The Following article is the transcript of a slide presentation given at the Deutsch-Americanisches Kolloquium in Wildbad Kreuth/München in July 2002. It is based on a previous talk given to a group of combined bishops of the United States, Canada, Central America, and the Philippines in Dallas Texas, on February 5, 2001, during their annual meeting organized by the National Catholic Bioethics Center.


The Human Person in the Arts from the Classical Period to the Present


Hamilton Reed Armstrong


The following presentation is an abridged version of a talk given to a combined group of bishops from the United States, Canada, and Central America at a conference on present day culture and its relationship to bioethics in February of 2000. While the emphasis at that conference was on the interrelationship of culture and modern science, the present talk deals more with works of the plastic arts as symptomatic of the culture in which they are created.

Most here present, I believe, would equate art in some way with beauty, and many would also agree that, "beauty is in the eyes of the beholder." Both of these assumptions follow, in fact, the fundamental teaching of St.Thomas Aquinas, that beauty is a subjectively perceived quality of things that exist according to their true nature. In the words of the late Joseph Pieper, objectively speaking, beauty is "the glow of the true and the good that shines forth from every ordered state of being." Although St. Thomas maintains that the objective reality of beauty is intrinsic to God, in se ipso, of his very nature, and that He is the font of all beauty, it is the perceiving human person who decides for himself what is to be deemed beautiful. "Things are deemed beautiful that when they are seen, please us," he tells us in the Summa. He then qualifies this general observation by noting that, " While all men love beauty -- carnal men love carnal beauty, and spiritual men love spiritual beauty." This is not to say that beauty in and of itself is subjective, but that since individual perceptions vary, fierce debate arises over the nature of the aesthetic vision. Whether one is a follower of St. Thomas or not, it is clear that, even within the rigors of Scholastic philosophy, it is difficult to discuss human creativity from a purely aesthetic perspective. De gustibus non est diputandam, there is nothing we can really say about taste. If, however, we accept that beauty is related to perception we are led, sooner or later, to the realm of psychology. According to the eminent French art historian, René Huyghé, "Art is for human societies what the dreams of an individual are for the psychiatrist." He continues:

"Many think of art as a mere diversion, a thing that is marginal to the real business of life, they do not see that it [visual art] looks into life's very heart and lays bare its unconscious secrets, that it contains the most honest confessions, confessions that have within them the least element of calculation and must therefore be accounted especially sincere. The soul of an age no longer wears a mask, it seeks and discloses itself with the prophetic knowledge that is to be found both with the highly sensitive and the possessed."

It is from this perspective that I approach the subject of the human person in art from the classical period to the present.

One of the great scholars of Classical culture, the late Werner Jaeger, noted that, "the history of personality in Europe starts with the Greeks," Prior to the Greek philosophic inquiry into cause and effect originating with the Milesian thinkers Thales, Anaxamenes, and Anaxemander, superstition and magic prevailed. Art work produced before this rational awakening tended to reflect a seemingly diverse, yet unified, mythopoetic, imaginative understanding of nature.


One of the oldest artistic artifacts found in Europe reflecting this "imaginative world view" is the Willendorf Venus, which dates back some 30,000 years. It represents the Great Earth Mother, Gaia. (Fig. 1) She has neither a face nor hands. She does not represent a human person but rather the irrational or incomprehensible procreative forces of nature. The same image is found in the East as the Maja Mudra. (Fig. 2) Moving to the 6th century BC. and the Greek Temple of Artemis at Corfu, (Fig.3) we see again in the sculptures the same basic figure representing blind fate, in this case a monstrous Gorgon whose face is covered with a bestial mask with protruding tongue. It is virtually the same image as found to this day of the Indian Dark Goddess, Kali who gives birth to all but then drinks their blood from a cup made from human skulls. In each case the artist is portraying Mother Nature as bountiful but cruel a force to be appeased with magical ritual and sacrifice. In the case of the temple at Corfu, grotesque masks and other paraphernalia for their rites have been unearthed.

Somehow , following the lead of the Milesian philosophers mentioned above, within one hundred years of the building of this temple dedicated to ritual appeasement, an entirely new notion of man evolved in Greece. Man's dignity as a rational human person who inhabits an understandable cosmos was recognized. Its artistic image, called a kouros (Fig. 4), represents man simply as man. These kouros statues are not gods but individual human beings stepping out onto the world stage, confident of their own nature. This figure is naked but not prurient. The emphasis is on his face, in Greek, prosopon, derived from prosopeon, which is a ritual mask of a god in Greek drama. Here man realizes that through his reason, believed to reside in the head, he is, in fact, "the image of God." The same dignity is seen in the face of woman. This type of statue, called a kore (Fig. 5) does not represent the product or source of irrational forces, but a fully formed woman, modestly dressed, with an intelligent face. She too is "the image of God."

This new view of man and woman was predicated on the concept of human dignity. It affirmed that, although strongly influenced by fate, man could by the exercise of virtue take control of his own life. The next figure depicts a noble Lapith overcoming a bestial Centaur, a recurring motif in Classical art. (Fig. 6) It is, according to Yale University art historian, J. J. Pollit, a mythopoetic pictorial statement of man's battle to overcome his own unruly base passions.







The highest goal of these men and women of the Classical period of the late fifth century BC was to wisdom, and the great temple of Athena (Fig. 8), the archetype of Wisdom (born directly from the head of god - Zeus), was the crowning glory of Ancient Athens. On the East pediment of the temple, (Fig. 9) facing the sunrise, all is quiet and orderly. Gods and goddesses, anthropomorphic projections of external forces and the internal desires of man, gather around the central figure of Athena. On the West pediment (Fig. 10), facing the sunset, all is motion and strife. Again in the words of J.J. Pollitt, "It is as if historical time presented in the West pediment with its endless agitation is balanced against timeless cosmic order in the East." These two diametrically opposed sculptural compositions at either end of the temple, taken together produce an overall harmony. Arrayed on this one structure are the natural, opposed human aspirations of ethos (self-discipline) and pathos (spontaneous reaction) which are somehow united, if not totally resolved under the aegis of Athena, Wisdom. This diagram in (Fig. 11) summarizes the fundamental dialectic facing the individual vis à vis his fate according to the Greek understanding of cosmos. While the universe itself is comprised of a unity of paired polar opposites, such as light and darkness and good and evil, man can to a degree control his fate through the exercise of virtue and achieve sophresyne, a balanced and temperate existence.


Unfortunately the Golden Age of Athenian wisdom, though it influenced future generations in the West, did not last more than some fifty years. After the Pelopennesian war, which ended in 404 BC, Greece entered into the Hellenistic age with a concomitant flight from reason and a return to sensuality and magic. The renowned sculpture of Aphrodite at Knidos from this period by Praxiteles (Fig. 12) is generally considered a "Classical nude." But, the women in the Classical period were chastely presented, fully clothed or in the case of Aphrodite with a large décolletage. This statue was not sculpted as a "work of beauty," but as an erotic cult figure. It was originally painted in life colors. And the Roman historian Pliny, among others, told of young men actually attempting to make love to this figure. The Barberini Faun, (Fig. 13) of the late Hellenistic period needs no explanation. With the flight from the rational and the decline into overt sensuality, superstition also returned. The prehistoric shrine at Delphi (Greek for womb -- of Gaia, Mother Nature) was refurbished, and, according to Heroditus, thousands would come to hear the Pythoness (snake goddess) make her drug-induced predictions. (Fig. 14)





By the second century BC civilization had passed to Rome where the virtues, not so much of speculative learning but of civic responsibility under law were extolled. In this statue of a patrician with busts of his forebearers (Fig. 16) one can see the directed vision and firm purpose of the Republican citizen. While the double portrait from the Vatican Museum, (Fig. 16) is clear evidence of the marital fidelity and mutual respect actually lived by the Roman citizenry. The writings of Cicero, Seneca, and Livy, are filled with citations of the heroic nature of the Roman man, as are the writings of the Greek and Latin Fathers. St. John Chrisostom, for example, stated flatly that "clearly the ancients passed laws that were inspired by the law of God infused in man at the Creation." Even the great thirteenth-century poet, Dante Alighieri remarked, "The Romans rightly ruled the world because of their own great virtue."





Caesar Agustus (Fig. 17) was the epitome of this rule as we see him here, hand stretched out as emperor of the entire known world. With universal empire, however came the inevitable decline. Along the way, the great Roman satirist Juvenal berated his contemporaries for their lost integrity and debauched lives. The decline is apparent in this portrait of a second century youth (Fig 18). Contrary to such historians as Will Durant, it was not the advent of Christianity that destroyed the empire, but internal decay along with the return to magic and the Bacchic rites as here portrayed from Pompeii. (Fig. 19) Here, in the final days of Rome, are the portrait statues of the Roman rulers, Diocletian, Maximus Constantius, and Galerius huddled with undifferentiated mask-like faces devoid of human dignity and human personality. (Fig. 20)










With the advent of Christianity a new vision of the human person emerged. Man was, indeed, made in the image and likeness of God, but the fullness of this image is to be found only in the Son who is both truly God and truly man.

In this Byzantine mosaic of Christ Pantocrator we see, as proclaimed by the Second Council of Nicea in 787 AD, " the human face of the Son of God, unique image of the invisible God, the 'Word made Flesh" (Fig. 21). It is in Him and through Him that the human person can be raised from the natural "image of God," according to the function of intellect and will, to full participation in the personhood of God. If, as affirmed by St. Gregory of Nyssa, "the image of God is in the faces of the saints," then Mary, who shared most intimately the material nature of her son and the "fullness of his grace," shares most fully in His personality. This icon of Mary (Fig. 22) represents the Eastern tradition of stylistically depicting the person, hypostatic object of our veneration, in Heaven. The background is untarnishable gold. Mary's garment is earth red because she is ha adamah, a daughter of Adam, not a goddess. The Christ child, dressed in priestly white, extends His two right-hand fingers to indicate his two natures, divine and human. In the Western tradition the person of Mary is shown more humanly as one who possesses our nature with all its frailty and suffering. The artist, in this case Duccio (Fig. 23), has clearly captured the suffering, resignation, and hope of the truly holy person.


In the West, the portrayal of the human person transformed by grace goes back to the earliest times. This fourth-century painting of a praying figure from the catacomb of Giordini (Fig. 24), is filled with dignity and Christian hope. In the words of St. Thomas, "It is not for some vaguely defined happiness that they hope, but for eternal happiness with Our Lady and the angels and saints in the vision of the Triune God." The famed Avignon Pieta from the Louvre (Fig. 25) displays the same transformation in Christ through both the faces and body language of the lamenting persons.



One of the most profound images of a human being whose soul has been molded to the divine likeness through sanctifying grace is that of St. Dominic painted by Blessed Fra Angelico. (Fig. 26) The figure of St. Ignatius of Loyola sculpted by Martinez Montañez (Fig. 27) during the Catholic Counter-Reformation in Spain displays much the same qualities. The best known "icon" of Renaissance art, and its vision of the human person, is The Creation of Man by Michelangelo. (Fig. 28) Man for the Renaissance humanists was the microcosm of the divine cosmos. He was not simply the image of God " as stamped on a coin" as taught by St. Thomas, but a collaborator in the divine creative historical process itself. Here in a close-up of Adam's face (Fig. 29) we see man, made in the pristine image of the Ever Living God, untainted by the Fall.





From this time forward, the dignity and worth of the individual human person became the hallmark of Western art. We see it in Raphael's splendid painting of the humanist, Baldassare Castiglione (Fig. 30); Rembrandt's loving portrait of his wife Saskia (Fig. 31); El Greco's rendition of the integrity of a Spanish hidalago (Fig. 32); the assured composure seen in the Marchioness Balbi by Van Dyke (Fig. 33); the quintessential business man, Louis Bertin as seen by Ingres (Fig. 34); Corot's painting of the sultry peasant, Augustina (Fig. 35); or the grace and innocence of two young ladies at the opera, tenderly captured by Mary Cassat (Fig. 36). Despite their distinct rank and station, the common denominator of all of these portraits, painted by some of the greatest artists of all time, is their underlying humanity. The human face, with its infinite variety, whether in a state of nature or informed by sanctifying grace, has served Western art from the Classical Greeks nearly up to the present as the chosen vehicle to portray man's affinity with his Creator.










This tradition has, however, been broken. If as prophetically explained by René Hughyé, "the soul of an age discloses itself in its art," revolutionary ideas regarding man and his destiny are readily discernible in the arts of our times. Consider for example, Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" (Fig. 37), painted in 1912, was a cause célèbre at the New York Armory Show in 1913 and a watershed example of so-called modern art. Its conscious or unconscious attack on the proportion, harmony, clarity, and integrity of the human person as image and likeness of God is self-evident. One must ask if this is, in fact, a human person. The same may be asked of this deformed portrait of a woman by Pablo Ruiz Picasso (Fig. 38). The experts of the art establishment tell us that this new form of painting, dubbed "Cubism," was an aesthetic advance over decadent bourgeois sentimentality. Picasso himself had no such illusions. For him, as quoted in 1914 by his mistress, Francoise Gilot, art is, "not an aesthetic operation of man," but "a means of seizing power by giving form to his dread and his desire." Women for Picasso were not human persons but objects of desire, and indeed dread, which could be manipulated at will both in reality and on canvas.




Willem De Kooning's post-World War II vision of woman is equally disquieting with obvious overtones of his incipient dementia. (Fig. 39) Renowned British artist Francis Bacon, in his powerful but distorted 1954 rendition of Valazquez' painting of Pope Innocent X, displays a phenomenology of the serious sin in which this tormented artist lived out his life. (Fig. 40) Antonio Saura , darling of the Spanish modernists in the 1970's, continued the dismantling of the image of the human person as conceived in Western Christian culture. (Fig. 41) The serious revolutionary nature of this art is summarized in this quote from the 1971 avant garde journal Arsenal: "Let us speak plainly...Until the last government has been overthrown; until the last church has been burned and the last bank pulverized: until the last capitalist and the last cop have been hanged to death with the guts of the last politician and the last priest; that is, until men and women are truly free, surrealism will continue relentlessly to provide miraculous weapons with which to struggle for this freedom." While this manifesto cites "Surrealism" specifically, the vast majority of modern artists whose works hang in our museums were at some time, in some way, connected to this movement.

The continuing distortion of the human face as a statement of alienation is reflected in the work of the late Jean Michel Basquiat, a leading figure of the New York modern art scene, who like so many of his contemporaries died a victim of his own disordered style of living (Fig. 42). . Perhaps the most graphic rendition of the reigning culture of death and the abolition of man, is the 1997 wood sculpture by "Caesar" of a face being peeled back to show a grinning death's head (Fig. 43).

Once the imago Dei is removed, we are left with the blind impulses of unchecked nature. Andrij Mutaij, a bright star of contemporary art, in his sculpture of Eros Alata elevates erotic desire to a veritable apotheosis (Fig. 44). The similarity of this piece to the prehistoric Willendorf Venus is disquieting, especially as it comes, not from an unformed but rather a deformed concept of human nature. This view of man and woman -- that they are no more than the sum of their sexual proclivities -- is seen in the depiction by the dean of the Mexican avant garde, Rufino Tamayo. Here we see man depicted as a giant penis and woman as a groin faced partner in his seminal work, Pareja (Fig. 45). When Mr. Tamayo died some years back, the president of Mexico, the minister of culture, luminaries from the international art world, and the world press attended his funeral to extol the genius of this formidable iconoclast. Then there is, Judy Chicago who became a cause célèbre in the 1990s with her rendition of the triangular female pudenda titled The Dinner Party (Fig. 46). The plates shown on the table by this feminist artist are adorned, not with the faces, but the private parts of the famous women of history. This painting is reproduced in art texts used extensively by public and parochial schools. The purveyors of this type of art openly acknowledge their aims. Franklin W. Robinson, director of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, wrote in 1989 on the whole purpose of "modern art": He said, "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."



Perhaps the most talked of and lionized painter today is the late Frieda Kahlo. Special information kits on this artist are available for distribution to elementary schools throughout the nation. A virtual icon of the revolution, she was a proto-feminist and lover of Leon Trotsky. Done in the 1930s, this painting titled "Sun Dance," Danza al Sol (Fig. 47) is prophetic of today's vision of man. Not only are the strange creatures in this painting anthropomorphic animals but the dance master himself, in the upper stage right quadrant, is a strange black horned beast with prominent testicles. When the imago Dei is consciously or subconsciously removed from the depiction of man, the Creator Himself is removed from the picture and replaced by alternative beings. The writers of the Septuagint Book of Wisdom recognized this fact long ago.


"...And men imparted to stocks and stones the incommunicable name of God. Nor were they content with false notions of God's nature; living in a world besieged by doubt, they misnamed its innumerable disorders a state of peace. Peace amidst their rites of child murder, their dark mysteries, their vigils consecrated to frenzy." (Wisdom 14:21/24)


So much for the dreams and schemes of the secular culture, but what about the situation within the Church? What does the Catholic artist have to offer. Here is St. Joseph, overturned and splattered with paint at the Hirshhorn Museum show of 1984. (Fig. 48) The Blessed Mother, her bare breast splattered with elephant dung and surrounded by paper cutout vaginas at the 1999 "Sensations" exhibit in Brooklyn. (Fig. 49) The infamous Piss Christ, a plastic devotional crucifix submerged in the artist's own urine (Fig.50) All of these artists are self-proclaimed Catholics, albeit at odds with the Church's views on sexual morality. Moreover the art education presently offered by Catholic institutions of learning is unfortunately but an echo of the secular zeitgeist. This photograph (Fig. 51) appeared on the promotional brochure of one of our most faithful Catholic universities, and the author of this next painting (Fig. 52) teaches in an archdiocessan parochial school.





Without delving too deeply into the psychohpathology of these pieces, nor the socio-political and moral positions held by the individual artists, the anger, aggression, alienation, and outrage of the secular culture are more than apparent


For most of its two thousand-year history, the Catholic Church was not only the custodian of Western Culture but also an active promoter of both the arts and sciences. The Church had a coherent vision of both God and man, and the philosophers, writers and artists of Christendom eagerly met the challenges of this vision. In more recent times, however, the Church has found it difficult to respond to the divergent movements of the secular culture and has all but abandoned explicit directives in the realm of art and human creativity. In order to be the leaven of society that is her mission, the Church must offer a coherent vision in images as well as words. No Catholic renaissance will arise in either the arts or the sciences until the Church, through a careful dialogue with modernity guided by eternal truth, reasserts its vision of the nature and destiny of man. Not only do we need schools which are faithful to the Magisterium in which to produce the future artists, but schools that will prepare a new generation of teachers who eagerly embrace the Church's sublime vision of the human person and the transcendental end of man.




I began this presentation with the analogy of the art of a society as being related to the individual dream as defined by René Hughyé. In closing I should like to refer to the individual dream of a man whose face clearly reflects the goodness of human nature and the sanctity of habitual grace -- St. John Bosco. (Fig. 53) In his well known dream, the saint saw two pillars standing in the sea while the Bark of Peter was tossed violently in the troubled waters (Fig. 54). The larger pillar was surmounted by the Holy Eucharist; God's pouring out of Himself for our sanctification and salvation. The second, smaller pillar, held the Blessed Virgin Mary, the archetype of redeemed humanity, and our loving mother. After terrifying battles and storms, the ship carrying the Roman Pontiff, along with other smaller ships representing other Christian churches and communities, moored at these pillars. A period of peace was then accorded the world. May I humbly suggest that, as the present Holy Father has reminded us, these two great Christian realities, the Eucharist and devotion to Mary, inspire the Catholic artists every where and that they find support from their bishops in recapturing the imagination for Christ and put it into practice.


End Notes

1) Joseph Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1955) p. 203


2) ST, 1. 5,4


3) Comm. in Psalmos, 25.5


4) René Hughe, cit. Hans Sedlmayer Art in Crisis (London: Hollins and Carter, 1957) Intro/p.2


5) ibid p.2


6) Werner Jaeger, cit. The Art of Greece, in Gardner's Art Through the Ages , Seventh Edition (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977) p. 108


7) J.J. Pollitt, Art and Experience in Ancient Greece Readings in Art History ed. Harold Spencer (New York: Charles Scribner, 1969) p. 66

8) ibid p.74


9) St. John Chrisostom (On Natural Law)) Homiliae ad populum Aniocheneum, XII,4-5


10) Dante Allighieri On World Government -De Monarchia- (New York: Bobs & Merrill, 1957) p. 24 -


11) Letter of H.H. Pope Hadrian I to the Emperors, in Mansi XII, 1062 AB. Cit. H.H. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Duodecimum Saeclum Veneration of Holy Images, 1987


12) St. Gregory of Nyssa (The Christian as Christ) Homilia in Perfectionis ad Olympos


13) CCC 490, 967


14) ST 107. 4,5


15) ibid Sedlmayer, p.2


16) Pierre Daix, Dread Desire and the Desmoiselles, Art News/Summer 1988


17) Declaration of War - Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion, Chicago 1970 in Andre Breton What is Surrealism? ed. Franklin Rosemont (New York: Pathfinder Press 1978) Intro/p. 121


18) Franklin Robinson, Letters to the Editor, The Washington Times, July 20, 1988



19) Wisdom 14: 21-24. Trans. Msgr. Ronald Knox, The Old Testament in English (New York: Sheed and Ward 1950)