Just recently, a show opened at the Metropolitan Museum called “Heavenly Bodies” in which the beauty of the habits and clothing of the Catholic Imagination are appreciated and celebrated, and where it is shown how they have given inspiration to the great clothing designers of the Western world. We take the distinctiveness of our vestments and habits for granted, and the fact that they are beautiful in both form and function. Even soldiers dedicated to protecting the Pope had their uniforms designed by Michelangelo! Yes, those Swiss Guards in their flamboyant clothing had possibly the greatest artist of the West as their designer!
But that is just one example.
The Church has inspired artists of all genres for centuries. Painting (Michelangelo, Da Vinci), Architecture (the great Gothic Cathedrals, the Baroque of the Eternal city, the modern masterpiece of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona), Sculpture (Michelangelo again, Rodin), literature (Dante, Cervantes) to just name some of the arts influenced directly by the Church.
But what can one say about the beauty of the Moral Life, such as the theological grandeur of the “Summa Theologiae” of St. Thomas Aquinas!
It is only right that there be such beauty connected with the Church! After all, look at our God, the Creator of the Universe: Beauty all around! The beauty of the celestial spheres, the smile of a baby, the sleek swiftness of felines, the majesty of the ocean, the breathtaking view of the mighty mountains. One does not have to go far to see that beauty is not just an add-on, but also an essential part of what it means to be human.
I remember talking with a parishioner in Brooklyn who had done his Ph.D. dissertation on the effects of architecture on incarcerated or otherwise detained people. He told me that there was evidence that when a prison was built with beauty and light predominating, people were more easily restored to productive reconnection with society. In one instance, an architect took the medieval monastery as his guide and model for the design of a prison. In this prison (I believe near the ocean), there were plenty of beautiful views and sunlight filling the corridors. This environment produced fewer incidents of violence than the normal prison, which was dark and forbidding.
When Dostoyevsky tried to delineate what was it about Christ that was salvific, he said something like this: His beauty will save us!
For many people, the beauty of an experience seems just an extra. That an action is good or just or true seems like more a necessity. But the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a seven-volume work entitled “The Glory of the Lord” using the biblical category of glory for what we call beauty. He felt the demotion of beauty in Western theological thought was a costly error in reasoning. To banish beauty from theology (suspect because of the sensual delight that it evokes) was a disastrous error of modern thought.
One sees this especially in the Orthodox spirituality of the Icon, a beautiful work of art that is ‘painting in prayer’ and evokes in the believer a connection with the Divine. This beauty is intimately connected with Truth, since the painting of the icon is an act of faith in a reality that is present in truth. This was curiously expounded one day by, of all people, Nancy Reagan! She was in Moscow with the President, her husband, and was being shown around a museum by Raissa Gorbachov, wife of the Soviet Premier. They were both admiring a group of Russian icons. But the Russian woman, Raissa, an avowed Atheist, praised the icons’ composition and beautiful colors. Mrs. Reagan, a believer, quipped, “But, you know, they do mean something!” She was attuned to what the beauty pointed to, while her hostess was prevented from seeing this by her lack of faith.
This connection between beauty and faith came home to me one day when I was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As often happens to me in a museum, I got tired of all the works of art I was seeing. With time and fatigue, my powers of appreciation diminished. On that day, I felt a need for prayer and I caught sight of an ancient icon of Christ. It moved me to prayer. So I found an isolated place to sit within view of a number of sacred works of art and I began to pray. I sort of felt that I was doing the forbidden in that place, but that God was pleased that all those beautiful works of art were being used for the purpose for which they were created: to lead people to God. There I was in that public space doing in private what was forbidden to do in public: prayer. And it was beauty that led me there!
All that is beautiful, not only art, can lead us to God. Even the earth and all that is beautiful within it can lead us to prayer. Beauty matters!