Curated Mysticism: Visual Representations of the Cosmos and Consciousness

Curated Mysticism

Curated by Sana Sohail, 3rd Year in The College

Exhibit Description

Humans have had a long history of interpreting the "symbols" around them, from divining the future through the arrangement of stars in the night sky, to tracing out the lines of luck and life on palms, to predicting future fortunes from a stack of cards. This rich visual tradition of mysticism has trickled down to us today in the form of magazine horoscopes, "cootie catchers" (origami fortune tellers), appropriated evil eyes, and more recently, the outpouring of mandala colouring books. This curated set of books represents an investigation into the visual representation of mysticism and cosmology across cultures. Art, whether in the form of paintings, maps, or talismans, can reveal so much about how a culture understands the world around them and their own place within it. How is a philosophical understanding of the universe echoed in its visual representation?

This question would be repeated throughout this exhibit, which is deliberately broad to bring attention to several different forms of mysticism from various cultures. Can Zen Buddhist ideas about the centre of the cosmos and the individual be found within the visually complex and colourful images of Tibetan mandalas? What is the relationship between the production of endlessly repeated designs and meditation? How is the Sufi understanding of envy and enchantment related to the mystical forms of the evil (or third) eye? What can depictions of constellations in illuminated manuscripts reveal about past beliefs in how the planets' positions impacted daily life? How is a person's astrological fate coded into the visual practice of palmistry or tarot card designs? These are the questions I hope students will contemplate in viewing the exhibition materials selected below.

Selected Works

Altglas, Véronique. From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Regenstein Bookstacks, BM526.A48 2014

Different from the other sources exhibited here, this book is a recent analysis of how the “otherness” found in traditional practices enchants people and leads to their appropriation. These practices are removed from their cultural context, becoming mixed together without regard to their origin or meaning (bricolage). From a sociological perspective, Altglas investigates the tension present in a practice that is both “universally accessible” and “exotic”, pointing out an underlying ambivalence in the belief that “it doesn’t matter where it comes from, whether old or new, if it is effective, then that’s for you.” She notes how the popularization of yoga, vedic cooking, and religious/traditional symbols are rooted in ideas of personal insight and self-improvement—Altglas finds this reflective of “therapy culture”, an area that has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry with retailers capitalizing on yoga clothing, expensive meditation classes, and mandala-based therapeutic colouring books.  For a more in-depth review of this book:

Arguelles, José, and Miriam Arguelles. Mandala. Berkeley, [Calif.]: Shambala, 1972.
Regenstein Bookstacks, BL2003.M3A68

Arguelles explores mandalas not only as a meditative practice, but also as an art form. Mandalas are phenomena found throughout nature (like the iris) and across nearly all cultures. This book breaks down the complicated, radial structure of the mandala to its basic shapes and symbols in order to understand how pattern, repetition, and symmetry are combined to produce contemplative visual scenes.

Brauen, Martin. The Mandala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism. Boston: Shambhala, 1997.
Regenstein Bookstacks, f BQ5125.M3 B7313 1997

Pictured are heavily illustrated kalachakra mandalas used in Tibetan Buddhism. Also called “sand mandalas”, these images are essentially visual scripture. Depicting deities (normally at the centre) in their palaces and using culturally-specific symbolism, mandalas are “a pictorial manifestation of a tantra”, which is a body of beliefs and practices from ancient India that tries to channel cosmic energy into the human microcosm. Mandalas, most frequently used to concentrate attention and aid meditation, can also be read and interpreted like a text.

Chaucer, Geoffrey, Sigmund Eisner, and Geoffrey Chaucer. A Treatise On the Astrolabe. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
Regenstein Bookstacks, ND3333.P34 2002

A schematic of an astrolabe, an instrument used in the ancient and medieval world to locate and predict the position of celestial bodies and stars. The treatise itself is perhaps the oldest English work describing a scientific instrument.

Edson, Gary. Mysticism and Alchemy Through the Ages: The Quest for Transformation. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2012.
Regenstein Bookstacks, BL80.3 .E37 2012

This book, which is the last in a trilogy that explores mystical expression (the first two studied masks and shamanisms, respectively), considers the different methods mankind has used to understand the relationship between their own existence and the rest of the world. He focuses on alchemy and mysticism, both of which reflect a historically persistent effort to find meaning in life, death, and the creation of the world. Visual representation of this human need for a defined purpose in life offers a form of validation, as if there is a very real truth in tangible alchemical manuscripts or illustrated diagrams of Being and Non-Being.

McLean, Adam. The Alchemical Mandala: A Survey of the Mandala in the Western Esoteric Traditions. Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes Press, 2002.
Regenstein Bookstacks, BF1442.M34 M34 2002

A book dedicated to the rarely-discussed tradition of mandalas in the West. Mandalas, as a tool for meditation and divine inspiration, are most often associated with Eastern spiritual traditions (pictured elsewhere in this exhibit). However, there is a long tradition of mandalas in alchemical and Kabbalistic practice that McLean explores throughout this book. Using illustrations from a variety of sources, including Hermetic and Rosicrucian diagrams, the author analyzes the relationship between visual symbols and abstract interpretation.

Page, Sophie and British Library. Astrology in Medieval Manuscripts. London: British Library, 2002. 
Regenstein Bookstacks, ND3333.P34 2002

Some examples of medieval manuscript pages showing astrological iconography that remains familiar to us today—here Virgo is represented as an angel with wings, with Taurus and Scorpio also illustrated. The string instruments are lutes; perhaps their depiction here is to reflect the (believed) influence medieval astrology had on people’s enjoyment of music.

Rákóczi, Basil Ivan. The Painted Caravan: A Penetration Into the Secrets of the Tarot Cards. The Hague: L.J.C. Boucher, 1954.
Regenstein Bookstacks, BF1879.T2R19

An illustration of a tarot card  by the author, a self-proclaimed addict of tarot cards whose work from the 1950s has influenced several, more modern, decks. On the opposing page (and throughout the book), Rakoczi describes the significance of the symbol-picture in its allusions to Biblical narratives (the sacrifice of Isaac) and visual representations of revenge and loss.

Whitfield, Peter. Astrology: A History. New York: Abrams, 2001.
Regenstein Library, BF1671.W55 2001

An elaborate Persian horoscope from 1384, showing the positions of the heavens at the moment of a prince’s birth. Islamic thinkers and scholars from this period expanded upon the astrological work done in Ancient Greece, China, and India, eventually improving and mastering the astrolabe (also pictured in this exhibit). It was their work that developed the study of the celestial positions as a cosmic philosophy, where they tried to divine the link between mankind and the heavens. This image in particular represents the growing relationship between astronomers and artisans.