal visionary? What particular personal motifs recur in your own life, your own art, over and over again, defying sense, demanding to be included in your religious imagery?

I mean, I could go on, trying to pull out the perfect artistic metaphor for each theological imagination, but the truth of the matter is that I have drawn from a full span of artistic styles to imagine the gods, and they do not like to stay put. They may pass through transient moments like an Impressionistic form, both specific to an instant and broad in feel, but those moments may be the storm-swept sky of a Romantic or the precise poise of the Neoclassical, or come in a Fauvist brilliance, or with the odd and intimate specificity of the Surrealist.

In general, though, if I’m doing the steps to the reconstructionist dance, I get much more Neoclassical or Romantic (more Romantic, I’m not one for the whole ‘the gods are separate and other in nature because THEY ARE THE GODS’ thing from the more Neoclassical-flavored pagan theology), and religious witchcraft comes in more Impressionist (and later) flavors.

I’m sort of glad I finally have something of a handle on what I’m pointing at when I point at that thing, at least, even if it takes a lot of waving of art history to make it make any sense.

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