To Manifest Transcendence
Redeeming Beauty: Soundings in Sacral Aesthetics
by Aidan Nichols, OP
2007 Ashgate Publishing Company, 149 pages, 34.95
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Readers of this journal, passionate about the ability of architecture to “speak” the glory of God, have every reason to rejoice at this new publication by Aidan Nichols, O.P. For this is a book about the way in which the arts serve as epiphanies of divine transcendence and, above all, of Christ Himself. It is thus a book on a theme central to the continued renewal of Christian culture, rich in historical knowledge of Christian art and profound in its theological assessment of how that art magnifies the Lord. It is an exciting book for which the reader must be sincerely thankful.
In pursuing his theme, Fr. Nichols takes various “soundings,” or samplings, of what he calls in his subtitle “sacral aesthetics.” He is interested in the variety of ways in which Christian theologians and artists have reflected upon or put into practice the Christian artist’s mission to manifest the Beautiful. There are three kinds of soundings that Fr. Nichols takes, corresponding to the three parts of the book.
In the first part, Fr. Nichols sounds the theologies of art developed by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, on the one hand, and in the Iconoclast controversies, on the other. In the second part he examines three twentieth-century theologians of the image: Hans Urs von Balthasar, Sergei Bulgakov, and Pope Benedict XVI. In the third part Fr. Nichols turns to some difficulties involved in the actual practice of Christian art, taking up, first, the conflict in the last century involving the French Dominicans and the Journal L’Art sacré, and second, the uses made of Jacques Maritain’s Thomist aesthetics by the British Catholic artists Eric Gill and David Jones.
The first audience for at least some of these chapters was that of the scholarly book and journals in which early versions of the chapters first appeared. Thus the argument of the book often demands of the reader a fair amount of philosophical and theological sophistication, a demand made even higher by the fact that the style is at times overwrought. Yet even in its most demanding moments the book repays attention. The opening chapters on Augustine and Aquinas and on the Iconoclast controversies alert the reader to how long and how subtly the Church has pondered the meaning of art and the role of sacred images. It is fascinating to see, in part 2 of the book, how the ecumenical resolution in favor of sacred images proclaimed at the Second Council of Nicaea (787) was still being both critiqued and reformulated by theologians in the twentieth century. The chapter on Balthasar serves as a useful introduction to that writer’s disclosure of the artistic character of Revelation. The following chapter on the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov reveals Bulgakov’s attempts to place the resolution at Nicaea II on an even firmer theological foundation. The chapter on Benedict XVI discusses his argument that all sacred art takes its ultimate meaning from the Resurrection and the Second Coming.
The last part of the book focuses on practical applications of theological aesthetics involving thinkers and artists who are perhaps still unknown to many readers. The mistakes committed in the post–World War II era by certain French Dominicans anxious to make modernity relevant to sacred art serve as a sad preview of so much of what has happened with sacred art, not least sacred architecture, since that time. It is a fascinating but cautionary tale. The final chapter on Eric Gill’s and David Jones’s appropriations of Maritain’s aesthetics tells a happier story, showing us two artists who with no little success incorporated the insights of Aquinas as creatively thought through by Maritian into artworks that both reflected and criticized modernity.
The book’s conclusion is no perfunctory epilogue. It takes up the broad question: Why are the arts important? Fr. Nichols’s reply is that the arts serve to manifest transcendence. They do this by opening up larger questions of life’s meaning, questions that inevitably lead to talk about “a supreme rationale.” But at their best the arts go beyond even this; they serve as “a kind of epiphany of divine presence, of divine light.” In the final paragraphs Fr. Nichols beautifully links this understanding of art as epiphany with Christ as Work of Art: Christ realizes “those goals that all artistic making has as its explicit or implicit ends. Because he is infinite meaning, life and being perfectly synthesized with finite form, the cave-painters at Lascaux, or Hesiod penning his hymns, or Beethoven working on his last quartets, were all gesturing towards him though they realized it not.”
Fr. Nichols ends with the suggestive claim that in order for the arts once again to make a substantial contribution to culture, they must be “baptized” in sacred settings, most of all in the liturgy: “In the modern West, the Muses have largely fled the liturgical amphitheater, which instead is given over to banal language, poor quality popular music, and, in new and re-designed churches, a nugatory or sometimes totally absent visual art. This deprives the wider Christian mission of the arts of essential nourishment.”
This insight alone would be enough to send this reviewer, at least, to the rest of Fr. Nichols’ works.