Is Beauty an Ancient History?

By Garcia-Rivera, Alex | U.S. Catholic, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Is Beauty an Ancient History?


Garcia-Rivera, Alex, U.S. Catholic


Lamenting the lack of beauty in modern life, author Alex Garcia-Rivera looks to the ancient cave paintings of Lascaux as evidence that irk through the beautiful that we truly experience God.

"I remember standing in front of the paintings of the horses facing the rhinos and being profoundly moved by the artistry. Tears were running down my cheeks. I was witnessing one of the world's great masterpieces."

Jean Clottes, France's foremost expert on prehistoric art, so describes his response to the Stone Age paintings found deep in a cave at Lascaux, France. Clottes' response rings true for anyone who has experienced a work of beauty. Interestingly enough, it also rings true for anyone who has had a deep religious experience.

Beauty and religion appear to have the same roots. Most theologians would go even further: God is beauty. And the beautiful is the medium par excellence by which we experience the love and knowledge of God.

A look around some contemporary churches, however, reveals few works of art of recent origin. Church after church interior presents a visual silence of stark function and hospital-like economy. Given the close connection between God and the beautiful, one can only ask: Why have the arts fared so poorly in the churches of our day? where are our Gothic craftsmen, our Michelangelos, Berninis, and Donatellos?

What has happened to the beautiful, not only in the church, but also in the fabric of our society?

Perhaps an answer can be found in another simple observation. What amazes most about the Stone Age cave paintings is not the fact of their great age, but that after scores of millennia, these ancient paintings still move another human being to tears.

The cave paintings at Lascaux demonstrate a truth our world seems to have forgotten. There exist values that transcend space and time. There exist realities that pervade the entire universe either through the vast reaches of unimaginable light-years of space or the vast journeys of unimaginable aeons of time. There exist presences that allow us an intimacy with God.

Theologians and philosophers have long spoken of these values, presences, and realities. These are the "transcendentals": the true, the good, and the beautiful.

The transcendentals provide a key in understanding a theological paradox. How can a finite human creature experience or even speak of the infinite God? How can the finite human creature name the nameless, perceive the imperceptible, make visible the invisible?

Theologians answer these questions through the transcendentals. Because God is truth, good, even beauty itself, an experience of truth, goodness, or beauty is also an experience of intimacy with God.

Because we depend on God for our very existence, we also depend on our experience of truth, goodness, and beauty for our very lives. Irenaeus, the great theologian of the second century, exquisitely phrased it: "The glory of the Lord is living human being, and human being lives for the vision of God." Irenaeus tells us that we were made to see God, our very life depends on seeing God, and thus in a sense our very lives depend on seeing truth, goodness, and beauty.

Beauty, wherefore art thou?

If Irenaeus is correct, then we are in deep, deep trouble. The transcendentals, you see, have fallen on hard times. The dearth of works of beauty in our churches is but one example. When was the last time you heard someone speak of truth? When was the last time you heard someone speak of the common good?

The human horrors of the 20th century--the lingering nightmares of two world wars, a cold war of unbelievable destruction, and the heartlessness of ethnic cleansing--have shaken our confidence in the truthfulness and goodness of our humanity, indeed, of the entire creation.

We have lost our faith in the transcendentals, I believe, because we have lost our faith in our humanity. …

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