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On the Sublime & the Numinous

Caspar_David_Friedrich_071 [1]4,193 words

The words “sublime” and “numinous” have shifted in meaning somewhat over recent years. The word “sublime,” I presume, would now generally be interpreted to mean something of particularly great beauty, or an action particularly well executed. It would not be limited to a narrow usage but could be applied to any thing or action of particular excellence, perhaps with a slightly pretentious connotation of elegance. 

The word “numinous” has begun to be used in a way that completely undermines its actual meaning. In a filmed discussion concerning atheism titled The Four Horsemen[1], Christopher Hitchens states, “If we could find a way of enforcing the distinction between the numinous and the superstitious, we would be doing something culturally quite important.” He goes on:

I wrote a book about the Parthenon. I’m intensely interested in it. I think everyone should go, everyone should study it and so forth, but everyone should abstain from the cult of Pallas Athena. Everyone should realize that probably what that sculptural frieze that’s so beautiful describes, may involve some human sacrifices. Athenian imperialism wasn’t all that pretty, even under Pericles and so on. The great cultural project, in other words, may very well be to rescue what we have of the art and aesthetic of religion while discarding the supernatural.

The meaning here is clear: the plastic creations associated with religion are to be celebrated as long as they are emptied of content; and the numinous must only refer to aesthetic phenomena and must be purged of anything that cannot be located within the sensible realm.

Contra the various horsemen of the modernist apocalypse, this essay will attempt to return to the earlier meanings of the words “sublime” and “numinous,” and will consider what these ideas have come to signify in post-modernity. I will attempt to look at the similarities between the concepts of the sublime and the numinous, and the crucial differences. This should help to clarify the issues involved in the current crisis in the artistic and spiritual realms, and to suggest the best way to move beyond it.

EdmundBurke [2]

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful [3] did much to popularize the idea of the sublime amongst European artists in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is widely considered to be an influential text for the Romantic movement. Published in 1757, Burke’s book argued that the whole idea of the sublime was predicated on the notion of terror: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”[2]

But the experience of the sublime is not the same as the experience of terror. Terror is a source of the sublime, not synonymous with it. In order to experience the sublime it is necessary that ideas of the painful and terrible are apprehended without any danger or threat to self-preservation being experienced. So, images of great, terrible, and painful things evoke a sense of the awful nature of what is depicted without being felt as a direct displeasure. The sense of remove is crucially important. It allows us to take enjoyment from perceiving such things rather than feeling directly threatened by them. Although we can take delight from such images Burke points out that this delight is actually quite distinct from pleasure, “because it is different enough from any idea of positive pleasure. Whatever excites this delight, I call sublime.”[3]

Burke discusses many characteristic features that are capable of provoking the sublime including power, vastness, and darkness. All of these are capable of producing terror and hence the sublime. Obscurity is considered to be productive of the sublime because the mind can be more terrified by things that are not fully revealed to it. Noises heard at night have a very different effect to the same noises heard in broad daylight. The importance of obscurity is that it allows for an intimation of infinity. Nothing can suggest infinity if it is clearly delineated. A house drawn or painted with clarity has a fixed and discernable shape; it suggests nothing of the infinite. But a vast colonnade of ruined pillars stretching into the distance, perhaps disappearing in mist, can be extremely evocative. It encourages the mind to speculate on its vastness and to wonder if it stretches forever. It is entirely sublime.

FriedrichTheCrossInTheMountainsDetail [4]

Burke’s description of the nobility of the obscure, the vast, the dark and mist-shrouded had a great effect on many of the Romantic painters. One of the greatest painters of the sublime was Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840). One of Friedrich’s earliest major works is a depiction of the crucifixion on a mountaintop. The Cross in the Mountains (1807/08) places a statue of the crucified Christ on top of a rocky outcrop surrounded by trees, the twilight clouds refracting the rays of an unseen sun. The view is composed so that Christ is the focal point of the picture but he is not a commanding figure. The statue is turned away from the viewer looking down at the other side of the mountain. Whilst the cross is at the peak of the mountain and rises higher than any of the surrounding trees, it is skinnier and no taller than the trees so it cannot hold the attention for long. Instead, one is drawn to the dark trees rising up the sides of the triangular peak and to the sun’s rays beaming out into the clouds. This is the real compositional point of the painting: the tapering ascent of the mountain touching the expanding infinity of the sky. The eye tracks the position of Christ at the summit of the mountain, at the head of an earth-bound triangle, and then follows the sun up into the clouds into an inverted triangle. Christ is at the center of all this, but he feels like a prop planted there as a pretext for nature worship. And this was a criticism of Friedrich at the time.

morning-mist-in-the-mountains-1808 [5]

In Morning Mist in the Mountains (1808) a similar scene is depicted but this time the observer is positioned further away so that the cross at the summit is practically invisible. But, crucially, so too is most of the mountain itself. This painting is far more extreme than The Cross in the Mountains. The mist has covered everything and merges with the sky so that there is no distinction between foreground and background. The mountain summit emerges from the mist, albeit washed out and colorless, and the trees also poke out from the obscurity. But the entire view is shrouded and occulted. Here, art is moving further away from iconography and beginning to intuit the formless sublimity that would become so important to the Abstract Expresssionists a century and a half later. Morning Mist in the Mountains also illustrates the way that religion is receding in importance in art of the sublime. With the cross at the summit of the mountain practically erased from sight this painting signals the decline of religion in favor of the natural world, as well as the disappearance of the icon in favour of the sublime landscape.

fri_wand [6]

Another aspect of Friedrich’s paintings that is relevant here is his use of figures in the foreground of his canvases, sharing the view with the observer. The most famous example is The Wanderer above a Sea of Mist (c. 1818). In this painting a man stands foregrounded at the head of a rocky outcrop looking out at the view before him. The mist seems to cling to everything and only the tallest peaks before him emerge into view. Further in the distance other summits rise from the mist, and the clouds seem to mirror the same color tones as the mist below, unifying the whole view in a dreamy, shrouded atmosphere. Also unifying the view is the figure of the wanderer whose feet are planted on the rock of the foreground but whose head just touches the sky. He occupies a similar focal position to the cross in The Cross in the Mountains and the substitution of man for Christ is a subtle but telling development. The wanderer has his back to the viewer of the painting so we feel that we are simultaneously observing him and seeing through his eyes to some extent. This device recurs in several of Friedrich’s works and has a curious effect. On the one hand it draws the viewer in to the painting but on the other it creates a level of remove, drawing attention to the work’s status as artifact. In this sense, Friedrich’s work is an early precursor of postmodern virtuality.

This aspect of the sublime had already been articulated by Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation where the sublime arises through the subject’s conscious turning away from the threatening aspects of the contemplated object, and the quietening of the will that is necessary for the object to be viewed without a sense of threat or terror. For Schopenhauer then, this sense of remove, of viewing the sublime as an already mediated object, consciously configured as distinct from direct, engaged involvement on the part of the observer, was integral to his understanding of the sublime.

Friedrich himself wrote that, “Any kind of illusion has a repugnant effect, like any kind of deception. A painting must stand as a painting, made by human hand; not seek to disguise itself as Nature.”[4] Friedrich’s paintings, particularly those that foreground observers in the work, begin to hint at notions of hyperreality, at the sense that the world, or nature, is mediated through forms of spectacle. This is not a slight notion. With Romantic landscape painting, more and more of the canvas is given over to painterly depictions of nature so that the figurative element continues to recede. With the paintings of J. W. Turner, or even of late Monet, we are a small step away from Rothko’s pulsing geometries of pure color. So this urge towards the sublime does destroy form and figure.

monasterygraveyard [7]

Also significant in this respect is Friedrich’s Lutheran Protestantism. The antipathy for iconography that is characteristic of Protestantism must have played a significant part in Friedrich’s aesthetic sensibility. Indeed, when he was asked to design a chapel for the pastor Gotthard Kosegarten he, “envisaged an elongated oval room with pews, and outside the entrance a similar oval in outline, in which rocks assumed the function of open-air seating.”[5] This sense of the church spilling out into, and thereby sacralizing, nature brings to mind Friedrich’s painting Monastery Graveyard in the Snow (1817–19, destroyed 1945) which depicts semi-spectral monks shuffling into a ruined cloister, the barren trees seemingly standing as pillars, and the whole scene suggesting that nature is itself a cathedral (and one bereft of iconography).

With the decline of figurative sacred art the movement towards the formless becomes irresistible, so that it is possible for Frederic Jameson to identify the sublime with modernity, as both culminate in an “end of art.”[6] It is in this context that the Abstract Expressionist movement approached the sublime.

The Abstract Expressionists’ view of the sublime in art is well expressed in Barnett Newman’s short but influential essay from 1948, “The Sublime is Now.” In this essay, Newman argued that Western art was still trapped in concepts of beauty that had been inherited from the Greeks. With the Renaissance, there ensued a battle between the Gothic imperative towards the Absolute and the resurgent Greek ideals of absolute beauty. Newman sees this battle as a struggle between the urge to attain the formless in art versus the reassertion of the absolute primacy of form. The former category is regarded as the sublime, the latter as the ideal of beauty. When he states that, “The impulse of modern art was this desire to destroy beauty,” it should be noted that this destructive desire was understood to be synonymous with the sublime, and that this is an understanding that was common to the Abstract Expressionists. For Newman, even the Cubist experiments of Picasso were still caught in the reflexive paradigm of form; they did not move beyond the primacy of form in the Western hierarchy, they simply distorted it. Only with Abstract Expressionism, he argues, is it possible to finally create a new category for the sublime: “We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”[7]

Certainly, this argument proved to be influential, and the sublime as articulated through Abstract Expressionism came to refer to the ineffable, the inexpressible. It is taken to be something quasi-transcendent (yet still made “out of ourselves”), a category somehow beyond regular sensory perception.

In the midst of postmodernity, the possibility of seeking the absolute disappears, and the sublime quest appears to have been fulfilled. But in an intriguing coda to this discussion of the sublime it is worth noting that Jameson himself does leave open the possibility of a postmodern sublime. In the face of a globalized, decentralized system of finance and digital transactions it has become impossible to conceptualize reality in its entirety. Everything is caught up in vast systems and networks that seem to run on their own behind our mundane transactions. But each of the commodities produced by capitalism is a tiny fragment of this system, so it has the possibility of hinting towards its enormity. So, if the sublime can exist anymore, it would seem to be in the alienating incomprehension provoked by these mysterious artifacts: commodity as sublime hologram.

Rudolf Otto [8]

Rudolf Otto

Turning now to the meaning of the numinous we will encounter a number of similarities with the sublime but also a crucial difference to which we will return later. The word “numinous” was coined by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his 1917 book The Idea of the Holy [9]. In this work, Otto wished to examine the holy in a particular sense. He was concerned with an originary understanding of the holy which describes the religious experience prior to its formulation in ethical and rational terms. In order to distinguish this particular sense of the holy, Otto suggested the term numinous.

Otto argued that the primal religious experience was characterized by feelings of dread, awe, and terror. These feelings are direct apprehensions of the numinous, and they gave rise to early religious sensibilities, or what Otto calls “demon worship.” Later, the notions of gods and God appear but they are still attended with this uncanny feeling of the numinous. The peculiar attributes of Yahweh such as fury, jealousy, and wrath are all expressions of the numinous and as such, “would be quite meaningless if taken literally in the sense of a real conceivable and apprehensible anger.”[8] Instead, these attributes are “ideograms” that stand for the inexpressible nature of the numinous which is said to be “wholly other.” Insofar as religion retains these non-rational elements it is still expressive of the numinous.

But as any particular religion develops it tends to become more formalized and rational, and it schematizes the original experience of the numinous into codes and laws. Whilst this process is an inevitable part of the evolution of religion it does tend to suppress the non-rational elements that informed the numinous experience. As Otto puts it, “The conceptual and doctrinal – the ideal of orthodoxy – began to preponderate over the inexpressible, whose only life is in the conscious mental attitude of the devout soul.”[9]

One thing to note about Otto’s description of the numinous is that it is an experience, or apprehension, that arises from a sense of encounter with something uncanny, something that is entirely outside the natural world: wholly other. “It issues from the deepest foundation of cognitive apprehension that the soul possesses, and, though it of course comes into being in and amid the sensory data and empirical material of the natural world and cannot anticipate or dispense with those, yet it does not arise out of them, but only by their means.”[10]

In this, the numinous is distinguished from the sublime. Indeed, Otto suggests that the sublime is probably stimulated by a prior religious feeling. The importance of this lies in the fact that the numinous cannot be reduced to human or natural limits. It is defined precisely by its otherness or its uncanniness. Whilst the sublime does seek towards the absolute it does so through an apprehension of the natural world and perhaps an intuiting of something greater that is interfused with nature. The numinous is a direct engagement with something entirely beyond nature. The two can easily blend into each other, and by their natures neither can be clearly delimited. But my argument is that the numinous, by virtue of its origin in the “wholly other,” has a powerful centering principle that resists dispersal. Rather like a black hole, the numinous allows the natural world to gravitate around it, but in itself it remains mysterious and impenetrable.

The Idea of the Holy was published in 1917 and may have influenced Spengler when he came to write about a Culture’s originary perception of “numina”: “He feels about him an almost indescribable alien life of unknown powers, and traces the origin of these effects to “numina,” to the Other, inasmuch as this Other also possesses Life . . . Now it is important to observe how the consciousness of each Culture intellectually condenses its primary “numina,” It imposes significant words – names – on them and thereby conjures (seizes or bounds) them. By virtue of the Name they are subject to the intellectual power of the man who possesses the Name.”[11]

Spengler’s entire philosophy is predicated on the notion that these primary numina are particular to specific Cultures; they determine the particular forms through which each Culture will unfold. This is important because it emphasizes the importance of the specificity of a Culture’s origin. For any particular Culture, the numinous will manifest itself in particular ways, and one way in which it will make itself known will be through particular numinous places. Every religion and Culture has particular places of numinous intensity, whether real or mythical. When the presence of the “wholly other,” numinous presence is felt, it sanctifies that particular place. But this is not the same as nature worship. In Otto’s terms, the numinous doesn’t arise out of nature, but by means of nature.

All of this is in accord with the meaning of the word “numen” which is a presiding god of a particular place. And it is this that gives the numinous experience its centering value.

In contrast to this, the sublime tends towards placing man as the centering principle and this allows it to take its place in postmodernity, where everyone becomes the center of his own virtual network. But, even here, the virtual, postmodern sublime shares something with the authentically numinous. Most notably, both are outside of chronological time. The numinous, as a “wholly other” category, is an aspect of eternity, or an intrusion of the eternal into the chronological. The postmodern state of virtuality is atemporal but in a very different way. The virtual exists as a digital cacophony of temporal superimposition. In other words, all information in the world exists simultaneously on the tiny screen you are looking at now. So the numinous is a moment of incomprehensible fear, when the vastness of the divine presence outside time is glimpsed; the virtual is a perpetual deferral of historical time wherein pastiches of all cultural forms play out as white noise. This distinction ties in well with Alexander Dugin’s notion that the virtual lies below the real, the sacred above it.[12]

My argument throughout this essay is that the sublime lacks an authoritative centering principle, a meta-principle, because it is derived from the natural world. Thus, it intuits a sense of presence behind nature but fails to get beyond nature to experience this presence directly. The numinous is the direct experience of this presence that the sublime artists could only intuit. Without a recurring engagement with the numinous any culture is destined to chase its own tail, pointlessly searching for something that exists outside the possibility of its own terms of articulation. It plays out as utter dispersal, as all information becomes reduced to the digital, or atomic, level and all distinctions are leveled out.

Returning for a moment to Edmund Burke, in the section of the Philosophical Enquiry concerning obscurity he notes that an idol is located in the dark part of the temple. This allows it to retain an aura of mystery and terror. But, as Rudolf Otto described it, this mysterious element of religious worship is destined to disappear and be replaced with more rational and ethical formulations. These formulations cannot satisfy the deeper passions of man and so there begins a quest to rediscover the hidden presence that artists intuit and whose existence ordinary people crave. As I have attempted to argue here, seeking that presence through the sublime is not a radical enough maneuver. It is a romantic gesture, but ultimately it cannot encompass the absolute.

And that leaves us where we are now, a society in which it is impossible to even imagine the absolute, the wholly other. Instead, the highest value that we can possibly imagine is all too human. To illustrate this point, consider David Cronenberg’s film Cosmopolis. In this film a young billionaire, Erik Packer, is driven around in a limousine in search of a haircut. His car doubles as his office, relaying real time information about his currency speculation to him through various screens embedded into the limousine’s interior. He meets various people in the car including his chief of theory who talks to him about cyberspace capital and, and remarks that even the word “computer” now sounds old fashioned. Packer is emblematic of the decentered, virtual, alienated excess of postmodernity. At one point he decides that he will buy the Rothko Chapel and have it installed in his apartment. Whilst this points to the character’s hubris it is also telling in that the Rothko Chapel has become the ultimate acme of the unattainable, the highest cultural artifact imaginable. For Packer, its possession would emit a sacred luminosity into his life that might even be able to eclipse the LED glow that has come to replace sunlight in his world. He would not express it in these terms, though; he just wants to know what it would be like to be alive.

The urge to seek the sublime is perhaps winding down, as the sublime object becomes increasingly mundane. The capacity for genuine awe has likewise receded as all cultural forms have been rapidly assimilated to a virtual Babel. But the ghastly example of the newly created Islamic State spreading its Jihad across social media in a thoroughly postmodern way reminds us that terror can still arise even through virtual networks. Perhaps this is the final fate of the sublime.

It would appear that we are some distance from rediscovering the numinous. Unlike the sublime, the numinous provides a centering, focal force for the culture. Yeats wrote that “the center cannot hold” and that is because we have ceased to engage with the numinous. At the present time we are surrounded by non-spaces and virtual environments. Certainly, the numinous cannot arise from these. But, by virtue of its being wholly other, the numinous cannot be degraded by such environments either. Any appearance of the numinous is direct and devastating; it is not subject to the ebb and flow of cultural development. Our capacity to encounter it remains intact and it may be our only hope of reversing our ongoing entropy.


1. Viewable online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DKhc1pcDFM [10]

2. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 36.

3. Ibid., 47.

4. Cited in Julian Bell, “Caspar David Friedrich at the edge of the imaginable,” The Times Literary Supplement 26 October 2012.

5. Norbert Wolf, Caspar David Friedrich (Cologne: Taschen, 2012), 21.

6. Fredric Jameson, “‘End of Art’ or ‘End of History’?” in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983–1998 (London: Verso, 1998).

7. Barnett Newman, “The Sublime is Now” in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds., Art in Theory 1900 –2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).

8. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (London: Oxford University Press, 1936), 111.

9. Ibid., 112.

10. Ibid., 117.

11. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Abridged (New York: The Modern Library, 1962), 200.

12. Christopher Pankhurst, “The End of the Present World,” February 25, 2014, https://counter-currents.com/2014/02/the-end-of-the-present-world/ [11]