Sidi Ibrahim Titus Burckhardt
Titus Burckhardt, a German Swiss, was of the “traditionalist” or “perennialist” 20th century school of thought, devoting his life to the study of wisdom and tradition. A major voice of philosophia perennis, he was highly articulate in the realms of existentialism, psychoanalysis and sociology, and an exponent of universal truth in metaphysics, cosmology and traditional art. He wrote in German and in French, with a profound simplicity of expression.
Titus Burckhardt was born in 1908 into
a patrician family of
He was the artistic director of the Urs
Graf Publishing House of Lausanne and Olten. Here he
produced exceptional illuminated manuscripts for publication, and directed a
series of volumes entitled Stätten des Geistes (Homesteads of the Spirit). His book,
Burckhardt actively participated in the two Festivals of the World of Islam held in London in the 1970’s, and directed the major exhibitions of Islamic Art at the Hayward Gallery in 1976. His monumental efforts and numerous published works were instrumental in the establishment of graduate programs in Islamic art and architecture as distinct academic fields in universities around the world, and no less contributed to the establishment of the major galleries of Islamic art in many museums throughout the world.
He died in
In all of his writings, Titus Burckhardt intimately touched on science and art, piety and tradition, beauty and truth. His quest for the Beautiful was a defining of the science of beauty, a spiritual quest, a search for Truth.
Much of Burckhardt’s writings are in traditional cosmology, which he called the “handmaid of metaphysics”. In Alchemy, Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul (1960), he presented alchemy as the expression of a spiritual psychology and as an intellectual and symbolic support for contemplation and realization. He brought science and art together into an integral relationship and showed the importance of ‘the science of the properties of things’ (`ilm khawass al-ashya’) in understanding how traditional art transforms the natural objects and materials. For example, he wrote “In the spiritual order, alchemy is none other than the art of transmuting bodily consciousness into spirit: ‘body must be made spirit’, say the alchemists, ‘for spirit to become body’. By analogy one can say of Muslim architecture that it transforms stone into light which, in its turn, is transformed into crystals.” [Art of Islam, p. 211]
What is Islamic art and architecture? Why is Islamic art in fact Islamic? Titus Burckhardt answered these questions as no one had ever done before him. He lectured and wrote profusely on the topic. For him, the primary rules of art are that 1) the form of an object, its general form as well as its decoration, must correspond to its purpose, and 2) the aesthetic effect of a work should be obtained with a minimum of elements. Burckhardt wrote about the metaphysics of art, and saw the “form” of art as arising from the revelation which encompasses a civilization, and the “matter” of art as the techniques, materials and methods which the civilization employs, and demonstrated that Islamic art’s “form” flows from the Qur’anic revelation and that the source and principles of Islamic art arise from the inner dimensions of the Noble Qur’an. His intimate familiarity with the Qur’an and his vast knowledge of the significance of iconic art enabled him to explain why Islamic art could not be iconic, and why it could however be the locus of Divine Presence without being iconic.
In his essay, “Degrees of Symbolism in Islamic Art” Burckhardt said “the whole world is the symbol of God – to the extent that it does not claim to be other than it is…There is here a whole science whose theme is the reintegration of the multiple in the one, which implies, amongst other things, a union of time and space, a union that is reflected in forms such as that of the muqarnas (in architecture, the spatial forms known as stalactites) which, properly speaking is a rhythmical articulation of space. Among the symbols of unity – and it is always a question of ontological unity within the cosmos, and not of transcendent unity as such – the profoundest and clearest is that of light, which the Muslim artist knows how to capture, filter, and crystallize in a thousand different ways.”
“The ornamental art of the
Burckhardt revealed the spiritual significance of Islamic art. He advocated that the highest meaning of all Islamic art is always the Unity, and showed how it reveals and leads to the principial Unity, and as well as how it reflects the mystery of the manifestation of the One in the many, and the multiplicity in that Unity. Titus Burckhardt has been described by Syed Hossein Nasr as a noble scholar who “saw that the true goal of traditional art is to aid us to become ourselves, once again, works of art, to return to our fitrah or the primordial nature we still bear deep within the substance of our being, that primordial nature which is the ultimate work of art created by the Supreme Artisan, the Sani` without the realization of whose Reality there would be no sina`ah or art worthy of the name.” [“The Vision of Titus Ibrahim Burckhardt”]
Works by Titus Burckhardt
An Introduction to Sufi Doctrine
Sacred Art in East and West
(1941), Land am Rand der Zeit (Land on the Edge of Time)
(1960), Alchemy, Walter-Verlag Ag. Olten; trans. William Stoddart (1977), Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, Fons Vitae.
(1967), Sacred Art East and West, trans. Lord Northbourne, Perennial Books, Bedfont, Middlesex.
(1970), Die maurische Kultur in Spanien, Callwey,
(1976), Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, trans. J.
Peter Hobson, World Islam Festival Trust,
(1977), Mystical Astrology According to Ibn Arabi, trans. Bulent Rauf, Beshara,
(1987), Mirror of the Intellect, trans. William Stoddart, State University of New York Press, Albany, N.Y.
Michon, Jean-Louis (1999), “Titus Burckhardt and the Sense of Beauty: Why and How He Loved and Served Morocco” in Sophia, vol.5, no. 2, pp. 113-140.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein (1999), “The Vision of Titus Ibrahim Burckhardt” in Sophia, vol.5, no. 2, p. 141-154..