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Man, Nature and Spirituality

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Arts Age Levels High School (16 to 18 years old), Post-Secondary

This collection explores the changing concept of man’s position in the world in relation to God, spirituality and nature. It begins with examples from early polytheistic cultures which utilized God to explain natural phenomena and continues through the ages to show shifting perceptions of man’s position in the world. 

The earliest examples of this relationship are seen in the Sumerian and Mesopotamian cultures, both of which used the concept of individual Gods to explain natural phenomenon. Polytheism in these cultures is evident in the art that remains from this time. Sculpture from these early cultures depicts anthropomorphic versions of their gods, and ruins of ziggurats, or early Sumerian temples, also provide evidence of polytheistic values. The Sumerian people constructed individual temples to worship their gods with each one housing a statue of the honored god.

The idea of architecture and sculpture as homages to the gods of the natural world continues throughout antiquity. The Ancient Greeks erected the Erichthonius Temple, with its exquisitely carved caryatid support sculptures, on the Acropolis in Athens Greece to honor the Goddess Athena and the magnificent Roman Pantheon initially served as a place of worship of the gods by the Roman people. The Ancient Greeks also, most notably in the writings of Plato and Aristotle and the philosophy of Stoicism, are the first to come up with the concept of art imitating nature, particularly in music, dancing and painting.

Literature and music also depict themes of polytheism in the Ancient World. Evidence found on ancient vessels, ruins and artwork suggests that music was performed as part of religious ceremonies in Ancient Egypt. The Greeks utilized music in their theatrical performances and religious rites going so far as to develop various modes of music still employed today. Various musical modes would be performed to reinforce themes of theatrical performances or religious ceremonies. The emergence of early Greek drama helped to reinforce polytheistic ideals with performances intended to celebrate and appease the gods. Earliest examples of Greek drama are plays that were performed in celebration of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility and other Gods. 

The advent of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity shows a shift from the polytheistic cultures of earlier societies to monotheistic cultures. Christianity’s growth throughout Europe made it the dominant cultural force throughout second millennium after Christ’s birth. Its early impact on the humanities was strong as early Christians viewed art as a means to worship rather than as objects of worship. The artwork of this time reflects the evolving view of man and nature with flat, two-dimensional artwork that is meant to reflect the spirituality of man rather than his

physical existence.

Perceptions began shifting in the late Middle Ages as Scholasticism began to emerge.  Thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas began synthesizing early Greek thought and applying them to their worlds. Aquinas saw nature as reflection of God’s work. This concept is carried further with the emergence of humanism during the reign of the Medici family in Florence. The Medici embraced the concept of appreciating beauty in nature and human endeavor as a manifestation of God as put forth by the poet Petrarch in the 14th century. The Neoplatonism movement also began during this time spearheaded by Marsilio Ficino who believed that the contemplation and study of beauty in nature was a form of worship in itself. Ficino argued that the beauty Petrarch’s love poems to Laura and Botticelli’s Venus were examples of the spiritual bond created through the love and appreciation of the beautiful.  Later Renaissance thinkers expounded on these concepts of nature and God while also reframing the Greek notion of intelligence in the natural world being something inherent in nature to being evidence of a divine creator of nature. 

The 19th Century saw two major changes in both Europe and America in the perception of the relationship between man and nature.  After many years of isolation, Japan became open to the west and a flood of Japanese goods and art made its way to Europe. Included in these works was Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a piece that went on to fuel the Japonisme movement in Europe.  Artists such as Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh and others were inspired by the flat lines and representations in Hokusai's work.  With the advent of photography in 19th Century Europe, artists began rejecting the Realism style of art and became more interested in capturing a moment in time view of the world, which became known as the Impressionism movement. Hokusai's Great Wave was part of a larger collection known as Thirty-six Views of Fuji, in which the artists captured the iconic mountain from different vantage points and different seasons, a technique mimicked by Monet in his Haystacks series.  Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec were also inspired by the use of Japanese calligraphy brushes and began to create using similar methods. The impact of Japonisme was not limited to the art world; however, as other creative types were also influenced by Hokusai. Both the composer Claude Debussy and the poet Rainer Maria-Rilke cited The Great Wave as inspiration for their works also dealing with themes of nature (Debussy's La Mer and Rilke's Der Berg).  The idea behind the Impressionist and Japonisme movement was not to perfectly recreate nature, but to capture a fleeting moment in time of a changing nature. 

In America, the Transcendentalist movement saw a return to the natural world and a rejection of the growing threat of the industrial movement.  Figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller developed an ideology that believed in the veneration of the natural world. The Transcendentalists believed that nature should not be something manipulated by man; rather it should be considered a treasure given by God for man with which to bond. This philosophy is carried throughout the 20th Century as seen in the development of nature groups devoted to the preservation of America's natural resources. Groups such as the Sierra Club were directly influenced by the Transcendental movement. 

Another major figure in the 20th Century who believed in the harmony between nature and man was the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  Wright's philosophy was to build structures that worked within a natural sight and remained unobtrusive to the surrounding environment.  This technique can be seen in the design of his Prairie Style houses, which he intended to represent a new architectural style that was uniquely American while also being considered "Organic Architecture."  In a nod to the Japonisme movement, Wright was also influenced by Japan having first visited there in 1905 and being selected as the architect for the Tokyo Imperial Hotel in downtown Tokyo.  Wright incorporated many elements of Japanese style into his work including, Fallingwater, arguably his most famous structure. 

20th Century America also saw the influence of nature and Japan in literature, most notably in Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur. In the novel, the author seeks to escape the burdens of fame by retreating to Big Sur California with his friend, and fellow poet, Gary Snyder. Snyder is a Buddhist who gets Kerouac interested in Buddhism as well as Japanese art and poetry. Kerouac retreats to the natural world to find solace in a life gone mad and seeks to reconnect with nature using it as a vehicle to explore his spirituality. 



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Image Credits

Curated Collection 1:

Funerary scene:
Stele (Wood; painted; ht. 12").. Artstor, https://corvette.salemstate.ed...

Sumerian statue: 
Statue (gypsum, shell, lapis lazuli, bitumen; ht. 36 1/4").. Early Dynastic IIIb; 2500-2400 B.C.. Artstor, https://corvette.salemstate.ed...

Greek Lyre:
Vessel (krater; red-figure).. ca. 420-400 B.C.. Artstor, https://corvette.salemstate.ed...

Maerten van Heemskerck. Frontal View of the Pantheon [Ansicht des Pantheons von vorn]. ca. 1532-36. Artstor, https://corvette.salemstate.ed...

Artstor, https://corvette.salemstate.ed...

Epidaurus Theatre: 
Ronny Siegel [CC BY 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons, 2/10/19 

Curated Collection 2:

(2nd half 3rd century (creation)). Sarcophagus with portraits of a senator and his wife, View: detail, Detail, center. [sarcophagi (coffins)]. Retrieved from

Image of Justinian:
Justinian I with his entourage, next to him Archbishop Maximian. [general]. Retrieved from

(1164). Pieta; detail of fresco from Church of Nerezi. Retrieved from

Image of St. Thomas:
Giovanni di Paolo, Italian, c.1399-1482. (1445-50). St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës. [paintings]. Retrieved from https://corvette.salemstate.ed...

Image of Petrarch and Laura:
Philippe Jacques Van Bree. (1816). Laura and Petrarch at Fontaine de Vaucluse (Laure et Pétrarque). [painting]. Retrieved from https://corvette.salemstate.ed...

Birth of Venus:
Sandro Botticelli. (c. 1482). Birth of Venus. [paintings]. Retrieved from https://corvette.salemstate.ed...

Curated Collection 3:

Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun): 
Claude Monet (French, Paris 1840-1926 Giverny). (1891). Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun). [Paintings]. Retrieved from

Wheatstacks (Snow Effect, Morning):
Claude Monet (French, Paris 1840-1926 Giverny). (1891). Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning.

Fuji-The Tama River, Musashi Province: 
Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, Tokyo (Edo) 1760-1849 Tokyo (Edo))
Fuji-The Tama River, Musashi Province, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gift of Francis M. Weld, 1948; JP3138

The Great Wave off Kanagawa:
Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, Tokyo (Edo) 1760-1849 Tokyo (Edo)). (ca. 1830-32). Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), also known as The Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei). Retrieved from

The Starry Night:
Vincent van Gogh, Dutch, 1853-1890. (Saint Rémy, June 1889). The Starry Night. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://corvette.salemstate.ed...

Walden Pond Photo:
Unknown. (1900). Walden Pond. Retrieved from https://corvette.salemstate.ed...

Thoreau Daguerreotype:
Thoreau, Henry David, 1817-1862. (1856). Daguerreotype of Thoreau. Retrieved from https://corvette.salemstate.ed...

Ralph Waldo Emerson Photo:
Southworth & Hawes (American, Active ca. 1845-1861). (ca. 1857). Ralph Waldo Emerson. Retrieved from https://corvette.salemstate.ed...

Margaret Fuller Photo:
Southworth and Hawes (American, active 1843-1863), (ca. 1850). Margaret Fuller. Retrieved from https://corvette.salemstate.ed...

Big Sur:
Gall, Sally, (1956, Washington, D.C.. Big Sur (1990). Retrieved from https://corvette.salemstate.ed...


Funerary scene in Ancient Egypt

Louvre Museum, Paris France.

Ancient Sumerian Statue

National Museum of Damascus

Apollo and his lyre

Archive for Research on Archetypal Symbolism

The Roman Pantheon

Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Christianity Emerges


Image of Justinian the 1st

Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Data From: Art Images for College Teaching

Renaissance Thinkers


St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës

Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase

Laura and Petrarch at Fontaine de Vaucluse

Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, N.Y.

Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus








Ralph Waldo Emerson

Southworth & Hawes

Margaret Fuller

Southworth & Hawes



Frank Lloyd Wright - Fallingwater

Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation