READING: “Spirituality in Contemporary Art – the idea of the numinous”

READING: “Spirituality in Contemporary Art – the idea of the numinous”

Jungu Yoon, Zidane Press 2010


This book looks at how spirituality is represented in contemporary art. It analyses the subject in both Eastern and Western art and in particular the impact of technology.

Jungu Yoon is a researcher at FADE (Fine Art Digital Environment) within the International Centre for Fine Art Research.

Yoon begins in the introduction by raising the question of whether religious ideas remain relevant for contemporary artists in our secular age. Placing his thoughts and research in the idea of the numinous, derived from the Latin numen, he is widening the essence of spirituality beyond a religious concept. As examples he uses Chris Ofili, Andres Serrano, Bill Viola and Damien Hurst. He suggests that the numinous experience is accessed beyond a church or temple but in the art gallery where the artists have divorced the spiritual from the religious realm and attempted to redefine the idea in secular terms.

Ideas I’ve taken from the book:

  • Overtly religious art has been in decline since the Reformation in Europe. With the coming of the modern industrial society artists’ concerns have become secularised and the realm of religion has lost its previous credibility and dominance. Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead’.
  • Is contemporary art suffering from spiritual bankruptcy?
  • Controversy over works by Serrano and Ofili – not created to convey an irreligious or offensive message – misreading the purpose of the works. “In order to distinguish …spirituality from orthodox religion, I use the term ‘numinous’ because the artists…are exploiting the idea of the numinous in their attempt to celebrate or revive a sense of the spiritual.”
  • Relationship between art and spirituality is as vibrant as ever but to find it in contemporary art we need to look in unconventional places and look for the numinous disguised in secular ideas and forms.
  • ‘Museum, a Temple or the Forum’(Duncan F. 2004 ‘Historic and contemporary perspectives on the paradigm shift’) – “ the contemporary museums …places for reverence and worship of the object or places where the public gathers to debate, to consider issues of the day and the consequences of human actions.” The museum or gallery has replaced the church as a site where the ‘numinous’ might be encountered. Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Eric Gill, Jacob Epstein and Alfred Manessier
  • Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon, Barnett Newman, Yves Klein, Anselm Kiefer, Nam June Paik allude to spirituality without recourse to any specified faith
  • I was interested in the section on Marc Rothko in particular having just visited the Abstract Expressionists Exhibition at the Royal Academy. Yoon comments that the large floating rectangles of colour convey a deep spirituality that evokes a numinous feeling. ‘Black, White, Blue’ experience of an adventure in an unknown space. “Rothko established colour as a real physical presence which inspired an overpowering sense of awe that could distract, divert or get in the way of the viewer’s meditative experience of the paintings.” “What is wonderful about Mark is that he aspires, and is still capable of believing that his work can have some purpose – spiritual if you like – that is not sullied by the world. Rothko was an artist who clearly yearned for the sublime.” (D Ashton (1996) ‘About Rothko’ New York, Da Capo press) concept of the sublime JMW Turner, Frederic Church (American 1826-1900)
  • The Eastern Idea of the numinous and contemporary art…explored the non-rational mystery behind religion and the religious experience…concept of ‘void’, ‘nothingness’. “Chinese painters became so aware of the significance of the non-existent that the voids in an artwork were considered to convey more meaning than the solid areas.” Very interesting from the idea of the use of space in a painting. Western art emphasises the existent rather than the non-existent.
  • Robert Rauschenberg– erasing of the de Kooning piece – parallels with the ‘void in Eastern art – John Cage and silence
  • Yves Klein – paintings suggest a state of flow and relativity between the seen and the unseen, like the numinous – emptiness.
  • Anselm Kiefer – time and space…’The Heavenly Palace’ – Kiefer’s 35 hectare studio compound at Barjac…creation of a numinous space. Page 66 – “This work proposes that our concept of heaven can only elevate us if it carries a critique of history along with its numinous aspects. His use of fragmentary images reflects a belief that heaven cannot be summarised in a single image or place but is better symbolised by a series of glimpses, each both convincing and unconvincing from different viewpoints.” German poet Rainer Maria Rilke spoke of ‘cosmic inner space’ that ‘ extends through all beings.’ Kiefer wrote: “ All painting , but also literature and all that goes with it, is always about walking around something that cannot be said, something you can never get to the centre of.” (Kiefer and Auping, 2005) Multiple viewpoints suggests possibilities of numinous experience.
  • Final chapters explore multimedia art and the numinous.


This has been a most interesting book. It is very accessible and conveys the ideas simply but with insight. Because of his background, Jungu Yoon draws much of his concepts from Eastern beliefs but somehow this tends to keep the concepts free from religious dogmatism. There is a simplicity in his description and understanding of the numinous and in what he draws out from the work of contemporary artists. I have learnt a great deal from the book and will be exploring this subject further in my own drawing.


About pbfarrar

I am an Australian living permanently in England. I have recently retired from the position of Principal of an independent school and have taken up the study of Fine Art with the OCA.
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