Sacred Art as Inner Reality

John Saward’s graceful and insightful book was developed from the Bernard Gilpin Lectures which he delivered at the University of Durham in 1996. The “theological meditations,” and this is the phrase Saward correctly uses to describe his prose, “lead us to understand what beauty is, and how it can be recognized in works of art and holy lives.”

Saward uses a definition of beauty which comes from antiquity and which is repeated by Saint Thomas Aquinas. According to this tradition, beauty requires radiance (claritas), harmony (consonantia or debitaproportio), and wholeness (integritas). The integritas of a work of art tells us that it must be complete; debitaproportio refers to the material form of the work; but claritas refers to its substance or essential form. Saward then makes a judgment which seems to be the hinge on which his entire book turns: of these three, he tells us, “the chief is claritas.”

Modern art criticism often turns on a consideration of material form. Accordingly, any subject can be the matter of art so long as it is well-formed by the artist. It would not be inconsistent, then to speak of a “beautiful obscenity,” for example. To counter this notion, Saward turns to Aquinas who, while not denying the beauty of the sensible form, “wants to plunge more deeply into the intelligible form of a thing, its inward form, the light that enlightens the mind.”

The major example Saward uses to illustrate his theological aesthetic is the altarpiece from the Convent of San Marco in Florence, painted by Fra Angelico in the late 1430’s. He describes all the major figures there: the angels, the saints, and especially the Madonna. Of her, Saward notes how “the fairness of her soul, the substantial form, shines through the fineness of her features. Through the material light of his colours (the radiance of Our Lady’s Christ-gazing face), through the spatial proportions he has bestowed on her members (the perfect poise of her Christ-bearing arms), we can glimpse the spiritual splendour of her pure mind and humble heart.”

In this analysis Saward illustrates that beauty is an attribute of being. “An artwork that is truly beautiful should reveal the thing’s inner reality, its intelligible form which makes it to be what it is.” In language typical of these meditations, Saward explains that a form “is a kind of ray emanating from the brilliant Wisdom of the Creator. . . . [It] mirrors an eternal idea in the mind of God, an idea contained within the Idea, the eternal Word, in whom the Father knows Himself and His creatures.”

These ideas are an important corrective to modern aesthetic theory. They remind us not only that art should represent what a thing really is, but also that a thing is what God means it to be. This is why the beauty of art is connected with the beauty of holiness. “The moral virtues,” Saward writes, “while retaining their orientation towards the end of man, can also further the ends of art.” Saward uses the example of the virtue of purity:

A man without the spiritual beauty of temperance will be too blinded by his passions to perceive the many-splendoured thing; he will tend, for example, to see the body, not as a sacrament, the expressive incarnation of the spiritual soul and thus of the person, but as a machine for obtaining pleasure. By contrast, the pure in heart will have eyes that are clear and unclouded.

The virtuous person sees most clearly what a thing really is. His artistic representation of it will reflect more of its inner form. It will have a deeper claritas. Art, therefore, has its beginning in seeing, in what Josef Pieper calls “contemplation” and Maritain “creative intuition.”

Saward does not fill his book with theory alone. It is filled with eloquent reflections on the reach of art and beauty. Concerning art and the Eucharist, Saward quotes Pope John Paul I1 as saying:

The cathedrals, the humble country churches, the religious music, architecture, sculpture, and painting all radiate the mystery of the verum Corpus, natum de Maria Virgine, towards which everything converges in a movement of wonder.

In this context, Saward urges us to maintain a beautiful liturgy by attention to “vestments and vessels, by chant and icons, by the consecrated space of her temples.” Even though the hidden beauty of the liturgy is always greater than its visible forms, still the Church “does not, cannot, abandon her iconographic mission.” As the Second Vatican Council asserts, “the fine arts are rightly numbered among the noblest expressions of human genius. This is especially true of religious art and its highest achievement, namely, sacred art.”

Some of the most interesting passages in Saward’s book are those almost incidental meditations on some of the Church’s martyrs. He explains convincingly how Saint Cecilia came to be associated with music. He tells the story of the wonderful Jesuit poet-martyrs St. Edmund Campion and St. Robert Southwell. He speaks of the dedicated Catholicism of the composer William Byrd, and of the martyrdom of the Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution, which inspired Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites.

If there is one drawback to this book, it is perhaps a too polemical attitude toward what Saward calls “the martyrdom of art.” In this short section at the end of his book, Saward discusses the brutal iconoclasm of post-Reformation England. Worse even than Calvin or Zwingli, “the burning and breaking of holy beauty was the work not only of Cromwell’s soldiery in the seventeenth century but of Anglicanism’s founding fathers in the sixteenth.” From there Saward moves to the iconoclasm of the twentieth century which is to be found within the Roman Catholic Church herself.

Philistines have seized the sanctuary. The stone altar of sacrifice has been supplanted by a wooden communion table. The priest no longer looks to the East, whither Christ ascended and whence He will come again, but stares at the people, like the chairman of the board. . . . The Holy of Holies has been exiled—banished from the central gaze and adoration of the faithfu

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Saward continues his litany of grievances for several more lines and then concludes: “The integrity and thus the beauty of the Roman rite have almost been destroyed.” This is perhaps the best illustration of that integritas which is one of the hallmarks of beauty, notable here by its absence.

I have great sympathy for Saward’s complaint. I agree that the iconoclasm of Reformation England and that of contemporary Catholicism are lamentable in the extreme. It is only the tone of these remarks which bothers. He leaves the placid prose of his theological meditations for a sharp edged polemic, and in doing so he breaks, in the last few pages, the integritas of his own work.

Even so, this is a book that will be numbered among those which are most important to me. It has helped me to understand what beauty is and how it shows its face. I recommend it to anyone who has been moved by great art or great lives and who wants to understand why.

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