The death of the world's body and the rebirth of the sacred in the arts

William A Sikes, University of Pennsylvania


The dissertation seeks to understand how the arts are related to religion as expressions of a common need to provide a unifying vision of the world. This issue is explored through an historical account of major symbols and symbolic forms from their roots in religious systems to their emergence in the Western arts. The first chapters are devoted toward establishing the role of traditional religious symbolisms in articulating a comprehensive vision of the world, and toward showing how the arts have taken form, and found meaning, through their relation to this vision. The middle chapters trace the process whereby the symbolic principles which had for centuries held sway in the Christian West were transformed, and subsequently underwent attack, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. The effort here is to show how the arts evolved throughout this period in response to the changing character of the symbolic and in an effort to retain links to the old sources of meaning. The eventual "birth of aesthetics," which occurred between the late seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries, is regarded as a direct outcome of the loss of symbolic meaning and as an effort to salvage something of the sacred vision through an understanding of the internal coherence and implicit value of the work of art. The continued emergence of the arts in the Romantic and early Modern periods is seen as an effort to reestablish sacred meaning--first, through a rebirth of the art-synthesis along the lines indicated by Western religious traditions and, later on, by the appropriation of primitive and non-Western art forms capable of expressing a timeless order of experience. The conclusion suggests that the future of the arts may depend upon their being reintegrated within some larger, sacred vision; it examines Hermann Hesse's novel, The Glass Bead Game, and Claude Levi-Strauss' notion of a structuralist science of the symbolic as visionary schemes which point to such a realignment of religion and the arts through symbolic forms derived from their common structures.

Subject Area

Fine Arts|Religion|Philosophy

Recommended Citation

Sikes, William A, "The death of the world's body and the rebirth of the sacred in the arts" (1997). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9800927.