Rev. Walter F. Kedjierski who is an Associate Pastor at St. Catherine of Sienna Roman Catholic Parish in Franklin Square, NY and teaches theology at St. John’s University, NY, contributed a wonderful essay on Catholic Aesthetics to the Princeton Theological Review back in 2007 titled The Beautiful As A Gateway To The Transcendent. It dealt with how the Christian tradition has come to appreciate beauty as a gateway to the divine.
The seductive and enticing nature of beauty can lead one to a fulfilling encounter with the divine beyond the initial symbol experienced, or one can become fixated upon the symbol itself so that a self-consuming and unfulfilling form of idolatry is the result. Some reading selections follow. It considers the decadent movement in Western European literature of the 19th century and the writings of the 20th century Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Historical And Biblical Foundations: Augustine
Early in the history of Christianity, people came to discover God in the beautiful. When Augustine penned the story of his conversion in the 4th century, he chose to refer to God as the beautiful and to all other beauty as insignificant in comparison yet also an inspiration to seek God:
Too late have I loved you, O Beauty, ancient yet ever new. Too late have I loved you! And behold, you were within, but I was outside, searching for you there – plunging, deformed amid those fair forms which You had made. You were with me, but I was not with you. Things held me far from you, which unless they were in You did not exist at all. You called and shouted and burst my deafness. You gleamed and shone upon me, and chased away my blindness. You breathed fragrant odors on me, and I held back my breath, but now I pant for You. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and now I yearn for your peace.
Hal M. Helms, The Confessions of St. Augustine: A Modern English Version (Orleans, MA: Paraclete Press, 1986), 210.
Augustine’s language is a language of yearning, a language that recognizes the innate goodness of the beautiful, not in and of the beautiful itself, but as a result of the author of the beautiful, God. One might make the comparison that just as a husband is initially enamored by the physical beauty of his wife, eventually he should come to recognize that the true beauty of his wife really lies within herself. Beauty is a reality that has the capacity to take one out of oneself and into a desire for an encounter with the transcendent. There are many biblical and historical foundations for the development of this understanding about the nature and purpose of beauty.
Historical And Biblical Foundations: the Hebrew Scriptures
Through a simple examination of the Hebrew Scriptures, one can come to the realization that as it was formed, the Jewish community was not opposed to the use of the beautiful, even in its worship. The temple of Solomon was more than likely one of the most beautiful structures standing during its time. A variety of carved animals and vegetation adorned the temple, which included pomegranates, twelve oxen, panels with lions, oxen, and cherubim, as well as golden altars decorated with flowers and lamps. Even with its great opulence, this was a building that proved to be so pleasing to the LORD that He chose to confer His name upon it. This description of the temple might prove to be a bit unsettling, particularly to Christians of the Reformed tradition, because of the fear of idolatry.
The Ten Commandments specifically forbid the worship of images, idols, or anything other than the one living God. The Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20 read thus in this regard: “You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them.” In Deuteronomy 5 the Ten Commandments provide the same prohibition almost verbatim: “You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them.” Yet along with an acknowledgment of this commandment must come the recognition that later on in the very same text of Exodus God commands Moses to make the ark with “two cherubim of beaten gold.” Where does the balance lie between God’s prohibition of the creation of idols and God’s approval of the use of images of heavenly and earthly realities in worship through prayer with the ark and in the temple?
Idolatry: The Bronze Serpent
One of the first questions that needs to be answered is exactly how idolatry was practiced by those religions that surrounded the Holy Land at that time. One of the most prominent religions of the time, which the Israelites would have known very well through their experience of slavery, was the religion of the ancient Egyptian empire. Archeologists have discovered the ways in which the ancient Egyptians honored their gods and their idols: “The priests of each temple cared for the statue of the god as if it were alive.” There is evidence that these statues were clothed, fed, and worshipped. As one can observe through a reading of the Decalogue of Exodus and Deuteronomy, idolatry would have no place in the Jewish religion despite its popularity at the time of the ancient Egyptian empire. This prohibition would be carried into Christianity. Yet, as one can observe, this prohibition was not against the use of beautiful objects in worship. Rather, the prohibition was against confusing God with the objects used to aid in worshipping God.
The Bible makes it clear that images can be used not only for worship but can even become vessels through which God transmits His grace. This is clearly true of the bronze serpent from Numbers 21. In this story, the people were growing weary of their long and arduous journey and began to complain to the LORD. The LORD therefore allowed poisonous snakes to attack the people. As they were bitten they became seriously ill, some even to the point of death. Moses cast a serpent out of bronze, and when the people gazed upon the representation of the animal that caused them harm, they were healed. This artistic representation of a serpent was used by God to bring people healing. Christians would later interpret this serpent affixed on a pole as foreshadowing Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross. It is there one can observe the hatred and cruelty of humanity yet also be healed by the salvific merit of Christ’s death.(12) Beauty and artistic expression clearly do have their place in Christianity.
Yet at the same time the Scriptures also indicate that it would be tragic if the artwork, or the beauty, became an end in and of itself. The pole with the bronze serpent eventually had to be destroyed by King Hezekiah because the people began worshipping the image as their god and forgot about the LORD of heaven and earth who used the image to bring about healing. An image is exactly that, an image, a representation of a greater reality, not the reality itself. Once one becomes preoccupied with beauty in and of itself, the result is idolatry that turns one away from the transcendent. The Christian use of art is not about l’art pour l’art (“art for art’s sake”) but rather it is about art as a vehicle, a gateway by which one can encounter the Transcendent One who is the author of the inner life of the particular soul that chose to create the artwork.
Artwork In The Liturgical Life Of The Church
Apart from the Bible, there are also clear precedents in the history of the Church concerning this question of idolatry versus the use of the beautiful. The Iconoclast controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries forced the Church to consider seriously the place of artwork in her liturgical life. This question was addressed first by the Second General Council of Nicaea in 787 and again at the Fourth General Council of Constantinople in 870. Notice how the Second General Council of Nicaea encouraged a legitimate use of sacred art in worship, not as an end in itself, but as a means of reaching the transcendent.
The more frequently one contemplates these pictorial representations, the more gladly will he be led to remember the original subject whom they represent, the more too will he be drawn to it and inclined to give it…a respectful veneration (proskunsis, adoratio), which, however, is not true adoration (latreia, latria) which, according to our faith, is due to God alone. But, as is done for the image of the revered and life-giving cross and the holy Gospels and other sacred objects and monuments, let an oblation of incense and light be made to give honor to those images according to the pious customs of the ancients. For “the honor given to an image goes to the original model” (St. Basil, De Spiritu Sancto, 18, 45) and he who venerates an image, venerates in it the person represented by it.
JJ. Neuner, SJ and J. Dupuis, SJ, The Christian Faith: Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church (New York: Alba House, 1990), 399-400. 15 G.A. Cevasco, J.-K. Huysmans’s A Rebours and English Literature (New York: AMS Press, 2001), 18.
Therefore, one can observe a consistent trend in the Scripture and tradition of Christianity of a great reverence and respect for sacred images and beauty yet at the same time an understanding that contact with beauty is not in and of itself the goal. Contact with the author of that beauty is the goal.
The Futility Of L’art Pour L’art As Demonstrated In 19th Century Decadent Literature
Examples of how absorbing the beautiful devoid of its goal of reaching for the transcendent leads to a lack of fulfillment can be observed in the 19th century Decadent movement. This movement, occurring primarily in French and British art and literature, included such geniuses as Andre Raffalovich, Oscar Wilde, J.- K. Huysmans, Aubrey Beardsley, and Charles Baudelaire. These are individuals whom one can safely say chose to remain fixated upon beauty in and of itself and yet in the end found that it was just not enough for them. “The typical Decadent was someone who worshipped beauty, an individual who needed to nourish his senses, who lived for the moods and emotions of life.” Of particular interest in this context would be J.-K. Huysmans’s highly influential novel, A Rebours (translated, Against the Grain). Cyril Connolly in his study The Modern Movement labeled A Rebours as “a key book” to modern literature.
A Rebours is a plotless, seemingly meaningless cacophony of events that surround the life of the ultimate fictional decadent, Duc Jean Floressas Des Esseintes. The religious symbolism present in this novel is abundant and seems to represent Des Esseintes’s acknowledgement of the importance of the spiritual but his failure to recognize that the desire to nourish all of his senses can only be realized through a connection with the author behind all of the beauty he seeks. Ironically, Des Esseintes surrounds himself with the beauty and artwork of the Church. His rooms are adorned with stoles, dalmatics, monstrances, and the like, which are all items used in the worship of the Roman Catholic Church. Des Esseintes enjoys smelling incense, lighting candles, and listening to Gregorian chant. He even makes himself into a monk of sorts who withdraws from the world and all outside influences in order to focus upon a higher pursuit. Arthur Symons, in fact, referred to A Rebours as “the breviary of the Decadence” (a breviary is a prayer book used by clergy and religious of the Roman Catholic Church). Yet Des Esseintes does not imbue any of the items with which he has surrounded himself with their religious value. As the decadent par excellence he only uses them for the sensual experience he can receive from them.
The novel ends abruptly in a rather unfulfilling manner to the reader. By chapter fifteen of the novel, Des Esseintes is enduring overwhelming suffering as a result of “nervous dyspepsia.” Huysmans also mentions that Des Esseintes suffers from “nightmares, hallucinations of smell, pains in the eye and deep coughing which recurred with clock-like regularity, after the pounding of his heart and arteries and cold perspiration.” Perhaps the use of his “mouth organ” (a machine that dispensed alcohol)—along with other decadent pursuits—was a detriment to his good health. At the conclusion of the novel Huysmans makes Des Esseintes’s physician’s opinion clear:
His verdict, (confirmed besides by consultation with all the experts on neurosis) was that distraction, amusement, pleasure alone might make an impression on this malady whose spiritual side eluded all remedy; and made impatient by the recriminations of his patient, he for the last time declared that he would refuse to continue treating him if he did not consent to a change of air, and live under new hygienic conditions.
Therefore Des Esseintes’s singular pursuit of sensual pleasure came to an abrupt, unsuccessful end. Des Esseintes never succeeded in finding what he longed to achieve. He became fixed upon the vehicle that was supposed to lead to something (or, more properly, someone) far greater than the sensual pleasure in and of itself.
Upon a brief examination of J.K. Huysmans’ life, one can recognize that he eventually came to the personal conclusion that immersion in the arts and the sensual is meant to lead one to an encounter with the Transcendent One. When Huysmans wrote A Rebours in 1884, he indicated that he did not have any Christian inclinations. In fact, he even explored “Satanic mysticism.” In 1891 he entered into a personal conversion, which led him to the Catholic Church as he wrote in his autobiography En Route. He chose to spend time in contemplation at a Trappist monastery. He was first attracted to the Church through curiosity about its hierarchy, then its arts, and later its mystery, and it was this curiosity which brought him to the faith. After his conversion, Huysmans became a Benedictine Oblate, meaning that he chose to live the life of a Benedictine monk while remaining in the world as a lay person.
As previously mentioned, A Rebours was a highly influential text for the Decadent movement of the 19th century, and its popularity would cross the English Channel.
Following its publication Whistler rushed to congratulate Huysmans on his “marvelous book,” Paul Valéry acclaimed it as his “Bible and bedside book” and Paul Bourget, a close friend at the time of both Huysmans and Wilde, professed himself a great admirer. Yet there were few greater admirers of A Rebours than Wilde himself. In an interview with the Morning Post he stated that “this last book of Huysmans is one of the best that I have ever seen.”
Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000)
One of the first British writers to discover A Rebours was George Moore. He wrote, “Huysmans goes to my soul like a gold ornament of Byzantine worksmanship: there is in his style the yearning charm of arches, a sense of ritual, the passion of the Gothic, of the window.”(22) A number of Moore’s novels reflect the style of A Rebours, particularly a novel he wrote in 1889 entitled Mike Fletcher (London: Ward & Downey, 1889). George Cevasco provides a fine summary of this novel:
Bequeathed a small fortune by a former mistress, Mike finds every indulgence open to him. He obtains everything he goes after, but remains unsatisfied, always uneasy. Satiation brings with it despair. Ultimately, all he wants is rest and relief from the wariness of his life. “For now I know,” he concludes, “that man cannot live without wife, without child, without God.” Resigned to taste the dark fruit of oblivion, one evening he blows his brains out. “And who,” Moore demands of the reader, “knowing of Mike’s torment is fortunate enough to say: ‘I know nothing of what is written here.’”
G.A. Cevasco, J.K. Huysmans’s A Rebours and English Literature (New York: AMS Press, 2001),
Unlike Huysmans, Moore never went through a religious conversion. One can observe his dissatisfaction with the appeasement of the appetite of the senses alone and his recognition that with nothing more, life brings with it despair and weariness.
This brief exploration of 19th century Decadent literature indicates that absorption with the beautiful in and of itself does not satisfy the initial attraction the beautiful sends forth. The worship of anything other than the living God will not bring with it peace or satisfaction. Art and beauty are special tools designed by God to bring one out of oneself and into a special connection with God.
Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics
The Glory of the Lord is a seven-volume work written by the 20th century Swiss Jesuit theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar that exhaustively explains his theology. The subtitle of his work is “A Theological Aesthetics,” and he makes it clear from the very beginning of his writing that the beautiful is a key element to understanding his theology. In fact, it is his starting point.
Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach since only it dances, as an uncontained splendor, around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. . . . No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man.
Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press/New York: Crossroad Publications, 1982) Vol. I: Seeing the Form, 18.
As one can observe, Balthasar firmly believed that the sole purpose of beauty is in some way to connect one to the transcendent. When robbed of its purpose, beauty becomes deformed. But beauty, when it is imbued with an excellence that contains goodness and truth beyond human language, brings to its observer a sense of wonder and awe which can lead one to a sense of God’s utter transcendence and a desire for adoration and prayer. Yet the beauty that surrounds this sense of wonder and awe, like a frame surrounds a picture, must not be ignored.
The privileged moment will always exist when a person falls to his knees to adore the One who says to him: “I who am speaking with you – I am He!” But the Good news cannot be reduced to such moments, since these would readily absorb all else into themselves. There are also the surfaces, time and space, and all these human factors disseminated within them and which essentially belongs to what John calls “remaining,” the commerce and familiarity with habits and opinions, reaching to what cannot be weighed or measured: a real life form.(25)
Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press/New York: Crossroad Publications, 1982) Vol. I: Seeing the Form, 30.
Balthasar used Platonic ideas about matter and form to develop his theological aesthetics. Even the most elementary of philosophy courses would not be complete without an exploration of how Plato understood that all matter is simply an imperfect image of the perfect, the form upon which it is based. This understanding of the material – and material beauty in particular – will aid one in developing a clear distinction between the use of beauty as an idol or as a gateway to the transcendent. For the purposes of this article, one might consider the following observations of Balthasar as a reflection upon the problem of the idolatrous use of the beautiful.
When beauty becomes a form which is no longer understood as being identical with Being, spirit, and freedom, we have again entered an age of aestheticism, and realists will then be right in objecting to this kind of beauty. They go about demolishing what has rotted from within, but they cannot replace the power of Being which resides in the conferring of form.
To understand that there is a form – the ultimate form, Beauty itself – behind all beauty is to be delivered from the temptation of idolatry. Such an understanding actually transforms all beauty, and in fact all of creation, into a gateway through which one can perceive the very presence of God. The 19th century Jesuit poet Gerard Manly Hopkins expressed this sentiment perfectly in his poem, “God’s Grandeur:”
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church identifies that which is beautiful in creation as one of the ways in which God has chosen to manifest Himself to humanity. “God, who creates and conserves all things by His Word, provides constant evidence of Himself in created realities.”
Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, “Dei Verbum: The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” (Collegeville, In.: 1988), paragraph 3.
Scripture also makes this sentiment clear in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.”
All of the above considerations have simply been an elaboration of one of the very first sentiments expressed in Scripture. God evaluated His creation by looking upon “everything He had made, and He found it very good.” (Genesis 1:31) An outright refusal to use beauty or any created realities as vehicles through which one can encounter the Transcendent One could possibly lead one to a denial of this basic foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It could very well even lead to a denial of the innate goodness of the material and a development of Gnostic tendencies in Christianity.
The Goal For All That Is Beautiful
God has provided to human beings an appreciation for beauty. Beauty is a reality that can take the individual outside of himself or herself and into a deeper appreciation of the form behind the beauty, which ultimately is the LORD God. Yet there is also the danger of falling into absorption with the means to God and forgetting about the end. This danger can lead one into a personal spiritual disaster. As Hans Urs von Balthasar would contend, a deeper reverence for the beautiful, with personal wonder and awe intact, would help one to understand that beauty can deepen and enliven one’s relationship with the author of all that is beautiful. This should be the goal for the use of all that is beautiful, in church buildings and in all created realities that surround humankind.