December 30, 2009
Beauty, the Bearer of Hope
By Rachel Ross *

By Rachel Ross *

On November 21, Pope Benedict XVI gathered 250 artists in the Sistine Chapel in an effort to renew the long friendship between art and the Church, challenging them to reengage the power of authentic beauty in their work.  The representatives he gathered came from various cultures, faiths and fields, and the themes of his message were universal: the experience of beauty leads us to discover and confront the meaning of our lives, and a return to authentic beauty in the arts is a powerful answer to the despair of our modern world. 

Since he is a respected authority on the liturgy, we might expect the Holy Father to have focused his remarks on the recovery of beauty within the sacred space, calling specifically for a new generation of great works of Christian art, music and architecture, the likes of which the Church has inspired and commissioned since her earliest days.  Liturgical beauty – in music, in art, in architecture and in the celebration of the Mass itself – certainly deepens our capacity to raise our minds and hearts to God in adoration and praise.  This is, in fact, sacred art’s primary purpose.  

Yet, as the Holy Father noted, the effects of beauty reach far beyond the physical and liturgical bounds of the Church.  The yearning for beauty – whether artistic, natural, physical, spiritual – is written in the heart of every man.  An encounter with authentic beauty makes us, in a sense, more human, gives rise to our hearts’ deepest questions, and reminds us, however implicitly, that our ultimate goal is beyond this world. 

At the heart of his message, the Holy Father emphasized “the profound bond between beauty and hope,” noting the central and irreplaceable role of beauty in man’s search for meaning.  “Beauty pulls us up short,” he said. It stops us in our tracks and draws us outward and, in doing so, challenges us to recognize a reality and a meaning beyond the purely material.  He continued, “The experience of beauty…leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful.” 

Conversely, the consequences of rejecting, distorting, or mutilating beauty are grave.  The Holy Father pointed to a number of societal and individual dispositions that arise when man is separated from genuine beauty in art and in his surroundings: resignation, distrust, aggression, and ultimately despair.   

We need only to glance at a few current practices in art to see how separation from authentic beauty invites despair.  For instance, the impoverished aesthetic in much of contemporary architecture ignores beauty and fixates on function, resulting in spaces that not only fail to inspire but also suppress the spirit from its need to ascend.  A similar impoverished aesthetic is recognizable also in the work of many contemporary artists, who often use their art as a vehicle of self-expression rather than for the pursuit and laud of beauty.  Consequently, an artist who finds inspiration solely from within rarely creates a work of meaning or beauty.  In its most impoverished form, the degradation of beauty takes shape in pornographic depictions of the human body. These debase and deny the dignity of its subjects as images of God and present them instead as objects to be devoured.  This view of the human person effects more than just the creator or direct “consumer” of pornography: it impoverishes us as a society. 

How are we to answer the prevalent despair of our society? How can we escape and transcend the isolation given momentum by the examples above?  The Holy Father responded that it is precisely through an encounter with genuine beauty that we are given hope and right perspective on our lives.  Beauty lifts man out of himself and affirms his dignity.  Beauty calls and frees the spirit to ascend.  Beauty is the antidote to despair. 

Here the artist must step in to take up his part as a servant and “custodian” of beauty.  The Holy Father’s final appeal to his audience was that they be “heralds and witnesses of hope for humanity” and fill the world with works of genuine beauty.  Indeed, his call to “to communicate in and through beauty” is greater still for the artist working in sacred themes, for the sacred artist’s precise and urgent mission is to create works that reflect divine beauty, works that draw us into a living encounter with Jesus Christ, who is the source of beauty and the meaning of every life. 

This resource is provided in collaboration with The Foundation for Sacred Arts.

Rachel Ross is Curator of The Foundation for Sacred Arts in Washington, D.C.
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