Sacred Time the Basis of Religious Experience in the History

  July 04, 2021   Read time 3 min
Sacred Time the Basis of Religious Experience in the History
Time takes many different forms, and one of the primary tasks of visual culture in religious life is to articulate and maintain particular forms of time. Tracing the descent of one’s people, customs, or teachers is common.

The portrait of a Tibetan lama or teacher shown here (a) is surrounded by a long lineage of Indian and Tibetan gurūs. These figures include in the center, perched above the large figure, the historical Buddha himself, the source of knowledge and spiritual authority that extends through the generations of Buddhist sages to the large figure who now assumes the pose of a buddha. The royal court of the Luba people of southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo relies on lukasa, or the memory board (b), to remember the stories of heroes, clan migrations, king lists, and genealogies. This item is used on ritual occasions, often to install new rulers, inscribing them into the narrative of the court and people, as well as the cosmos. By making them part of the sacred time that envelopes a people and universe, the lukasa and its interpreters ensure the legitimacy of the king and consecrate his reign.

Other groups rely on ritual observations to secure the collective memory of their people. Jews annually celebrate the Passover with a ceremonial meal or Seder (c), using the occasion to retell the sacred story of Israel’s deliverance from bondage, as in the case of the rabbi shown here, who ritually poses historical and theological questions to a boy. Jews who came to the United States in the early twentieth century often purchased postcards, such as the one shown here (d), in order to demonstrate visually the preservation of their rites to those who had remained in Eastern Europe. This visual mediation of the ritual keeping of the liturgical calendar or sacred time (the rite of Tashlikh, a prayer service held on the first day of Ro’sh ha-Shanah) established a link that persisted in spite of distance. Other immigrants to the United States, Swedish Lutherans, invented certificates for display in the home (e) to commemorate such important events as marriage or confirmation in the faith.

Memory is especially important for immigrants or displaced populations as a way of maintaining identity in spite of significant, even violent, change. Another kind of reminder is the memento mori, or a reminder of human mortality, which may be older even than Christianity, but was used by Christians from the Middle Ages to the modern age, as in the Dutch painting by Willem Claesz Heda (f). The artist embeds in this modest still life a number of reminders of the mortal nature of human existence. The open pocket watch recalls the passing moments of life, the need for vigilance, and a dutiful attending to what is needful. The momentary freshness of the food and its frugal presentation signals the urgency and propriety of a mindful, ordered life. Remembering the transience of human existence and the caution to live in light of the inevitable end is often a message conveyed by those who construct roadside shrines like the one reproduced here (g). These mark the site where a loved one or friend died, but also warn passersby to be careful and reflective.

Images may also evoke the experience of a primordial time, one before, or outside of, or encompassing the present world. Australian Aboriginals refer to this time as dreamtime, which is the ancestral past and primordial age when the physical world was created as it now appears. The two most common forms of imagery associated with the portrayal of dreamtime are rock paintings and engravings, and bark painting. The rock painting (h) from the Australia Northern Territory shows a splayed, transparent male figure that displays its skeletal structure and prominent sexual organs in what is called x-ray style. The bark painting (i), also from northern Australia, features dreamtime figures. Originally created on the portions of bark used as covering for shelters during the rainy season, bark paintings are now made by Aboriginals as fine art. Other cultures visualize the link between present time and the transcendent by capturing the shaman’s transformation into totemic animals, such as in the Mochican earthenware figure from the northern coast of Peru, a deer-headed anthromorph that may represent a shaman undergoing metamorphosis (j).

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