“The ocean of the characteristics of the various colors appeared over an infinite extent. There were banners of precious stones, constantly emitting shining light and emitting beautiful sounds. Nets of myriad gems and garlands of exquisitely scented flowers hung all around. The finest jewels appeared spontaneously, raining inexhaustible quantities of gems and beautiful flowers all over the earth. There were rows of jewel trees, their branches and foliage lustrous and luxuriant.”
-Avatamaska Sutra, from the Flower Ornament Scripture
The unrestrained rapture of the Buddhist Flower Ornament Scripture articulates all that is beautiful in the terrestrial world — like the best art, it brings us just one iota closer to comprehending that glorious realm called enlightenment. In Antoni Gaudí’s famous Sagrada Familia cathedral in Spain, the architecture shares a similar, wholly unrestrained rapture that expresses all the exuberance of the natural world. It reminds us that, even in the smallest facet of the smallest flower, the universe is reflected. The lettuce edges of Sagrada Familia scroll outward from the moulding with a lushness that renders even the most cynical and restrained of architectural critics child-like with delight.
The natural symbolism in religious sculpture is a theme that transcends geopolitical boundaries and continues to hold an uplifting, inspirational quality that unites congregations and communities. When considering commissioning a statue for their chapels, contemporary churches can draw on this aesthetic history, from the florid ornamentation of Buddhist poetry and Gaudi’s architecture to the geometric floral mandalas of Islamic mosaic work and the roses of Spanish Madonnas.
Floral Symbolism Abounds in Religious Texts
The word “paradise” originates from the ancient Persian word pairidaeza.1
This won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Islamic art — the theme of the garden of paradise frequently appears throughout Islamic art and texts. The Iranian watercolor Jesus and Mary by eleventh-century Iranian artist Shayk Abbāsī exemplifies the decorative potential that Islamic artists found in abstracted, geometric florals — this motif carried over into the mosaiced ornamentation of mosques and mausoleums such as the Ayyubid Sultan Qalawun in Cairo.2
The idea of finding paradisiacal beauty in the natural world also appears in the Bible in verses like Luke 12:27-28: “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.” In the characteristically straightforward language of the Christian Bible, this verse points to the natural beauty of the lily as a lesson in humility and trust. Though more plain-spoken than the elaborate poetics of the Flower Ornament Sutra, the verse from Luke teaches the same lesson: that the smallest bud in nature contains all the glory of the universe.
Natural Symbolism Has a Universal Appeal in Contemporary Religious Sculptures
The vivid imagination and rich metaphors that artists have historically found in natural forms still bring a universal appeal and sense of wonder to congregations. The Sagrada Familia attracts three million visitors to Barcelona every year, making it a favorite site for pilgrimage and Barcelona’s most popular attraction. When churches choose to work with an individual sculptor to make work specifically for their site, the sculptor can help to imbue a sense of life in the chapel that offers a new richness of meaning for the congregation as they worship. Toward the end of his life, Henri Matisse put both his painterly and sculptural abilities to the task of designing a chapel for the Dominican sisters of Vence. The result was the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, a building that I find achingly beautiful in its simplicity and its joy. It is uniquely Matisse, with it’s humble joy and clean lines that capture the fleeting jubilance of life. In both the Familia Sagrada in Spain and Chapelle du Rosaire in Italy, Gaudi and Matisse’s artistic visions continue to inspire church members and visitors alike to this day.
Even for churches that can’t endeavor religious sculptures on such a large scale, one of the best ways that chapels can share the beauty of the natural world found in religious text is to commission a unique religious sculpture. By working with a sculptor to create a visionary and poignant piece of art, churches today can continue the proven tradition of using art to create inspiring spiritual spaces that reach their congregation and the community beyond.
The McLeods are Australian bronze sculptors, experienced in making custom religious sculptures for chapels and places of worship. The McLeods’ work is a celebration of natural beauty, and their international travels have given them the opportunity to engage with a wide range of religious traditions and religious sculptures. If your church is considering investing in custom sculpture to enliven your chapel, contact the McLeods today for a consultation.
- “Underneath Which Rivers Flow: The Symbolism of the Islamic Garden.” The Islamic Monthly. December 9, 2015. Accessed December 9, 2015. http://theislamicmonthly.com/underneath-which-rivers-flow-the-symbolism-of-the-islamic-garden/. ↩
- “Introduction to Islamic Art.” Introduction to Islamic Art. Accessed December 9, 2015. http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/introduction-islamic-art#sec_5. ↩