Visual Scriptures

The Influence of the ‘Visual Scriptures’ Which Embellish the Shrines

Twentieth-century visitors to sacred places are blessed with the opportunity to view many great works of art in the form of sculptures, mosaics, stained glass windows and paintings. For pilgrims visiting the shrines prior to the modern era such things were not looked upon only as art. Rather, they were primarily graphic representations that served crucial theological, narrative and inspirational functions. For example, the stained glass windows and sculptures of Europe's great pilgrimage cathedrals illustrated the stories and ethics of the Christian tradition, while the magnificently decorated temples of southern India depicted episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the epic narratives of Hinduism. These artistic representations provided visual scriptures for people, many of whom could not read, and they can also be understood as windows through which pilgrims were able to gaze into divine and mythic realms.

The tremendous impact of these visual scriptures on pilgrims in antiquity is nearly impossible for contemporary people to imagine. Nowadays, in all but the most remote areas of the planet, nearly everyone has seen magazine, cinematic or television images. Whatever other messages these media convey, they clearly show that the world is a vast place filled with a great variety of things. Even poverty-stricken peasants in central Africa and tribal peoples in the jungles of Borneo have some basic awareness of this matter. Yet in ancient times, very few people, royalty included, had any knowledge of things or people beyond their immediate geographic area.

Besides traders and soldiers, who themselves rarely traveled more than a few hundred miles from their homes, few ancient people had either the reason or the opportunity to travel long distances and experience cultures other than their own. Nearly the only exception was provided by the action of making pilgrimage journeys to the sacred sites. Leaving their small villages in the remote countryside, pilgrims would walk for weeks or months to a venerated holy place. Arriving at their destination they would first be amazed by the city surrounding the shrine, its size and number of buildings dwarfing the small villages from which the peasants had come.

Yet the most astonishing moment for the pilgrims occurred when they entered the sacred place itself, where myth and beauty presented themselves in overwhelming proportions. Stunningly beautiful mosaics, gloriously illuminated stained glass windows, and finely crafted sculptures and paintings illustrated the legends of the deities and saints. Since their childhood years the pilgrims had been told the myths of their culture and religion. Now, entering the shrine, they were magically transported to that long-imagined mythic realm. The power of this experience, so radically different from their usual life (and coupled with other factors discussed in this chapter), catalyzed in them a profound state of awe and thereby openness to the miraculous.