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The Virtue of Art and the Virtue of Religion | John Saward | From The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty: Art, Sanctity and The Truth of Catholicism

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Art presupposes religion, or, rather, art presupposes the God whom religion worships. As St Thomas puts it, 'just as a work of art presupposes the work of nature, so the work of nature presupposes God.' [5] The matter with which the artist works—the stone beneath his chisel, the paint on his palette—comes from nature. His artistry depends upon its order. 'Things made by art are preserved in being by virtue of natural things, as a house is supported by the solidity of its stones.' [6]

Now there is no nature without an Author of Nature, the personal and transcendent source of its being and its order. It follows, therefore, that, for St Thomas and Fra Angelico, art is a particular kind of cooperation with the Creator. The artist makes his beautiful things by following the Maker's instructions. The horseman is a true artist when he knows and acts in harmony with what God has made the horse to be. Michelangelo draws out the God-given potentialities of marble. Again to quote St Thomas: 'Things done by art and reason must be conformed to those things that are according to nature, which have been instituted by divine reason.' [7] Art in the Middle Ages is always secundum naturam. There is no aesthetic of perversity or disorder.

Man can be an artist because he is created in the image of the God who is the Artist of the world. This is the specifically Christian reinterpretation that St Thomas gives to the Aristotelian principle that 'art imitates nature.' [8] The artist cannot ignore nature, for it is the first and most marvellous poem, icon, and symphony, a measured, radiant whole, showing forth its Maker.
The source of works of art is the human intellect, which is derived from the divine intellect, and the divine intellect is the source of all natural things. Hence not only must artistic operations imitate nature, but also works of art must imitate things that exist in nature. Thus when a master artist produces a work of art, the pupil artist is well advised to pay attention to the master's work of art, so that he can work in similar fashion. That is why the human intellect, which depends on the divine intellect for its intelligible light, must be informed concerning the things it makes by observation of things that are naturally produced, so that it may work in like manner. [9]
Art not only presupposes religion, it also bears witness to it, or, rather, it somehow bears witness to the God whom religion worships. Human art is evidence of the spirituality of the intellectual soul, and hence a pointer to the Immaterial God who created the soul in His image. In man's heart there is a restless longing for truth and beauty, for order and harmony, that the satisfaction of the sense appetites cannot quench. In his joy in beauty, whether in nature or art, man receives confirmation of the spiritual dignity of his intellect. The enjoyment of beauty is always a meeting of minds. As Jacques Maritain says:
The intelligence delights in the beautiful because in the beautiful it finds itself again and recognizes itself, and makes contact with its own light. This is so true that those—such as Saint Francis of Assisi—perceive and savour more the beauty of things who know that things come forth from an intelligence, and who relate them to their author. [10]
If man's art points to God, God's art, the beauty of the natural world, proclaims Him. According to St Thomas and St Bonaventure, following St Augustine, all things carry the trace (vestigium) of their Triune Creator and thus of His beauty. [11] (Rational creatures, of course, are made to His image.) The loveliness of heaven and earth tells the glory of God. The stars of the sky, the mountains and hills, the green things upon the earth are truly beautiful, and yet, being changeable, they cannot be the artisans of their own loveliness. 'They cry aloud', says St Augustine, 'that they did not make themselves.' [12] They are beautiful because God is beautiful, though they are not beautiful as He is beautiful; compared with Him, they are not beautiful. [13] Their beauty is their voice. We can hear and question it:
Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky . . . . Question all these things. All respond: 'See, we are beautiful.' Their beauty is a confession. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One who is not subject to change? [14]
According to St Bonaventure, this truth of the dogma of creation was the foundation of St Francis's love of all creatures.
In beautiful things he saw Supreme Beauty Himself and through His traces (vestigia) imprinted on creation 'he followed His Beloved' cf. Job 23:11) everywhere, making from all things a ladder by which he could climb up and embrace Him who is 'utterly desirable' (cf. Song 5:16). [15]

For St Thomas, religion is the virtue that renders due honour to God, One and Triune, the God of infinite beauty. [16] If a man does not exercise that virtue, at least to the extent of recognizing the order of God's creation, he is incapable of art. An atheistic art is a self-contradiction. Human making has no meaning if there is no divine Maker to give man meaning. If there is no God, there is no truth, beauty, or goodness; nature has no order or harmony, and art has no foundation. There can be no culture without cult, without worship, the first act of the virtue of religion. As Balthasar says:
All great art is religious, an act of homage before the glory of what exists. Where the religious dimension disappears, the homage degenerates into something that is merely attractive and pleasing; where the glorious disappears, we are left with what is usually called the 'beautiful'. [17]
Not every artist has been religious in the sense of being a believer who formally worships the one true God, but all great art has been religious in the sense that it manifests the wonder of being, the beauty of things as they reflect the brilliance of the divine Wisdom that made them. Balthasar says of the very first works of literary art in the West, the Iliad and Odyssey: 'In no other poetry of world literature does the thought of God occur so often... the thought of His power, His presence, His working in everything, through external events, through inner inspiration and the endowing with strength.' [18] The denial of God destroys art's foundations. As George Steiner wrote some years ago in his book Real Presences:
What I affirm is the intuition that where God's presence is no longer a tenable supposition, and where His absence is no longer a felt, indeed overbearing weight, certain dimensions of thought and creativity are no longer attainable. [19]
To create, according to St Thomas, is to give being, to make something out of nothing. Therefore, creation is the proper act of God alone, of Him Who Is, whose very essence is to be. [20] The artist cannot, therefore, in the strict sense be creative. [21] He does not produce things out of nothing but reshapes what already exists. The nearest any man comes to creating is in procreation, but here, too, the secondary causality of the creature is entirely dependent on the primary causality of the Creator. Parents are parents of the whole person of their child, and yet they prepare only the matter, which is united to a spiritual soul created immediately out of nothing by God. Their role is precisely pro-creation, cooperation with the Creator in the transmission of human life. Parents do not, strictly speaking, 'create' their children; they receive them from God as His gift and the fruit of their love. That is one of the reasons why the Catholic Church condemns all techniques of in vitro fertilization as gravely sinful: they divorce life from love and make the child appear like a product rather than a person. [22]

Some art is directly ordered to the glorification of God and the sanctification of man. [23] If this ordering to religion is what the Schoolmen call the finis operis the purpose of the work of art itself, then the art is sacred art, liturgical art: for example, the paintings of Andrei Rublev and Fra Angehco, the Masses of Byrd and Palestrina, and the hymns of St John Damascene and St Thomas Aquinas. This kind of art has been defined very beautifully by the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God—the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who 'reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature' (cf. Heb 1:3), in whom 'the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily' (cf. Col 2:9). This spiritual beauty of God is reflected in the most holy Virgin Mother of God, the angels, and saints. Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier. [24]
In other cases, the ordering of the art to the glory of God is the end of the artist, the finis operantis. In other words, his motive is to glorify God, even though the work of art itself is not destined for the beautification of church and liturgy. This is religious art, art shaped and pervaded by faith and prayer. Examples here would be the painting of Rouault, the music of Messiaen, and the poetry of St John of the Cross, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The great French Catholic poet and dramatist Paul Claudel argued that great art, even when it is not explicitly religious, can achieve good spiritual effects in others, if not in the artist himself. He gives as an example the poetry of Rimbaud. Its haunting beauty, its sense of eternity and the transcendent mystery of human life, helped to liberate Claudel from the positivistic scepticism of his youth—the sickening servile worship of science to be found in Ernest Renan.
I shall always remember that morning in June 1886 when I bought the little copy of Vogue containing the first part of Illuminations. It really was an illumination for me. At last I came out of that hideous world of Taine, of Renan and the other Molochs of the nineteenth century, that penal colony, that appalling machine governed by laws that were completely inflexible and, horror of horrors, knowable and teachable .... I had the revelation of the supernatural. [25]
Positivism, materialism, atheism—these are the deadly enemies of art, for they blind a man to the wealth and wonder of being It was from all such rude reductions of reality that William Blake asked to be delivered when he prayed, 'May God us keep/ From single vision and Newton's sleep.' [26] For a Comte or a Marx, for a Renan or a Taine the world is a machine, a closed system. But the great artists, even when they lack explicit faith, reveal the marvel of what is, in all its transcendental richness. The lovely Muse of Poetry may not always be a Christian, but, as Gertrud von Le Fort suggested, 'in her deepest impulses, unconsciously yet irresistibly, [she is) ordered towards what is Christian and is flooded with a gentle Advent-like light.' [27]


[5] Summa contra Gentiles 3, 65.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ST 2a2ae 50, 4.

[8] Sententia super Physicam, lib. 2, lect. 4, no. 6.

[9] Sententia libri Politicorum, lib. 1, lect. 1.

[10] Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 25.

[11] See chap. 1, PP. 52ff.

[12] Confessiones II, 4, 6; CCSL 27, 197.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Sermo 241, 2 PL 38, 1134.

[15] Legenda Sancti Francisci, cap. 9, no. I; Sancti Bonaventurae opera omnia, vol. 8 (Quaracchi, 1898), 530.

[16] Cf. ST 2a2ae 8,, 2 and 5. On the Trinitarian dimension, the worship of the Three Persons in God, see 2a2ae 81, 3, ad I; 84, 1, ad 3; 3a 25, I, ad I.

[17] H 3/I/I, 14; GL 4, 12f.

[18] Ibid., 48; GL 4, 49.

[19] George Steiner, Real Presences (London, 1990), 229. Chateaubriand likewise argues that 'unbelief is the principal cause of the decadence of taste and genius' (Génie du christianisme, in Oeuvres complètes, vol. 16 [Paris, 1836], 4).

[20] Cf. ST 1a 45, 5.

[21] Fr Bertrand de Margerie, S.J., writes: 'The worker can only act by means of a body, a mind, a freedom that he did not give himself but that conic from the one and only Creator; and his work does not give being, but only a new configuration to the real .... A salutary and exciting humiliation: it is precisely by this dependent and conditioned work that my finite and contingent being can collaborate with the one and only, absolute Creator in the fulfilment of the universe and so be saved eternally' (Les perfections du Dieu de Jésus Christ [Paris, 1981], 183f.).

[22] See CCC 2373ff.; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum vitae (February 22, 1987), passim.

[23] Cf. Sacrosanctum concilium, no. 112, on sacred music.

[24] CCC 2502.

[25] Jacques Rivière and Paul Claudel, Correspondance 1907-1914 (Paris, 1926), 142f. Newman said something similar about the influence of Sir Walter Scott's literary art on the Oxford Movement: he helped to 'prepare men for some closer and more practical approximation to Catholic truth' ('Prospects of the Anglican Church', in Essays and Sketches, vol. 1, new ed. [New York, 1948], 337).

[26] Letter to Thomas Butts (November 22, 1802); Selected Poetry and Prose of William Blake (New York, 1953), 420.

[27] Gertrud von Le Fort, 'Vom Wesen christlicher Dichtung', in Aufzeich-nungen und Erinnerungen (Zurich, 1958), 47.

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Fr. John Saward (b. 1947) is a fellow of Greyfriars and associate lecturer of Blackfriars at the University of Oxford. He previously held the posts of Professor of Dogmatic Theology in the International Theological Institute, Gaming, Austria and Visiting Professor in Systematic Theology and Christology in the same Institute. Ordained as an Anglican clergyman in 1972, he and his family were received into the Catholic Church in 1979 at Campion Hall, Oxford. He is the author of several books, including The Way of the Lamb: The Spirit of Childhood and the End of the Age, Cradle of Redeeming Love: The Theology of the Christmas Mystery, Redeemer in the Womb, and The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty: Art, Sanctity, and the Truth of Catholicism. He has also translated several works, including Hans Urs von Balthasar's Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies. Fr. Saward also contributed an essay to John Paul the Great: Maker of the Post-Conciliar Church.

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