How can people express the spiritual through art, music and literature?

Throughout history, people have used art, music and literature to express their religious beliefs, and to help them to focus on practices such as prayer and worship. Beautiful words, images and objects have played a big part in many world religions, but there are some very different ideas about how they should be used.

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Watch Jamarl as he examines religious and non-religious teachings about art and spirituality.

A form of expression

Art, music and literature are important forms of expression for many people. Whether they are religious or not, many people believe that human beings have a spiritual existence. There is a wide variety of ideas about what this actually means, but put simply, it means that being human goes beyond what we can experience with our senses, minds and intelligence.

Religious people might say that humans have a soul or some sort of non-physical form which connects them with a higher power, such as God, and which moves on to another life after the body dies.

People who are not religious may also say there is a spiritual dimension because they believe that there is more to being human than just body and mind. But they will usually not think of this as having a soul that is connected to a God.

Throughout history, people have made and used art, music, and literature to express their beliefs and spirituality.

We see this in places of worship, like Orthodox Christian churches which are full of icons and often highly decorated with gold and vibrant colours, designed to give worshippers a glimpse of what heaven may be like. Religious people will often decorate their homes with religious art as well.

Decorative art in buildings

Click the image below to see how different religions decorate their holy buildings.

Worship and devotion

For many Hindus art has important connections to worship and devotion. Rangoli patterns created from coloured sand, rice, or grains, often adorn the doorsteps of Hindu homes around the time of Diwali. The bright colours of rangolis represent the idea of light, and they serve to offer a colourful welcome to Rama and Sita, the deities at the heart of the Diwali celebrations. Hindu mandirs, and often Hindu homes, feature shrines, which are places specially set aside for worship and devotion.

At the centre of a shrine is usually a colourful statue or painting of a god or goddess, or sometimes several of them together. These statues are often called murtis, which means ‘forms’. Sometimes a murti will be made using expensive materials, like gold and may be dressed in the finest silks.

For many Hindus, the great care, skill and effort taken to make images of gods and goddesses shows the artist’s devotion. The beautiful images help Hindus to focus on the deity they are worshipping.

Buddhists will often have a shrine around a statue of the Buddha, which helps them to meditate at home or in their temple (often called a vihara).

The mandala is an important art form in Buddhist tradition. It is a picture starting in the centre and expanding outwards. Buddhists believe this symbolises the entire universe. Mandalas can take the form of paintings on a wall or scroll, they might also be created with coloured sands or grains on tables or floors. The concentration and focus needed to create a mandala is thought of as a meditation in itself. A mandala isn’t necessarily a physical object. Some Buddhists create mandalas in their minds through meditation. Many Buddhists believe that mandalas can help a Buddhist along their path to enlightenment.

A lavishly decorated murti of the goddess Durga at a pandal (a temporary structure for religious events) in Ontario, Canada. Durga Puja is a Hindu festival that pays respect to Durga and which celebrates the triumph of good over evil.

Abstract imagery

The lack of pictures of saints, important figures, and depictions of God or the heavens in a place of worship, also shows us a lot about the beliefs of the worshippers who go there.

For instance, Muslims and Jews believe that God is too great to try to capture in pictures or sculptures, and so they find other ways to adorn their holy spaces and make them look beautiful. Many mosques will have beautiful calligraphy and geometric patterns, while synagogues are often decorated with pictures of plants, trees and religious symbols.

The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran, has many beautiful stained glass windows. The colourful light shining into the mosque recalls a passage in the Qur'an (24:35) that states, 'Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth'.

Reflective music

Songs, chants and instrumental music help to create an atmosphere that reflects the type of worship the people will participate in. This is very important in Sikh worship where prayers, called ragas, are sung by ragis who lead the worship. They are usually accompanied by music played on traditional instruments. If worship happens without music, perhaps even in silence, this too can be a way of expressing the spiritual.

Art, music and literature in pictures

Buddhism – Painting a mandala

Buddhism – Painting a mandala

In Buddhism, art and meditation are closely linked. The imagination and concentration involved in the process of creating or looking at art, or listening to music helps some Buddhists to meditate. For many Buddhists, meditating is a very important part of the journey towards enlightenment. How do you think looking at art or listening to music helps people to think more deeply about the world around them?

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