In November 2009, some 260 artists from around the world gathered in the Sistine Chapel at the invitation of Pope Benedict XVI. They represented almost every type of art and numbered among them Catholics, non-Catholics and some of no faith. Yet the Pope called them all “custodians of beauty” and invited them “to be heralds and witnesses of hope for humanity.”
“Beauty,” he told them, can be “a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate Mystery, towards God.”
The Pope’s words at this extraordinary meeting echoed those in Via Pulchritudinis (“The Way of Beauty”), a document published by the Pontifical Council for Culture on March 27, 2006. It proposed the “Way of Beauty” as a “privileged pathway for evangelization and dialogue,” a bridge leading to “God, the first truth.” It said this pathway could be especially effective in reaching those “who face great difficulties in receiving the Church’s teaching.”
A Link From Time Immemorial
Truth and beauty have been linked from time immemorial, but they can still seem like an odd couple. Romantic poet John Keats was confident that “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” but today’s poet-philosophers are more likely to believe that beauty is different in the eye of every beholder, and that truth — especially religious truth — is whatever you “feel” it is.
The relativism embodied in those beliefs, widespread in modern secular societies, is the “crucial challenge” facing the Church today in her efforts to communicate the truth of Christ, something made all the more difficult by endemic hostility or indifference to religion.
In this climate, beauty could seem an unlikely pathway to any kind of truth, let alone the absolute truth of God. But Pope Benedict and the pontifical council base their claims solidly on Catholic teaching, going back at least to St. Augustine in the fifth century.
Beauty and truth are inseparable because they both come from the same divine source, God, and so can lead back to Him. Because God is One, they are in some sense interchangeable, as Keats instinctively understood.
Along with goodness, beauty and truth are aspects of God’s perfect Being, which means that He is not just their author, or that He is “beautiful” or “truthful” in the way created things are more or less full of beauty or truth, but that God is Beauty itself and Truth itself.
In short, every encounter with the beautiful, the true or the good here on earth is really an encounter with a facet of God, a reminder of His original beauty and truth.
“That Which Pleases When Seen”
What separates them is the way they reveal themselves to the human soul.
The beautiful is “that which pleases when seen,” according to the definition of St. Thomas Aquinas, which confirms the commonsense notion that beauty begins in the eye of the beholder. It is primarily a visual phenomenon, recognized when and as soon as it is seen, effortlessly and spontaneously. In this respect the experience of beauty is like an intuition, or an epiphany: it strikes all at once, often with tremendous force and authenticity, and without any pause for conscious thought.
That is its great advantage over truth, which normally requires a process of (sometimes laborious) reasoning before it can be grasped — assuming a person is willing or able to make the effort. Beauty is the truth in visible form, which means it can bypass the intellectual obstacles truth might encounter and appeal directly to the heart.
That inherent attractiveness is beauty’s other advantage. The pleasure it evokes is captivating and makes the beholder thirst for more. It naturally “engenders joy, feelings of fullness, [and a] desire to participate freely.... The way of beauty responds to the intimate desire for happiness that resides in the heart of every person” (Via Pulchritudinis, II.3.).
Beauty consequently isn’t only in the physical eye: the soul has its eyes, too, with which it recognizes the innate beauty of the True and the Good (which are themselves invisible). In fact, beauty is “the splendor of the truth,” and it “is only authentic in its link to the truth” (VP, II.1). When that connection is made, beauty engages “the whole man — spirit and heart, intelligence and reason, creative capacity and imagination” (VP, II.3) and not just the senses.
A Stealth Weapon
Put all this together and Via Pulchritudinis looks like an ideal evangelical “stealth weapon.” It is attractive and accessible to all. It requires no special ability to experience — and it automatically gives the beholder an intuition of the beautiful truth of God. Even those otherwise resistant to the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel, or put off by the moral demands of the good, may find that beauty “disposes [their] heart and spirit to meet Christ, who is the Beauty of Holiness Incarnate” (VP, II.1).
“The via pulchritudinis ... invites contemporary Augustines, unquenchable seekers of love, truth and beauty, to see through perceptible beauty to eternal Beauty, and with fervor discover [the] Holy God, the author of all beauty” (VP, II.1). As Scripture tells us, “For from the greatness and beauty of created things, their original author, by analogy, is seen” (Wis 13:5).
“Perceptible beauty” is present in nature and art. The natural world, made in God’s likeness, is necessarily charged through and through with His beauty. Catholics already acknowledge the sacramental dimension of Creation and turn to God in adoration, praise and thanksgiving. But the nonreligious too may find that a magnificent sunset or landscape can set them on the ascent from visible things to the invisible.
In works of art, especially those inspired by Christianity, beauty can lead the viewer down a more deliberate path to sacred truth. When artists create beautiful objects inspired by the lives of Jesus or the saints or episodes from the Bible, they actually “extend Revelation, by providing it with form, image, color, and sound” (VP, III.2). If “he who sings prays twice,” then a beautiful painting of Jesus could be called “twice true.”
But these meetings with truth in beauty are “not exempt from ambiguity, deviations, errors, detours, etc.,” because they are “always dependent on human subjectivity” (VP, II.1). Beauty doesn’t reveal the truth in simple words or logical formulas, and every eye has a limited perspective: “For now we see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor 13:12, RSV). People therefore need an appropriate education in the language of beauty.
The Eyes of the Soul
The deeper problem is that the flesh is weak. The eye may be tempted by sensualism or “aestheticism” — “the trap of beauty taken for itself” (VP, II.2) — or become addicted to “ugliness and bad taste,” just as evil can fascinate and mislead the mind. The Pope lamented that “too often ... the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding.” It is beauty marked by sin, that attracts in order to “rekindle desire.” And so the pleasure it brings “imprisons” and “enslaves,” instead of opening up and broadening the horizons of human awareness.
“Authentic beauty,” the Pope continued, “unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond.”
This beauty finds its perfection in the beauty of holiness — in the liturgy, the sacraments, in lives and souls transfigured by grace, and supremely in Jesus, in whom Beauty and Truth achieve a perfect union.
The beauty of holiness is an interior beauty, not directly perceptible by the senses. Unlike the beauty of art and nature, it can only be seen in faith with the eyes of the soul. Jesus’ perfect holiness, for example, made him “the most beautiful of the children of man,” and He remained so, even when he was clothed in blood and “the ugliness of sin” (VP, III.3).
When Jesus stood silent in the face of Pilate’s question “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38), it wasn’t that He gave him no reply. Instead, Jesus, the Truth incarnate, with his silence said, “Behold the Truth in my Beauty.”
The Church today may more effectively share His Truth by sharing His Beauty — manifested in holiness of life, works of sacred art and “an authentic philosophy of nature.” In this way, the Via Pulchritudinis can become “a Via Veritatis, on which man engages to discover the bonitas of God’s love, source of all beauty, truth and good” (VP, II.2). TCA