Ontoluminescence: Bright God and Brilliant Creatures in Thomas Aquinas

by Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A., appearing in Volume 31

Stained-glass windows in the cathedral of Lille give color and coherence to the light of the sun.

Stained-glass windows in the cathedral of Lille give color and coherence to the light of the sun. Photo: flickr.com/Lawrence OP

“The discussion of the beautiful occupies a marginal place in Thomas’s work.”1

Such a premonishment is very nearly de rigueur for essays on the theme of beauty in the works of Thomas Aquinas. The reader is warned that no treatise, question, or article is devoted to the beautiful. The undeniable implication is that expectations should be adjusted accordingly (e.g., all hope of encountering “the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas” must be abandoned).2 But like the playing of the national anthem before a Cubs game, this caveat is largely a formality preceding chaos.3 Students of Aquinas’s aesthetic marginalia have displayed a preternatural ability to compose multiple theories of beauty “according to Saint Thomas.”4 One of the most noteworthy aspects of these accounts is their nearly complete incompatibility.

Francis Kovach reckons that Saint Thomas make some mention of beauty in 665 places. When minor references, quotations from other authors, and loci where Thomas is commenting on a text are deducted, only 130 texts on beauty remain,5 with few of these more than a handful of lines. Denied the sustained treatments given the other (quasi) transcendental properties of esse,6 “beauty,” like Purple of Tyre, must be laboriously harvested from these many small sources. Further, Saint Thomas offers no musings on the fine arts or religious artwork.7 The author of Adoro te devote and Pange lingua gloriosi8 passes over the liturgical role of beauty in silence. Impressively written introductions to Saint Thomas’s masterpiece never include beauty among “die großen Themen der Summa theologiae.”9 Yet, the most extravagant encomia have been raised by those who descry in the Angelic Doctor’s happenstance reflections the key to his most profound ideas.10

Despite a number of attempts to produce one,11 there is no rounded and reasonably complete account of beauty per se, much less a theory of aesthetics, to be had in Saint Thomas.12 The modest intent of this essay is to offer some reflections on an “aesthetic analogy”; viz., the Son is to the Trinity as bright color is to a creature. The comparison is found in Summa Theologiae, I.39.8, resp.13: “For beauty includes three conditions, integrity or perfection, since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due proportion or harmony; and lastly, brightness or clarity, whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color.” As Brendan Sammon observes, almost every scholar who draws upon this passage isolates it from its broader context, treating it as a philosophical definition of the beautiful.14 This is a doubtful enterprise on at least three counts: First, Thomas provides no explanation of how these three qualities relate to one another,15 though all are grounded in creaturely form (see below). Second, these three terms never again appear together in Aquinas’s remarks on the “objective principles” of beauty.16 And third, these remarks are part of Thomas’s defense of the appropriation of names within Trinitarian theology.17 Thomas argues that beauty in each of its dimensions has a likeness to the property of the Son: integritas, “inasmuch as He as Son has in Himself truly and perfectly the nature of the Father”; proportio, “inasmuch as He is the express Image of the Father” (“hence we see that an image is said to be beautiful, if it perfectly represents even an ugly thing”); and claritas, which “agrees with the property of the Son, as the Word, which is the light and splendor of the intellect.”18

What is the claritas to which the Son is likened? Like “health,”19 “wisdom,”20 and “justice,”21 “beauty” and its components are predicated analogically (i.e., they posit something as literally true of God, but deny the creaturely mode of what they predicate).22 Thus, God is perfection, proportion, and brightness, but not in a way that involves material composition or potentiality. Further, within the created realm, we may distinguish between sensible beauty, such as characterizes a human body possessing well proportioned limbs with a certain brightness of a due color, and spiritual beauty, such as human actions which are “well proportioned in respect of the spiritual clarity of reason.”23 The semantic potency of the language of light makes it an irresistible figure for analogizing everything from the simplest act of recognition to the generation of the Son.24 “In its primary meaning [light] signifies that which makes manifest to the sense of sight; afterwards it was extended to that which makes manifest to cognition of any kind. If, then, the word is taken in its strict and primary meaning, it is to be understood metaphorically when applied to spiritual things. . . . But if taken in its common and extended use, as applied to manifestation of every kind, it may properly be applied to spiritual things.”25 And so, in addition to physical light,26 Saint Thomas speaks of “the light that makes beauty known” (lumen manifestans),27 “the spiritual clarity of reason” (spiritualem rationis claritatem),28 the “lightsomeness of glory” (claritas gloriae),29 a good reputation (excellentia vel claritas),30 and the lustre (decor) and light (lumen) of grace.31 In his commentary on John’s Gospel, Saint Thomas writes:

Sense perceptible light, however, is a certain image of spiritual light. . . . Just as particular light has an effect on the thing seen, inasmuch as it makes colors actually visible, as well as on the one seeing, because through it the eye is conditioned for seeing, so intellectual light makes the intellect to know because whatever light is in the rational creature is all derived from that supreme light “which enlightens every man coming into the world.” Furthermore, it makes all things to be actually intelligible inasmuch as all forms are derived from it, forms which give things the capability of being known, just as all the forms of artifacts are derived from the art and reason on the artisan.”32

The keys here are form and intelligibility. Aquinas sees form as the measure of every creature’s participation in the divina claritas.33 God is light because He does not share in—but is—beauty. He is unlimited act,34 ipsum esse per se subsistens—“not abstract being, but being that is fully determinate in itself and subsistent, and from which all other things derive their being.”35 Created things are in a variety of ways, and what a thing is determines how its beauty arises.36 For our purposes, we can say that every thing possesses a form which, as a stained-glass window gives color and coherence to the greater light of the sun, shapes the gift of being, In this sense, claritas is “ontoluminescence,” the infinitely varied brightness of the ways of participating in the divine Light. Form is the fluorescence by which things declare themselves to intellect.

This prodigal distribution of beauty can be an aid to Christian theology and prayer. Christian perspectives have often provoked extremes in regards to the beautiful: Clairvaux and Suger, the Beeldenstorm and the Baroque, the stripping of altars and their ghastly “renovation.” Scripture sings the cosmos aesthetic, commending the wonder of God’s handiwork to the faithful (Psalm 104), but is hardly sentimental about the natural world and is very wary of the cunning alchemy of the human heart which transmutes calves into gold, reveling in the worthless products of human art made by the “ancient hand” of idolatry (Wis 13:10), the self-made “snares for the souls of men” who are “distracted by what they see, because the things seen are fair” (Wis 13:7). Yet, Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15; 2 Cor 4:3-4), who reveals the Father (Jn 1:18) to human sight, hearing, and touch (1 Jn 1:1-2), valorizing the visible as the vehicle of divine self-expression, yet possessing “no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him” (Is 53:2). Is not beauty too appealing to the rebel imagination, too coarse in its elevation of sensory delight over the discipline of reason, as Plato warned?37

Further, the connection between the cultivation of beauty and the wanton ease of the privileged (Am 6:1-7), the Gospel’s focus on the king of shreds and patches who made His habitation with the unlovely of the world, and the need to proclaim the Gospel amidst a world beset by the hydra-like problems of global hunger and disease combine to suggest that discerning the face of the Crucified in human suffering must take precedence over any dilettantish swooning about wild flowers or the relics of slave cultures, much less the fussy elevation of aesthetic standards and vision over “practical considerations” in the matters of church design, construction, and ornamentation. Is not beauty too hopelessly trivial and effete to be granted full membership in the counsels of proclamation, prayer, and theology?

To return to the analogy: bright color is a delightful, domestic analogate. It may be, as Monroe Beardsley observes, that Thomas’s “casual reference to ‘bright color’ does not perhaps invite a very fancy reading.”38 But this may be part of its value. Anyone who has flipped through the massive swatch books available in the paints section of even the most modest hardware store, or endured the recherché nomenclature of a tony florist (citrine, opalescent, sea glass, cameo, cerulean, etc.), has seen how nearly undetectable gradations of color lend themselves to a sort of visual wine tasting, centered on self-flattering and very profitable discriminations (e.g., Hamlindigo blue). But Aquinas has something much simpler in mind. As Umberto Eco observes, “The Middle Ages was a time of bright hues. It was a period that identified beauty with light and color (as well as with proportion), and this color was always elementary, a symphony of reds, blues, gold, silver, white, and green, without subtleties and half tones. . . . In medieval poetry this sense of radiant color is always present: the grass is green, blood is red, milk pure white, and a pretty woman, in the words of Guido Guinizzelli, has ‘a face of snow colored in carmine.’”39

The north rose window of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris exemplifies Umberto Eco’s observation that “the Middle Ages was a time of bright hues.”

The north rose window of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris exemplifies Umberto Eco’s observation that “the Middle Ages was a time of bright hues.” Photo: flickr.com/Lawrence OP

In one sense, the language of beauty—“The Word is to the Father as red is to freshly washed cherries; like a cobalt dinner plate, or a clean copper pot, or butterflies sipping nectar from sunflowers”—is no different from any speech about God, in that it attempts to approach the divine by means of the sensible. Since “the beautiful is something pleasant to apprehend,”40 bright color may be an especially “eye-catching” way to depict the Word. But Saint Thomas licenses us to say something more when he writes that “the senses are given to man, not only for the purpose of procuring the necessaries of life, for which they are bestowed on other animals, but also for the purpose of knowledge. Hence, whereas the other animals take delight in the objects of the senses only as ordered to food and sex, man alone takes pleasure in the beauty of sensible objects for its own sake.”41 And indeed, there is something about bright color that catches, fixes, and absorbs the gaze. If we find ourselves staring at the deep copper hue of a desert sunrise, or the blue of the Virgin’s gown in a van Eyck reproduction, or the primary greens and yellows of a mobile hung above a crib, we are not surprised by their appeal; more often, like the new notice given to the purple of a local field, our apprehension is accompanied by surprise at how easily we become inured to bright colors (likely due in no small degree to our overexposure to them, a situation which did not often confront humanity for most of its existence).

The Annunciation by Jan Van Eyck

The Annunciation by Jan Van Eyck. Photo: professorhedgehogsjournal.files.wordpress.com

The use of so basic an analogy as bright color suggests that created ontoluminescence is, at least initially, an engagement with simplicities both quotidian and exceptional. Aquinas specifies this experience as the pleasurable contemplation of the real. Claritas is one of the fundamental ways we recognize difference. Black cow, white cow; blue sky, red sky; green shirt, purple dress—bright color is the initial and abiding herald of the deeper intelligibilities that surround us, because it is in part the “radiance of distinction,” the light which allows what is to be grasped by the intellect. Such simple radiance offers fulfillment to our minds. Aquinas defines the ratio of beauty as “that which calms the desire by being seen or known. . . . It is evident that beauty adds to goodness a relation to the cognitive faculty: so that ‘good’ means that which simply pleases the appetite; while the ‘beautiful’ is something pleasant to apprehend.”42 Again, the “something” involved here is not exclusively or even primarily great works of art or mighty natural formations, though they are included. It is first a matter of simple knowing—that is a desk, this is falling water, those are bright wings—in which color plays a key role.

Of course, color never stands on its own. We always encounter something which is colored,43 something upon which and from which claritas flows, just as we always experience proportioned things and never proportion in the abstract. Along with the organic and intellectual specificities of the beholder, the concrete embeddedness of sensible color presides over the particulars of its contemplation. Consider Kitty Fane’s experience of the chapel of the Catholic sisters ministering to the cholera victims of Mei tan fu, in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. The mother superior invites Kitty to see a life-size statue of the Blessed Virgin, a gift recently arrived from France.

The chapel was no more than a long low room with whitewashed walls and rows of deal benches; at the end was the altar on which stood the image; it was in plaster of Paris painted in crude colours; it was very bright and new and garish. Behind it was a picture in oils of the Crucifixion with the two Maries at the foot of the Cross in extravagant attitudes of grief. The drawing was bad and the dark pigments were put on with an eye that knew nothing of the beauty of colour. Around the walls were the Stations of the Cross painted by the same unfortunate hand. The chapel was hideous and vulgar. . . .

“The altarpiece and the Stations of the Cross were painted by one of our Sisters, Soeur St Anselme.” The Mother Superior crossed herself. “She was a real artist. Unfortunately, she fell a victim to the epidemic. Do you not think that they are very beautiful?”

Kitty faltered an affirmative. On the altar were bunches of paper flowers and the candlesticks were distractingly ornate.

“We have the privilege of keeping here the Blessed Sacrament.”

“Yes?” said Kitty, not understanding.

“It has been a great comfort to us during this time of so terrible trouble.”

To this point, everything that Kitty has learned about the mother superior indicates that it is highly unlikely she is given to sentimental blindness as regards poorly executed art. She is of an ancient French family, possesses a simple and unaffected dignity which inspires awe and makes it unthinkable that anyone one would fail to show her respect, and has “the authority of one who has never known that it is possible to be disobeyed. She had the condescension of a great lady and the humility of a saint. There was in her strong, handsome, and ravaged face an austerity that was passionate; and at the same time she had a solicitude and a gentleness which permitted those little children to cluster, noisy and unafraid, in the assurance of her deep affection.”44 But Kitty understands the superior’s aesthetic judgments no better than she grasps what it means to the sisters to have the consolation of the reserved Eucharist. She experiences the colors in a shallow way, and so misses the meaning so evident to the mother superior. Only tears, emptiness, and self-recrimination over her shabby treatment of her husband allows her to see things more deeply. “But once within the convent it had seemed to her that she was transported into another world situated strangely neither in space nor time. Those bare rooms and the white corridors, austere and simple, seemed to possess the spirit of something remote and mystical. The little chapel, so ugly and vulgar, in its very crudeness was pathetic; it had something which was wanting in the greatness of a cathedral, with its stained glass and its pictures: it was very humble; and the faith which had adorned it, the affection which cherished it, had endued it with a delicate beauty of the soul.”45 The colors are no less garish, nor the figures better executed; but their very vividness contributes to Kitty’s movement from the consideration of strictly sensible beauty to the contemplation of spiritual beauty.


What does it mean to say that the Son is to the Trinity as bright color is to a creature? Perhaps we might put it so: every encounter with bright color holds the potential to present to the believer an analogy of the primal act of beauty, the generation of the Son from the Father, the manifestation within the divine being of Image and Word. The brilliance of gold, the brightness of the red in the Coca-Cola logo, and the varied greens of Edward Hopper’s Road in Maine can all furnish contemplative pleasure to an eye which is untrained but attentive. Such colors draw into relief the vast diversity of forms. Just so does Jesus of Nazareth shine light upon Deus in se, revealing Him to be from all eternity not just claritas, but Light from Light, True God from True God, presented to us now in scripture and sacrament, in fire and water, that our eyes might become slowly prepared for eternal residence in the New Jerusalem, which has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God will give it light, and the Lamb will be its lamp (Rv 21:23).