There is nothing more beautiful than God. We can’t even fathom His beauty, as it is beyond our comprehension on this Earth. God is also a creator and everything He creates reflects His beauty. Since we are made in His image and likeness, we too are creators and are naturally inclined to re-create beauty. We are drawn to beautiful things and are repulsed by ugly things because the beauty of things elevates our hearts toward God. Whether it be through music, poetry, art, or nature, we can recognize beauty by the way it penetrates our souls and connects us to the perfect creator.
Throughout her history, the Catholic Church has always been a big fan of beauty because of how it both reflects the beauty of God and how it elevates the human heart to God. This is evidenced by all of the beautiful churches and cathedrals around the world, brilliant works of art depicting scenes from our faith, and the most glorious music about heavenly things that can bring tears to our eyes. The Catechism even has a section dedicated to sacred art. It says that art is a distinctly “human form of expression” and that our ability to create is a gift from God in order that we might mimic Him and give visual and audible form to matters of truth and reality (CCC #2501). While art is not an end in and of itself, it orders us to our ultimate end which is heaven – a place of incomprehensible beauty (CCC #2501). In other words, the more we create and contemplate beauty, the further we move forward on the right path.
The Catechism goes on to say that sacred art should seek to glorify God and encourage adoration as it communicates the invisible beauty of truth. This is not to say that sacred art is the only good, noble and beautiful art. Secular art can most certainly be beautiful and can elevate your heart to God through beauty. Think of beauty as existing on a spectrum, with God as the standard to which every beautiful thing should be compared. When considering two beautiful things, one will bring you closer to God than another. If the things that you find beautiful are not drawing you into deeper relationship with your Creator, consider spending more time contemplating what true beauty actually is as it relates to Him.
In 1999, Pope St. John Paul II wrote a Letter to Artists, which he addressed “to all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these gifts to the world.” In other words, the letter was not just dedicated to religious artists, but all artists as they collectively enrich the world with their many gifts. The pope quotes Genesis 1:31 – “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” – and explains how God has invited artists to participate in His creative power (LtA #1). Recognizing that a beautiful painting can be painted by a terrible man, Pope John Paul II is careful to explain that to be an artist is to accept a call to a particular vocation for one’s life. Thus, artists who seek to create truly beautiful things, should seek to live their lives rightly so that, through their vocation, they reflect who they are as people. Toward the end of the letter, the pope appeals to all artists – “artists of the written and spoken word, of the theatre and music, of the plastic arts and the most recent technologies in the field of communication…use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.” (LtA #14). If you are an artist of any sort, or if you are curious about the Church’s history and relationship with art, the 15 or so pages of this letter are worth the read and they are readily available through a quick internet search.
Now that we better understand the vocation and the proper goals of the artist, how does that affect the way we interact with art and beautiful things? First, in recognizing the artist’s vocation, we should see their talent as a gift from God to enrich our lives. Like any vocation, an artist’s vocation reaches far beyond that particular individual and is intended to build up the entire Body of Christ. Secondly, we should not only be thankful for the things we find beautiful, but we should be thankful for the artists who gave them to us. Anyone who has stood in the Sistine Chapel is most certainly thankful for the art that is contained inside. However, how often do we stop to thank God for Michelangelo, who used his gifts and talents to glorify God so that we might also revel in His awesome majesty? After all, as wonderful as the gift of art is, our greatest gifts are other people who are made in the image and likeness of God. Finally, we must pray for all artists of all kinds that they might recognize their vocation for what it is and seek to participate in elevating others’ hearts to God.
What are some practical things we can do with regard to beauty and art? Find a favorite piece of sacred art and, if possible, perhaps in the Adoration chapel, contemplate how it draws you more deeply into relationship with God. It could be anything from the richness of the colors, the complexity of the details, or maybe its mere simplicity. Keep beautiful and sacred art in your home and take time to appreciate it. When you engage with beautiful secular art, notice the ways in which it still helps to draw you closer to God. For example, does a beautiful nature scene help you to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation? Is the human body in a particular piece being portrayed with dignity as someone created in the image and likeness of God? Are you reading things that encourage virtue or vice? Pray for your favorite artists by name, whether living or dead, and thank God for the gifts He’s given us in those artists. Listen to beautiful music frequently. On a personal note, I love music and listen to all types and genres, but when I am experiencing stress or anxiety, I am notorious for turning on Gregorian Chant. It calms and soothes my soul, which is no accident when you consider the beauty of the subject matter, which is all things holy, heavenly, and beautiful. Try it the next time you feel unsettled! God has given us countless means through which we can increase our love and devotion to Him. Art is one of the many ways for us to do that and we should take full advantage.
Read more about the Catholic Church’s relationship with art in my article on the Iconoclasm.
Read more about Truth, Beauty, and Goodness here.
For an academic examination of beauty, click here.
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