Art, Beauty & Imagination - A Catholic Perspective
When we use the word "art," thoughts of pictures and statues in museums or cathedrals generally come to mind. When we refer to “the arts," music, poetry, dance, theater, etc. are added to the list. The words themselves, however, remain somewhat ambiguous as to their meaning. Mortimer Adler, in his lucid critique Art, the Arts and the Great Ideas, is helpful in clarifying the matter. Art, he reminds us, comes from the Latin ars, akin to the Greek techne, which, for the ancients, referred to certain skills. Thus we speak of the art of writing, the art of medicine, the art of building, or the art of painting, and so on.
also points out that until the end of Medieval times the arts were divided into
the liberal and servile arts, the first being skills of the intellectuals such
as the grammarian, the rhetorician, the logician, the poet, the musician
(composer) who work with ideas and symbols, while the second involve physical
activity or the transformation of matter, such as performed by the painter,
sculptor, and the musician (player of instruments). This division led to the
foundation of liberal art universities dedicated to the trivium -- grammar, rhetoric, and
logic -- and the quadrivium -- artithmetic,
music, geometry, and astronomy -- leaving the realm of painting, sculpture
and building to guilds and apprenticeships. (
The elevation of "art" and “the arts" to a position of status was a Renaissance concept based on Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophies which emphasized the ascent of the soul to the divine realm through the contemplation of natural and artificial beauty. Thus today we speak of the "fine arts" arts that point to beauty as an “end, finis” or in other languages, the beautiful arts, specifically beaux arts, bellas artes, shöne kunst - when we speak of the painting and sculpture that we admire in museums.
Webster's definition confirms these distinctions: “Art - 1: Skill acquired by experience, study, or observation... 2: a branch of learning... Liberal Arts 3: an occupation requiring knowledge and skill...4: the conscious use of skill and creative imagination, esp. in the production of aesthetic objects; also the objects so produced.”
The last definition, number 4, is of interest here as it brings us to the question of the nature of beauty.
In the classical tradition, from Plato to Aquinas, things that delight the eye (ear) and elate the soul are said to be beautiful. Thus by contemplating the proportion, radiance, harmony, and integrity of the created order we may, or ought to be, brought to contemplate the uncreated beauty/good, Tò Kalón, of the Creator. "Since through the grandeur and beauty of the creatures we may, by analogy, contemplate their Author." (Wisdom 13:5)
The Abbé Suger of St. Denis in
Aquinas, the angelic doctor, maintains that the love of beauty is a natural
good that brings peace and harmony to the human soul. The pursuit of beauty,
albeit one of the highest of natural goods, can, however, be perverted and
turned away from its proper end.
While Italian High Renaissance art is most surely fair to the eyes and a delight to behold, Humanist painters often confused the beauty of the "Celestial Venus," ostensibly the Blessed Virgin, with the "Terrestial Venus" of carnal desire and sexual bliss. Basing his subject on the Fasti, or seasons from Ovid's Metmorphoses (tales of the licentious adventures of the Greek gods), Sandro Botticelli painted his renowned Primavera in1477 for Lorenzo Pierfranceso de Medici. This painting is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful images of the Renaissance. It most surely is. Delving, however, into the iconology of the painting, Renaissance scholar, Edgar Wind, tells us in his Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, that the subject matter or underlying theme of this painting is clearly erotic. “Under the knowing gaze of Venus, Cupid fires his dart at the three graces, specifically Chastity, whose diaphanous gown falls away as desire is aroused.” While erudite Neo-Platonists tried to link scenes of carnal pleasure to divine contemplation, more levelheaded thinkers such as St. Bernadine of Sienna denounced the stupidity of such claims as well as the licentious courtesans who vied to pose in the nude for these scenes. Botticelli himself, later in life, experienced a religious conversion and actually burned many of his own erotic "pagan" works.
In the later Romantic period, poets and painters such as Baudelaire, Byron, Shelly and Swinburne, Delacroix, Goya, and Beardsley found beauty in such dark forces of nature as incest, death, decay, and vampirism on which they expended their creative abilities. For example, it is generally accepted that the line from Byron's Childe Harold: "...he loved but one, And that loved one, alas! Could ne'er be his," refers to his incestuous relationship with his half- sister; and the lines from The Giaor can hardly be judged as uplifting: "But first, on earth as Vampire sent, / Thy curse shall from its tomb be rent:/ Then Ghastly haunt thy native place, and suck the blood of all thy race;/ Then from thy daughter, sister, wife. At midnight drain the stream of life."
Swinburne's fourth chorus from his Atlanta in Calydon takes the Romantic Sturm und Drang to its logical end: "Because thou art cruel and men are piteous,/ And our hands labour and thine hand scattereth.../At least we witness of thee ere we die -/ That last things are not otherwise, but thus;/ That each man in his heart sigheth, and saith, That all men, as even I, - /All we are against thee, against thee, O God most High."
This is not
to say that many of the works of painting or poetry of these men are not beautiful, nor that they may not be enjoyed at the
aesthetic level for their own artistic integrity. The fact is that beauty, it
would appear, is ambiguous, and human beings can draw inspiration, as
Is the pursuit of beauty truly antinomian or can one form critical judgments about the works of individual artists, other than by analyzing the imaginative and technical skill employed in an individual piece or collective body of work?
Presuming, following Aristotle and St. Thomas, that the human intellect can come to a knowledge of the True, (what is) and the Good, (what ought to be done) the understanding of Beauty can not be divorced from these two other Transcendentals to which it is intrinsically joined. Thus, the clearest definition, I believe, comes from a Catholic Thomist philosopher, the late Dr. Joseph Pieper, in his book The Four Cardinal Virtues. “Beauty is the glow of the true and the good that flows out of every ordered state of being.”
Or, to Paraphrase St Thomas, “[Beauty is the splendor] of the goods that each being ought to have according to its nature” ¹
Reflecting on the nature of art and beauty as outlined above, how can we approach contemporary art?
Many, if not most people, who received their intellectual formation prior to the 1960s find Contemporary Art perplexing, if not totally incomprehensible. Modern painting and sculpture, by and large, do not appear beautiful. It is not just the old battle of Figurative vs. Abstract. Aesthetically speaking, valid and attractive works of art have been produced by both schools. Somehow there has occurred a violent break with the past. Present day painting and sculpture and even architecture have purposefully eschewed beauty as the legitimate end of art. They have become, simply said, ideologically driven. Ecologists, feminists, homosexuals, migrant workers, along with other special interest groups and minorities assault our imagination, not only in art galleries and the public square, but also on television, and in the illustrations of children’s textbooks supplied by virtually all our schools.
Those who support this new view of art are quite candid about it. Franklin W. Robinson, former director of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, wrote in 1989 that the whole purpose of "modern art" is to foment a radical shift in our moral values: "It demands that we rethink our assumptions about every issue in life, from religion to politics, from love to sex, to death, and the afterlife."
The Church and those of us who wish precisely to preserve the truths regarding religion, human sexuality, death, and the after-life, have neglected to foster the powerful role that art and the imagination play in our human and spiritual formation. Not so in the past, when since the earliest days, the Church knew that the complete human person must be addressed and acted upon that knowledge.
When one enters a church of the ancient Byzantine tradition, either Eastern Orthodox or Catholic, one is struck by the multiplicity and variety of icons or images. These icons, often hauntingly beautiful, have deep theological meaning. They are windows through which the imagination can be brought into the presence of those whom they represent in the heavenly court. Their placement in the church building is not arbitrary. The plan follows and reflects the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Christ, Pantocrator, lord of all, looks down from the gilded cupola and blesses the faithful. The Blessed Mother stands in the apse offering her prayers along with ours to her Son, and the saints stand guard in adoration on the altar screen, Iconostasis, placed before the sanctuary or Holy of Holies.
imaginative tradition was nurtured in the West. Between the years 1140 and 1280
some 80 cathedrals were built, most within a hundred-mile radius of
recently, following the ravages of Neo-Platonic Humanism and the Protestant
Reformation, magnificent Baroque churches were erected as visual expositions of
traditional Catholic theology, again in harmony with the Thomistic
philosophy approved at the Council of Trent (1545 - 1563). In this case, the
This integration of Faith, Reason, and Imagination is sorely lacking in our Catholic culture today. Of late, following Pope John Paul II encyclical, Fides et Ratio, there has been renewed interest in restoring the harmonious balance of faith and reason. Little has been said, however, regarding the imagination. Since the time of the Second Vatican Council our churches, for whatever reason, have been stripped of their imaginative elements. While this trend appears to be waning and images are being restored, a lack of discernment as to quality and suitability remains. It would appear that "anything goes because nobody knows."
This is not
to say that what is needed in religious imagery must be didactic or propaganda
"poster art" equivalent to visual “sound bites”. Neither should we
fall into the trap of nostalgia and produce copies of copies from bygone ages.
As maintained, artistic movements within the Church spoke of the Faith in the
idiom of the faithful of each age. Innovations in the visual arts most often
followed the insights of the great councils:
But for the artist it is not a mere technical ability, intellectual knowledge, and assent to the Faith that is needed. It must go even deeper. The imagination operates and communicates at a preconscious level and it does not lie. The poet, the painter, the playwright, and the prophet are all of the same guild. They are purveyors of visions. To fill and to form the Catholic imagination, we need genuinely gifted individuals who can bring us sublime visions of Faith and of Truth based on a compostio loci or genuine encounter with the glory of creation and above all, the Mystery of Salvation. Who knows what the future will bring, but in the words of Paul Claudel written earlier this century when the upheavals began: "Even today, in this age of iron or, let us say, white metal, the Temple of Solomon and the Cathedral of Chartres have not exhausted all the possibilities of getting back to God. There is still something to be garnered from those people with plaster in their hair and fingers full of paint."
1. See: St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, esp. Chap. VI, where the Saint describes evil as: “ [deficit] boni quod natum est et debet habere”