the dazzling perfection of beauty

Continuing Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists. If you would like to read the full letter, you can do at the Vatican website here.

A fruitful alliance between the Gospel and art

6. Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery. The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one’s own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things. All artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendour which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit.

Believers find nothing strange in this: they know that they have had a momentary glimpse of the abyss of light which has its original wellspring in God. Is it in any way surprising that this leaves the spirit overwhelmed as it were, so that it can only stammer in reply? True artists above all are ready to acknowledge their limits and to make their own the words of the Apostle Paul, according to whom “God does not dwell in shrines made by human hands” so that “we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold or silver or stone, a representation by human art and imagination” (Acts 17:24, 29). If the intimate reality of things is always “beyond” the powers of human perception, how much more so is God in the depths of his unfathomable mystery!

The knowledge conferred by faith is of a different kind: it presupposes a personal encounter with God in Jesus Christ. Yet this knowledge too can be enriched by artistic intuition. An eloquent example of aesthetic contemplation sublimated in faith are, for example, the works of Fra Angelico. No less notable in this regard is the ecstatic lauda, which Saint Francis of Assisi twice repeats in the chartula which he composed after receiving the stigmata of Christ on the mountain of La Verna: “You are beauty… You are beauty!”. Saint Bonaventure comments: “In things of beauty, he contemplated the One who is supremely beautiful, and, led by the footprints he found in creatures, he followed the Beloved everywhere”.

A corresponding approach is found in Eastern spirituality where Christ is described as “the supremely Beautiful, possessed of a beauty above all the children of earth”.(10) Macarius the Great speaks of the transfiguring and liberating beauty of the Risen Lord in these terms: “The soul which has been fully illumined by the unspeakable beauty of the glory shining on the countenance of Christ overflows with the Holy Spirit… it is all eye, all light, all countenance”.

Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world. It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning. That is why the Gospel fullness of truth was bound from the beginning to stir the interest of artists, who by their very nature are alert to every “epiphany” of the inner beauty of things.

Some Thoughts
(of the present writer, not nec. LCWC opinions)

  • … a glimmer of the splendour…” This opening paragraph seems more like poetry than prose; it’s beautiful. I suppose it is very humbling that our work, no matter how important it is to us, or how magisterial it appears to others, is but a glimmer. When we consider Moses’ reaction to seeing God, though, perhaps that is just as well!
  • … the abyss of light…” I really like this turn-of-phrase. I like how John Paul turns to good something that we generally think of as being negative. It is a phrase that I would like to hold on to and use somehow, though I am not sure in what way.
  • “You are beauty… You are beauty!””” St. Francis’ words are both simple and profound. As I look at them now, I am reminded that we artists – we do not have to produce great and fantastic works. Simple ones can suffice, too, and – if St. Francis is anything to go by – can go just as far in plumbing the depths of God’s mystery.
  • Macarius the Great speaks of the transfiguring and liberating beauty of the Risen Lord …Liberating beauty. It doesn’t always feel like that, whether in life or in writing, but there it is from Macarius. I wonder: how do we show beauty’s liberating power in our stories? Should we always seek to show it or should there be stories where it is absent? (I’m sure already there are but should we write them?)
  • Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world.” I’m not sure I have much to add to that. Right now, it feels like a clarion call to anyone thinking of writing and who is putting it off (me, for instance, on too many days a year)

Letters to Artists
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

Pope Saint John Paul II Ora Pro Nobis!

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