Art, Artists, and a Theology of Beauty - part I

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"The vocation of man is to work towards the perfection of creation, for the artist this vocation is related in a mysterious way to beauty."

 

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Goodness and Beauty

Pope Saint John Paul II said, "The artist has a special relationship to beauty. In a very true sense it can be said that beauty is the vocation bestowed on him by the Creator in the gift of "artistic talent.'' (Letter to Artists, paragraph 3)

So the role of the artist whether a painter, writer, musician or any of the wonderfully diverse ways man has found to express his "artistic talent," must be bound up with beauty. It is an inseparable part of his vocation. To truly understand the role of the artist in salvation history we must understand how to approach God in terms of beauty.

"God saw everything He had made, and behold, it was very good." (Genesis 1:31)

The word "good" is translated from the Greek word "kalon" which emulates the Hebrew word "towb." "Kalon" is a word that carries with it a much more nuanced meaning than simply good. It is used 559 times in the Bible in 517 verses and is translated in a number of ways such as better, best, pleasing, mercy, prosperity and fair just to name a few. In two verses in particular it is translated as beautiful.

"It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking upon the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful." (2Samuel 11:2)

"He had brought up Hadas'sah, that is Esther, the daughter of his uncle, for she had neither father nor mother; the maiden was beautiful and lovely..." (Esther 2:7)

It would not then be too much of a stretch to read Genesis 1:31 as,

"God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very beautiful."

From the beginning, in the Old Testament, God made the world good and beautiful. In the New Testament, Saint Paul affirmed this teaching in his Letter to Timothy,

"For everything created by God is good (kalon), and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving." (1Timothy 4:4)

Divine beauty is intrinsic to the created world. It is a part of all things.

Those gifted with creative ability rarely, if ever, are able to realize a creation exactly as they intended it to be. This is a manifestation of our fallen nature. Artists share only a small part of the creative power of God, and do so imperfectly. But God made the world perfect; He could not do otherwise. He is the perfect artist expressing His creative will perfectly. By this we mean that all of creation was made exactly as God intended it to be.

But through man's disobedience and the envy of the devil, sin and death entered into the world. (Wisdom 2:24) The divine masterpiece of perfection and beauty was marred.

When a painting or a story or a musical composition develops a flaw, the artist will try to repair it. If it cannot be repaired it is understandable that the artist may then destroy or abandon the work and start fresh.  Rather than destroy His work outright, God chose to repair it. Since it was man that caused the damage God allowed man to participate in the restoration of the world. The Hebrew verb "to create" as used in Genesis conveys an ongoing process rather than a completed act performed in the past. That is to say the world was created, is created, and will be created until its completion. The vocation of man is to work towards the perfection of creation, for the artist this vocation is related in a mysterious way to beauty. The work of man is to renew or bring to perfection the world that was made imperfect through man's disobedience to God. Each of us has been given a specific vocation to accomplish our part in this regeneration.

A Spirit of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness

The world is constantly being renewed or regenerated. By ancient tradition the Holy Spirit is associated with the creative act.

"... and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, 'Let there be light," and there was light." (Genesis 1:2-3)

"When thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created; and thou renewset the face of the ground." (Psalms 104:30)

When we are baptized, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us. The Spirit allows us to hear the Word of God yet remain hidden itself.

"I have laid up thy Word in my heart, that I might not sin against thee." (Psalms 119:11)

In the new covenant this idea is taken up and expanded upon.

"When the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you in all the truth; for he will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." ( John 16:13)

The Holy Spirit is thus revealed as the Spirit of Truth, moving us to contemplate the Beauty and Goodness of God. The beauty of creation and the perfect beauty of the divinity are reconciled in the third person of the Most Holy Trinity.

A Spirit of Light

Genesis not only associates the Holy Spirit with the creative act but also with the divine light. This association continues in the Psalter and the Book of Isaiah.

"For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light do we see light," (Psalms 36:9)

"I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." (Isaiah 49:6)

"Then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday." (Isaiah 58:10)

In Christian thought, this light is recognized as transformative and abiding in every man.

"The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light." (Matthew 6:22)

"The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world,"( John 1:9)

"And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever." (Revelation 22:5)

This divine light, which enlightens every man, is the spark of the Holy Spirit that was imparted to man at his creation.

"...then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath (spirit)  of life; and man became a living being." (Genesis 2:7)

"And when He ha said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit,'" (John 20:22)

Man was created in the image and likeness of God. Man is of God's race and more intimately associated with Him than any other creature.

"Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image,'" (Genesis 1:26)

"Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man," (Acts of the Apostles 17:29)

Man is essentially a creature of light and as such is attracted to the divine light. Man naturally seeks beauty, as it is a reflection of Him who is beauty perfected.

"One thing I have asked of the Lord, that will I seek after, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple." (Psalms 27:4)

"But test everything; hold fast to what is good (kalon)," (1Thessalonians 5:21)

The greater the degree to which a person pursues the spiritual, the more the divine light of the Holy Spirit shines from within and the more beautiful that person becomes. A truly spiritual person is not only good but also beautiful in that they reflect the divine beauty.

this article originally appeared at www.DeaconLawrence.org

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Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at www.pontifex.university

Lawrence Klimecki is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at www.DeaconLawrence.org