Art, Beauty & Imagination - A Catholic Perspective




Hamilton Reed Armstrong


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.


Mr. Adler 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. (Oxford University retained this division up to the mid-nineteenth century when John Ruskin first introduced classes in drawing and painting to the curriculum.)


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, 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 Paris, founding father of Gothic architecture, rightly saw that the beauty of natural objects (statuary, stained glass, and sacred vessels) in a sacred setting lead the viewer to divine contemplation. "When  ‘out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God’  the loveliness of the many-colored stones has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner." (Escrin de Charlemagne)



St. Thomas 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. St. Thomas, again reminds us, that even though "Every one loves beauty, spiritual people love spiritual beauty and carnal people love carnal beauty." (Comm. in Psalmos, 25, 5)  Whereas spiritual beauty is ultimately found in its Source, God, carnal beauty can, and often does, lead away from Him. From the very beginning the pursuit of beauty has had its dangers and pitfalls. “And the woman saw that the fruit… was fair to the eyes and delightful to behold.” (Gen. III, 6)


 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 St. Thomas informed us, from spiritual and carnal as well as good and evil sources. In the words of Oscar Wilde, " Even a poisoner can write great prose."  Wilde, the ultimate aesthete, is, in fact, an example of this paradox. Having lived a life in constant conflict between his love for the beauty of young men and the Catholic vision of Eternal Beauty, he finally resolved the paradox by dying in full communion with the Church.


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.


This 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 Paris, the then center of Catholic learning. These cathedrals were not built as architectural masterpieces to delight the eyes, nor were they built as graphic Bibles for the illiterate peasants. They were, as Irwin Panowsky points out in his seminal work Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, the visual compendium of a complete medieval Catholic worldview. They were a sort of "Summa Theologiae" in glass and stone, filling the imagination just as the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas filled the reasoning faculties of the mind.


More 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 genius of St., Ignatius of Loyola realized that the Faith could best be re-established by an appeal to the imagination. At the Gesu church in Rome, as in most Baroque churches, sculpted and painted images of saints and angels sweep upward along the walls in a hierarchical ascent toward the blue painted sky where a tromp d'oeil door opens to the transcendental realm of heaven. But, as Jeffrey Chips Smith, a non-Catholic, tells us in his book, Sensuous Worship, Jesuit art was decidedly not meant to numb the intellect with a bewildering display, but to engage the eye progressively towards a cumulative goal. Indeed these churches were designed to allow laymen to "participate," albeit in a deeply interior and Ignatian way, in the liturgy. "Everything was predicated on the active participation of the individual" visually, intellectually, and spiritually. As Mr. Chips Smith points out in his book, this approach, fomented by St. Charles Boromeo and his fellow Jesuits, was largely instrumental in the conversion and re-catechesis of tens of thousands of German Christians after the 30 Years War.


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: Chalcedon and the true divine and human natures of Christ; Nicea II and the veneration of images; Florence and the flioque; and Trent’s emphasis on the sacramental content of the Church. The wine of true doctrine was not changed but placed in newly decorated skins. Nor, again, as explained above, is the simple pursuit of beauty an end in itself.  For those of us involved with sacred art, it is not enough to paint or sculpt beautiful images of our own fancy. While they must indeed conform to the highest standards of excellence, they must also be rooted in the sensum fidelium, -- i.e., "The Faith once and for all handed down to the saints," -- as well as to the traditional symbolic structure allied to this Faith. 


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