Kim Veltman

New Models for Culture [1]


Traditionally, culture was often seen as tangible culture in terms of objects: monuments, sculptures and paintings. UNESCO has rightly drawn attention to intangible culture in the form of language, music, customs etc. This new approach suggests that there is another kind of intangible culture that is fundamental for a deeper understanding of culture, namely, the religious, cosmological and philosophical frameworks that underlie all major cultures. From a global viewpoint the 30 lectures entail three essential themes: First, a quest towards connecting and ordering the world at the metaphysical level; second, a quest towards connecting and ordering the world at a physical level and third, a commitment to sharing this with others.

In practical terms the lectures are in five parts. A first part (1-6) proposes that there are a small number of fundamental images such as world egg, the notion of three worlds, tree of life and variations of the cross, which are found in cultures throughout the world. Part two (7-11) shows that attempts to link the world of the body (microcosm) with the earth and the universe (macrocosm) resulted in a series of parallels and led to thought systems (cosmology, religion, philosophy), which served as a fundamental source for cultural and artistic inspiration.  Part three (12-18) explores consequences thereof for tangible culture especially in art and architecture. Part four (19-26), builds on the work of Sir Ernst Gombrich to show that, even in the West, the quest for art to imitate and copy reality is but one of the goals of art. Six goals are outlined. The lectures explore how interplay with different media helps to explain the enormous increase in range of expressions in culture. While cultural production is obviously significant, equally important is the commitment of a culture to share its expressions with others. Part five (27-30) serves as case studies of the new approach. First, it is shown how the lotus in the East has its equivalent in the rose in the West and how the combination of lotus and palm helps us to look afresh at both Eastern and Western architecture. It is suggested that the big picture in both East and West can fruitfully be seen as a gradual shift from a worship at night dominated by the moon (sin, female) to a worship by day dominated by the sun (male). Underlying developments on all five continents are central themes such as cycles, rebirth and the quest for an elixir of immortality.

This new approach implies that the quest for a middle way, balance between two extremes is one of the underlying themes for many of the world’s cultures. At the level of the individual this becomes a quest for balance between three pillars: central spine or trachea surrounded by two columns of energy (ida-pingala, male-female, right-left), which leads to yoga in various forms. At the level of persons, a man becomes the right column, a woman becomes the left column and leads to new life in the central column. At the level of architecture, this leads to three “columns”: pillars of water, fire and air; foundation, desire and intellect; judgement, mercy and benignity; Jachin, Boaz and a central door, which are claimed to originate in Atlantis, are the basis of the Temple of Solomon and become a point of departure for architecture. In nature, the three columns become three trees: a tree of life (banyan or ficus religiosa); a tree of knowledge (mulberry) and a tree of wisdom (mango). Around the world, different species are chosen for these three trees and their characteristics are sometimes conflated such that the tree of life is also the tree of knowledge and wisdom. At the cosmic level these three pillars become the path of the sun between the pillars of Cancer and Capricorn with the Equator as a central pillar. Symbolically the three pillars become three arrows, three spears, and the three stems of the fleurs-de lys.

This quest for balance in terms of three “pillars” becomes a framework for natural cycles (day-night; weeks; months; seasons (usually 3 or 4); years; and larger cycles such as precession of the equinoxes. It also becomes a framework to explain physical, intellectual and spiritual growth. In sacred geometry, the three columns become a male, upward, triangle of fire; a female, downward triangle of water; the blade and the cup, which combine to produce a hexagram of new life. In the microcosm, in yoga, this becomes the heart chakra (anahata). In the macrocosm, in astronomy, this becomes linked with the summer solstice.  

This hexagram becomes one of the central images of development in a number of cultures: e.g. it is the seal of Vishnu, linked with Kartikeyya (Murugan) in Southern India; is the secret seal of Solomon and the Star of David. The hexagram becomes the basis for ten stages of development in Vishnu and for three, seven, nine and ten stages of development in individuals. As a result Indian traditions of yoga, Hebrew traditions of the Kabbala; near Eastern traditions of Mithra and Egyptian traditions of Serapis are linked. A combination of the hexagram with the three columns extends this to symbolize development through all three worlds. Hence, the initial ten stages of the Sephiroth are complemented by a further 22, plus a special one to result in 33. These correspond to 33 vertebrae in the spine, 33 heavens and 33 levels of initiation in the York Rite of Freemasonry.             

In the world of the built environment, these twin goals of balance and development become a starting point for metaphysical systems that link the three worlds. Constellations in the heavens are used to position and order places and objects on earth: e.g. the Great Wall of China is said to mirror the path of the Milky Way. The ground plans of buildings are linked with both human proportions and heavenly proportions such that the buildings become symbolic systems to explain the great cycles of precession of the equinoxes (26 thousand years) and eternity. 

All quests for harmony and balance are threatened with their opposites. Otherwise there would be no quest. At the cosmic level, there is the threat of eclipses, the disappearance of light. At the human level, there is the threat of death. So the quest for balance became linked with a quest for a remedy; to ensure that the solstices kept the sun within limits; to ensure that the cycle of winter would be followed by new life forever. Around the world this inspired a search for an elixir of immortality, which emerged in the West as alchemy. At another level this quest inspired the great religions.

Hence, this approach provides a new foundation for comparative study of cultures. It reveals that the points where the ecliptic crossed the equator can be seen as a knot (al risha), which becomes a starting point for the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism; inspires some elements of Islamic art; is linked with Egyptian creation ceremonies and is found in decorative art throughout the Christian world.

These lectures are not an attempt to reduce world cultures to a survey course. The majority of examples in parts two and three are consciously taken from Europe and again these lectures are not an attempt to survey all of Europe. Our concern is with new methods of European studies. Attempts to define cultures in terms of a few closed symbols or a single religion (cf. Huntington), are simplistic and misleading. Europe owes many of its fundamental symbols to Turkey, Iraq, Iran, India and China. New models of culture need to reveal our common roots in order to understand how our approach is nonetheless special. Ultimately the essence of Europe lies not in commitment to a single religion but rather to a particular integration of sacred and secular.

Survey of Individual Lectures

Connecting and Ordering: Metaphysical

1. Goals and Activities 

The opening lecture introduces key ideas of lectures 2-25. It is suggested that intangible culture in the form of metaphysical ideas (religion and philosophy) is an underlying inspiration for both tangible (art, architecture) and intangible (music, dance, customs). The lectures seek to identify the sources of cultural multiplicity of expression and suggest that a commitment to sharing and tolerance are important dimensions of high culture.     

2. Cosmic Egg   a. West;    b. East 

In the West, creation myths are typically linked with an original world egg. A cosmic egg is variously associated with a golden egg; a golden apple; a golden bough (mistletoe); golden fleece (sheep); mandorla, the zodiac,   a fish, and an eye. In Rome, Leda is associated with two eggs that lead to Castor and Pollux and Romulus and Remus. In Greece, the original egg is said to have generated both Eros and Aphrodite. In most Greek versions a snake is involved. In some versions, a dove is also involved which goes back to Egypt where the world egg is also linked with Geb, a Goose and with a small pyramid (benben or pyramdion) linked with the bennu bird (heron or phoenix). In Israel, the phoenix takes the form of Milcham. In Egypt, via Hermes Trismegistus, this pyramid is linked with mystical traditions of truth. Older traditions link the original world egg with bird goddesses and snake goddesses that go back to 6000 B.C.

In Mesopotamia, a serpent in the form of Tiamat is linked with the original egg, which becomes Tehom in the Hebrew tradition; Typhon (and egg) in Egypt and Greece –etymologically linked with typhoon in modern English. In India, Brahma as Kasyapa and Vinata laid two eggs that led to Aruna and Garuda. In another version, Brahma as Hamsa (a swan/goose) lays a cosmic egg. In China, Pan ku (Pangu) creates the world from a primordial egg. In Russia, a hen, linked with the Pleiades, produces a golden egg. Examples from other cultures are surveyed to conclude that while names vary greatly, the idea of creation linked with a original egg/eggs, birds and snakes is a theme shared by cultures around the world.   

Cosmically the path of the ecliptic describes an egg form; a mandorla; a fish form and thus offers a source for the mandorlas of the mandalas; the mandorla of Mithra; of the protogonos; of the zodiac man; of the symbols of Christ; and the mandorla container of Christ and the Virgin.  

3. Three Worlds

The notion of three worlds, an upper, middle and lower world is found on all five continents. In a moral context, these become heaven, earth and hell. In a cosmic sense these become: earth, planets and stars. These three worlds are often paralleled by three gods: e.g. Brahma, Siva and Vishnu; Zeus, Poseidon, Hades and accompanying goddesses. In terms of creation these three worlds are paralleled by three elements of air, fire and water –cf. the three pillars – which lead to the fourth element earth. In the body, the energy streams ida, pingala and the spine are seen as three pillars. The idea of three “pillars” is applied at various scales to trees, architecture and the heavens.

In terms of the heavens,  the central pillar of the equator is seen as male and the curved path of the ecliptic (an S or reversed S shape) is seen as female. Symbolically these forms are combined to form two outer curved forms which are female and an upright male form. This combination leads to the trishula, trident, lyre, Psi and is linked with early ideas that world harmony also has a musical dimension.    

Capricorn was originally half fish/half animal. Some early images suggest that Aquarius was initially half fish/half man -- thus the equivalent of Typhon -- and linked with the winter solstice. In such a framework associated by some with 2700 B.C. the spring equinox would be Taurus, the summer solstice would be Leo and the autumnal equinox would be what we now call Scorpio but would have been linked with either an eagle or a man, Greek: Ophiucus,  Latin: Serpentarius, who is the source of Aesculapius the father of medicine. There are  parallels in India with Dhanvantari. The combination of these three heads: bull, lion and man is associated with both the cult of Mithra in the Middle East and with Chronos in Greece. Hence hidden, in an earlier configuration of the zodiac is a record of early evolution. A combination of three such shifts due to precession of the equinoxes explains the fixed, cardinal and mutable signs of astrology.          

4. World Tree    a. Tree of Life;     b. Sacred Trees

The universal symbols shared by cultures on the five continents are typically linked with orientation. The most basic of these is the direction: up down. In the human being, this corresponds to the spine, and the trachea. In nature, this corresponds to the tree, which in turn is seen as a mirror of the cosmic tree of the milky way. 

In the simplest configurations there is a single tree which symbolizes the tree of life and reflects the world tree. The species of tree chosen changes in different countries and different continents. Hence, Sacred Fig (Asvattha, Banyan) in India; becomes a sycamore or baobab in Africa; a peach in China; a plane tree in Greece; a palm tree in Mesopotamia; and oak and mistletoe (= tree of pure gold) among the druids and an ash or yew in Northern Europe. In South America, we find other trees such as the Auracaria and the Ceiba.

In some cases, there are two trees: a tree of life and a tree of knowledge corresponding to male and female. In other cases, there are three trees corresponding to the three pillars of fire, water and air respectively. In India, for instance, this becomes a tree of life (Boddhi or banyan tree); a tree of knowledge (mulberry) and a tree of wisdom (mango tree).     

In the man made world, this notion of the a central pillar inspires the pole; the moon pole (Ashera cf. Asherah); totem pole, obelisk, plinth, column, staff, sword, smoke (as in volcano or in fire of hearth) and other symbols such as Irminsul. At a human level, these versions of poles often have phallic connotations. At the cosmic level, the central pole also becomes a person: female earth goddesses holding or wielding two snakes; or men: Edumban in India; Ophiucus (Aesculapius) in Europe; all of whom are gradually replaced by the inanimate form of Libra, such that the balance of the scales becomes a symbol of the equinoxes and balance in the worlds. In other contexts, this notion of balance is represented as two ibexes feeding from a tree or as a fountain with two balanced spouts of water which gradually evolves into a mainstay of public squares.

5. Cross     a. Astronomy         b. Halo, Mandorla and Sword       c. Cardinal Directions 

The quest for orientation which fixes up and down, also fixes left and right. In some versions, the vertical, male pole is complemented by a recumbent, female river. The great rivers such as the Ganges and Nile are alternatively linked with hermaphrodite male/female gods/goddesses (i.e. Ganga and Hapi) and seen as earthly mirrors of the heavenly Milky Way which is simultaneously a (male) tree and a (female) river. When these symbolic elements are combined, the upright pole is linked with a sideways pole and becomes a maypole; and various forms of cross: Greek, Christian etc. Such crosses define the four cardinal directions. These become linked with the four points of the compass, the four rivers, the winds etc. The Saint Andrews cross mimics the path of the ecliptic and thus acquires further connotations. These basic orientations are subsequently integrated symbolically into man-made objects such as staffs, swords, sceptres, haloes, and Chi Rho symbols. 

6. Animals     a. Dragon, Phoenix      b. Eagle, Lion, Turtle, Elephant

This basic orientation on earth is paralleled by orientation in the heavens. Hence, the cycle of the seasons becomes linked with constellations in the form of a small number of key animals and birds. In China, for instance, the period before the winter solstice is linked with Draco and hence the dragon. The period after the solstice is linked with the Phoenix, which then become variously combined as versions of yin and yang, male and female, light and dark and systematized in the I Ching, which is itself an abstraction of the changing light and dark in the course of the seasons. In terms of astronomy, China sees an opposition between the dragon (Draco) at the winter solstice and the tiger (Leo) at the summer solstice, which is evident in one the earliest extant sky chart showing the lunar houses. There are direct parallels in Egypt.

This polar opposition at the solstices evolves into a fourfold association of animals with both equinoxes and solstices, which then become combined with the cardinal points of the compass. Hence, the winter solstice is linked with the South, with the dragon, a turtle, a tortoise or a dragon. The summer solstice often becomes linked with a lion, an eagle. The equinoxes typically become linked with two animals facing each other: two ibexes, two gazelles etc. In other versions the equinoxes or solstices become a bird or animal pointing in both directions: e.g. a double headed eagle, a double headed lion.         

7. Zodiac     a. Signs      b. 2D-3D       c. Fish to Man

The process of orientation which begins with two, and four directions leads to the eight points of the compass, the eight winds. The 10 and later 12 signs of  the zodiac mark a further stage in this orientation process. As mentioned earlier (lecture 3) the precession of the equinoxes leads to a shift of one sign roughly every 2000 years. Hence, we have been in the age of Pisces and are now entering into a period when the spring equinox is in Aquarius. Previously it was in Aries, Taurus and Gemini respectively. A combination of the constellations in these three periods explains the emergence of the fixed, mutable and cardinal signs.

The signs of the zodiac mark a cyclical pattern but they also become used to explain growth and development on the physical and moral planes. The signs become linked with geometry. Three signs combine to form a triplicity in the form of a triangle. We mentioned earlier that upward triangles are male and downward triangles are female: the blade and cup. A simple downward triangle is water. A downward triangle intersected by a horizontal stripe is earth. A simple upward triangle is fire. An upward triangle intersected by a stripe is air. These are sometimes colour coded as blue, green, red and yellow respectively. These elements can then have a given sequence and be linked with a sign of the zodiac. For instance, earth, fire water air is the sequence for Aries and this sequence shifts with each of the twelve signs. Two triangles can then be joined to form a hexagon in two dimensions; four triangles can be combined to create a pyramid in three dimensions. Further such combinations generate the five Platonic solids and the Archimedean semi-regular solids. Such combinations thus become the bases for both arithmetical number and geometrical form symbolism. In India this is linked with the yantras of religion; in the Middle East it becomes linked with the Kabbalah; in the West it becomes linked with Platonic symbolism, in support of which Euclid is said to have written his Elements.

This generative view of number and geometrical form is paralleled by a vision of divine and human development. Hence the god Vishnu goes through ten progressive forms (avatars ), beginning as a fish (matsya) and leading to a righteous cowherd: cf. Good Shepherd in other traditions.

8. Constellations      a. Stories      b. Cosmologies 

Establishing the twelve signs of the zodiac became part of a much more ambitious campaign in orientation which set out to map all the stars of the heavens, which culminated in the West in Ptolemy’s 48 constellations: 24 in the Northern and 24 in the Southern Hemisphere. It is well known that the constellations are linked with various mythological stories: e.g. Perseus and Andromeda, Phaeton the Charioteer etc. If we follow these stories in the sequence of the annual cycle beginning with Capricorn on 21 December we discover that these seemingly anecdotal myths are chapters in a much larger story of the sky, which has at its central theme the dangers of the solstices and the balance of the equinoxes. These dangers define a quest which requires a descent into the underworld to recapture the secret of light and life. In the story of the sky as implicitly told by Ptolemy this quest entails mainly Jason and the Argonauts and Heracles/Hercules, and also the stories of Theseus, Polydeuces, Hermes and  Aesculapius (Ophiucus) and Orpheus. We know that the story of Orpheus is linked with Isis and Osiris, and with the cults of Demeter and Ochthonia. We know also that the great epics of Odysseus and Aeneas involve the same quest. So the story of the sky contains a central key story about a quest that requires risking death to find a key to continued life and ultimately to immortality. Later (lecture 30) we shall show that this story of the sky almost certainly has precedents via Egypt and Mesopotamia in the Indian story of the sky which entails the creator Prajapati.   

9. Microcosm     a. Energy Levels     b. Initiation

The tradition of yoga pervades the Far East; is found in the West in the pagan Gundestrup cauldron and is reflected in the Hebrew Sephiroth of the Kabbalah. In this tradition, the central spine is seen as having a series of energy points or chakras and the quest of yoga lies in moving upwards from the base chakra (muladhara) to the highest chakra (sahasrara) associated with the head or the space above it. The number of chakras is typically seven and these become linked with the seven planets etc. Sometimes only three basic chakras are considered; sometimes five. Older sources speak of 13, 21, 49 or 144 chakras. In complex systems the chakras are linked with secondary canals called nadis of which there are typically 13 or 14. These canals are also linked to acupuncture.

In the overview, we noted how a combination of male and female triangles led to a hexagram variously associated with Vishnu, Solomon, David and others. This shape becomes one of the central symbols of the Hebraic Tree of Life in the form of the Sephiroth. In other mystery religions of the Near East this same hexagram becomes associated with initiation whereby the neophyte must descend into the underworld in order to be born again. The simplest version is in three steps: beginning; down and up again. In the Eleusinian mysteries, this is said to have entailed descending into a real cave. This principle is then developed in Mithraism where seven steps are involved and where going into a seventh heaven also acquires a literal meaning of mounting seven steps – a practice that has unexpected parallels among the Mapuche in Chile. As noted earlier, in the Hebraic mystical the number of steps increases to 9, 10, 22, 32 or 33; a tradition which is then secularized in freemasonry.  

That mystery religions should be concerned with improvement and salvation is no surprise. Even so it is noteworthy that they should entail the same goals as culture heroes such as Odysseus, Aeneas, and by implication Osiris and Nimrod. In a curious way, the mystery religions and subsequently the great religions of the Mediterranean, Judaism and Christianity are ultimately concerned with a democratization of the goals of the culture heroes whose efforts populate both the heavens and the classics of western literature.

10. Microcosm-Macrocosm     a. One to Twelve     b. Heavens on Earth

The numbers one to twelve become keys to thought systems, which link physical and mental worlds in both East and West. For instance, seven planets are linked with seven days, seven virtues, seven vices, seven stages of enlightenment. A number of these basic associations are listed. The patterns of the heavens also become models for what occurs on earth: the great wall of China; the pyramids are examples. The positions of cities in Upper and Lower Egypt are aligned with the constellations, as are the pyramids in Middle America. On earth as it is in heaven is much more than a sentence in the Lord’s prayer. 

11. Heaven and Hell

As suggested above (lecture 9), the underworld (as the lowest of the three worlds) is initially  associated with death and is simultaneously an integral component for the continuity of life. Culture heroes such as Nimrod, Tammuz, Osiris, Theseus, Odysseus and Aeneas need to sacrifice themselves, to die in order to be born again. Through the mystery religions, going to the underworld becomes a necessary step in the path towards self-mastery and self-discovery.

 World religions continue and transform these traditions. For instance, in Christianity, Christ’s death and resurrection is in theory a salvation for all mankind. And yet not everyone goes to heaven. The need for a personal journey remains and hence Dante’s Commedia can be seen as an epic version of a tradition that goes back to Antiquity. Gradually the underworld is transformed from a place one visits on the road to self-mastery, to a place to which one is damned if one fails in the process. In both the East and West, heaven and hell evolve into multiple layers as the cosmological systems become more complex. 

From all this emerges a very different picture of the inter-connectness of the world religions with earlier traditions. The church of San Clemente in Rome literally has an altar dedicated to Mithra in the basement. The cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is literally built on an old site devoted to the pagan horned god, Cernumnos. The Gundestrup Cauldron, which has been called the most famous pagan object in the world, has a horned god, also probably Cernumnos, in a yoga position linked with the muladhara chakra and linked with the Indian creator god, Prajapati, who is also a horned god. Yoga which we associate with the East also had profound links with the West long before Christianity began. A search for Europe’s roots thus leads to a more universal quest for understanding: back to the common roots of our humanity. 

Connecting and Ordering: Physical

The metaphysical constructs outlined above (lectures 1-11) are much more than theoretical frameworks. They affect physical, artistic and cultural expressions at a number of different levels.

12. Totems     a. Identity;     b. Personality 

In prehistoric societies such expressions, insomuch as they are still extant, are typically in terms of totemic animals and objects. There is evidence that the animals at Lascaux (17,000-15,000) are already linked with Pleiades and thus with astronomy. Such early examples are also found in China. Linked with these totemic and shamanic traditions is a process of magical transformation whereby persons wearing the masks of an animal “become” that animal. In curious ways, carnivals continue these ancient traditions into modern times. They continue the fascination with becoming something/someone else. At the same time they reveal a subtle shift from identity to personality. Carnivals in Venice, Bern, Cologne, Maastricht and Rio are used to illustrate different approaches.      

13. Patterns     a. Mathematical Order

In A Sense of Order, Sir Ernst Gombrich illustrated how patterns and ornament, which are often dismissed as merely ornamental or decorative arts, constitute one of the deeper goals of art because they are linked with a quest for ordering the universe, a primal effort of sense making. In lecture 10 we explored how the numbers 1-12 played an important role in the construction of cosmological systems. In this lecture we explore how those same numbers serve as a starting point for many of the decorative arts. Different cultures favour different approaches. For instance, one could suggest that the Hebrew tradition favours discrete, number symbolism (arithmetic), whereas Islam has a particular interest in continuous, form symbolism (geometry) – a theme to which we shall return in lecture 27.   

14. Patterns   b) Public Secrets: Cosmology in Everyday Life

Marshall McLuhan explored a process of  moving From Cliché to Archetype, a conscious play on the reciprocal process of archetypes that become clichés. Particularly fascinating is how cosmological images of central importance become so much a part of our everyday decorations that they are effectively invisible until carefully examined. Thus the knot of the ecliptic with the equator becomes both the knot of the Earth Mother (Lakshmi) and the sacred knot of Buddhism; then so widespread that we seldom recognize it when it appears on our everyday furniture. Only with careful observation do we rediscover these cosmological symbols almost everywhere in everyday ornament. Hence, Irminsull, which began as a supreme symbol of the Teutonic pagan traditions recurs in window frames, as a decoration on doors, and as a support in walls.

15. Cities of Dead and of Sacrifice

It may seem a truism to state that the progress from primitive towards high cultures involves a shift from dwellings to homes and from individual settlements to cities. It is important to note, however, that the purpose of construction plays a fundamental role in distinguishing cultures of enduring interest from those which of brief lived fame. Hence a quest for cities of the dead (necropoli) and cities of sacrifice has produced wondrous structures, but less so than cities devoted to life. Some, (e.g. Willy Hartner) would see this distinction in terms of a gradual shift in civilization as a whole in moving from a context that worshipped the moon at night to one which worshipped the sun by day – a theme to which we return in lecture 28.

16. Sacred Cities  a. East;     b. West;     c. Nature

Almost all cultures have a strand, which attempts to create sacred places, even sacred cities, which are somehow set apart from the regular world. Here the East has produced more remarkable examples than the West, which has a parallel tradition of integrating sacred cities with everyday life (e.g. Rome). Some traditions, such as the North American Indians, link their sacred places with remarkable structures in nature itself rather than attempting to impose their own constructions which compete with nature.  

17. Buildings: East  a. Mount Meru and the Stupa; b. Temple, City, Cosmos

In part one (especially lectures 3, 7, 9) we drew attention to a series of parallels linking the three worlds, a linking of the pillars in man, with pillars in architecture, with nature on earth and with astronomy in the heavens. Here the East took a more systematic approach than the West. These analogies inspired the ground plans of buildings which were then integrated into ground plans of temple complexes (e. g. Borobodur, Samye) and in some cases entire cities: Ankhor Wat, Pagan, Beijing and the royal cities of Nepal are obvious examples. Sacred architecture thus reflected both microcosm and macrocosm.     

18. Buildings: West   a. Temples, Theatres and Coliseums;  b. Monastery, Church and Public Space 

There is evidence that the West might once have had a similar approach at the time of Atlantis. The West has continued a tradition where individual buildings symbolize the microcosm. It also introduced a quest to construct special buildings and spaces to bring persons together for sacred and secular events (theatres, coliseums and subsequently public spaces). Hence, while the West has traditions of sacred architecture that set the sacred apart from everyday life (e.g. Mount Athos and various monasteries); there is an important strand which sets out to integrate the sacred in buildings made for everyone rather than a select few. Hence the greatest structures in the West are cathedrals designed for all citizens rather than for a select group. This commitment to integrate the sacred in everyday life this becomes one key to understanding why Europe’s cities are different than cities elsewhere, and why the public spaces of Rome, Bologna, Venice, Siena and Florence are much more profound than attractive tourist spots. They reflect a culture that shares openly in public usually by day rather than secretly, and out of sight, by night. 

Sharing with Others 

Architectural buildings and monuments may be the largest expressions of tangible culture, but ultimately, they constitute only a small part of the enormous richness of cultural expressions. Some cultures produce many images: other s produce and collect relatively few expressions. For instance, nomadic cultures typically collect less than sedentary cultures. Iconoclastic cultures produce less lifelike images than those which favour images. Even so, answers to the seemingly obvious question of what triggers this enormous richness of expressions and imagery are much more elusive than one might at first expect. We suggest that an answer lies in underlying goals. In addition to ordering (lectures 13-14), we suggest that there are at least five other basic goals of art and culture: mimesis, matching translating across, transforming and exploring. 

19. Mimesis

As Gombrich explored in Art and Illusion, and in the Heritage of Apelles a conscious commitment to imitate the natural world was one of the innovations of Greek art and is one of the sources of an enormous expansion in imagery that we associate with art in Antiquity. Mimesis, in a strict sense was not a simple copying of nature. It entails taking features from several beautiful persons to combine them in a single idealized statue. This link of mimesis with beauty thus also set strict limits on what fell within the canon.

20. Matching    a. Nature;     b. Words

A commitment to copying nature, which emerged as a conscious goal in the West in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, marked a first expansion of  the visual canon because it was no longer limited to purely idealized and beautiful images. One could depict the ugly, the strange, the comical, and the caricature. A second, and equally momentous step forward came in a commitment not only to copy nature, but to illustrate visually verbal texts in a natural way. To illustrate this, examples from Petrarch, Froissart, and Boccaccio are examined.  

21. Matching     c. Narratives;     d. Events;     e. Local 

Linked with this commitment to visualize words was a growing fascination with illustrating narratives. This process had its roots in Antiquity and continued throughout the Middle Ages -- e.g. Santa Maria Maggiore, the Reichenau, Hildesheim. The Franciscan and subsequently the Dominican orders transformed this tradition by linking narratives of Christ and of individual Saints with new techniques of perspective, in order to render them more realistically. It is shown how this commitment led also to new links with portraiture such that sacred narratives also acquired portraits of individual donors. This again expanded the repertoire of imagery.

A next step in this diversification lay in focussing on single events and representing these in great detail. In the Life of Christ, for instance, the Last Supper acquired special significance in Florence where over 80 life size versions were painted. Hand in hand with these developments is another trend whereby not only local faces, but also local scenery becomes integrated into paintings. Hence, Piero della Francesca paints the Baptism of Christ with his hometown of San Sepolcro in the background. Breughel paints the nativity in the context of snow covered Belgian villages. Thus the commitment to integrate the sacred with everyday life meant not only that sacred buildings moved into the towns, but that images of secular places and persons became an integral part of sacred imagery. This is one of the keys to the richness of Renaissance art.  

22. Translating Across

Another key to understanding the richness of artistic and cultural production in certain societies is a commitment to translating images across media. By way of illustration we again choose one event, this time the Annunciation, and show how this is translated into not just into painting and drawing but a wide number of forms of sculpture (alabaster, bas relief, bronze, marble, pietra serena, silver, wax, wood and wood, polychrome), as well as intarsia in both wood and tessera and text: written, print, and more recently, radio, electronic and video.

23. Transformations     a. West;     b. East

This repertoire is again greatly expanded if one consciously departs from a strict goal of matching to introduce a conscious mixing of other elements. In a first stage this entailed exaggeration of proportions and a playful overflow beyond strict boundaries that led to mannerism, the baroque and rococo. In a later stage, this entailed a long term study and treatment of a single scene in many versions. Monet’s treatment of the bridge at Giverny of which he painted over 30 images between 1895 and 1926 offers a striking example.   

24. Exploring

Yet another way of expanding the repertoire is to go beyond the physical world and begin exploring other worlds. Here mental (as in dreams), perceptual, algorithmic and chance worlds are considered. 

5. Digital Bridges

In addition to new forms of algorithmic and generative imagery considered in the previous lecture, the advent of digital media brings two profound new innovations. First, it introduces the possibility of serious representations of images in other media: i.e. digital bridges across media. Second, it introduces a philosophical paradox of new works that effectively have no original, only printouts of an algorithm, which has no visible form other than abstract code.     

26. New Theory of Culture

From this survey of the sources of multiplicity of images and culture it becomes clear that the secret of the West and specifically Europe lies not in some simple quest to copy reality or any other single goal in isolation. It lies in the discovery of multiple, complementary goals. Among these the commitment to translate across many media is one of the keys. Ultimately, however, the most important of all may be a commitment that artistic and cultural creations should be shared by everyone, for a public good, rather than the private possessions of either a sacred or a secular elite.       

Hence, the new approach suggests that there is another kind of intangible culture that is fundamental for a deeper understanding of culture, namely, the religious, cosmological and philosophical frameworks that underlie all major cultures; that this intangible dimension inspires both tangible and intangible cultural expressions. Implicit in this new approach is that the essence of a culture cannot be reduced to specific symbols that distinguish it from other countries and cultures in the manner of flags, heraldry or superficial customs such as pasta for Italy and paella for Spain. While creations and productions are clearly important (cf. Ye shall know them by their fruits), what ultimately distinguishes cultures, and what makes Europe unique is a specific commitment to inclusion by linking sacred and secular. This goal for sharing obviously does not mean that it is always achieved. But it is a quest which explains why the catacombs of Rome are both Jewish and Christian, why there are many Muslims and many religions in Europe and why the real question is not individual beliefs, but social integration without losing identity.        


27. Lotus and the Rose

In the East, particularly in India, the lotus acquired a special symbolic significance. On the one hand, this had to do with how its pure flowers rise up from the dirtiest swamps. On the other hand, its eight petals fit with the symbolism of the eightfold path and thus function as a flowery version of the wheel of the law and life (dharmapada), which also symbolized the seven wise men (sapta rishi known in the West as Ursa Maior surrounding the pole). The lotus thus became a central image of Buddhist cosmology and lotus ceilings thus became symbols of an heavenly order.

A version of the rose was called the lotus rose. Partially through the Persian tradition, the rose acquired a parallel, deep significance, which flowered in the West through the troubadours and the tradition of courtly love which inspired the Romance of the Rose. Like the lotus, the rose became one of the central emblems of symbolism. But whereas the East focussed on lotus ceilings and floors, the West linked the rose with windows, especially in cathedrals. Thus the lotus and the rose were important sources for many cultural expressions ranging from religion and literature to astronomy and architecture.    

28. Lotus and the Palm

The lotus functioned as a floral wheel of life. The long trunk of the palm made it an ideal emblem of the world tree. A palm trunk or column topped by the symbolic equivalent of a lotus blossom thus acquired a deep significance. This imagery went to Egypt where the lotus also took a simpler form of a central stalk surrounded by two side stalks, which became the fleur de lys, symbol of Florence, of France, of the Black Knight, then the Prince of Wales. A variant of this image showed an arrow between two crescent moons. Thus the three lilies became a symbol of Pisces and a first union of male and female.     

The palm in its symbolic form made its way into Near Eastern architecture as a central column in a church – in the church on Mount Sion, where the Last Supper of Christ is said to have occurred. This symbolic palm became a central pillar in chapter houses of Cluniac and subsequently Cistercian monasteries. Through the innovations of Abbot Suger at Saint Denis, this palm-like column became a distinguishing characteristic of the ambulatories around the altar that heralded the origins of Gothic art at Saint Denis, Chartres and subsequently across Europe. In the English tradition, in the 13th centuries, such chapter houses became eight sided buildings annexed to cathedrals – e.g.  Lincoln, Lichfield, Westminster, Salisbury, York and culminating in Wells. These architectural wonders which had been achieved by importing architects from the continent were then exported back to Europe, with the result that palm like columns spread to all parts of Gothic architecture. It plays a central role in the Dominican church at Toulouse and continues as an important symbol at Neuschwanstein. Hence the lotus  and the palm is much more than a combination of two Eastern plants which inspires Eastern architecture. It is also one of the keys to important dimensions of Western architecture. 

29. From Sin to Sun    a. Eternal Feminine      b. Warrior, Shepherd and Bard

Viewed as a whole the past six thousand years reveal larger patterns. In India and the Middle East, there were a number of matriarchal societies where women played a central role that would make many recent demands of feminism look weak and retrograde. In many cases, dominant goddesses were slowly replaced by gods. Some (cf. lecture 15) have linked this with a shift from worshiping a (feminine) moon by night to worshipping a (male) sun by day; a shift from the Dionysian to the Apollonian.

On closer inspection this shift was much more complex than a simple shift from female to male dominance. New distinctions in the male also arose: between the man of the wilderness and the civilized man; between Enkidu and Gilgamesh; between farmer and shepherd;  between Cain and Abel and ultimately between three kinds of men: hunter/warrior, shepherd/farmer and poet/bard. Long before the Eclogues, the seeds were sown for a nostalgia that raised questions whether progress towards civilization was the only useful model.       

30. Shared Universals      a. Cycles      b. Rebirth     c. Elixir of Immortality

Our approach does not pretend that all cultures are identical other than in their humanity. Many expressions are different to the point of being nearly unrecognizable and yet for all this there are what some persons in the UNESCO community call integrating elements and dimensions (das verbindende der Kulturen). One of these common quests is to impose on the potential chaos of events a pattern of order – sense making in the jargon of the day. The discovery of cycles of days, months, years, larger cycles such as the precession of the equinoxes, becomes a central concern. Perhaps even more important still is the question  that relates to the ever elusive Why? The pattern of birth and death is too obvious to be overlooked. The quest becomes to find a solution. One is to deny that death occurs, to insist that there are constant re-incarnations, such that we are constantly freed from the veil of death. Another possibility is to search for a remedy, an elixir of immortality, a fountain of youth, something that will revitalize us. There is evidence that this quest inspired the efforts of Prajapati and led to the Khumba Mela ceremony; that they lie at the heart (and lungs) of the sema-toauy ceremony that united Upper and Lower Egypt; that inspired the efforts of Taoists on the immortal isles and inspires something in each of us who is searching for continuity after the mortal part of us has shuffled off this mortal coil. 


As a whole, these lectures reveal a) that Huntingdon’s Clash of Civilizations naïvely distorts  underlying connections between East and West and b) that the polemical fears in Mahbubani’s Can Asians Think? are exaggerated. A key to the future lies neither in the triumph of a single religion, or new crusades for a single world order. We need new systems that allow us to link systematically different layers of abstraction and concreteness such that the incredible systems linking physical and spiritual worlds become visible and that we recognize anew the underlying human roots and higher aspirations shared by all humanity. By studying afresh common goals that inspired different beliefs and expressions, we can find new ways of sharing in tolerance, while acknowledging uniqueness.