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Can beauty lead to truth?

Art can save your soul – providing pride does not get in the way

By on Monday, 17 September 2012

Michelangelos Pietà

Michelangelos Pietà

In the Herald’s Charterhouse column last week, Piers Paul Read asks “Can beauty obscure truth?” under the heading “Art can’t save your soul”. He concludes that cultured people today have replaced religious faith with art or music (or literature, it might be added). We are familiar with TS Eliot’s lines: “In the room the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo”. Read mentions Alain de Botton’s book, Religion for Atheists in which de Botton, himself a cultured atheist, yearns for secular “cathedrals” to satisfy the spiritual aspirations of fellow atheists. But as Charles Moore pointed out in his review of de Botton’s book, what matters for believers is not that their faith is aesthetically pleasing but that it is true.

Yet one might also pose an alternative question to Read’s: “Can beauty lead to truth?” Of course it can, as beauty is an attribute of God – and God will seek out souls in the way most suited to them. Journalist and Christian convert Peter Hitchens, about whom I have blogged before, testifies that it was gazing at an old master’s depiction of hell while on holiday in Venice that made him, then a non-believer, entertain the hair-raising notion that hell and heaven might be real.

I also read recently the moving testimony of a convert from Islam, whose journey into the Church was aided by Michelangelo’s Pieta in St Peter’s. Again, the French (secular) Jewish philosopher, Simone Weil, was deeply influenced by the metaphysical poets in her own journey towards acceptance of Christianity (though she chose not to be baptised). There are numerous other examples. So I think Art, through the action of divine grace, can help to save your soul – as long as pride doesn’t get in the way. When I was struggling with belief in God during my own youth, I often quoted to myself those enigmatic words of the metaphysical poet, George Herbert, in “The Pulley”. He describes the riches God has bestowed on man then concludes: “Yet let him keep the rest/ But keep with them repining restlessness/Let him be rich and weary, that at least/ If goodness lead him not, yet weariness/ May toss him to My breast.”

Piers Paul Read also mentions the Bible, citing his favourite translation as the Jerusalem Bible of 1966 with all its scholarly footnotes. I like it, too, though I have always needed a magnifying glass for the footnotes. I also read the Navarre New Testament and Acts in Lent, not so much for its footnotes which are generally different from the JB’s, but for its paraphrases of the Gospel texts; these are often pointed and illuminating. And last week the CTS sent me an attractive large pocket edition of the New Testament and Psalms; it is only £9.95 – amazingly good value, with its imitation leather binding, colour maps and clear typesetting (even though I now need glasses for the text as well as the footnotes).

By coincidence, and for the first times in many years, two Jehovah’s Witnesses came to our door on the day I received this latest copy of the Scriptures. When they asked me, with cautious politeness, if I read my Bible I was able to say “Yes” and that I had three translations to hand on my desk. Prepared to be toe-crushed by a godless household they were a little taken aback by this response – but recovered themselves sufficiently to ask with a hint of tendentiousness, “Ah, but which Bible do you read? Translations are very important; some are not as accurate as others.” I replied that I read the Bible as it was put together in the earliest centuries after Christ’s death by the authority of the Catholic Church founded by Christ. They sighed, decided I was a lost cause and we parted on cordial terms.

  • theroadmaster

    Beauty, Truth and Goodness are the 3 ultimate qualities which artists who espouse the highest ideals search out and try to capture in their chosen discipline.  The case in point here is Michelangelo’s Pieta, which has enthralled Art lovers over the centuries with it’s very tender and poignant depiction of Our Lady’s motherly love for her dying Son, our Messiah.  Unfortunately too many great Artistic Religious masterpieces reside in museums, palaces and mansions across the world, outside their natural contexts  e.g. churches, monasteries or convents.  They are appreciated for their great aesthetic value by visiting admirers, with little or no regard for the religious inspiration which gave birth to them.  Gregorian chant is more often found in the playlist of easy listening radio stations rather than in the repertoire of Catholic cathedral choirs across the world.   Historic Cathedrals are often viewed as beautiful, fascinating monuments in stone to Catholic belief which has receded in the collective memory of too many communities in the Western world.  The Bible has inspired the music of Bach,Handel and Mozart and has directly led to some of the most memorable pieces of literature as authored by Shakespeare or W.H. Auden, down the centuries.  We must reconnect our search for such abstract but real conditions as Beauty, Truth and Goodness with the Creator God who is responsible for them.

  • scary goat

    I think to some extent beauty helps in matters of faith.  Of course it is the truth of the Faith itself which matters most and the beauty of the setting is very secondary, but creating beautiful things for the Church is a sign of devotion and respect, and it can be inspiring for others.  Music can also be very evocative. 

    Something which never ceases to puzzle me is atheists talking about spirituality.  What “spirit” exactly do they have in mind?  The sort they don’t believe in?  Really it seems to be an obvious contradiction in terms.

  • aaron sc

    I will have been in the Church three years this November (2012). I have and still do experience moments of doubt, of restlessness and distress, a sort of “seasickness” within the Church, our Holy Mother, a ship at sea amidst the tempest of the World. It is invariably beauty which fills the mind with grace, stirs the soul and disposes one towards the Truth that keeps me in the Church in such moments.

    When I listen to Mozart’s Lacrimosa I am oftentimes overcome and by God’s grace I know that it really must all be true. If I should not live for this great Art, this Beauty, then what shall I live for?

    Laudetur Jesus Chritus.

  • Benedict Carter

    Beauty it itself a reflection of truth. 

    The iconoclasm and destruction wrought on Catholic culture and arts by the post-Vatican II hippys and heretics is no more than an outward sign of an inward truth – that their theology, vision of the Church and conception of what Is Christ are rotten to the core.  

  • Parasum

    If God had meant us to be saved through beauty, He would not have been crucified – the Cross is the complete and final refutation of the argument that there is anything saving about beauty. If beauty were necessarily connected to salvation, the dire monstrosities that pass for Catholic art these days would be impossible. Yet they are found in the Vatican itself. One stays in the Church not because it is beautiful – it is often no such thing – but for better reasons.

    As for the argument from being deeply moved: reading Homer can be extremely moving, and the same applies to the Epic of Gilgamesh – there are scenes full of pathos in all three poems. The Bible has nothing to compare with the meeting of Odysseus and his mother Anticleia in Hades, or with the recognition of Odysseus by his old dog Argus; to say nothing of the slowly-learned recognition of Gilgamesh that, two-thirds god though he is, he must die like other men. 

    This power of sympathy is what gives these three ancient poems their attraction even today; and the Bible, even if taken as a single narrative extending over many books, has nothing quite like these poems. Perhaps it is too didactic for that. There is too little sympathy for human frailty in it – and the books moralise too much. Euripides would have made a great & memorable tragedy out of the death of Ahab – for the author of 1 Kings, he is a criminal with little to be said in his favour. One wonders what the author of Judges or 1 Samuel would have made of Agamemnon or Odysseus, of Andromache or Penelope, Judith & Holophernes, OTOH, could have come straight from one of the bloodier plays of Euripides.  It is striking that the woes of Hecabe, Andromache, Creusa and other women caught up in the miseries of the sacking of a city are told of by Homer, Euripides & Virgil – the equal and all too unmythological horrors of the same kind of event are referred to many times in the Bible, but never in the same intensely personal way. And that is a defect of sympathy & humanity. There  is nothing in the Bible to match the scene, at once sublime, terrible, and profoundly moving, in which the aged king Priam of Troy receives back the corpse of his son Hector from Achilles, who had recently dishonoured the corpse by dragging it three times round the walls of Troy. There are many corpses in the Iliad & Odyssey – yet no impression of a gorefest; the poetic tact and art and compassion of Homer avoid that.

  • Charles

    Sell off the modernist monstrosities to raise money to restore the true
    artistic heritage of the church; specifically, pay for the restoration
    of ruined abbeys and Cathedrals by selling monstrosities like Liverpool
    Pyramid Cathedral. We must regain the Catholic forms of beauty in architecture, liturgy, organ and choir, chant, sacred art and vestments. Fine taste was once taught before relativism claimed that “its all in the eye the beholder”; but that only proves that the eye was not trained…

  • Alan

    If I was remotely as appalled with the post VII Church as you seem to be, I would quit and seek a home elsewhere. Surely we choose to belong to the Church as it is today, not as we would like it to be or as we think it was centuries ago.  Incidentally I see nothing of the rottenness you claim to see, my S.E.London parish is healthy and thriving. I have never gone in for “hippy” culture, nor have anyone I know.

  • Mark

    “If God had meant us to be saved through beauty, He would not have been
    crucified – the Cross is the complete and final refutation of the
    argument that there is anything saving about beauty.”

    Not really. Perhaps what it shows is a deficient understanding of what beauty is and is not. Beauty is not the same thing as pretty or pleasant. Beauty, rather, is found in something when the parts conform with each other in harmony, with proportion, with unity. The Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ are the sum of salvation history. Considering their harmony and completeness, they are indeed beautiful.

  • digdigby

      Those who are humbled by beauty (say, a starry night in the desert) and those who are self-exalted by it (the delicious frisson of the swooning aesthete).  

  • Parasum

    “Beauty is not the same thing as pretty or pleasant.”

    ## Strongly agree

    “Beauty, rather, is found in something when the parts conform with each other in harmony, with proportion, with unity.” 

    ## I think that many beautiful things can be so described, but that this analysis does not do justice to all. It’s too monochrome. I think cuneiform writing is beautiful, but that (Thomistic ?) analysis might have difficulty with cuneiform. OTOH, that analysis is beautifully applicable to atomic physics (If only St. Thomas could have known of that !)

    As for the last sentence, if we are talking about their place in the purpose of God, I could’t agree more; but as an event, the Cross is hideous & degraded and accursed – it’s meant to be. God does not save by power, but by weakness; it is in the weakness & failure & shame of the Cross that His saving power is revealed: not in the wisdom of man, but in what seems to be folly. St. Paul is very insistent on this in 1 Corinthians 1.

  • Rbryant46

    There are over 42′,000 different religious organizations in the world & all think the rest are miserably misguided. They all agree that a God made the Earth in 7 days & made man on the 6th day. begs the question how dinosaurs were roaming the Earth 350 million years ago. The truth is we evolved & all religions were created by man.I mean come on seriously Thou shalt not covet but slavery & incest are fine. do yourself a favour go & get an education.