Rediscovering Beauty in the Sacred

The three transcendentals—truth, beauty, and goodness—were ideals once harmoniously integrated in the Catholic worldview not only in the transmission of the faith but also in the arts: literature, art, music, architecture, poetry, and sculpture. The expression of the wonder of God in art through so many artists across time, encouraged by the great patron of the arts, the Church, to lift humanity’s gaze beyond the mundane has been widely lost in the modern age.

Today, there exists a widespread perception that great art and real beauty can only exist as a kind of contemporary iconoclasm—a smashing or subverting—of sacred things, and that doctrines and dogmas are shackles to be thrown off. That sacred art is an art form from the past, suitable for museums and a testament to what once was. The future Pope Paul VI once observed, “We need to know how to be ancient and new, to speak according to tradition but in conformity with the times. What does it serve to speak the truth, if the people of our times do not understand us?” Reclaiming the transformative power of art’s contemplation of the sacred is an urgent antibiotic to today’s anxious and corrupted world.

There is a sequence in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot when the Christlike figure Prince Myshkin is mocked by a character called Ippolit:

“Is it true, Prince, that you once said that the world will be saved by ‘beauty’? Gentlemen’, he shouted in a loud voice to all the company, ‘the prince says that the world will be saved by beauty!”

The strong artistic and literary instincts of Pope Saint John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis have found much inspiration in the line “the world will be saved by beauty,” a phrase also employed as a theme in the ministry of Dorothy Day. John Paul II quoted the passage directly in his 1999 “Letter to Artists.” The former actor-poet passionately appealed to contemporary artists to find artistic renewal and energy through the lens of faith.

In 2013, Pope Francis cited it to the Moscow Synodal Choir upon a concert performance in Rome. And in his Meeting with Artists in the Sistine Chapel in 2009, when he called for a “renaissance of art,” Pope Benedict echoed beauty’s essential function by reciting from another Dostoevsky work, Demons:

“Mankind can live without science, without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there will be nothing more to do in the world! The whole mystery is here, the whole of history is here!”

Through ministries emphasizing the reclamation of beauty, the Church has finally recognized it must actively engage the increasingly secular dimension of a multicultural society. At the same time, it must reintroduce itself to those who otherwise may have left the Church. “Beauty is the splendor of truth,” Plato believed, a theme that John Paul II would take up in his 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). Beauty both speaks to the focal point of the faith, the Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ while also offering an alternative to the cultural tendency to reduce things to lowest terms, namely, utility and functionality. “Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger once stated.

Saint Teresa of Avila knew this intimately. The artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, one of the giants of Baroque art, sculpted Ecstasy of Saint Teresa located in Rome’s Santa Maria della Vittoria depicting the Carmelite saint wounded in ecstasy by the golden arrow of beauty from an angel’s bow. Yet Saint Teresa also knew one did not have to be a mystic to experience transcendence to communicate with God. In her autobiography, she employed a simple metaphor of describing the peace that comes from prayer: like peace that comes from watering a garden. It is an image that itself is an invitation to beauty.

These testaments of art and illuminating powerful truths of the faith are needed perhaps now more than when the masters of the Renaissance, the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages, or the composers, poets and novelists of the last centuries were producing their great works. Art that raises humanity’s eyes upwards reminds men and women that there is indeed a path of good and a path of evil on this planet, and every day each man and woman are faced with decision upon decision to choose one path or the other.

Omne ens est pulchrum,” declared Saint Thomas Aquinas. “Every being is beautiful.” The world has been sanctified in beauty by the presence of the divine, the One who “is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). It is time to finally vow eternal fidelity to this sanctification of beauty rather than corrupt it by turning it into the handiwork of the demonic.

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James Day's work has appeared in Crisis, Catholic World Report, and Catholic Exchange. He is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (November 2016, Sophia Institute Press).

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