According to the perennial philosophy – the common mystical core of the world’s great spiritual traditions – men and women posses at least three different modes of knowing: the eye of the flesh, which discloses the material, concrete, and sensual world; the eye of the mind, which discloses the symbolic, conceptual, and linguistic world; and the eye of contemplation, which discloses the spiritual, transcendental, and transpersonal world.  These are not three different worlds, but three different aspects of our one world, disclosed by different modes of knowing and perceiving.

Moreover, these three modes of knowing, these three “eyes,” are not simply given to a person all at once.  Rather, they unfold in a developmental sequence from the lower to the higher.  In the first two years of a baby’s life, sensory motor intelligence – the eye of flesh – develops and evolves to disclose a material world of “object permanence,” of solid surfaces and colors and objects, as well as the sensory motor body’s own feelings and emerging impulses.  In the following decade or two, the eye of mind will increasingly emerge and develop, disclosing in its turn the world of ideas, symbols, concepts, images, values, meanings, and intentions.  If development continues beyond the mind via meditative disciplines or, in some instances, psychedelically induced mystical experience – then the eye of contemplation opens and discloses the world of soul and spirit, of subtle energies and insights, of radical intuition and transcendental illumination.

The eye of flesh tends to disclose a prepersonal, preverbal, preconceptual world, a world of matter and bodies.  The eye of mind tends to disclose a personal, verbal, and conceptual world, a world of ego and mind.  And the eye of contemplation tends to disclose a transpersonal, transverbal, trans-egoic world, a world of luminous soul and spirit.  The first realm made visible to the eyes of perception is composed of sensibilia, or phenomena that can be perceived by the body.  The second realm is composed of intelligibilia, or objects perceived by the mind.  The third realm consists of transcendelia, or objects perceived by the soul and spirit.  These three overall realms, from matter/body to ego/mind to soul/spirit, are collectively referred to in various contemplative traditions as the Great Chain of Being.

When it comes to a critical theory of art based on the perennial philosophy then, the immediate question is:  What eye, or eyes, is the particular artist using?

Of course, the artist’s medium is usually sensibilia, or various material substances (paint, clay, concrete, metal, wood, etc.)  The critical question, however, is this: Using the medium of sensibilia, is the artist trying to represent, depict, or evoke the realm of sensibilia itself, or the realm of intelligibilia, or the realm of transcendelia?  In other words, to the standard question, “How competent is the artist in depicting or evoking a particular phenomenon?”, we add the crucial ontological question: “Where on the Great Chain of Being is the phenomenon the artist is attempting to depict, evoke, or express?”

We have, then, two important but different scales of critical evaluation for any work of art: 1) How well does it succeed on its own level?  2) How high is that level?

The great achievement of European art in the last thousand years was the convincing depiction of the realm of sensibilia. Not much more than 500 years ago the rules of perspective became widely known and utilized in painting, embodying a discovery and an understanding of the actual geometry of the material-sensible world (as in, for example, Renaissance art.)  Painting became increasingly realistic, or empirical, tied to the concrete sensory world; the eye of flesh and its bodily perspective.  Even religious art tended to be concrete and literal.  Depictions of the Virgin Birth, the Ascension, the parting of the Red Sea-all were portrayed as actual, concrete facts, not as symbolic, figurative, or conceptual.  In other words, even most “religious” art was tied to the realm of concrete sensibilia.

All of that would begin to change with the coming of modern art.  If the first great achievement of European art was to perfect the depiction of sensibilia, the second great achievement was to rise above it and begin to depict the various realms and aspects of intelligibilia, of symbolic and abstract and conceptual and phenomenological art and its rules.  The media would still be sensibilia, but the depicted object no longer would be bound by the rules or perspectives of matter; it would not follow the contours of matter, but of mind.  No longer Nature, but Psyche.  No longer realistic, but abstract.  Not things, but thoughts. Not Euclidean, but Surrealistic.  Not representational, but impressionistic or expressionistic.  Not literal and concrete, but figurative and symbolic.

Starting with Paul Cézanne, whom Matisse called “the master of us all, “ we see the fixed perspectivism of the material-sensible world broken down and superseded by an emotional-psychological participation (intelligibilia), not mere representation (sensibilia.)  With Kandinsky, arguably the father of abstract art, we see the full emergence, if not perfection, of intelligibilia over sensibilia; of the condensed potency of the abstract over the mere imitation of Nature’s forms.  As Kandinsky put it, “It must become possible to hear the whole world as it is without representational interpretation. “  That is seeing not with the eye of flesh, but with the eye of mind.

Cubism began as a type of geometry of natural form, but quickly became a vehicle for essential impressionism, an act of attention not just to outer objects but also to inward mental forms and patterns. “This is the art of painting new structures out of elements borrowed not from the reality of sight, but from the reality of insight, “ as one critic expressed it.

Perhaps no one articulated the need to go from mere Nature to more than Nature better than Piet Mondrian.  “As the natural becomes more and more ‘automatic’, we see life’s interest fixed more and more on the inward.  The life of truly modern man is directed neither toward the material for its own sake nor toward the predominantly emotional [matter/body]:  rather, it takes the form of the autonomous life of the human [psyche] becoming conscious…  Life is becoming more and more abstract.  The truly modern artist consciously perceives the abstractness of the emotion of beauty… In the vital reality of the abstract, the new man has transcended the feelings of nostalgia…. There is not escaping the tragic, so long as our vision of nature is naturalistic [tied to sensibilia].  That is why a deeper vision is essential.”  Deeper than sensibilia is intelligibilia, and deeper still, is transcendelia.  Mondrian and Kandinsky were pioneers in both.

 The point was to free the mind from the confines of nature, and thus to free art from photographic realism, while at the same time plumbing the depths of the psyche and giving artistic expression to that extraordinary search.

The art of the mind, of depicting the geometries of thought and the patterns of psyches, the art of intelligibilia clothed in sensibilia, was found in an inward, not solely outward, direction.  It was an act of attention to the inner subject as well as to the outer object, and conveyed the interrelationship between the two.  In it, the patterns of thought interrelated with the patterns of things.  Although these patterns or essences depend in part on looking inwardly with the mind’s eye, they are not merely subjective or idiosyncratic, but rather, to the extent that they resonate truly in a work of art, reflect the larger patterns of reality itself.  As Brancusi almost screamed out: “They are imbeciles who call my work abstract; that which they call abstract is the most realist, because what is real is not the exterior form but the idea, the essence of things.”  As Hegel and Schelling would put it, “The ideal is real, and the real is ideal.”

 By exploring the realm of intelligibilia, modern artists were able to return to the ground of sensibilia with new revelation of color.  Matisse, for example, freed color from the constraints of nature.  As he forceful put it, “The Beaux-Arts masters told their students: ‘Copy nature stupidly.’  Throughout my entire career I have reacted against this attitude…. Color exists in itself, possesses its own beauty…. I understood then that one could work with expressive colors which are not necessarily descriptive colors.”  Color could be expressive of intelligibilia, not just descriptive of sensibilia. 

The point, then, was to stay firmly rooted in sensibilia-not to deny nature or repress it; but to reach through or beyond sensibilia to intelligibilia, to the essence of mind, idea, and intention, and to clothe them in the “plastic” of the material or natural realm; and further, through introspection and intuition of the patterns of mind and intelligibilia, to return afresh with new and radical insights into the form and color and essence of sensibilia itself. 

We now reach the third and most crucial evolutionary movement: the emergence in art not just of body or of mind, but moreover of spirit, and the correlative depiction in art not just of sensibilia and intelligibilia, but also of transcendelia.

Not that the spiritual hadn’t been portrayed before in art, but in the West its flowering had always been fragile.  Early Christian icons, with their simplified forms floating on golden fields of “light, “ were sacred symbols of the incarnation of the Word. When Christianity adopted the figurative, naturalistic style of secular art, it replaced the symbolic icon with a fundamentalist form of realism that specialized in the literal depiction of spiritual events such as the resurrection.  There is nothing transcendental in fundamentalist “facts” that wish to claim the dubious status of empirical sensibilia.

Contrary to prevailing tendencies of realism in European art, there has been a sporadic Western “tradition” of mystical and visionary painting over the last 900 years.  Early evidence of this visionary symbolist art can be found in the twelfth century in the work of Hildegard of Bingen.  She was a powerful abbess who created a major text explaining the symbols of her visions and had the visions illustrated or illuminated.  These somewhat crude but beautiful works are forms of transcendelia.

Michelangelo, a neo-Platonist, was trying to symbolically express through his art a spiritual ideal clothed in material form.  In addition he said, “…it is not sufficient merely to be a great master in painting and very wise, but I think it is necessary for the painter to be very moral in his mode of life, or even, if such were possible, a saint, so that the Holy Spirit may inspire his intellect.”

Hieronymous Bosch created a unique world of highly symbolic, imaginative vistas of heavens and hells intended to reinforce the spiritual faith of his viewers.  The poet and visionary artist William Blake wrote in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

                      If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing

                        Would appear to man, as it is, infinite.

                        For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through

                        Narrow chinks of his cavern

To Blake, painting had nothing to do with copying from nature, but was an art of divine imagination:

Shall Painting be confined to the sordid drudgery of fac-simile representations of merely mortal and perishing substances, and not be as poetry and music are, elevated into its own proper sphere of invention and visionary conception? No, it shall not be so!  Painting, as well as poetry and music, exists and exults in immortal thoughts.

The nineteenth-century symbolist painter Delville, wrote that he intended to evoke, “…the great universal life…which rules and moves the universe, beings and things, mortals or immortals, in the infinite rhythm of Eternity.”  And in the twentieth century the painter Pavel Tchelitchew’s works moved through the visionary, symbolic levels of consciousness to mystical abstractions reflecting deep transcendental levels of being and light.

There were also artists throughout the history of European art who depicted images of sensibilia but, like the Zen landscapists, reached a state of contemplative absorption which dissolved the boundary between subject and object and opened a channel to immanent transcendelia.  The pre-renaissance master, Fra Angelico, was a monk and a painter.  His works were intended for the contemplation of other monks and are filled with a devotional intensity which raises them high on the Great Chain of Being.  Rembrandt was good at creating the illusion of space in his painting, but he was great precisely because he also revealed a dimension of the human soul. He revealed character and a living, spiritual presence in all his portraits and the self-portraits in particular.  The spirit in the flesh, this is what we see-not a mound of material sensibilia, but a soul timelessly peering through matter. Van Gogh let the rhythms of the cosmos, a universal energy, resonate through his works.  His landscapes are saturated with spirit.  In the twentieth century, Ivan Albright has conveyed in his magical hyperrealist paintings a sense of the awesome and infinite dimension of the immanent divine.  These artists had powers of concentration, imagination, or mystic reverie that gave them glimpses of divinity and enabled them to create visionary or representational images that evoke a world beyond sensibilia and intelligibilia.  Many of the pioneers in modern abstraction, such as Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, Klee, and Brancusi felt that a new spirituality in art would have to be Spirit approached directly and immediately, not in the mythic forms of the religious mind or with representational imagery, but through direct intuition and contemplative realization.  They felt that they had in fact pushed beyond the individual mind and body and discovered, through their art, a genuine and powerful approach to Spirit itself.  They were disclosing and portraying not just sensibilia, or intelligibilia, but transcendelia.

Art was to be not just the technical skills of observation and execution, or creativity, but a method of spiritual growth and development on the part of the artists.  True art, according to Kandinsky, must involve the cultivation of the soul and spirit: “The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul, so that it can weigh colors in its own scale and thus become a determinant in artistic creation.”

If artist are to “be the servants of Spirit,” he said, then they must grow and develop their own souls to a point at which they are capable of directly intuiting the spiritual dimension. In order to see (let alone artistically convey) Spirit, the eye of contemplation must first be opened, and this opening –Kandinsky’s “revelation of Spirit illumined as if by a flash of lightning” – discloses newer, higher, and wider dimensions of existence.

In the artist’s own spiritual growth and development, ever subtler experiences, emotions, and perceptions would come into view, and it was the artist’s duty to portray these subtler experiences (transcendelia), and thus to evoke them and encourage them in those who witness with care the finished work.

We have said that sensibilia is the realm of the prepersonal, intelligibilia the realm of the personal, and transcendelia the realm of the transpersonal.  That is, the body and nature are preverbal, preconceptual, and therefore pre-egoic and prepersonal.  The mind is verbal, conceptual, and symbolic, and therefore forms the basis of ego and individuality.  But Spirit, being universal, is beyond body and mind-it is transverbal, trans-egoic, transindividual.  It exists at a point where the soul touches eternity and completely transcends the prison of its own involvement.

 The more consciousness evolves, the more it grows beyond the narrow bounds of the personal ego, the more it touches the transpersonal and universal Divine.  Thus it is no accident that Mondrian states:  “All art is more or less direct aesthetic expression of the universal.  This more or less implies degrees {of development of evolution}…. A great heightening of subjectivity is taking place in man-in other words a growing, expanding consciousness.  Subjectivity ceases to exist only when the mutation-like leap is made from individual existence to universal existence.”  Thus, he concludes, “The new culture will be that of the mature individual; once matured, the individual will be open to the universal and will tend more and more to unite with it” -a common conclusion of mystics the world over.

 According to modern masters such as Malevich, Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Brancusi, and others, true and genuine art, the highest art, involved:  First, the development or growth of the artist’s won soul, right up to the point of union with universal Spirit and transcendence of the separate self or individual ego; and second, the artistic depiction/expression of this spiritual dimension, particularly in such a way as to evoke similar spiritual insights on the part of observers. A genuine search has begun for what Franz Marc called ”symbols that belong on the altars of a future spiritual religion.”

If, as many modernists thought, true art is the manifestation of Spirit, and if Spirit is seen most clearly with the eye of contemplation, and if meditation is one of the surest ways to open the contemplative eye, it follows that the truest and purest art will be contemplative art, art born in fire of spiritual epiphany and fanned by meditative awareness.

 This, of course, is precisely the idea behind many of the great Asian works of art, from Tibetan thangkas to Zen landscapes to Hindu iconography.  The best of these works of art stem directly from the meditative mind. The artist/master enters meditative samadhi, or contemplative union, and from the union of the subject and the object, the “subject” then “paints: the object,” although all three-painter, painting, and object-are now one indivisible act. (“He who cannot become an object cannot paint that object”.)  Precisely because the painting is executed in this nondual state of subject/object union or transcendence, it is spiritual in the deepest sense.  It springs from the dimension of nondual and universal Spirit, which transcends (and thus unites) both subject and object, self and other, inner and outer. These art works serve one main purpose: they are supports for contemplation.  By gazing on the artwork, the viewer is invited to enter the same meditative and spiritual state that produced it.  That is, the viewer is invited to experience nonduality, the union of the subject with all objects and the discovery of universal or transcendental awareness, in an immediate, simple, and direct fashion.  This is the purest reason why one views art in the first place; art created in this nondual awareness offers direct access to nondual Spirit.

The secret of all genuinely spiritual works of art is that they issue from nondual or unity consciousness, no matter what “objects” they portray.  A painting does not have to depict crosses and Buddhas to be spiritual.  This is why, for example, Zen landscapes are so profoundly sacred in their texture, even if they are “just landscapes.”  They issue from a nondual awareness or unity consciousness, which is itself Spirit.  At the height of transcendence, Spirit is also purely immanent and all-pervading, present equally and totally in each and every object, whether of matter, body, mind, or soul.   The artwork, of no matter what the object, becomes transparent to the Divine, and is a direct expression of Spirit.

The viewer momentarily becomes the art and is for that moment released from the alienation that is ego.  Great spiritual art dissolves ego into nondual consciousness, and is to that extent experienced as an epiphany; a revelation, release or liberation from the tyranny of the separate-self sense.  To the extent that a work can usher one into the nondual, then it is spiritual or universal, no matter whether it depicts bugs or Buddhas.

A critical theory of art based on the perennial philosophy would demand at least two scales.  On the horizontal scale would be included all the elements on a given level that influence a work of art. These elements included everything from the artist’s talent and background, socioeconomic facts and psychological factors to cultural influences.  The vertical scale, according to the perennial philosophy, cuts at right angles to all thee earthly facts and deals with the ontological dimension of Being itself.  This vertical scale would have several components summarized by the question, how high up on the Great Chain of Being is the work itself situated?

The great artists of the modern era kept alive the quest for the sacred and the search for Spirit, while all about them the cultural world was succumbing to scientific materialism.  For this we are forever in their debt.  The next great movement in Western Art is waiting to be born.  It will not be of the body, or the mind, but of the soul and spirit.  Thus we await with much anticipation the great artist symbols “that belong on the altars of some future spiritual religion”


Kenneth Earl Wilber Jr. (b. January 31, 1949, Oklahoma City, USA,) is an American integral philosopher and author. Working outside the academic mainstream, he has drawn on a variety of disciplines including psychology sociology, philosophy, mysticism, postmodernism, science and systems theory to formulate what he characterizes as an integral theory of consciousness He is a leading proponent of the Integral thought movement, and founded the Integral Institute in 1998.  While Wilber has practiced Buddhist meditation methods, and the disciplines of Madhyamika Buddhism, particularly as articulated in the philosophy of Nagarjuna underpin his work.




Art and the Perennial Philosophy
Ken Wilbur