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Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Discover & explore: Beauty

“Beauty will save the world.” Fyodor Dostoevsky coined the phrase which was later borrowed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ‘to set the theme of his Nobel Lecture in 1970.’ Roger Scruton has written extensively about how aesthetics—and beauty in particular—enlarges our vision of humanity, helps us find meaning in our lives, and provides knowledge of our world’s intrinsic values. Most recently, Gregory Wolfe has used the phrase for the title of his recent book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, the theme of which is the importance of an aesthetic understanding for sustaining a civilized culture.’

Yet the proverb 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder' suggests that there is a problem with our understandings of beauty i.e. that our understanding of it entirely subjective. Collective ideas of beauty can be formed, yet these can also be iniquitous, as with ’size zero’ in the fashion industry and the way in which that perception of beauty pressurises people into anorexia and bulimia.

The Guide to the Guildhall Art Gallery’s collection suggests that in many respects the Victorian period has defined our contemporary notions of beauty. It notes that: ‘Victorian painters set out to capture and redefine ideals of female beauty. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in 1848, played a central role in promoting a new canon of beauty … Founder member Dante Gabriel Rossetti coined the term ‘stunner’ to describe enchanting women he met and usually convinced to pose for his paintings. From the 1860s, he embarked on a series of ‘subjectless’ sensual depictions of women … developing a new aesthetic of beauty, exemplified by La Ghirlandata (1873). This new style anticipated the Aesthetic Movement which was characterised by a departure from storytelling and a focus on the ‘Cult of Beauty’, sometimes drawing on religious imagery to convey the power of women’s looks.’

The Bible celebrates human beauty in the Song of Solomon and the beauty of creation in Psalms such as 8 and 19, where the sense that the natural world reflects to glory or beauty of God is celebrated. Ultimately, however, a very different perception of beauty is celebrated in scripture as a result of Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion. This different perception can be found exemplified in the history of Christian Art.

‘The most ancient representations of Jesus in human form can be found in the catacombs of Rome and in the church of Dura Europos, a town on the right bank of the Euphrates. There Jesus is represented as a youthful-looking “good shepherd” … with a round face, … beardless, and with short hair … he wears the upper-class clothes of that time … like a young patrician … The fact that he is made to look handsome is sometimes said to be for apologetic reasons.’

However, under ‘the influence of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Francis of Assisi it was the earthly Jesus in his suffering who captured the attention of the devout … The late Middle Ages were dominated by … [images of] the suffering Christ … the Man of Sorrows, who in his suffering became like us … On the Isenheim altar at Colmar, Matthias Grünewald depicted, in a deeply moving and shocking manner, a hideously tormented man on a cross (finished in ca. 1516), which especially calls to mind … contemporary Latin American counterparts, where in numerous instances the tortured are pictured hanging on a cross.’ (A. Wessels, ‘Images of Jesus’, SCM Press 1990)

As part of my sabbatical art pilgrimage last year I visited churches linked to images of the crucifixion by Albert Servaes, Germaine Richier and Graham Sutherland which viewed Christ’s sacrifice as emblematic of human suffering in conflict and persecution. These were controversial as they challenged sentimental images of Christ and deliberately introduced ugliness into beautiful buildings. Servaes and Richier were both affected by decrees from the holy office which led to the removal of their artworks from the churches for which they had been commissioned. Servaes, with his Stations of the Cross and altarpiece for the Carmelite Chapel in Luithagen and Richier, with her crucifix for the church of Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce at Assy.

Their work, like that of Grünewald and contemporary Latin American artists, demonstrates that the centrality of an instrument of torture – the Cross – to Christianity and the perception of the suffering Christ as despised, rejected and unesteemed challenge the perceptions of beauty that we have inherited from the Victorians. In Christianity, beauty is found in the selfless love of Christ expressed most powerfully in the ugliness of crucifixion.

As a result, Christianity can find common ground with contemporary art which finds beauty in the throw-away, the ready-made, the hidden or disregarded. As just one example, American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball uncovers heart-breaking beauty in garbage with a scene in which a plastic bag dances as it floats in the wind above a dirty sidewalk. His central character says as he views this scene that this beautiful moment made him aware of an ‘incredibly benevolent force’ behind things that wanted him to know that there is no reason to be afraid, ever.

Charles Williams suggests, in The Descent of the Dove, that the incarnation, because it is not simply about God taking on flesh but also about our humanity being taken into God, is the ultimate affirmative act. This is based on the understanding that nothing is lost and everything can be redeemed. All experience and all images are ultimately to be gathered in to God and, in this sense, the beauty found in the selfless giving of the incarnation and crucifixion really will save the world.


The Hastings College Choir - Fairest Lord Jesus.

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