Piet Mondrian, 1910-11,   “Evolution” *

( from The Spiritual in Art •Abstract  Painting • 1890 – 1985 )  


“The New Age” Movement and “Modern art”

By H. Reed Armstrong

So called “Modern Art” is a subject of on going debate. Admirers point to the creative impulse of the human spirit which is ever seeking new forms of expression, while most critics of “Modern art,” generally ground their position on the lack of objective criteria by which the aesthetic value may be judged.  The arguments of both sides generally remain within the confines of philosophical argumentation in regard to aesthetics 1. 


Besides these philosophical propositions grounded in objectivist or idealist aesthetics, there are, however, identifiable spiritual sources underlying the “modernist” movement that go back to the break down of traditional Christianity among the intelligentsia in the later half of the 19th century. This phenomenon is meticulously documented in the 1985 catalogue of the Los Angeles Museum of Art’s titled,   The Spiritual in Art • Abstract Painting •1890 -1985.   The distinct but analogous spiritualities described therein, might well be lumped together under the umbrella of what is today described as “New Age.” 2. Discerning the occult religious underpinnings of many of the modernist movements in art is more than academic speculation as they have spilled over into the sacred art and architecture of our churches over the past forty to fifty years.


Before delving into the artistic works, their authors and their inspirations described in this catalogue, the “New Age” movement itself needs to be defined.


The Church recognizing the ubiquity of the “New Age” movement, issued a formidable 54 page draft In February of 2003, titled, Jesus Christ the Bearer of Living Waters, A Christian Reflection on the “New Age.” The overall consensus of the researchers and organizers of this document; The Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, was that “New Age” spirituality is incompatible with orthodox Catholic teaching.  3

These are the words of H. EM. Cardinal Paul Poupard, pronounced during the public presentation of the document at the Vatican in October of 2003  4.

"The phenomenon of the New Age Movement, together with other new religious movements, is one of the most pressing challenges to the Christian Faith. It is a religious challenge, which is at the same time a cultural one; the New Age Movement sets forth theories and doctrines about God, man and the world, which are incompatible with the Christian Faith.”


Cardinal Poupard went on to say, “The spirit of this new universal religion was explained more clearly in a very popular way in the 1960 musical entitled Hair, when it was proclaimed to the public of the whole world that "This is the dawn of the Age of Aquarius", an age based upon harmony, understanding and love. In astrological terms, the Age of Pisces was identified with the time in which Christianity ruled; but it appears that this age should come to an end soon in order to make room for the Age of Aquarius when Christianity will lose its influence and leave the way open for a universal, more humane religion. A large part of traditional morals would no longer have any place in the New Age of Aquarius. People's way of thinking should be completely changed and there should no longer be the ancient separation of male and female.


This brief quote from the Cardinal’s speech and reference to the lyrics from the musical Hair, help clarify the title of the document, in that Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is the unique “source of living waters” (as spoken to the Samaritan woman at the well).


Given the complexity of the movement, I will quote extensively from the actual Vatican document in an attempt to show both the diversity and unity of “New Age” thought.

The footnotes contained within the text refer to the notes in the original on-line document and are not referenced in this paper. They may be found at the original Vatican site. (See my foot note 3.)


The document starts out with the historical antecedents of the movement. “When one examines many New Age traditions, it soon becomes clear that there is, in fact, little in the New Age that is new. The name seems to have gained currency through Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, at the time of the French and American Revolutions, but the reality it denotes is a contemporary variant of Western esotericism. This dates back to Gnostic groups which grew up in the early days of Christianity, and gained momentum at the time of the Reformation in Europe. It has grown in parallel with scientific world-views, and acquired a rational justification through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It has involved a progressive rejection of a personal God and a focus on other entities which would often figure as intermediaries between the divine and humanity…”

“Some of the traditions which flow into New Age are: ancient Egyptian occult practices, Cabbalism, early Christian gnosticism, Sufism, the lore of the Druids, Celtic Christianity, … “It is a “syncretism of esoteric and secular elements”.(16) They link into a widely-held perception that the time is ripe for a fundamental change in individuals, in society and in the world.”

“In [this] context, the term “paradigm shift” is often used. In some cases it is clearly supposed that this shift is not simply desirable, but inevitable. The rejection of modernity underlying this desire for change is not new, but can be described as “a modern revival of pagan religions with a mixture of influences from both eastern religions and also from modern psychology, philosophy, science, and the counterculture that developed in the 1950s and 1960s”.(17) New Age is a witness to nothing less than a cultural revolution, a complex reaction to the dominant ideas and values in western culture, and yet its idealistic criticism is itself ironically typical of the culture it criticizes.”

 “The underlying theology of the “New Age” lies in: “Developing our human potential will put us in touch with our inner divinity, and with those parts of our selves which have been alienated and suppressed. This is revealed above all in Altered States of Consciousness (ASCs), which are induced either by drugs or by various mind-expanding techniques, particularly in the context of “transpersonal psychology”. ...God?


“New Age has a marked preference for Eastern or pre-Christian religions, which are reckoned to be uncontaminated by Judaeo-Christian distortions. Hence great respect is given to ancient agricultural rites and to fertility cults. “Gaia”, Mother Earth, is offered as an alternative to God the Father, whose image is seen to be linked to a patriarchal conception of male domination of women. There is talk of God, but it is not a personal God; the God of which New Age speaks is neither personal nor transcendent. Nor is it the Creator and sustainer of the universe, but an “impersonal energy” immanent in the world, with which it forms a “cosmic unity”: “All is one”. This unity is monistic, pantheistic or, more precisely, panentheistic. God is the “life-principle”, the “spirit or soul of the world”, the sum total of consciousness existing in the world. In a sense, everything is God. God's presence is clearest in the spiritual aspects of reality, so every mind/spirit is, in some sense, God.” … Or “divine energy.” consciously received by men and women, often described as “Christic energy”. There is also talk of Christ, but this does not mean Jesus of Nazareth. “Christ” is a title applied to someone who has arrived at a state of consciousness where he or she perceives him- or herself to be divine and can thus claim to be a “universal Master”. Jesus of Nazareth was not the Christ, but simply one among many historical figures in whom this “Christic” nature is revealed, as is the case with Buddha and others. Every historical realization of the Christ shows clearly that all human beings are heavenly and divine, and leads them towards this realization.”

“The innermost and most personal (“psychic”) level on which this “divine cosmic energy” is “heard” by human beings is also called “Holy Spirit”.”


To continue with the Vatican document:


 .3.2. The essential matrix of New Age thinking

“The essential matrix of New Age thinking is to be found in the esoteric-theosophical tradition which was fairly widely accepted in European intellectual circles in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was particularly strong in freemasonry, spiritualism, occultism and theosophy, which shared a kind of esoteric culture. In this world-view, the visible and invisible universes are linked by a series of correspondences, analogies and influences between microcosm and macrocosm, between metals and planets, between planets and the various parts of the human body, between the visible cosmos and the invisible realms of reality. Nature is a living being, shot through with networks of sympathy and antipathy, animated by a light and a secret fire which human beings seek to control. People can contact the upper or lower worlds by means of their imagination (an organ of the soul or spirit), or by using mediators (angels, spirits, devils) or rituals.”


 “.... Alchemy, magic, astrology and other elements of traditional esotericism had been thoroughly integrated with aspects of modern culture, including the search for causal laws, evolutionism, psychology and the study of religions. It reached its clearest form in the ideas of Helena Blavatsky, a Russian medium who founded the Theosophical Society with Henry Olcott in New York in 1875. The Society aimed to fuse elements of Eastern and Western traditions in an evolutionary type of spiritualism… .”

“A prominent component of Mrs. Blavatsky's writings was the emancipation of women, which involved an attack on the “male” God of Judaism, of Christianity and of Islam. She urged people to return to the mother-goddess of Hinduism and to the practice of feminine virtues. This continued under the guidance of Annie Besant, who was in the vanguard of the feminist movement. Wicca and “women's spirituality” carry on this struggle against “patriarchal” Christianity today.”


“American psychologist William James and the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung defined religion as experience, not dogma, and taught that human beings can change their mental attitudes in such a way that they are able to become architects of their own destiny. … collective unconscious.”


Having laid out the principles of “New Age” thought, we can now move on to its influence on Modern Art. Before turning to the 1985 Catalogue issued by the Los Angeles Museum, mentioned above, we must start with the Founding father of abstract art, Wassily Kandinsky,


Kandinsky enunciated the tie between the “New Art” and the principles of “New Age” spirituality succinctly in his 1910 watershed essay, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. : “The Spiritual triangle moves slowly onwards and upwards. Today one of the largest of the lower segments has reached the point of using the first battle cry of the materialist creed. The dwellers in this segment group themselves round various banners in religion. They call themselves Jews, Catholics, Protestants etc. But the are really atheists… .”)  … “On the other hand, the number is increasing of men who put no trust in the methods of materialistic science when it deals with those questions which have to do with “non matter,”  or matter which is not accessible to our minds. Just as art is looking for help from primitives, so these men are turning to half forgotten times in order to get help from their half forgotten methods.”…  “Mme Blavatsky was the first person, after a life of many years in India, to see a connection between these “savages” and our “civilization.” From that moment there began a tremendous spiritual movement which today includes a large number of people and has assumed a material form in the Theosophical Society. This society consists of groups who seek to approach the problem of the spirit by way of the inner knowledge.” (p.10, 12)

It is precisely this search for “the inner knowledge, according to the authors of The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890-1985, that is the common denominator of the so called Modern Art , often valued at millions, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars, hanging the prestigious galleries and museums

The catalogue's list of artists who have dabbled in the occult is a "who's who" of Modern Art: Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Augusto Giacometti, Adolf Gotlieb, Jasper Johns, Wassily Kandinsky, Ellsworth Kelly, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Eduard Munch, Barnett Newman, Georgia O'Keeffe, Jackson Pollack, Ad Reinhart, Mark Rothko, and Albert Pinkham Ryder, among a host of others. Only Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, considered sell-outs and successful materialists by the self appointed establishment, are missing.

The catalogue also contains an appendix of the "occult" sources of these artists: Alchemy, Kabbalah, Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, Paracelcus, Jacob Boehm, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism, Swedenborg, Shamanism, and Theosophy, among others. There is no mention of traditional Christianity or Judaism in this compendium. The common denominator of all of these systems according to Maurice Tuchman, organizer of this exhibition and its catalogue, is that they all share the following world view:

"The universe is a single, living substance; mind and matter also are one; all things evolve in dialectical opposition; thus the universe comprises paired opposites (male-female, light-dark, vertical-horizontal, positive-negative), [sic] everything corresponds in a universal analogy, with things above as they are below; imagination is real; and self realization can come by illumination, accident, or an induced state." 5.

From another source, Man and His Symbols a book edited by Carl Jung, and one fundamental to the understanding of Modern Art, psychologist Aniela Jaffe confirms this interest in the occult:

"It must be realized that what these artists, Jean Arp, Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian etc.] were concerned with was something far greater than a problem of form and distinction between "concrete" and abstract," figurative and non-figurative. Their goal was the center of life and things, their changeless background and an inward certitude. Art had become mysticism... Their mysticism was alien to Christianity, for that "Mercurial Spirit" is alien to the heavenly spirit. Indeed it was Christianity's dark adversary that was forging its way in art. Here we begin to see the real historical and symbolic significance of "modern art." Like the hermetic movements in the Middle Ages, it must be understood as a mysticism of the spirit of the earth and therefore as an expression of our time compensatory to Christianity....As has already been pointed out, the alchemists personified this spirit as "the spirit Mercurius" and called it with good reason "Mercurius Duplex" [ the two-faced, dual Mercurius ]. In the religious language of Christianity, it is called the devil. But, however improbable it may seem, the devil too has a dual aspect. In the positive sense he appears as Lucifer--literally, the light bringer.. ...Looked at in the light of these difficult and paradoxical ideas, modern art [which we have recognized as symbolic of the chthonic (earthly) spirit ] has a dual aspect. In the positive sense it is the expression of a mysteriously profound nature-mysticism; in the negative, it can only be interpreted as the expression of an evil destructive spirit. The two sides belong together, for the paradox is one of the basic qualities of the unconscious and its contents." 6. Jaffe goes on to quote one of the patriarchal figures of modern art, Paul Klee: "Even evil must not be a triumphant or degrading enemy, but a power collaborating in the whole." 7

Dr. Jung, himself, was perhaps the world's greatest theoretician of the occult and “New Age” thought. His writings on Alchemy, Gnosticism and Kabbalah are Promethean.  In his book, The Psychological Approach to the Doctrine of the Trinity, Jung proposed, as in Lurianic  Kabbalah,  8. that God (like man) in order to realize his ultimate "wholeness" ought to recognize his "dark side" and "reincorporate" within himself creation in its entirety. According to Jung, the devil, as prince of this world, is as much a "Son of God" as Jesus; and this son is to be incorporated into the Trinity so as to establish the more symmetrical "Quaternary." 9 The influence of Jung on 20th century religion and art cannot be overstated.

Cult and culture go hand in hand, for today as throughout history art is intimately tied to religion. In the words of the late curator of Oriental art at the Boston Museum of Fine arts, Ananda Coomarswamy, "We must stop telling people about art, and start telling them what art is about. It is about God, whom we rarely mention in polite society." 10

Just as Indian art reflects its Buddhist or Hindu underpinnings, just as Romanesque and Gothic art project Christian faith and hope, or Renaissance art reflects humanism, so also much of twentieth century art reflects underlying currents of what can only be described as the occult world view. Once the Judaic revelation that a transcendent God, the Creator, is radically other than His Creation and the Christian doctrine of Redemption in Christ is rejected, occult or "New Age" thinking provides the needed substitute. Subjectivist mysticism replaces both reason and revelation and man may simply follow the voice of his own god within.

As is usually the case, G.K Chesterton had it right when he pointed out in Orthodoxy:

 "That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within.”


1. The modernist view is perhaps best exemplified by the view of Leo Steinberg that, “ ‘art’ exists to challenge our most cherished beliefs and that all profoundly original art looks ugly at first,”  as opposed to the traditional view expressed by orthodox Catholic philosopher Joseph Pieper that: “Beauty is the glow of the true and the good that shines forth from every ordered state of being.” See:  Is “Beauty” an objective reality or only in the eye of the beholder? H. Reed Armstrong, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, 32 No. 1 Winter 2009

2. Maurice Tuchman et al., The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting , 1890-1985(New York: Abbeville Press, 1986)

 While Art History and Theory were, until recently, generally approached as studies in Aesthetics under the general umbrella of Philosophy, art has universally been tied to religion. It is only when, as in certain historical periods of “enlightenment,” or when the “gods” have lost their power and appeal, that images become the object of purely aesthetic appraisal.

        3. There is no official printed version of this document. It must be viewed at the Vatican web site: www.vatican.va/.../rc_pc_interelg_doc_20030203_new-age_en.html

      4. www.vatican.va/.../rc_pc_interelg_doc_20030203_press-conf-new-age_en.html

5. Maurice Tuchman et al., The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting , 1890-1985   p. 19.

6. Aniela Jaffe, Man and His Symbols ed. Carl G. Jung (New York: Dell, 1964) pp. 306-7, 316-17.

7. ibid., p. 320

8. Quote:  Joseph Dan, Jewish Book News, May 9, 1996, p.27. “The Kabbalah often presented the universe as a battleground between satanic divine powers and good divine powers, drawing a parallel world of divine ‘emanations of the left’ which are the enemies of God, yet they are divine in the full sense of the term. Lurianic kabbalah found the origin of evil within the eternal godhead itself, before the creation and the emanation of other divine powers. The Kabbalah strongly believes that the fate of divine powers is decided by the good and bad deeds of human beings, and that it is the task of the Jewish people to ‘correct’ (tikkun) the incompleteness of the divinity itself. One can say that the usual presentations of’ introduction to Judaism’ are censored, expurgated descriptions, from which the essential concepts of the kabbalah have been removed.”

9 Carl Gustav Jung, A Psychological Approach to the Doctrine of the Trinity Vol.11 of complete works, Bollingen Series (Princeton University Press)

10. Ananda K. Coomarswamy, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art (New York: Dover, 1956) p. 208.


*  In regard to the painting, “Evolution” by Mondrian, “The triptych represents the theosophical doctrine of evolution, man’s progression from a low and materialistic stage  toward spirituality and higher insight.” Carel Blotkamp, The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting , 1890-1985 , p. 100