Doctor Pulchritudinis

by Elizabeth Lev, appearing in Volume 43

Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI of beloved memory, grew up during one of history’s ugliest moments. From his childhood under the specter of Nazi Germany, to his youth in a divided nation where communist atheism festered on the other side of the Berlin Wall, Joseph Ratzinger saw the worst of human creative energy. Even in Rome, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, then-Cardinal Ratzinger had to gaze into the squalid depths of corruption sifting through what he denounced as the “filth” of priestly sex abuse. 

Nonetheless, this theologian, too well acquainted with the mystery of evil and the ugliness of sin, never stopped preaching about the importance of beauty. Awash in a sea of vice, Ratzinger’s beacon was beauty, his sure path to truth.

In an age that has produced more death from war, genocide, and abortion than any other in history, proclaiming beauty may seem naïve or remote from reality, but it is this art historian’s view that time will demonstrate that one of Joseph Ratzinger’s most important achievements was to lift a torch of beauty to guide a world mired in ugliness. 

Joseph Ratzinger’s friendship with fellow theologian Father Hans Urs von Balthasar helped to shape his vision of the role of beauty. One of their more significant collaborations was founding the theological journal Communio in 1971 alongside members of Father Luigi Giussani’s fledgling Communion and Liberation movement.

Benedict’s Theology of Beauty

It was in an address to this group in Rimini in 1990 that then-Cardinal Ratzinger began to outline his theology of beauty. His tripartite speech identified the three principal obstacles to the acceptance of beauty: the paradox of beauty, the distrust of beauty, and illusory beauty. He would continue to expound on these ideas  into the years of his pontificate.

Ratzinger fearlessly confronted the apparently contradictory descriptions of Christ as both beautiful and unattractive. Psalm 45[44] claims the Savior was “the fairest of the children of men,” while Isaiah asserts that “He had neither beauty, nor majesty, nothing to attract our eyes” (Isaiah 53:2). Ratzinger believed that the sublime juxtaposition of these Christs—one of awesome radiance and one disfigured and unsightly—was meant to lead humanity into a deeper understanding of the mystery of beauty amidst the ugliness of this world. Sir James McMillan once noted that the modern era learned to distrust beauty after discovering that the Nazis had plotted the extermination of Jews in a stunning palace on the Wannsee while listening to glorious music. Truth be told, many dictators have sought to appropriate beauty as a fig leaf for the horrors of their regimes. Augustus commissioned the most beautiful buildings, paintings, and sculptures even as he destroyed the Republic, annihilated his political rivals, and promoted idolatry. Napoleon, while massacring his army and others throughout Europe, looted an array of the most wondrous works of art which he brought back to Paris. Offering Saint Augustine as a lens for reading this paradox, Ratzinger described “the contrasting blasts of ‘two trumpets’ produced by the same breath, the same Spirit.” This seeming inconsistency, he said, “is contrast and not contradiction.”

In juxtaposing these two images of Christ, beautiful and brutalized, Ratzinger addressed a pressing question of our modern age. When we look upon the face of truth, is it seen through beauty or is it seen through ugliness? Our era has been trained to seek truth in the unsightly: fallen heroes, footage of shootings, disasters, and death, a daily fare of brokenness and corruption. The great truth of humanity appears to be only its broken self, with neither beauty nor majesty. Ratzinger proposed an alternate view rooted in truth, that “the beauty of truth also embraces offence, pain, and even the dark mystery of death, and that this can only be found in accepting suffering, not in ignoring it.”

Christ Crucified and the Via Pulchritudinis


Christ Crucified by Velasquez, 1632. Photo: Public Domain

These words explained my reaction to a work in the Prado in Madrid. In the Velasquez gallery, I happened across his 1632 Christ Crucified. Velasquez’s haunting image displays an over life-size body hanging on the cross with startling naturalism: blood oozing from his hands, nails protruding roughly from his feet, the crown of thorns clamping his matted hair over his face. Gazing upon this tortured figure presented with almost photographic realism, I was repelled by the brutality of the wounds. Yet the luminosity of the body against the dark of the cross and its serenity in suffering—a promise that this was not the end of the story—transfixed me. The “two trumpets” called to me as they had never done before.

As pope, Benedict XVI made headway into the post-Christian European landscape with his Via Pulchritudinis, the Way of Beauty. When the Vatican Museums celebrated their 500th anniversary one year into his reign, Benedict took the opportunity to remind the museum staff that for millions of annual visitors, “the approach to Christian truth mediated through the expression of art or of history and culture, has an extra chance of getting through to the intelligence and sensibility of people who do not belong to the Catholic Church and are sometimes prejudiced towards and diffident about her.” Benedict encouraged the museums to develop art and faith itineraries to deepen visitors’ knowledge of the truth behind the wondrous art. This project culminated in a film called the Via Pulchritudinis that describes the faith history behind the museums’ artistic treasures. The pope reiterated that “the artistic patrimony of Vatican City constitutes a kind of great ‘parable’ through which the Pope speaks to men and women of every part of the world, and so from many cultures and religions, people who might never read one of his discourses or homilies.”

Truth Through Beauty

These words were consonant with a phrase he used more than once, that “the only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”

In 2009, Benedict invited artists to help illuminate the Way of Beauty. Following the precedent set by Saints Paul VI and John Paul II, he addressed a group of artists in the Sistine Chapel, encouraging them to explore truth through beauty. “Through your art, you yourselves are to be heralds and witnesses of hope for humanity!” he exclaimed. “Do not be afraid to approach the first and last source of beauty, to enter into dialogue with believers, with those who, like yourselves, consider that they are pilgrims in this world and in history towards infinite beauty!”

Benedict described the power that the artist wields over the beholder, capable of delivering “a healthy ‘shock’ that wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum—it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it ‘reawakens’ him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind.”

For Pope Benedict, that “shock” was most easily provoked by music, most likely his preferred among the arts. He described several times the experience of being so moved by the music of a Bach Cantata that he exclaimed: “In hearing this one understands: it is true; such strong faith is true, as well as the beauty that irresistibly expresses the presence of God’s truth.”

The Diplomacy of Beauty

The Way of Beauty, however, is not intended for the exclusive use of the secular world. He also invited the faithful, gathered at Castel Gandolfo in August 2011, to “rediscover the importance of this path also for prayer, for our living relationship with God.”

Pope Benedict even used beauty as an olive branch during his papal visits. Raphael’s Madonna of Foligno, kept in the Vatican Museums, spearheaded his trip to Germany, where its sister altarpiece, the Sistine Madonna, resides. Before embarking on his controversial visit to England, he sent Raphael’s stunning tapestries to hang side by side with their original cartoons in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Thanks in part to this diplomacy of beauty, both trips were a stunning success.

Pope Benedict XVI lay in state in Saint Peter’s Basilica in January 2023. Photo: Stefano Spaziani/Europa Press via Getty Images

Ratzinger’s vast personal experience with the ugliness of the world put him on guard against what he called “illusory beauty.” This type of beauty, flashy, even dazzling to the viewer, is attractive, but Ratzinger revealed its false nature and warned that “it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy.” 

“It is a seductive but hypocritical beauty that rekindles desire, the will to power, to possess, and to dominate others,” he wrote, “it is a beauty which soon turns into its opposite, taking on the guise of indecency, transgression or gratuitous provocation.” This false beauty is all too apparent in many aspects of modern society, from the entertainment industry to advertising.

Ratzinger’s legacy equipped us to resist the bludgeons of ugliness and to navigate the shoals of false beauty. It is up to us, the heirs of true beauty, to continue to light the way so that beauty can indeed save the world.

For this art historian, one of Benedict’s most remarkable contributions to Christian thought was his understanding of the role of beauty in faith and evangelization. For this reason, I hope someday soon Benedict XVI will join other the great theologians of the Catholic Church as the Doctor Pulchritudinis, or “Doctor of Beauty.”