The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty
Art, Sanctity, and the Truth of Catholicism
The inability of so much modern thought to deal adequately with aesthetics has long served me as a motive for skepticism about its adequacy in general. When the early modern philosophers stripped the world of beauty, stuffing whatever glory and splendour we might encounter into our skulls, rendering it (according to taste) a private judgment or chemical frisson, they entered upon a metaphysical landscape from which, unless I am mistaken, few of the leading modern thinkers have returned. Speaking for myself, I have not been able to follow with any confidence; my efforts to think ‘rightly’ about such matters have all ended in failure. Beauty is real, it seems to me, and it is important to a life well-lived, much as goodness and truth are. A famous passage from von Balthasar resonates with me:
We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.
Encouraged by such statements, I have tried, in my typically middling way, to be open and attentive to beauty. Since modernity has not been able to provide a theoretical ground for this practice, I have naturally sought intellectual foundations elsewhere. Beauty was taken more seriously by ancient and medieval thinkers. John Saward, in the process of developing a theological understanding of aesthetics, nicely illustrates the contrast by comparing the views of pre-eminent representatives of the medieval and modern traditions:
St. Thomas regards beauty as a property of being, a feature of reality, whereas the Enlightenment makes it a colourful subjective ‘value’ pasted over the penny-plain objective ‘fact’. For Kant, to say that the San Marco altarpiece is beautiful is merely to voice one’s feeling of pleasure at seeing the San Marco altarpiece; nothing in the painting corresponds to the judgement. By contrast, for Thomas, a thing is not beautiful because it is loved; it is loved because it is beautiful. Our minds through our senses perceive the beauty of Angelico’s altarpiece; they do not produce it. Beauty is not read into works of art, God’s and men’s; it radiates out of them. As Gerard Manley Hopkins says, it ‘keeps warm / Men’s wits to the things that are’.
That, I think, sums up the difference rather nicely, and also (I trust) conveys the attractiveness of the Thomist view. It is evident that Thomas’ understanding of beauty requires a vastly different, and far richer, metaphysics than modernity has typically been willing, or able, to sustain.
The purpose of John Saward’s book is, in part, to present the pre-modern (and, more specifically, Thomist) philosophy of beauty, and to unfold its many intimate connections to theology. Understood theologically, beauty — like everything else that is good — ultimately has its source in God, and Saward’s special theme, as the title of his book indicates, is to explore how the beauty of God shines forth in two particular ways: through holy lives and through sacred art. In doing so he picks up on something which Pope Benedict, then still a Cardinal, once said:
The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with the beauty in her liturgies, the beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where beauty — and hence truth — is at home.
(This quotation actually serves as epigraph to Saward’s book, suggesting that it may have been the seed from which the book itself has grown.)
In developing this theme of beauty in Christian lives and art, Saward turns, naturally enough, to one of those in whom both aspects were manifest: Beato Angelico. A significant part of the book is devoted to a close study of his San Marco altarpiece, not from an art historical perspective, but in order to unpack the many ways in which the painting illustrates the Catholic tradition’s theological understanding of beauty and holiness.
Holiness and beauty are united in an exemplary, if not quite preeminent, way in the Blessed Virgin Mary. She has greater moral beauty than any other created being, and, in agreement with Saward’s motivating concept, Christian tradition has piously put her at the center of its artistic tradition, portraying her as lovely to behold, ‘the most beautiful lady’. Her beauty illuminates all that it touches. Saward devotes a good deal of attention to this fact, tracing Our Lady’s influence upon our music, architecture, and literature, and exploring the theological reasons for it.
In the final section of the book Saward turns to the special class of saints who lost their lives for the faith. He argues that persecution and martyrdom in the Church have frequently called forth beautiful art, citing, for instance, the cases of Robert Southwell and William Byrd in the wake of Edmund Campion’s martyrdom, or Bernanos’ Dialogues of the Carmelites after the French Revolution. Conversely, Saward observes that very often persecution and heresy are combined with iconoclasm, an assault on the faithful and on Church teaching being paired with an assault on her art. This was so during the English Reformation, in Calvin’s Geneva, in the French Revolution, and, more recently, in Communist nations. That such things occur together is not surprising, for Christian art is an expression of Christian thought and devotion, and it is an arguable point whether such iconclasm constitutes an assault on beauty per se. Yet the spectacle of someone defacing art of such great beauty is unseemly, at the very least, and, contends Saward, is fruitfully suggestive of a deeper conflict.
The Holiness of Beauty is a rewarding read, with considerably more in it than I, at any rate, was able to glean on one reading. It comes bedecked with laudatory blurbs from the likes of Aidan Nichols, Stratford Caldecott, Thomas Howard, and even Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. If you like those authors, you will probably like this as well. The writing is quite dense, but not overly scholarly, and is frequently beautiful. On numerous occasions I paused, at length, over an arresting thought or elegant turn of phrase, and it occurred to me that certain sections of the book might well serve as fodder for lectio divina. The theology is, as far as I could detect, thoroughly orthodox. Part of me wishes that the theological material was not couched so thoroughly in Thomist language — surely a theme as foundational as this could be expressed in other ways — and all of me wishes that I had understood the theological basics more clearly than I did, but these are minor complaints. It is a good book.
‘When sundered from beauty, truth becomes a correctness without splendour and goodness a value of no delight.’
‘Christ is beautiful, and he comes to restore us to beauty.’
‘The creature intent on glorifying itself resents the Creator who humbled himself.’
‘The man who would venerate the holy icons must gaze with the loving attention of a child, not the peering curiosity of the connoisseur.’
‘Positivism, materialism, atheism — these are the great deadly enemies of art, for they blind a man to the wealth and wonder of being. It was from all such rude reductions of reality that William Blake asked to be delivered when he prayed, ‘May God us keep / From single vision and Newton’s sleep’.’
‘Every true love has the inner form of a vow.’ (Balthasar)