Beauty: Pointing the way to the divine

The long and illustrious artistic tradition of the Catholic Church is bearing fruit in myriad diverse and imaginative new initiatives in our culture.

Ranging from the poetic and literary to the visual and architectural, there’s a creative movement afoot that endeavors to recognize the centrality of beauty to the essence and heart of humanity.


“Beauty is not external or decorative. It is a vision of the real nature of a thing in a way in which we understand it is good. Beauty is our ability to see the secret order of the universe,” said poet Dana Gioia, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. “It is our way of understanding God’s creation and our place in it. It is not the only the way — we can use philosophy and theology, but those forms of thought are abstract, while beauty is immediate and physical. We respond to beauty with the fullness of our humanity.”

To illustrate the centrality of beauty to the Church, author Paul Elie likes to tell a story involving Dorothy Day, the foundress of the Catholic Worker Movement. “People would ask Day, ‘What business does Catholicism have building these beautiful churches? Isn’t there a better way to spend that money?’ But Dorothy Day said ‘no.’ ‘The beautiful churches of this country were built by nickels and dimes of poor people who gave what they had because of their instinctive sense of importance for beauty,’ Day always emphasized, and this reflects the fact that beauty is appropriate for all of us. It’s something we all deserve. It shouldn’t be reserved for the wealthy. People of every station in life need that encounter with beauty, and we all can speak that language,” said Elie, author of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $18), a group biography of four American Catholic writers: Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy and Thomas Merton.

The hands of God and Adam are shown in a detail from the 1511 fresco “The Creation of Adam,” by Michelangelo, from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Bridgeman Images

The Catholic imagination

“[Beauty] completes the trinity — goodness, truth and beauty. It enables us to be open to the fundamental experience of the encounter with God,” said author Gregory Wolfe. “Goodness and truth without beauty come across as much more harsh, and merely dutiful.”

St. Paul
“The Conversion of St. Paul,” an oil on canvas painted by Caravaggio in 1601, shows St. Paul being knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus after hearing the voice of God. The painting is located in the Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Bridgeman Images

As director of Seattle Pacific University’s Masters of Fine Arts and editor of Slant Books and Image journal, Wolfe has dedicated his personal life and professional career to fostering good writing that acknowledges the moral and spiritual dimension of the person.

“Catholic writers, especially young Catholic writers, need a home. [They] work in a secular society that is increasingly anti-Catholic,” said Gioia, who in February helped plan a conference at the University of Southern California on “The Future of Catholic Literary Imagination.” “The main reason [for the conference] was to foster a sense of community among our artists and writers.”

Hosted by USC’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, the conference was significant on many levels, said Gary Adler, director of research at the institute. “Part of the reason we would invest, in every sense of the word — money, staff time, national network of people to come — is to connect back to a broad expansive sense of what it means to be a person and to cultivate wisdom and knowledge.”

James F. Cooper, editor of American Arts Quarterly, said many contemporary artists are cut off from this aspect of experience, but the most talented artists are returning to realism and classicism to recover the spiritual, moral and religious. “As T.S. Eliot wrote, all great art springs from religion,” Cooper said.

Joshua Hren, editor of Wiseblood Books and the journal Dappled Things, is involved in seeking out and supporting writers and visual artists whose work envisions this Catholic understanding of art and beauty. “As Benedict XVI says, beauty pierces us like a dart and wakes us up,” he said. “It makes us suffer in a way that is both joyful and painful at the same time. It puts us in a position that makes us reawakened, reassessing lives around us.”

Novelist Lee Oser said in his own life that beauty points him to the transcendent. “The beauty in the world is a relief, a haven, a balm, a medicine. It continually points me in the right direction and summons my soul to do the work that it has to do: to look, to be alert and anticipate.”

The creation of the Sun and the Moon
Michelangelo’s “The creation of the Sun and the Moon,” adorns a portion of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Bridgeman Images

Preserving memory

Mystical Unicorn Hunt
“Mystical Unicorn Hunt” by Daniel Mitsui, according to his website, depicts a mystical unicorn hunt as an allegory of the Incarnation of Christ. Courtesy image

For visual artist Daniel Mitsui, his work is “preserving an ancient memory,” one grounded in tradition. “When I draw a scene from the Gospels, I study depictions of the same scene in the work of ancient and medieval Catholic artists. I look for selections and arrangements of subjects that endure across historic and geographic boundaries, and perpetuate them,” said Mitsui, whose work has been published in Dappled Things.

Even the long and beautiful Catholic art tradition is not always easily accessible. For example, Michigan lawyer Will Bloomfield sought out an appropriate and artistic Bible for his own children. When he failed to find one combining beautiful illustrations and the actual text of the Bible, he decided to create one. The Sacred Art Series, Bloomfield’s brainchild, uses the work of prominent artists such as Caravaggio, Duccio and Michelangelo to illustrate (so far) the Gospels of Luke and John.

For Bloomfield, “The great works of art, whether it’s architecture, music or painting, are a way for us to reach the divine,” he said. “It is a way for us to pray deeper and better. It is another way of entering into the stories.”

Artist David Clayton also sees the importance of beautiful images in prayer. With his book, “The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Prayer in the Home,” (Sophia Institute Press, $19.95), Clayton said he aimed to “teach people to pray with visual imagery again so that we might evangelize the culture.

St. Michael the Archangel
Artist David Clayton’s image of St. Michael the Archangel. Courtesy image

“I read John Paul II’s Letter to Artists written in 1999 (see sidebar) and thought, here is the pope telling us we need a new epiphany of beauty, giving us a summary of the great traditions of the past and explaining why they are beautiful,” said Clayton, artist-in-residence and lecturer at Thomas More College in New Hampshire, who began promoting a re-emphasis of beauty after his own conversion.

With his project, The Way of Beauty, Clayton aims to foster new epiphanies that help create a culture of beauty — a culture in the broadest sense, from everyday living to high culture, Clayton explained. “The work won’t be done until we see new art that participates in the timeless qualities of the past, but in a way that is new so that it is accessible to modern man.”

The tension between tradition and contemporary culture is one that many of these Catholic artists strive to balance.

Yet as Gregory Wolfe warned, this might look very different from what we expect. “Contemporary is always unfamiliar. Imagine you’re a Romanesque architect who walks into the first Gothic church. You build churches that are dark and mysterious, with small windows and round arches, and now you’re in a church with lots of arches and huge windows. You think, ‘Who are these whippersnappers to change the beauty of the church?’” he said. From our perspective in time, however, “we look back at both as ultimate Catholic styles of the Middle Ages, but those Romanesque guys would’ve looked at the Gothic churches and been offended or shocked.”

An image from “The Maestà,” an altarpiece painted between 1308-1311 by Duccio di Buoninsegna at the cathedral of Sienna in Italy. The image depicts Jesus at table with his apostles. Bridgeman Images

Anecdote to rationalism


These new epiphanies of beauty can also be seen as a response to the prevalent rationalism of our age. “Our time is, above all, characterized by rationalism, which is a defamation of reason,” said Leila Lawler, co-author of “The Little Oratory.” “It’s an exaltation of application, of analysis to everything, thinking the only truth and reality is something you can dissect. There’s almost no way of escaping it, because when your vision is totally bound to the earth, it is fatal.”

Ultimately, the way out of this reduction of reason is through the beauty of the physical world, which points to the supernatural, noted Lawler. Poet Annabelle Moseley put it succinctly: “Beauty, especially in the arts, leads the soul to wonder and awe.”

“We have the ability to take the material world, whether it’s colors and paints or musical notes, and create something that is in harmony with that which is beyond,” Lawler said. “When we do this, we find that it is beauty, as philosopher Josef Pieper said, that allows us wonder, and it is, in fact, a philosophical act.” In the end, “it is not a philosophical act [in the sense of] a dry activity carried out in an ivory tower, but the true act of seeing things whole and being in union with what is beyond.”

The journal Dappled Things, which publishes visual art, poetry, fiction, and essays, is one of several publications founded explicitly to provide a venue for emerging artists who recognize divine mysticism in beauty.

According to Bernardo Aparicio Garcia co-founder of Dappled Things, “I looked around and I saw that there was a lot of creative talent — and while there were a lot of really good Catholic publications, there were not any venues that focused on art and beauty.”

Katy Carl, its associate editor, explained the uniqueness of their mission as a Catholic literary journal. “Above all, the thing we’re holding to is the Eucharist. Christ is the source of beauty, which we see in the Mass. The incarnational aspect — God dwelling with us in the Eucharist — is central to how the Church perceives reality,” an exceptional approach to creativity.

Do you take time to appreciate beauty? If so, how? Answer in the comments.

Issuing a challenge

For visual artist John Herreid, there’s a “challenging aspect to art that sometimes we forget about. We think of art as window dressing to life.”

beauty quotes

As author Paul Elie emphasizes, this challenge often comes in the form of entering into another person’s perspective. “We can have an experience that’s not ours in a pretty intimate way. I think that on some level, Christianity invites us to radically identify with the other, and that’s what we do with certain kinds of art.”

Additionally, some of the paintings of the Crucifixion, for example, are truly provoking, Herreid explains. “It’s very hard to look at Matthias Grunewald’s painting which shows crucified Christ covered in boils. But who is it painted for? It’s for the people of the plague, so they could see Christ has taken their suffering as well.”

Yet paintings such as Grunewald’s, says author Leila Lawler, exemplify the highest form of beauty. “Ratzinger [Pope Benedict XVI] talks about the beauty of love that goes to the very end. Even though it seems as though beauty is drained out of Jesus, it isn’t ugliness; it’s just a different kind of beauty. In the end, Ratzinger says the beauty that will save the world is Christ’s beauty.”

Anamaria Scaperlanda Biddick writes from Oklahoma.

Letter to Artists
On April 4, 1999 — Easter Sunday — the Vatican released a letter from Pope John Paul II to artists, in which the Holy Father stressed the importance of creating and appreciating beauty. Here is an excerpt.

Cathedral Duomo
A view of the interior of Cathedral Duomo on Miracoli Square in Pisa, Italy. The cathedral was designed in 1604. Shutterstock