This week, Anna Aysea explores darkness and the colour black as potential gateways to spiritual awakening.
Suffering is often associated with darkness. This may be due to the fact that some of the synonyms of darkness include obscurity and concealment. It could be said that when our true nature is obscured and veiled by ignorance, suffering ensues.
In this post, I would like to explore darkness and the colour black from a slightly different angle. In spiritual terms, darkness can also mean the absence of manifestation. Sunyata or emptiness refers to ultimate reality being void of name and form as manifestation. In this sense, ultimate reality could also be called limitless potential unmanifest.
Interestingly, the colour black is said to contain infinite colours and in the Zen tradition, newly ordained monks wear black robes, which symbolize their unmanifested potential for enlightenment.
One of the prominent works of art, which uses the colour black in the spiritual sense of ultimate reality unmanifest, is The Rothko Chapel by the American painter Mark Rothko. It is a non-denominational chapel which serves as an ecumenical centre.
The chapel contains 14 large-scale paintings all in varying shades of black. The paintings appear to be solid black but Rothko uses many uneven washes of pigment to create subtle colour differences and depth. The layered surface of the paintings are alive with myriad variations which can be observed by taking the time to sit quietly with the paintings. Rothko’s intention was to draw the vision of the viewer in and beyond the canvas which serves as a window to “look upon the infinite”. Using human perception to point to something which cannot be perceived by the senses is the goal of all sacred art. Yearly, thousands of people come to meditate in front of the paintings in the chapel. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary, Sotherby made an interesting video about the Rothko Chapel and the thinking behind the idea of a contemporary spiritual space.
Perhaps there is a work of art that is drawing your vision beyond itself to that which is beyond sense perception? Buddha statues are like that. They can evoke in the viewer the stillness they symbolize as a finite object.