The Interconnectedness of Religious and Psychedelic Art

The Interconnectedness of Religious and Psychedelic Art

Psychedelic art is easy to describe but hard to define. We know from Ken Kesey, Jefferson Airplane, and Alex Grey that psychedelic art is meant to be a translation of a hallucinogenic experience, but lately the term is used much more generously. Whether it is a disorienting interior or an abundance of bright colors, what is popularly described as psychedelic is not necessarily related to LSD trips.

 A "psychedelic" pop-up installation at Capital Designer Studio in London. Image Source:  Phaidon

A "psychedelic" pop-up installation at Capital Designer Studio in London. Image Source: Phaidon

Psychedelic art is complex, often surrealist, highly saturated, and occasionally filled with ornate iconography. And when that art is meant to interpret an altered state of consciousness, that experience is usually described as spiritually transcendent. That is why it is common to find entheogenic practices in indigenous religions and New Age religions centered around psychedelic journeys.

 A Lakota peyote ceremony in Utah. Image Source:  Oklevueha Native American Church

A Lakota peyote ceremony in Utah. Image Source: Oklevueha Native American Church

There are also many theories that entheogens played an important role in the history of the world’s major religions and on the foundation of religion itself. There is speculation that the manna of the Hebrew Bible was entheogenic, as well as soma, the Hindu ambrosia mentioned in the Vedas. My favorite of these theories is the secret history of Santa Claus (it’s surprisingly convincing). In fact, there is fairly good evidence that many Flemish Renaissance painters like Hieronymus Bosch were hallucinating due to a fungal infection while they were making their vibrant surrealist depictions of hell (it explains a lot).

 The Temptation of St. Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck, circa 1650. Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck, circa 1650. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

 The right panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1490-1510. Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons

The right panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1490-1510. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

But I bring up the broad usage of the term “psychedelic art” because there are also many artistic expressions of spirituality that are not supported by altered consciousnesses yet reach the same conclusion. If a secular colorful pavilion can be described as psychedelic, how much more so can the term be applied to the technicolor gestalt of Dravidian Hindu temples or the awe-inspiring muqarnas of Isfahan and Shiraz?  A Sufi whirling dervish might come to the same recognition about the oneness of the universe through ecstatic prayer that someone else may experience through peyote. While the method may differ, both psychedelic art and religious art attempt to describe the ineffable through visual art and architecture and the result happens to have a lot in common.

 Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam, India. Image Source:  Hidden Treasures of India

Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam, India. Image Source: Hidden Treasures of India

 Nasir-ol-Malk Mosque AKA the Pink Mosque in Shiraz, Iran. Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Nasir-ol-Malk Mosque AKA the Pink Mosque in Shiraz, Iran. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Karl Marx once called religion “the opiate of the masses” making the argument that organized religion distracted people from their suffering and kept them down. But the artistic expression of spiritual ecstasy that presents itself whether through prayer, meditation, or hallucinogens, shows that actually religion is the LSD of the masses.

Title Image: The dome of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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