Swedenborg and the Arts International Conference Wraps Up to Applause

The Swedenborg and the Arts International Conference sparked new thought and deep conversations about Emanuel Swedenborg’s influence across many areas of the arts. The academic conference, held June 6-9 on the campus of Bryn Athyn College, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, featured more than thirty papers from scholars all over the world on topics ranging from literature, painting, and architecture to modern art and film.

The conference was held in Bryn Athyn College’s Brickman Center. Photo by Serena Sutton, courtesy of Bryn Athyn College.

A keynote speech by Wouter Hanegraaff of the University of Amsterdam on day one highlighted the ways in which artists of the Romantic and Idealist periods were inspired by Swedenborg’s visions of heaven and sought to connect to the divine through their art. His talk led into a session where presenters considered spiritualist art, from spirit paintings to channeled poetry and automatic writing. The afternoon session that day considered Swedenborg’s influence on literature—in particular, the way that the concept of correspondences influenced the Russian symbolists and the literature of the Russian age of symbolism, and an examination of the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges’s imaginal relationship with Swedenborg’s descriptions of heaven and hell.

Conference co-organizer Devin Zuber of the Center for Swedenborgian Studies at the Graduate Theological Union. Photo by Serena Sutton, courtesy of Bryn Athyn College.

Day two opened with Linda Dalrymple Henderson of the University of Texas at Austin examining the ways in which Swedenborg’s concept of higher dimensions of space resonated with artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for whom new scientific discoveries were opening up whole new worlds of understanding. Her talk led into a panel on the visual arts, including a discussion of the deep influence Swedenborgian pastor Joseph Worcester had on artist William Keith and the ways in which George Inness sought to express spiritual realities through his landscape paintings. Afternoon sessions examined Swedenborgian influences on architecture, in particular on Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago, and also on the music of C. J. Whittington.

On day three, Massimo Introvigne, the founder and director of the Center for Studies on New Religions, tackled the question of Swedenborg’s influence on the arts—how that influence can be defined, and how we can categorize the various types of artists who have some connection to Swedenborg’s thought. His keynote speech set the stage for a session on William Blake, whose problematic relationship with Swedenborg’s ideas has been the fuel for a great deal of scholarly research over the years. Panelists examined the internal geometry and symbolism of Blake’s spiritual engravings and how they reflect a uniquely Swedenborgian perspective; the question of how Swedenborg’s concept of marriage love can be seen in Blake’s poetry; and how Blake’s poem The Everlasting Gospel reflects an alternative vision of the Last Judgment that echo’s Swedenborg’s visions.

The Swedenborg Foundation book table. Photo by Serena Sutton, courtesy of Bryn Athyn College.

Day three continued with considerations of Swedenborg and European Romanticism, in particular French writers such as Honoré de Balzac, Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, Gustave Flaubert, and Charles Baudelaire; Belgian artist Jean-Jacques Gailliard; and the abstract art of Wassily Kandinsky. A session on the James family—Henry Sr., a dedicated if unorthodox Swedenborgian; acclaimed novelist Henry Jr.; and William (son of Henry Sr. and brother of Henry Jr.), a pioneer in psychology and religious experience—focused on their contribution to modern thought. William James was fascinated with the many expressions of religious belief, and his views on immanence of the spirit and social justice reflect his father’s Swedenborgian thought. William’s Pragmatist ideas, in turn, influenced artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. Henry James Jr., who like his brother showed little interest in embracing Swedenborg’s theology, nevertheless engaged with Swedenborg’s concept of vastation in his novel The Ambassadors.

The final day of the conference featured presentations from contemporary artists who incorporate Swedenborg’s thought into a variety of media, from literature to poetry and photography. The day was led by keynote speaker Homero Aridjis, a Mexican poet and environmental activist, who read from a collection of poems titled A Time of Angels.

For those who weren’t able to come to the conference, the organizers hope to post recordings of the presentations online. There are also plans for a future book containing the papers presented at the conference (publisher and date to be determined).

The Swedenborg Foundation was proud to co-sponsor this thought-provoking event. The organizers would also like to extend their thanks to the event’s other sponsors: host institution Bryn Athyn College, Glencairn Museum, the Swedenborg Scientific Association, and the Center for Swedenborgian Studies at the Graduate Theological Union.

You can find more from conference presenters and session chairs in the following books:

And more about Swedenborg’s influence on the arts in the following:

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