Nicholas Roerich – The Art of Religion, the Science of Art and the Religion of Science

The Banner of Peace – reflections on art, science and religion                  by Tim McKamey

Madonna Oriflamma

     Madonna Oriflamma

    Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947)

Nicholas Roerich was an artist, educator and cultural leader with active interests in archaeology, architecture and law, a synthetic philosopher combining an understanding of the relativist philosophy of western science, Buddhism and Hindu philosophy.

  The Art of Religion, the Science of Art and the Religion of Science 

     Recognizing how a title such as this may be problematic for some, may seem even confusing at first, it does give one pause to think, and if we achieve only that, then perhaps we will have accomplished something after all.  While art, science and religion may seem like very different activities, they can be seen as different approaches for doing the same thing, namely, understanding the world and our place in it. *

*  For the purposes of this discussion, the terms ‘art’ and ‘music’ should be considered equivalent as in “the arts”. Likewise, ‘religion’ may include all forms of spiritual practice, from aboriginal dreamtime to zen meditation in addition to  conventional religious forms. The key here is to consider how art, science and religion can work together to heal the fragmentation in today’s culture caused by over-specialization and reductionism.

     We can approach this from multiple perspectives. Art and music can be and often are simply art ‘for art’s sake’.  But from the earliest times and throughout the world, art and music have also been put to use in the service of a wide range of spiritual interests from metaphysical philosophies to all of the world’s religions. From the symbolic language of medieval alchemical emblems to the masterpieces of the great painters and sculptors, we have seen a rich language of the spirit evolve. From ceremonial drumming and shamanic tribal dance to the profoundly spiritual works of composers around the world we have witnessed an evolution of the voice of the spirit.  Art has also been an effective tool in the sciences. A picture is, as they say, worth a thousand words, and a great many complex scientific ideas have been made so much more accessible through the use of illustrations and all kinds of graphic representations, particularly since the advent of animation, motion pictures and computer graphics.

    There is also a science to art. This is evident in the development of the materials, the pigments, the glazes, the nature of clay and stone, blown glass and metal fabrication. There are the aspects of proportion and perspective in drawing and painting and the realm of number theory and mathematics practiced in musical composition, instrument building and the science of acoustics. Recent advances in technology have brought a wealth of understanding to fields of neuroscience shedding new light on both performance and the listening experience as well.

     In the realms of quantum physics, cosmology and mathematics, one can see some of the same questions being asked by scientists that have occupied spiritual seekers for millennia.

An equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.”   – Ramanujan, Indian mathematician

The pure mathematician is more of an artist than a scientist. He does not simply measure the world. He invents complex and playful patterns without the least regard for their practical applicability.”   – Alan Watts

     Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has spoken of the ‘mind of God’ and some quantum physicists see the ‘fingerprints of God’ in sub-atomic particles. Mathematicians going back to Pythagoras in Greece, and even more ancient Indian and Arab astronomers, astrologers and cosmologists did not hesitate in  assigning sacred values to complex and elegant formulae utilized for everything from measuring the earth, to calculating the relationships between the planets, the ‘music of the spheres’. This practice continued well past the Middle Ages. Issac Newton and Johannes Kepler were avid alchemists, astrologers and downright mystics. At the same time they established many of the fundamental laws of gravity and planetary motion.  They found no conflict between spiritual values and mathematical values and even as astrology grew into astronomy, and alchemy into chemistry, similar notions continue to have relevance today as eastern mysticism and quantum physics seem to be describing the same territory in only slightly different terms.  Then there are the concepts of sacred geometry regarding standing stones, ley lines and astronomical observations of native Americans all over South and Central America, the observatories of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, Newgrange in Ireland, Stonehenge in England, the works of mound-builders and temple architects of the Americas, Egypt, the Mayan Calendar, the Pyramids, all these works are at once religious, scientific and exquisite works of art.

   In her books The Great Transformation, and The History of God, Karen Armstrong describes the development of the major monotheistic religions that evolved from earlier pantheistic religions and the migrations of the Celts from ancient India through the Middle East, across Europe and on to the British Isles.  Following the passage of cultural icons, language and artistic motifs, we can see how spiritual values are preserved and transmitted through the mythologies of the people across vast distances and span the centuries.  Archetypes and song cycles are vessels that survive societal transformations and maintain the cultural identity of the people through countless changes in political leadership, and assimilation by other societies. In a recent article Armstrong suggests that we may be losing the “art of religion” and becoming the poorer for it. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, secular humanism and rapid scientific advancement displaced much of the spiritual life that had provided a kind of moral compass for so long. While it is certainly true that we had to outgrow superstition and rigid religious hierarchies in order to establish a truer sense of personal identity and liberate ourselves from corrupt and oppressive regimes, we find ourselves today in the precarious position of wielding weapons powerful enough to destroy the world, and very few values in place to keep us from doing just that.

 “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

– Albert Einstein

     Exploring and deciphering the vast reaches of the universe and learning how things like black holes, quasars, pulsars, dark energy and dark matter operate, one cannot help but wonder what manages to keep it all going for eons. It seems to do just fine with or without us.  We probe and discover, we analyze and describe the motions, the distances, the relationships and properties of more and more of it every day.  But we are no closer to understanding what makes it all tick than we were when we plotted the star movements and solar and lunar cycles with ancient observatories of stone in the deserts of the Americas, in the villages of Africa, in ancient Babylonia and China.  For a very long time while all those calculations and estimations were being figured, mythological explanations were developed in order to describe some of the mysteries in ways that made sense to the peoples of those times.  These stories were not simply concocted for entertainment.  They were ways to teach that everything is related and that cosmic actions have cosmic consequences.  The myths and legends acted as a kind of story board or outline for the greater activity observed in the heavens.  Not wanting to be left out, it seems likely that we included ourselves in the great panorama and that lessons could be learned from our observations and applied to our own lives. “As above, so below.” Over time, the mathematicians and observers were able to flesh out the stories in the myths and give them actual substance in the form of timetables and calendars. Predicting seasonal changes was paramount in planting and agriculture, animal husbandry and even domestic reproduction. Knowledge of these cycles meant the difference between survival and extinction.  Slowly some of the stories became understood for the parables they were.  But much of it continues to be shrouded in mystery even today, for our calculations and observations have just not reached out far enough yet for us to understand the whole story.

    There is a middle ground between theories of Intelligent Design and neo-Darwinist evolution.  It does not have to be one or the other.  But our society has become so polarized on these matters that it is often difficult to see the forest of relevant ideas for all the trees of arguments put forth by naïve religious fundamentalists and arrogant biologists alike. There have always been men of science who also practice a faith, as there have always been men of faith who understand the value of reason and logic.  But it’s been so much easier for the media pundits, who excel at over-simplification and sensationalism, to pit the one against the other, perpetuating misunderstanding, distrust and confusion, which politicians and corporations then turn around and exploit for their own purposes, expanding their personal power-base at the cost of enormous losses to personal freedoms for the rest of us. But I digress.

     Our point we recall, is that the triangle of art, science and religion, (or at least some sense of spirituality if the term religion is too strong for some), are all three important practices if we are to have an integral understanding of the world that will sustain us into the future and help us evolve beyond petty nationalistic, patriotic and materialistic indulgences.

     The Banner of Peace from the work of Nicholas Roerich is a simple but effective symbol that can help us remember the importance of these three ways of knowing working together. Nicholas Roerich (1874 – 1974) was an artist, educator and cultural leader with active interests in archaeology, architecture and law, a  synthetic philosopher combining an understanding of the relativist philosophy of western science, Buddhism and Hindu philosophy. The devastations of the first World War and the Russian revolution led him to realize how important the cultural heritage of every nation is to the world as a whole. He believed that not only are the buildings and art of every culture important, but the also the creative activities, the universities, the libraries, the hospitals, concert halls and theaters.  In an effort to protect all these things from the ravages of war and neglect he campaigned in an international effort throughout the 1920s eventually composing a treaty with the help of international legal experts.  This treaty came to be known as the Roerich Pact.


     The Roerich Pact and Banner of Peace movement grew rapidly during the 1930s with international conferences in Bruges, Belgium, in Montevideo, Uruguay and in Washington D.C. The Pact declared the necessity for protection of the cultural product and activity of the world – both during war and peace – and prescribed a method by which all sites of cultural value would be declared neutral and protected, just as the Red Cross does with hospitals. Indeed, the Roerich Pact was often called the Red Cross of Culture.

     The Banner of Peace was to be displayed on all sites of cultural activity and historical value declaring them neutral independent of combatant forces.  The Banner of Peace symbol has ancient origins. Perhaps its earliest known example appears on Stone Age amulets: three dots, without the enclosing circle. Roerich came across numerous later examples in various parts of the world and knew that it represented a deep and sophisticated understanding of the triune nature of existence. But for the purposes of the Banner and the Pact, Roerich described the circle as representing the totality of culture, with the three dots being Art, Science, and Religion, three of the most embracing of human cultural activities. He also described the circle as representing the eternity of time, encompassing the past, present and future. The sacred origins of the symbol as an illustration of the trinities, fundamental to all religions, remain central to the meaning of the Pact and the Banner today.  The Roerich Pact was first agreed to by twenty-one nations of the Americas and signed as a treaty in the White House, in the presence of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on April 15, 1935, by all the members of the Pan-American Union. It was later signed by other countries also.”  The treaty can be viewed along with the signers at the Roerich Museum’s website;

     The Madonna Oriflamma (see top of article) was painted by Roerich in 1932.  “The “Mother of the Banner” was originally made for the Roerich center in Bruges, Belgium which was promoting the Roerich Pact and the Banner.  Oriflamme (the French spelling, because that was where it was most used as a word) is a banner, or a symbol, meant to inspire and lead, often carried into battle.  The Banner’s symbol is Chintamani. In many Asian countries, the name Chintamani is normally used for the symbol of the three dots in the one circle, even when used in mundane ways, as decoration for clothing or furniture. So Chintamani is not a term unique to the Teaching. As has been pointed out over and over, even by Nicholas Roerich himself, the Banner symbol is of ancient and universal origin.  So the symbol has had universality, everywhere and throughout time, and cannot belong to anyone. It is after all, the Banner of the Lords, as described in great detail in Roerich’s book on Agni Yoga called Hierarchy.”

     So we see in this symbol, as in Nicholas Roerich’s life work, a vital reminder of the integral importance of art, science and spirituality working together to preserve the cultural treasures of the past, vitalize the present and ensure a future that can fully realize a universal brotherhood. If science were to advance without the understanding of beauty that art provides, or the connectedness that spirit implies, we would surely perish. Likewise, if religion were to advance alone, without the insight that art and science provide, we would be plummeted back into a Dark Age of superstition, ignorance and fear. Roerich realized the importance of this interdisciplinary approach. Below is a summary of  ten contributions to modern education gleaned from Roerich’s work as presented in Garabed Paelian’s biography of this seminal thinker.

In this present day and age we are learning to practice spirituality as an art, rather than as religious dogma. This allows us to appreciate a wider spectrum of spiritual understanding, encourages multi-cultural values and helps “release the mind from its fetters, enabling students to think for themselves.” Likewise, as the value of art and music is elevated to the importance it deserves, we learn how to combine a subjective and introspective approach to knowledge with objective practices. Any classically-trained musician can tell you how important it is to also learn how to improvise. Father Science and Mother Church may argue eternally, but those endless sources of beauty, Art and Music, remind us always that we are after all a human family, children of the universe.

                                                            – Tim McKamey, Valentine’s Day, 2010

Roerich’s Contributions to Modern Education

1. The principles which follow the lines of the Theory of Relativity, for this is a philosophy that is all-inclusive. It is neither materialistic nor idealistic, but includes both the materialistic and the idealistic. It assumes separate and independent existence for neither ideas nor matter: postulating the existence of a continuity of idea-matter similar to the space-time continuum of Relativity.

2. The principle of synthesis of the best in Eastern philosophy with the best in Western thought.

3. The principle of combining a subjective approach to knowledge [art] with an objective approach, to create a philosophy of science.

4. Stimulate the creative urge of the student by recognizing the existence of the soul combining the practices of materialistic psychology with the practice of stirring the soul by introspection.

5. Encourage the interdependence between the society and the individual, such that improvement of one affects the improvement of the other.

6. Support the principle that the cultural [and artistic] development of the child is the supreme duty of society.

7. The cultural development of the child consists of an awakening of his or her potential soul forces and an outward development of his or her soul characteristics in a process similar to the awakening of the latent powers of an acorn and its expanding development into an oak.

8. The mind should be released from its fetters, to enable the student to think for himself.

9. The teacher is responsible for the guidance and inspiration of the student, and for showing him or her the purpose of life, that he or she may have a definite aim in life.

10. The broad principle of a cosmic religion based on the idea of universal brotherhood.

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