At my parish, we pray Perpetual Help devotions on Tuesdays. Like many parishes, we get out the Our Lady of Perpetual Help icon to focus our meditation during prayers. This icon, perhaps one of the most famous works of art in the world, is only one of the images that St. Luke is said to have created during his lifetime. The others are equally gorgeous.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help is firmly insistent that she is not a private work of religious art. She is a window into another, miraculous reality. She is sacred. Even after she had fallen into neglect and been forgotten in a Church in Italy, a certain Brother Augustine recognized her in the monastery of Santa Maria in Posterula. He would often tell the altar boys, “Do you see that picture, Michael? It is a very old picture.” That same altar boy, ordained himself and known as Father Michael, later rescued her from obscurity. Eventually Pope Pius IX himself took notice, commanding, “Make her known throughout the world!”
Other works of art may be more technically proficient, more daring, more original, or more famous, but those of St. Luke have a special place in the devotion of the Church, and for that, they are radiant beyond compare. Our Lady is made to be carried in procession and to receive intercessions. She prefers the perfume of incense and not the sterility of a museum, the touch of pilgrim lips and not a velvet rope keeping her separate from her children. Perhaps she will one day fade or fall to pieces, but she will do so only because she has given herself in totally to those who come to her.
Is she a work of art? Is she a window into eternity? Does it matter that St. Luke painted her or is the image itself proof of its own merits? What if she had instead been painted by a posh monk living with a mistress?
“Beauty is the splendor of truth,” says scholastic philosophy. Commenting on this phrase, Romano Guardini in Spirit of the Liturgy writes, “To us moderns this sounds somewhat frigid and superficially dogmatic. But if we remember that this axiom was held and taught by men who were incomparable constructive thinkers, who conceived ideas, framed syllogisms, and established systems, which still tower over others like vast cathedrals, we shall feel it incumbent upon us to penetrate more deeply into the meaning of these few words.”
Not only, as Guardini points out, do these medieval intellects tower over us like cathedrals, but their convictions are not theoretical – they’re the motivating force behind the construction of the most beautiful, heart-stopping artworks ever created. This goes well beyond St. Luke. Their sculpture, music, painting, and architecture – the very harmonic integrity of Christendom itself – all bear witness that the connection between beauty and truth is not stifling to creativity, but rather is a way of channeling its energy by nurturing the fragile spiritual weightiness inherent in creation. Truth is protective of beauty. A true artwork bursts forth in splendor, but only when set free from the structures of chaos and formlessness. Beauty cannot be erased, she is robust but she is also modest, which is why artists wait patiently for her, struggle to find her, fail and fall and get back up again, and only glimpse her in occasional floods of Parnassian insight that well up like Romeo before Juliet on a moonlit night before he recedes to shadow again. An artist will swear by those moments when affective forces are so tangible they almost feel incarnate because, although fleetingly fragile, the glimpse in that particular instant penetrated into the timelessness of eternity itself. Guardini writes, “Beauty cannot be appreciated unless this fact is borne in mind, and it is apprehended as the splendor of perfectly expressed intrinsic truth.” So shall cathedrals be flung as high as the heavens.
He is clear that this is a hylomorphic situation, “Truth is the soul of beauty.”
Truth and Beauty. That is the inseparable connection. And what is more true than the very source of truth, Our Lord who is the Way, the Truth, and our Life? All art that is beautiful reflects the face of Christ, no matter how indirectly. So it stands to reason that a saint, a person who by definition stands closer to the source of beauty than others, would have a glimpse into a wider vista and thus a greater ability to communicate the glories they’ve retrieved from the holy of holies.
There is an admission price for entrance. A burnt offering. Only Dante, chastened as he was by the pure love of Beatrice, was shown the celestial rose. Only John of the Cross became a living flame. Only Theresa made her way fully into the silence of the interior castle. Do saints make the only true art? Is all art that is not enlivened by use in the sacred liturgy a dead and stilted form of human expression? Proof that everything is, indeed, but straw compared to what God reveals to those who have the eyes to see?
Guardini writes, “Those who aspire to a life of beauty must, in the first place, strive to be truthful and good. If a life is true it will automatically become beautiful, just as light shines forth when flame is kindled.” He goes on:
In the same way–however strange it may sound–the creative artist must not seek after beauty in the abstract, not, that is, if he understands that beauty is something more than a certain grace of external form and a pleasing and elegant effect. He must, on the contrary, with all his strength endeavor to become true and just in himself, to apprehend truth and to live in and by it, and in this way fully realize both the internal and external world. And then the artist, as the enemy of all vanity and showiness, must express truth as it should be expressed, without the alteration of a single stroke or trait. It follows that his work, if he is an artist at all, will, and not only will, but must be beautiful. If, however, he tries to avoid the toilsome path of truth, and to distill form from form, that which he represents is merely empty illusion.
Holy things are for holy people, as I recall praying so many times when I offered services according to the Book of Common Prayer. Cardinal Ratzinger, in his own Spirit of the Liturgy, takes it one step further in his discussion on “the question of images.” In that chapter, he covers the development of sacred art, writing, “One development of far-reaching importance in the history of the images of faith was the emergence for the first time of a so-called acheiropoietos, an image that has not been made by human hands and portrays the very face of Christ.”
This is the very basis for sacred art, that which all other created works seek to participate in, however obliquely. He goes on to reference the camulianium and the mandylion, the burial shrouds of Our Lord. These are foundational. I would be remiss if I didn’t also expand the discussion to images such as Our Lady of Guadalupe. These images are created by the holiest of artists and are more beautiful even than the iconography for which they become the proto-images. The very source of art is revealed through them to be the face of Christ and his blessed Mother, draw near to them and your art will become a reflection, a prism that captures one piece of the sunlight and draws us back to the beam at the source – but the hand of the artist must be holy.
[More to come. spoiler alert: Jacques Maritain draws a different conclusion]