The World of Silence

The Plastic Arts and Silence


   The colonnades of the Greek temples are like
boundary lines along the silence. They become ever
straighter and ever whiter as they lean against the silence.
   It is as though the colonnade could continue, column
by column, into infinity. Thus the gods create, silently,
inaudibly. These columns seem to have come from the
workshop of the gods.
   Wandering among the Egyptian pillars is like wander-
ing into the dark, into what lies behind. Although one is
really walking on the level earth, one seems to be walking
down the steps into a cavern, finally reaching the place of
death. It is the way to an ever increasing silence. The
words of the Egyptians echoed from this subterranean
cavern of death.
   Wandering amongst the Greek pillars is a wandering
in a radiant silence. Silence and radiance are one. It is a
silence that signifies the moment of rest before the new 
creation—silence and creation alternated. It was like a
staircase to Olympus, where, with the gods, silence and
creation became one and alternated no more.
   The ruined pillars, and the ruined temples...It is as
though before the invasion of noise, silence burst open,
and in bursting, tore the temples to pieces. The blocks of
marble and the columns try in vain to sink back with the
silence into the earth. They have been thrown back again
and smashed again by the foundered silence.
   The stillness that now reigns round the temples is not
the stillness of silence, but the stillness of the grave.
Silence here has its grave, and the white columns and
blocks of marble are the tombstone over the sunken


   The Greek statues were like vessels of silence. They
stood there in rows, and man passed between them as
along an avenue of silence.
   The silence was confined in the statues and became a
splendor over their whiteness.
   Their silence is full of mystery. It is as though they
remain silent as long as man stands before them and as if
they begin to speak as soon as they are alone. They speak
to the gods, but they are silent to man.
   The marble statues of the Greek gods lie embedded
like white islands of silence in the midst of the noise of
the world today. The old white statues of the gods are
the remains of silence left behind when it had to retire
from the noise of today.
   The silence that is in the Greek statues does not oppress
them: it is a light and radiant silence. The figure is master
over the silence: at any moment the word can arise from
the silence like a god from Olympus.
   The Egyptian statues, on the other hand, are absolutely
subjugated by the silence: they are prisoners of the silence.
The eye belongs to the gods, the mouth belongs to the
gods so that it may express their silence.
   It was not the stone that made the figures heavy and
prevented them from moving; it was the silence which
surrounded them and which they dared not touch.
   In the faces of the old Egyptians, in these rigid faces,
there is still the fear that was in the world before the word
attained supremacy over silence. It is like a relapse into
the time in which there was still no word, and that is the
reason the Egyptian faces move man today more than
those of the Greeks: in the modern world of violent noise
man is homesick for the world beyond all sound and
beyond all language.
   Here in the Egyptian face of the oldest periods the
silence is not amicably disposed to language as it is in the
Greek face; it is a silence imperiously hostile to language.

          The sculptures of the Egyptians show a more lifeless
          seriousness, an undisclosed mystery, so that the figure
          represented suggests not its own individual inner life but
          a more remote significance of which it is still unaware
          itself. (Hegel)

   Some Egyptian faces look as though they had seen
silence naked and as though the sight had paralyzed them.
As in early times an animal was enclosed by the solidi-
fying resin of trees, by amber, so the Egyptian face is
enclosed by silence.
   The Egyptian figures are turned inwards. It is as 
though there were a second figure inside the more im-
portant one, to which the first is speaking—or rather
speaking in the silence, without words.
   The Greek face, on the other hand, is turned outward.
There is no fear in it of that world in which the word has
not yet appeared; it directs itself towards a world out of 
which the word comes. There is a certainty expressed in
it, that in every moment of the silence can be overcome by
the word, matter by spirit; and therefore there is often a
serenity and always a freedom in it. The silence does not
go back to something past, to a world without language,
but to a present and a future, to the world of language.
And precisely for that reason the Greek face goes through
all ages and is even present with us today.


   They are oppressive, because it is as if they had the
power to extend much further out over the earth and
towards the sky than they do.
   Only because they are related to the order of the stars
which is recorded in them they do not press on further.
   They are oppressive because it is as though the masses
of stone were not kept back by man, nor by any human
order, but by the extra-human, by the stars.
   The silence of the stars looks down upon them and casts
a spell on them.
   Not only the dead are buried in the pyramids, not only
the silence of the dead, but also the silence of the stars.
   The pyramids seem like fortifications, built by silence
for itself when it retired from the earth; from which
silence can conquer the earth again one day.


   The Egyptian sphinx is not silence but the abyss of
   The lines of its body are like the lines of an incantation
over the abyss. They are like signs that cast a spell over
the abyss.
   As after a violent battle the spirits of the fallen go on
fighting in the air; as the image of the battle stays in the
air, so the sphinx remains from the time of the most
violent silence, as an image of that silence, still with us
today. After all silence has disappeared, it is still with us,
always threateningly ready to invade the world of noise.


  The archaic colossi, the stone memorials in Sardinia,
the stone masses in the palaces at Mycene...Everything
that is not silence is compressed by the stone.
   These colossi of silence are so mighty that it is as
though they could take language and everything in
language from man and make it disappear within them.
   In the silence of these stones everything is distinct.
Words no longer lie over things: they have been as it were
absorbed by them and have vanished in the silence of the

   Ekbatana, the city of the Medes, had seven circular
walls, each with different colored battlements. They were,
according to Herodotus, the heavenly spheres enclosing
the sun castle, and the obelisks were sunrays in stone. No
word could express so well the power of the heavenly
spheres as this monument in the silence of stone. In the
silence of these stones the heavenly spheres and the rays
of the sun lived again on earth, and in their silence one
heard their movement in the sky.
   Every word spoken before this archaic stone was an 
invasion of the silence that belongs to the gods. The
silence was present so intensely that it seemed as if the
word itself might be petrified at any moment into a
colossus, just as the rays of the sun had become petrified
into an obelisk and the orbit of the stars into stone circles.

   But the archaic figures—they are excavated more from
the silence than from the earth. They are like the ruins
of silence. If the eye travels along them it is as though it
were traveling along the silence. The face is furrowed
with silence: the lines, the surfaces, are spread out on the
silence, are carried by it. And the whole figure is pene-
trated by the silence.
   The human form seems to be preserved here forever
in the silence. Not a single line of the face dares to move
in the silence.


   The Chinese gates, which rise in solitude from the
surface of the Chinese plain, joined to no wall or building
...Infinite is the plain, infinite is the silence. Nothing
moves through the gate but the silence. The roundness of
the gate is like a cavern dug out by silence for itself.
Sacred images of the gods and sacred animals are by the
gate like sentries and retinue at the same time.
   Sometimes it is as though many invisible arches were
moving over the one visible arch, moving upwards, each
vaulted over the other, moving like a ladder upwards into
heaven. The silence itself climbs up to heaven on this
vaulting ladder.


   Chinese pictures are like figures in a moonlit mist over
the world of silence, woven from moon threads over the
   It is as if the object had fallen into silence, as if silence
had crystallized around them. A leaf falls into the silence,
and the silence settles round the leaf and enfolds it. It is
completely enclosed by the silence; it becomes transparent
in the silence; it has become the center, the focus of the
   In such a picture live on the thousands of years that
silence needed until it could enfold the leaf within itself.
There is time and continuity in it. Time itself has come
to its end, when the silence has finally enwrapped the leaf
wholly within itself.


   Silence has locked itself up in cathedrals and protected
itself with walls.
   Just as ivy grows round a wall for centuries, so the
cathedrals have grown round the silence. They are built
around the silence.
   The silence of the Romanesque cathedral exists as a sub-
stance, so that it is as though the cathedral, by the very
fact of its existence, were producing walls of silence,
cities of silence, men of silence; giving birth to them as
if it were a huge pregnant animal.
   The cathedrals are like silence inlaid with stone.
   Figures stand at the corners of the pillars: messengers,
who were intended to carry the silence into the city of
man. Just as one sends out servants with vessels to bring
water, so they were supposed to bring the silence—but in
the silence they forgot to move on.
   The cathedrals stand like enormous reservoirs of
silence. There is no word inside them: the word becomes
music and song over the depths of an even greater silence.
   The cathedral tower is like a heavy ladder on which
the silence climbs into heaven, to fade and disappear
therein. In an arch it falls down again, to the tower of
another cathedral. In this arch of silence all cathedrals
are connected with one another.

   The cathedrals are deserted today, just as silence is
deserted. They have become museums of silence, but
they are still inter-related, cathedral with cathedral, silence
with silence. They stand like ichthyosauri of silence, no
longer understood by any one. It was inevitable that they
should be bombarded in the war: absolute noise shooting
at absolute silence.

   Sometimes a cathedral looks like a great ark into which
all men and animals are being gathered to be saved from
the flood of noise. A bird sits on the edge of the roof, and
the notes of its song are like a knocking on the wall of
silence, asking it to come in.


   The figures have let their words fall down into the
silence. The gold background is the silence, which has
trickled through the words of the sacred figures.
   The pictures of the old masters are filled to bursting
point with silence: so full of silence that one expects the
word to emerge at any moment—but what comes is only
a greater silence.
   The figures are a radiance over the world of silence.
They allow the silence to make and keep them silent and
therefore they are radiant. In the radiance they are trying
to hear the silence; they stand motionless in the radiance
and hearken to the silence.


   In his pictures not only the objects are there, but with
them the ideas of the objects as well, as certainly as the
objects themselves: the Platonic world of ideas is visible
in these pictures. Everything is ready for departure into
a new reality where idea and appearance are one; as if in
the last moment before this journey idea and object are
together. The eye of the gods falls on these figures as on
to the Platonic ideas in a space above the world, and they
increase in size and substance in the silence of the eye
gazing down on them.

   Piero della Francesca's human beings seem to wander
in a dream of the gods, before the gods created man.
Through this wandering in the dream of the gods they are
full of silence.
   Sometimes they are also like the dreams that silence
dreams itself, before it sends things out into the room of
wide-awake reality.
   The figures have sunk down into silence, like cities lost
beneath the ocean. They are preserved under the water
of silence just as prehistoric animals are preserved under
the soil of the earth.
   Just as water drips down from the face of one coming
out of the sea, silence drips down these faces. The human
beings in the pictures of Piero della Francesca possess
silence like a new sense; they speak through silence as if
it were a new language. Sometimes they seem like
shadows, bright shadows thrown by the world of silence
into the world of noise. They become bigger and bigger
as if they were straining to grow into the world of noise,
to grow beyond it and covering it, inaudibly to take
command over it.