Is There a Difference Between Sacred and Beautiful?

Horizon at ocean / Yoga Buds Buzz

“Beautiful natural places restore our ability to concentrate. But what about sacred places?,” asked South Dakota State University landscape architecture professor Donald Burger, ASLA, at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Los Angeles. “Is there a difference between a sacred and a beautiful place?”

Burger uses Margaret Somerville’s definition of sacred, as described in her book, The Ethical Imagination. The feeling of sacred is the “complex interaction of knowing ourselves, relating to others, appreciating our place in the great web of life, and seeing ourselves as part of the earth, stars, universe, and cosmos.” Being in a sacred landscape makes us “less selfish,” and can help us understand “our role in the greater scheme of things.”

Which natural landscape features most factor into a sacred experience? To find out, Burger interviewed 70 people, asking them where they had experiences of sacredness. Almost all people chose “mountain top views, the place where the ocean meets the horizon, or where the prairie meets the horizon.” It seemed to Burger these places create a sense of “infinite scale, continuing forever.”

In the second phase of his study, Burger asked people to rate 120 photographs on a scale of 1-10 in terms of “which landscapes most facilitated a sacred experience.” And to see if there is a difference between sacredness and beauty, he also asked them to rate them all in terms of which they preferred, or thought were most beautiful, and then compared the top 15 for each category. The people who rated the photographs said they had a hard time differentiating between beauty and sacredness. “It was difficult to judge slides on sacredness but discard them for beauty.”

Burger explained that there are four factors of preference: coherence, legibility, complexity, and mystery. “Sacred photographs are high in coherence and legibility, but low in complexity and mystery levels are mixed.” Furthermore, sacred slides often have “remarkable lighting conditions, with clouds, sunsets, mist or fog, and a mix of light and dark.”

Then, three groups of people, more than 250 in total, were purposefully stressed out, using the standard psychological tests. One control group was shown a regular set of photos, while another looked at the preferred or beautiful photographs, and a third viewed the sacred photographs. “The beautiful and sacred slides really had the same restorative effect. In fact, they left happier than when they came in.”

Burger concluded that perhaps sacredness and beauty are the same. “Maybe beauty gives us a better appreciation of our context. Maybe beauty and sacredness are a matter of semantics and the same thing.”

But he also said the perception of sacredness has an impact, because it shapes the types of landscapes “we want to emulate and also preserve.” A sacred experience “shapes the decisions we make because we sense they have an impact on things, the greater system beyond ourselves.”

3 thoughts on “Is There a Difference Between Sacred and Beautiful?

  1. Mark L. Johnson 06/08/2015 / 8:01 am

    First of all, I don’t think all world views would go for Somerville’s definition of “sacred”. While that definition is something that I might experience on certain occasions and select locations; I would not call it “sacred” and it would it not be valid in all circumstances. The sacredness of a place can have historical and cultural relationships that set them apart for some; but not for others. Even the idea of a place making one less selfish is mired in the fact that much of what humanity worships is related to some type of idolatry that serves ourselves in the end.

    I have not read Burger’s book. But, if all people did was look at slides; I don’t think that is truly a valid way to experience a landscape or place. There is too much that is difficult to perceive about a place using two-dimensional images, from a foreign location. And only a psychopath would consider some things beautiful that are sacred to many others. Aspects of a Nazi extermination camp might be sacred to some; but certainly horrifying.

  2. Thomas Eddy 06/10/2015 / 9:23 am

    The wrong question with inappropriate consequences.

  3. Randal Scott Romie, ASLA 06/10/2015 / 10:01 am

    Thanks for this “beautiful” article. I believe there is a difference and that nature is the perfect example to explore this. On a large scale, all creation comprises our scared story of the universe. Each member, whether plant, person or rock, is in a bonded relationship as we move forward within the ever-growing energy of the universe. We are from and of the Earth so that when we view nature we consciously or sub-consciously can experience a connection and a sense of place, as the article states.

    A sacred moment, for me, is when I encounter and experience something bigger than myself and am transformed. My Catholic faith tells me that a sacrament is a time in which one can encounter God. As a Landscape Architect, I find God in all of creation and consider my moments in nature as containing the opportunity for sacred moments when I tune in, open myself, and connect with it. Listening from the soul is important.

    Beauty helps me to notice or brings me to that sacred moment. Beauty is more than skin deep. When I first saw the woman who was to become my wife, I noticed her beauty, her energy, and experienced an attraction. The beauty of her, internally and externally, brought me to a sacred moment and relationship when we married. Now it is our energy going forward and bonded, with the ever-growing energy of the Earth.

    My experience with pictures or slides of nature is that there is a power to them like the article expressed in restoring and calming. I make presentations about our City gardens to groups, and the slides of the gardens, and people in nature, delight the audiences. It is always a positive and uplifting experience for all present – beautiful pictures bringing a collective sacred spirit to the room, a grace-filled time.

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