Art and the beauty of faith

  • February 6, 2013

One of my favourite insights from Joseph Ratzinger’s long life in theology is that the Church does not convincingly propose the faith by the work of theology alone. Before his election as Pope he wrote that in the end the Church only has two compelling “arguments” for her faith being true. The first is the saints who have lived the Gospel fully and who the Church proposes as models of Christian witness. The second is the art that she has nurtured in her midst, her faith expressed in beauty, whether in painting, sculpture, architecture or music. Theology is necessary, but it is holiness and beauty that persuades.

The Church’s faith provides to the world this gift, the gift of beauty. We do not live in a very beautiful world. To our world the Church continues to offer from her patrimony the service of beauty. The Church offers to our common life that which is beautiful. Not just art, but beautiful lives, lives of saintly people from every time and place. The role of faith in our common life is to give our contemporaries reasons to look up, to raise the eyes of a disenchanted culture above the daily grime to that which is beautiful. That is the role of the Christian in ugly time, to make present that which is beautiful. Like the biblical steward we bring out our treasures old and new, beauty from our history and from our current circumstance.

I discovered recently a marvelous publishing project which does precisely that, brings out the treasures of art from Christian history. A few years back the German publisher, h.f. Ullmann, which specializes in high-end art books, the lavishly illustrated tomes about cars, homes, couture, geography, architecture and the like that you might find on the coffee tables of great mansions, decided on a bold experiment. They would produce a mammoth book — 800 pages, 1,100 photographs, 11 kilograms — on the entire history of Christian art. Entitled Ars Sacra, it was not a coffee-table book, but a kitchen table book.

It was a most pleasant publishing surprise, that it the age of the Internet a book heavier than a set of twins could sell, and sell well. So last fall, h.f. Ullmann launched an even more ambitious project, a series on the different epochs of art. The first two volumes deal with major periods in Christian art history: Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages 1150-1500 and Baroque: Theatrum Mundi. The World as a Work of Art.

Compared to Ars Sacra, and only relative to that behemoth, are these volumes smaller: 600 illustrations on 600 pages, seven kilograms. These two are to be read at the desk. The publisher sells them for $150, but they can also be ordered online at two-thirds of that price. And, remarkably, both in terms of cost and heft, they are more than good value.

Rolf Toman is the editor of both volumes, and succeeds with his team in presenting not only some superlative works of art, but in presenting the vision — an emphatically Christian vision — that animated works of such surpassing ambition that they would be impossible to conceive of today, in a world of technological genius but narrow horizons.

The Gothic volume highlights the magnificent French cathedrals — Chartres taking pride of place — whose influence is seen in so many places in Canada. The Baroque volume offers one sacred exemplar — St. Peter’s Basilica — and one profane — the Palace of Versailles. In all cases, we see the marvels of what human ingenuity can achieve when it is unconstrained. And the great works of the gothic and the baroque — even the secular ones — required a spirit sustained by the transcendent. Otherwise, why build a cathedral or palace that you would never live to see finished, or why decorate exquisitely an obscure part of a ceiling that no one, save for God, would ever see?

We read the lives of the saints so that their holiness might attract us. The Ullmann books are analogous to that, works that move us by presenting the beauty that is born from the faith. Spiritual reading for Lent usually emphasizes the ascetical life. A lavish art book may therefore seem incongruous in Lent, but many of the pages in these books are worthy of meditation on the love of God that can make this sinful world beautiful. The history of art can be spiritual reading, and Ullmann’s bold project achieves something of that.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life:


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