December 18, 2010


Fra Angelico, Nativity, Convento di San Marco, Florence

It’s really true that, as Pablo Picasso once said, with age, art and life become one and the same. I mean, as you grow older you learn to understand life a little better, but since art and life are inseparable, then if you understand one you understand the other, and therefore you become aware of how much of your life is … art! Ars vivendi, of course, and not only this, but also art per se, that is an endless search for beauty.

But what is beauty? Well, it’s not an easy question to answer, so let’s start more modestly with the meaning of the word itself. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term beauty indicates “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.” But, apart from the effects of beauty (“gives pleasure,” etc.), what is beauty in itself? This is clearly a philosophical question, and a very wide one, indeed. A bit too wide for a blog post! So, let’s just simplify and say that Greek philosophers Plato and Socrates were the first at attempting to define beauty. They thought of objects or nature as being inherently beautiful: beauty is inside us and all around us. In their attempt to define characteristics of a beautiful thing they focused on “simplicity” and “symmetry.” Their concrete and simple concept of beauty was enlarged by Plotinus, according to which beauty cannot be described as just symmetry, but rather as a quality that “irradiates” and moves us. Let’s also say that, in general, according to the traditional Western thought, beauty is a supreme value and a constitutive element of the cosmos, associated with order, harmony, truth, goodness, love, being, and the divine. Modern philosophy, in turn, shifted the study of beauty from ontology to the sphere of human faculties. Hence the “emancipation” of art from traditional religious and social bonds, namely from the constraints and the burden of demonstrating a moral truth or of bearing a moral message, as it was used in the Middle Ages, until just before the Renaissance. And finally the arts themselves were separated from the traditional concept of beauty (but in the Twentieth Century metaphysical discussions of beauty were revived by German philosophers Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer).

Yet, with all due respect for philosophy (and Aesthetics, which is the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty), for us believers one thing is certain: there is no real beauty but that which God has bestowed around us and upon our lives. As it is written, “He hath made everything beautiful in its time” (Eccles. 3:11). That’s why beauty draws us back to the Creator, who is the very source and essence of beauty, back to the deep core of things. This beauty emanates from the self-giving love of God, love that pours out of the heart of God into ordinary, everyday people and relationships and circumstances.

Unfortunately, in our time beauty has become reduced, both at the popular level and among elites, to being fit or young or rich and glamorous—not to mention other and far worse perversions and aberrations. Thus, beauty leads to lifestyles that are, in the best cases, vain, self-centered, wasteful, and personally destructive in the worst. Thus, art has sometimes become synonymous with corruption and artist with “decadent”—morbidity is a characteristic of the so-called Decadent movement... That’s not the kind of art I was talking about at the beginning of this post. So, what is art for me? Well, art is for me one of the most straightforward and effective ways of worshipping God, showing our gratitude for His gifts, and at the same time of experiencing His presence.

That’s why I have a predilection for the kind of art of which the following video is a precious example. This is also my way of reminding you that the Fourth Sunday of Advent is quickly approaching…

~ First written for The Metaphysical Peregrine ~