Catholic World – Art and Religion

bronze processional cross at the Church of the Transfiguration at the Community of Jesus, Orleans, Massachusetts, artist unknown; photographed on 27 August 2015 by Karemin1094; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsGod reveals himself to all the faculties of the soul. We not only know him as truth; we also love him as beauty. As he is infinite truth, so is he perfect beauty. Without the existence of God as absolute truth, science is impossible. Science, which is co-ordinated knowledge, can never be well grounded unless it rest upon the eternal and first cause, which is God. God as truth is at the bottom of all knowledge; as beauty, he is the ideal present to the soul in every conception of art.

Art is the expression of ideal beauty under a created form. The philosopher, in his meditations, seeks the true, which he translates into formulas; the artist in his impassioned love seeks the beautiful, which he makes to live on canvas, to breathe in marble, to speak from the living page.

The end of art is not to imitate nature. On the contrary, in the presence of natural beauty it looks beyond to the type, the idea of a still higher beauty. Hence the artist is not a mere copier of nature; for he is enamored of an ideal that disgusts him with all that he beholds in the real world. The aim and despair of his life is to give to this ideal a form and a sensible expression. Ideal beauty is that which disenchants the soul of the love of every created thing, and which in the presence of reality lifts it up to a higher love. It is a gleam from the face of God reflected through the blue heavens, the starry sky, or whatever in nature is grand or beautiful. It is the eternal allurement and eternal disenchantment of the noblest souls. True beauty is ideal beauty, and ideal beauty is a reflection of the infinite. Hence art, which aims to give expression to this beauty, is essentially religious, and tends to elevate the soul from earth to heaven, and bear it away toward the infinite.

It is the ideal side of natural beauty that gives to it its religious power.

The view of the beautiful in nature creates in us a longing for heaven, because the image of God is reflected from all those objects which so inspire the soul. When, in the spring-time we seat ourselves on the border of a lake in whose tranquil waters, as in a vast mirror, are reflected the green woods and the laughing meadows, the trees and the plants and the flowers; into whose bosom the rippling waters of rill and rivulet are flowing, all joyous like children that run to meet their gentle mother, whilst the quiet winds whisper to one another from leaf to leaf, as if afraid to dispel the enchantment of the spot – does not, in such an hour, a mysterious solitude creep over the soul, and free it from the distracting thoughts of life, giving it power to raise itself on the wings of contemplation to the very throne of God? The sight of true beauty always reminds us of heaven. Seated on the border of that enchanted lake, man grows sad and thoughtful, a sweet melancholy takes hold of him, because he has caught a glimpse of home, but is still an exile. When, on a summer’s evening, the sun has sunk to rest, and not a breath creeps through the rosy air, but all nature is bowed in silent prayer, and the stars come out one by one, the guardians of the night – in this heavenliest hour, who has not been impressed by a sense of the infinite, the unmistakable presence of God, before whom heaven and earth, “from the high host of stars to the lulled lake and mountain coast,” grow still, absorbed in adoration?

There is also in the grand and rugged scenes of nature an immense religious power.

The ocean, the desert, high mountains and mighty rivers, storm and darkness, with the voice of thunder and the lightning flash, all speak of God, and in their presence man bows in homage to the omnipotence of his Creator. Hence the child of nature, however rude and imperfect his idea of God, is essentially religious in his aspirations.

Man must isolate himself and become absorbed in his own abstract and empty thoughts before he can lose consciousness of the ever-abiding presence of the Creator. For every creature is a revelation of heaven to the human soul, reminding it of its origin and high destiny. If nature leads us to God, why may not art have the same power, since both are expressions of the same eternal beauty?

Before considering this question, we wish to advert to the immense power and universal influence of art.

Few can enter into the sanctuary of science – even the rudest mind when brought in contact with ideal beauty by the creative power of art – but feel its force and its inspiration. Art is the most lasting of national glories. Indeed, we may say that without art there is no glory either national or individual.

The greatest deeds and the proudest names sink back in death unless art embalm them in poetry or in song, give them immortality on the speaking canvas or in the breathing marble.

Brave men lived before Agamemnon, but they are forgotten, for their names never shone on the poet’s page. Those nations are most glorious in which art attained its highest development.

The muse of Homer, the eloquence of Demosthenes, and the chisel of Phidias, have done more to immortalize Greece than the deeds of her proud heroes. The greatest human actions are in themselves but little removed from the commonplace affairs of everyday life; but the creative power of art transforms them and invests them with a charm which the reality never possessed. The primeval forests of Kentucky, in the day when its name was the “dark and bloody ground,” witnessed many a deed of human daring and of warlike prowess equal to those of Achilles and Hector under the walls of Troy; but art with its celestial wand never transfigured those deeds on the poet’s page, and they are forgotten, buried with the leaves that overshadowed them. The life of man is short, even that of a nation is not long; but art dies not, and has moreover the divine power of conferring immortality upon all that it touches. Shakespeare is worth more to the glory of England than all the victories of all her generals. Dante, Raphael, and Michael Angelo, with innumerable other names which represent the highest artistic power, have made Italy the consecrated land of poetry and of song, the home of beauty and of all loveliness – the native country of the soul.

Time alone, which is the approver of all things, can give to art its full power, and it is only when we consider it in the past that we become aware of its great influence in the history of the human race. The present is always a vulgar time; too real to be beautiful. The present is the slave of power and wealth, but these soon disappear, and art remains for ever. The first impulse in the movement which has carried the European mind to its present state of enlightenment was given by art in conjunction with religion. The study of the Grecian and Roman models, in poetry, in eloquence, and in architecture, fired the nations of Europe with a love of artistic perfection, and consequently greatly contributed to our present civilization. The historic power of art is in some respects greater than that of history itself. Few men know history as a science – the masses are brought into contact with the heroes of the past by poetry and by song.

Has God, who has given to art a universal mission in the development of man’s moral and intellectual nature, banished its elevating influence from the sphere of religion? It would be foreign to our present scope to discuss the actual and possible perversions of art. There is naught on earth so holy that the free will of man may not turn it to evil. The fact that a thing may be abused simply proves that it has a right and proper use. The abuse comes from the free agency of man; the use is the mission given by God, which is always holy and elevated.

The direct aim of art is the expression of infinite beauty under a created form, and hence a true work of art should elevate the soul to the contemplation of heavenly beauty. This contemplation of the divine ideal disenchants us of the things of earth; which truth is expressed by the old proverb, that there is no great genius without melancholy.

He whose soul habitually contemplates the ideal world is necessarily saddened by the reality of life, which is so infinitely beneath the elevation of his thoughts.

There is nothing sensuous in the idea of true beauty. Its property is to purify and moderate desire, not to inflame it. Hence art addresses itself less to the sense than to the soul. It seeks to awaken not desire, but sentiment. Chastity and beauty seek each other. Chastity is beautiful, and beauty is chaste.

These considerations go to show that art, the end of which is the expression of beauty, is in its tendency moral and elevating, and consequently religious.

There can, then, be no just cause of antagonism between religion and true art, as there can be no contradiction between theology and real science.

Far from being enemies, religion and art are allies. This truth the Catholic Church has ever proclaimed. She has stigmatized no one of the arts. In her universal life, she has a mission for each and every one of them. Her churches are not alone the temples of the living God – they are also the home of the arts which point heavenward.

The Christian religion in its dogmas and aspirations is essentially spiritual. The Catholic Church is the great and only successful defender of the distinction between spirit and matter. By her teachings and practices, she has rendered man more spiritual, and consequently more beautiful. By awakening him to the consciousness of the diviner and more ethereal part of his nature, she has developed in him the instinct of art, which is essentially spiritual because its soul is the ideal.

The more we meditate upon the nature of art, the more thoroughly are we convinced that true art is the sister of true religion. Protestantism, protesting against many truths, also protested against the alliance of religion and art. We speak of the Protestantism of the past; for no man knows what Protestantism is to-day. It is anything and everything, from semi-Catholicism down to naked infidelity. It has become mere individualism, and may consequently no longer be spoken of as an organization. The Protestantism which is dead objected to the alliance of religion and art because it conceived them to be of opposite nature and contrary tendency. Religion is the worship of God in spirit and in truth, and Protestantism looked upon art as purely material.

But in this as in other matters, the Protestant view was based upon a misconception both of religion and of human nature. If man were wholly spiritual, his religion would also be purely spiritual. But matter forms part of his nature. Even that which in him is most spiritual – thought – has its sensible element. An idea is an image, whence it follows that we cannot even think without forming to ourselves a mental representation of the thing thought of. No human act can be purely spiritual. The law of our being is that we rise from the visible to the invisible, from the sensible to the supersensible. An invisible and purely spiritual religion would be to us an unreal and intangible religion. An invisible church is a contradiction in terms, and without a church there can be amongst men no authoritative religious teaching. Neither religious nor intellectual life, in our present state, can exist without language, and language addresses itself directly and primarily to the senses. It is therefore impossible for man to express the spiritual without making use of the material. Hence art, which seeks to adumbrate the infinite under a finite form, in this simply conforms to the universal law of man’s nature, which in all things, even in thought, subjects him to matter.

Is not Christianity based upon this fact? Did not God take unto himself a visible and material nature in order to manifest to the world his invisible power, and beauty, and holiness? Is not the Christian religion a system of things invisible, visibly manifested? The end of religion is spiritual, but in order to attain this end it must possess a visible and material element. This fact of itself gives to art a religious mission of the highest order.

This mission is to proclaim to the world Jesus Christ and him crucified and glorified – by poetry, by song, by painting, by architecture, in a word, by every artistic creation of which genius is capable.

Jesus Christ is the beau ideal of art – the most lovely and beautiful conception of the divine mind itself. He is the visible manifestation of God, the all-beautiful.

Purity, and gentleness, and grace, with power and majesty, all combine to make him the most beautiful of the sons of woman, the fairest and the loveliest figure in all history, to whom the whole world bows in instinctive love and homage. There is a shadow on the countenance of Jesus which gives to it its artistic completeness. It is sorrow. There is something trivial in gaiety and joy which deprives them of artistic effect. The cheek of beauty is not divine except the tear of sorrow trickle down it. Hence to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified is not to preach perfect religion alone, but also the perfect ideal of art.

Christian science, which is theology, has as its object the dogmas of the church. Christian art relates directly to religious worship, but it has incidentally a doctrinal significance. If we consider eloquence an art, which we may do, for true eloquence is always artistic, we must concede that it holds a most important place in the church of Jesus Christ. He blessed eloquence and bade it convert the world when he spoke to the apostles these memorable words: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations.” The divine command was to preach the Gospel, not to write it. The living word spoken by the divinely commissioned teacher has alone borne fruit in the world, converted the nations, and changed the face of the earth. Eloquence must be spoken. If you take from it its voice, you take away its soul. It is the cry of an impassioned nature, in which love, and faith, and deep-abiding conviction are enrooted. Add to this purity and holiness of life in him who speaks, and let him be in earnest, and he will be eloquent. Eloquence in the mouth of a consecrated teacher has a sacramental power. It is one of the divinely established ordinances for the propagation of religious truth, and for the conversion of a soul to God.

Poetry, too, is consecrated to the service of religion. The muse never soars her loftiest flight except when lifted up on the wings of religious inspiration. The most poetic word in language is that brief, immense word – God. It is the sublimest, the profoundest, the holiest word that human tongue can utter. It forms the instinctive cry of the soul in the hour of every deep emotion. In the hour of victory, in the hour of death, in the ecstasy of joy, in the agony of woe, that sacred word bursts spontaneously from the human heart. It is the first word that our mother taught our infant lips to lisp, when, pointing to heaven, she told us that there was God our Father, and bade us look above this base, contagious earth. When the mother for the first time feels her first-born’s breath, in tenderness of gratitude she pronounces the name of God; when in utter helplessness of woe she bends over the grave of her only child, and her heart is breaking, she can find no relief for her agonizing soul, until, raising her tearful eyes to heaven, she breathes in prayer the name of God.

When two young hearts that are one vow eternal love and fealty, it is in the name of God they do it; and the union of love loses half its poetry and half its charm except it be contracted before the altar of God and in his holy name.

When the mother sends her son to do battle for his country, she says, “God be with thee, my boy!”

When nations are marshalled in deadly array of arms, and the alarming drum foretells the danger nigh, and the trumpet’s clanguor sounds the charge, and contending armies meet in the death grapple, amid fire and smoke and the cannon’s awful roar, until victory crowns them that win; those banners that were borne proudly on till they floated in triumph over the field of glory are gathered together in some vast temple of religion, and there an assembled nation sings aloud in thanksgiving: “We praise thee, O God! we glorify thee, O Lord!” How often has not God chosen the muse of poetry in order to convey to the world his divine doctrines! The Bible contains much of the sublimest poetry ever written. Some of the Psalms of David, portions of Job and Isaias, equal in deep and lofty poetic feeling anything that Dante or Milton wrote. And did not these privileged minds also receive their highest inspirations from religion?

We may not separate poetry from music. Music is poetry in tones. It is the language of feeling, the universal language of man. The cry of joy and of sorrow, of triumph and of despair, of ecstasy and of agony, is understood by every human being because it is the language of nature. All the deep emotions of the soul seek expression in modulation of sound.

Cousin says: “There is physically and morally a marvelous relation between a sound and the soul. It seems as though the soul were an echo in which the sound takes a new power.”

Byron, too, seems to have felt this:

“Oh! that I were
The viewless spirit of a lovely sound,
A living voice, a breathing harmony;
A bodiless enjoyment, born and dying
With the blest Tone that made me!”

At the awakening call of music, the universal harmonies of nature stir within the soul. The ancients were wont to say that he who cultivates music imitates the divinity, and Saint Augustine tells us that it was the sweet sound of psalmody which made the lives of the monks of old so beautiful and harmonious. God is eternal harmony, and the works of his hand are harmonious, and his great precept to men is that they live in harmony. Did not Jesus Christ come into the world amid the choral song of angels? Would you, then, banish music from the church of Jesus? No art has such power as music to draw the soul toward the infinite. It would seem as though the sounds of melody were the viewless spirits of heaven, calling us away from earth to our true home in the mansion of our Father. Whosoever has enjoyed the rare privilege of being present in the Sistine Chapel, during Holy Week, when the melodies of Leo, Durante, and Pergolesi, on the Miserere, are sung, has felt the immense power of religious music. For a moment, at least, he has quitted this earth, and the voice of song has borne his soul in ineffable ecstasy to the very throne of God. As music develops religious sentiment, so religion gives to music its sublimest themes. To her, Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart owe their divinest inspirations.

Painting, too, asks to be received into the temple of religion. What sentiment is there that the painter cannot express? All nature is subject to his command – the physical world and the moral world. His muse soars from earth to heaven, and contemplates all that lies between them. Above all, the human countenance divine, that mirror of the soul, belongs to the painter. His brush, dipped in the light of heaven, gives to virtue its own celestial hue; to vice, its inborn hideousness. He expresses every emotion of the human heart, every noble love, every lofty aspiration, every dark and baneful passion. Aristotle, the most comprehensive mind of the pagan world, affirms that painting teaches the same precepts of moral conduct as philosophy, with this advantage, that it employs a shorter method. Christian painting began in the Catacombs. In the rude pictures of that subterranean world we find the chief doctrines of Christianity reduced to their most simple expression under forms the most touching.

Painting there represents the Phoenix rising from its ashes, emblem of the immortality of the soul and of the resurrection of the body; the good shepherd bearing upon his shoulders the lost sheep, which teaches with touching simplicity one of the most beautiful of our Lord’s parables; the three youths in the fiery furnace, signifying the providence of God for those who fear and love him; Pharao and his hosts engulfed in the Red Sea, proclaiming to the faithful that God is the avenger of those who put their trust in him. These and similar subjects were peculiarly adapted to inspire courage in the hearts of the Christians of the first ages, when to be a follower of the cross was to be a hero.

As men of genius and learning by their life-long labors show us the divine beauties and perfections in the character of Jesus in new bearings, so the art of painting throws around his history an intenser light. His divinity is as manifest in the “Transfiguration” of Raphael as in the famous sermon of Massillon. His ineffable sufferings on Mount Calvary and the Godlike power which consented to death, but conquered agony, are as vividly and feelingly portrayed on the canvas of Rubens as in the unequalled and inimitable discourse of Bourdaloue. No one can look upon the “Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci without being inspired with a most sublime conception of that holiest event. Can we think of the passion and death of the Saviour without forming to ourselves a mental image corresponding to the scene? If, after all, we must have a picture, why not take that of genius rather than trust to our own tame plebeian fancy? And then, for those who cannot read or meditate profoundly, for the poor whom Jesus loved, what master is like painting?

Saint Basil declares that painters accomplish as much by their pictures as orators by their eloquence.

The church as a lecture-room will interest only the cultivated few; the church as the temple of art sanctified by religion is the home of worship for the multitude.

Religion, if it be anything, must be popular, which science can never be, and which art always is. Then, in the name of the religion of the poor, let architecture advance to raise to God the temple of majesty and beauty, the democratic palace of the people, where the prince and the beggar sit side by side as brothers, a basilica prouder and loftier than that of the sceptred monarch.

– text taken from the article “Art and Religion” in the June 1872 edition of The Catholic World magazine, author not listed