There are historical moments when we turn our backs on the divine and suffer for it, but the traditional arts can always serve as a link back.
Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (1860–1939), who worked before and after the independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918, believed that art serves a spiritual purpose.
Mucha spent much of his early life in France creating commercial art. He became very popular for the style of this work, a style that became known as Art Nouveau. But Mucha wasn’t interested in creating this type of art. He was more interested in creating national and spiritual art.
According to AlfonsMucha.org, Mucha “declared that art existed only to communicate a spiritual message, and nothing more; hence his frustration at the fame he gained through commercial art, when he wanted always to concentrate on more lofty projects that would ennoble art and his birthplace.”
It wasn’t long, however, before Mucha got his wish: He returned home to the Czech Republic to begin working on a series of 20 paintings, whereby he celebrated the divine and the origins of his homeland.
This large-scale project was initially ridiculed. Many thought it was an outdated and obsolete endeavor. Also, the rise of communism didn’t help the popularity of traditional and spiritual artworks like Mucha’s “Slav Epic,” which were out-of-step with the Communist Party’s requirements for the artistic style of “social realism.”
After being arrested and questioned by the Gestapo, Mucha died of pneumonia in 1939 at the age of 78.
The Celebration of Svantovit
The paintings of “The Slav Epic” are nationalist and spiritual in nature. They depict the history of the Slavs in terms of folklore, paganism, and Christianity. I will focus on the second painting of the series, titled “The Slav Epic: No. 2: The Celebration of Svantovit: When Gods Are at War, Salvation Is in the Art.”
Mucha created a large and elaborate scene, which depicts several things. In the lower half of the composition, people are shown celebrating the god Svantovit at the Arkona temple in Rügen. Rügen, located off the Pomeranian coast in the Baltic Sea, is Germany’s largest island.
Svantovit was the most powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing god of the Slavs. Svantovit was often depicted with four heads, through which he could see and prophetically know the whole world. He also carried a horn representing abundance, a bow representing protection, and rode a white horse.
Once a year, during the harvest period, the Slavs would celebrate and worship Svantovit. Mucha depicted this celebration. People are shown dressed in white, dancing, eating, and celebrating.
In the top half of the composition, however, a battle is about to begin. This battle seems to predict the future of the Slavs after they are invaded by the Germanic tribes.
The Germanic god, Thor, is at the top left of the composition and is leading his warriors and dogs to attack the Slavic god. In the same group of figures, a man is shown defending both himself and another, who is dressed in white, with his shield and sword.
To the right of Thor’s dogs are six more figures. The first figure closest to the dogs appears to pray to Svantovit, who can be seen at the very top of the composition with two heads holding a horn behind the white horse.
Praying to Svantovit doesn’t seem to help, however. Upon scanning right, one sees the next three figures shown with their wrists bound as if they have been captured and enslaved. The figure immediately to the right of them is dead, riding on Svantovit’s horse.
Mucha depicts Svantovit with a sword made of blue light instead of a bow. This sword symbolizes the god’s protection, but he does not hold it up to defend the people from the threat of Thor. Instead, Svantovit points it down toward the people as if they are to protect themselves.
Near the horse’s head, three figures begin to descend back down to those celebrating, while one figure seems to ascend at the far right of the composition.
The three descending figures are playing musical instruments as they descend. Right below them are two figures: a young man who carves an image of the god and a woman who watches over his shoulder.
Divinely Inspired Arts
Mucha shows us a grand scene. The Slavic people celebrate their god Svantovit in the hopes of receiving a great harvest for the next year and protection from outside invaders.
Svantovit, having four heads, watches the scene unfold from above but also sees the future of the Slavic people: They will be invaded by outsiders and lose everything.
Svantovit, however, does not intervene. Instead, he points to those who worship him, and some figures, as if following his command, play musical instruments as they descend from above. At the very right, a figure seems to me to ascend as if reborn.
What might all of this mean? Why does Svantovit not raise his sword to protect the Slavs? Why does he instead point his sword below? Why do the descending figures play musical instruments, and why does the young man sculpt? Why does the lone figure to the right appear to ascend?
Mucha believed that art served only a spiritual purpose. The title of this painting suggests that salvation is in art when the gods are at war. The Slavs are fated to be invaded, which is a reflection of the ensuing battle between Thor and Svantovit. Is it that Svantovit, as a god who sees and knows all, has the wisdom to accept fate, and this is why he doesn’t raise his sword in defiance?
Instead, he gives to those who celebrate him another way to salvation: art. Those who descend from heaven bring with them the heavenly arts, both musical and visual. Is it that these artforms, when they celebrate the heavens from which they descend, offer a form of salvation?
Even if they are not a direct form of salvation, is it possible that these artforms can point us back to that which can save us? Can they stir within us those things that make us get closer to the divine?
And is this why the lone figure to the right ascends? It’s interesting that below at the celebration, there’s a sea of people who are all dancing, celebrating, and worshiping. They are participating in group rituals. Yet this lone figure ascends by himself. Is it the case that the heavenly inspired arts invigorate a personal, individual relationship with the divine, a relationship that can result in the ascension of one’s soul?
The arts are the very thing on which a culture is built and propagated. The arts are like a mirror we hold up to ourselves.
What are we currently saying about ourselves with our arts? What type of culture are we guilty of propagating? Is it possible that we, through our arts, can return to the divine?
Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions I explore in my series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.”
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).