The Four Elements

In World

By Prof. Pilar Viviente

The Four Elements, 2021, consists of two independent but related works displayed above on the top of this article (Image 1 and 2).

The work at the left is a Spanish Sketch from my Spanish Sketches series (2014-2021) titled The Queen Of The Air, 2021. The title comes from John Ruskin’s [1819-1900] book, The QUEEN Of The AIR: Being A Study Of The Greek Myths Of Cloud And Storm.(1)

The work at the right is composed by three Rodetes, 2021, from my Rodetes series (2018-2021) inspired by the rodetes of the Iberian sculpture The Lady of Elche, referred to three of the Four Elements in Greek cosmology: Fire, Earth and Water. The fourth element is represented on the left as an allegory, it is a personification of the Air. Personification allegory is a type of allegory in which a fictional character represents a concept or a type.

Greek philosophy supposed the Universe to comprise four elements: Fire, Air, Earth, and Water. The Four Elements are usually arranged as four corners, but can also be arranged in ascending order, from bottom to top, the Earth rising out of Water, Air over the Earth, and the Sun (Fire) over all.

“Classical elements typically refer to water, earth, fire, air, and (later) aether, which were proposed to explain the nature and complexity of all matter in terms of simpler substances. Ancient cultures in Greece, Ancient Egypt, Persia, Babylonia, Japan, Tibet, and India all had similar lists, sometimes referring in local languages to “air” as “wind” and the fifth element as “void”. The Chinese Wu Xing system lists Wood (木 mù), Fire (火 huǒ), Earth (土 tǔ), Metal (金 jīn), and Water (水 shuǐ), though these are described more as energies or transitions rather than as types of material.”(2)

In this way, the four elements can be seen as the painter key. “When mountains and waters are painted, blue, green, and red paints are used, strange rocks and wondrous stones are used, the four jewels and the seven treasures are used. Rice-cakes are painted in the same manner. When a person is painted, the four great elements and five skandhas are used.” This quote from Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253), a Japanese Buddhist priest, writer, poet, philosopher, and founder of the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan, invites us to use the four great elements [fire, water, earth, wind] and the five skandhas [of matter, feeling, thoughts, impulses, and consciousness.

The four elements have inspired my work as well as that of many others. Not in vain Bachelard called them “the hormones of the imagination.” However, the concept of “Maridaje” (Pairing) that links my two series, Series Spanish Sketches and Series Rodetes, was first presented in my solo exhibition ‘Maridaje (Rodetes & Spanish Sketches)’ at the virtual museum Museari, museu de l’imaginari, Valencia, September 17 – October 17, 2020.(3)

Despite the fact that each Series has developed in recent years independently, both share a distinctly feminist orientation. As editor Paco Rallo states in “11/ maestros actuales en el arte” (11/ current masters in art), 2019, “Pilar Viviente (Altea), artist, intellectual and multifaceted, works with music and body expression. For some time she has been developing in her work the concept “Rodete”, so present in the headdresses of Iberian women.”(4)

The four classical elements – Fire, Air, Earth, and Water – are viewed from a feminist perspective that emphasize the relationship between feminism and ecology. In this sense, we better talk about ecofeminism.

One might suppose, in these days, that ancient Greek reflections on the elements of their environment were too elementary to be worth recalling. Not so. According to Holmes Rolston III, author of Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World: “David Macauley demonstrates their surprising relevance. Earth, air, water–even fire (energy, global warming)–are still central to the world agenda: sustaining life in a millennium of ecological crisis. From that day to this, wise philosophers keep their thoughts in touch with the sensuous, elemental Earth.”(5)

The four elements are explored here from an artistic point of view. Earth, air, fire, and water are explored aesthetically in my work according Macauley’s book Elemental Philosophy: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water as Environmental Ideas, as both philosophical ideas and environmental issues associated with their classical and perennial conceptions. Macauley’s examination of the classical elements serves his task of bearing witness, but it also opens up–which is even more important today–the possibility of putting this knowledge into practice in the service of ecological sustainability.

David Macauley ends his books with a call to action in the last chapter: Part III. 9. Revaluing Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: Elemental Beauty, Ecological Duty, and Environmental Policy. This is also approach environmentalism from the feminist. And is that of the visionary feminist philosopher, academic, and theologian Mary Daly. Daly hitches the four classical elements to her distinct mythopoetic and feminist vision. As Macauley points out, “Her perspective shares much with Irigaray’s views of the elements, especially in the experimentation with language and metaphor, the search of a primitive but powerful mode in wich to express a feminist framework, and the critique of predominant forms of philosophical and political reasons.”(6)

“It was a question therefore of acquiring familiarity with the element, whereupon everything would take its course.” Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before, 1994.

And so too,

“It [is] a question therefore of acquiring familiarity with the element, whereupon everything [will] take its course.” Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before, 1994.

Let me, in gratitude to John Ruskin for the true wonder of his work The QUEEN Of The AIR, conclude this text with his words:

“Ah, masters of modern science, give me back my Athena out of your vials, and seal, if it may be, once more, Asmodeus therein. You have divided the elements, and united them; enslaved them upon the earth, and discerned them in the stars. Teach us now, but this of them, which is all that man need know,—that the Air is given to him for his life; and the Rain to his thirst, and for his baptism; and the Fire for warmth; and the Sun for sight; and the Earth for his Meat—and his Rest.”(7)


(1) John Ruskin, The QUEEN Of The AIR: Being A Study Of The Greek Myths Of Cloud And Storm, Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1869, First Edition. The Project Gutenberg eBook:

(2) Wikipedia:

(3) Pilar Viviente, ‘Maridaje (Rodetes & Spanish Sketches)’ –

(4)  Facebook:

(5) Elemental Philosophy: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water as Environmental Ideas (SUNY series in Environmental Philosophy and Ethics). David Macauley, State University of New York Press (2010).

(6) David Macauley, Op. Cit. Part III. 8. In Touch With The Sensuous World: The Reclamation of the Elemental in Continental Philosophy. P. 319.

(7) John Ruskin, Op. cit., Prologue, May 1, 1869.



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