Bringing a Roman Aesthetic to England

Unearthly Beauty: The Aesthetic of Saint John Henry Newman

by Father Guy Nicholls, Cong. Orat.
2019 Gracewing, 352 pages, $37.24 hardcover
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 The organ hall of Borromini’s Oratorio dei Filippini in Rome. Photo:

To read Unearthly Beauty: The Aesthetic of Saint John Henry Newman by Father Guy Nicholls is to step through a doorway into Newman’s home. Newman comes alive on the page, tuning his violin, planning choral practice for the village children, or inspecting the construction of a chapel, ever engaged with the practical matter of aesthetic expression in service of the worship of God.  

We find Newman “at home” in Father Nicholls’ work, ultimately, because Newman’s aesthetic vision points us to our eternal home, to the vision of God as the ultimate source and origin of all beauty. “My aim,” declares Nicholls, “is to show that throughout and within Newman’s many aesthetic tastes and views, there is a consistent unifying thread which can rightly be called his ‘idea of beauty,’” which is “otherworldly, pointing ultimately to a reality which is beyond the experience and limits of the world of sense perception.”

The pivotal word, “unearthly,” upon which Newman’s aesthetic and Nicholls’ entire investigation relies, evokes the “hidden reality which transcends the beauty which is merely apprehended by the senses,” and with which Newman expresses “the other-worldliness of holy and heavenly beauty.”

Father Nicholls’ profound contribution in this work is twofold. First, he examines the nature of beauty in Newman’s thought. While Newman never systematically composed a treatise on beauty, the author thoroughly analyzes and synthesizes Newman’s concept of “beautifulness.” Nicholls then illuminates the theoretical concept in vivid detail through an exploration of Newman’s lifelong pursuit of artistic, musical, architectural, and liturgical beauty.  

As a priest of the Birmingham Oratory with degrees in Classics and Theology from Cambridge, Rome, and Oxford, and the Founder and Director of the John Henry Newman Institute of Liturgical Music, Nicholls is eminently suited to bring Newman’s aesthetic to life. His rich bibliography, which includes unpublished sources from the Birmingham and London Oratory Archives and Chiesa Nuova in Rome, provides the reader with excepts from letters, diaries, and even handwritten musical scores composed by Newman. Sixty-four colored plates offer windows into Newman’s architectural designs and visually immerse the reader in the styles which influenced his aesthetic.

Some of the most fascinating insights provided by Nicholls emerge from the historical context in which Newman, himself a convert to Catholicism, sought to advance the Catholic aesthetic in England. Musically and architecturally Newman’s home was Rome. He brought a Roman aesthetic to a Catholic England reemerging from the shadows of prolonged persecution.  

The need for Catholic liturgical music as well as for architectural adaptations to accomodate changes to liturgical practice made since the faith was outlawed presented Newman with an exciting challenge of both creativity and conservation. In response, Newman offered “original contributions to nineteenth-century English Catholic church music” and developed a “theology of architectural beauty” through his sermons and building designs. 

Nicholls also identifies Saint Philip Neri’s Oratory as the perfect “home” for Newman’s vocation. As Nicholls explains, “after a period of searching for a vocation which followed his reception into the Catholic Church, [the Oratory] became ever more clearly in Newman’s mind and practice the ideal home for the liturgical development of his musical gifts and the fruit of his aesthetic understanding of the hidden beauty of heaven.”

A lesser-known ambition of Newman’s, considered in detail by Nicholls, was the founding of a school of art in Birmingham. Newman dedicated himself energetically to the project, even acquiring a papal brief affirming the endeavor. Due to circumstances beyond Newman’s control, however, the project was not completed. Nevertheless, Newman’s ambitious plans emphasize his awareness of the importance of sacred art, a patrimony of the Church much in need of revival again today.

Nicholls’ work helps to bring alive the essence of the saint himself. Newman’s gentle kindness, humor, and interior beauty emanate from the page.  “’A really holy man, a true saint,’ Nicholls recounts Newman saying, ‘has a sort of secret power in him to attract others to him who are like-minded, and to influence all who have anything in them like him.’” 

Indeed, the “beauty of holiness” of Newman himself, the man, the artist, the teacher, the Churchman, the holy lover of God, is the final glimpse of heaven to which Nicholls draws our gaze.