Finding the Way of Beauty

Author and artist David Clayton on living the “via pulchritudinis” in our daily lives.

Art and the beautiful have had a special place in the Catholic Church for centuries, but how many of us really understand what makes something beautiful? This was a problem artist and author David Clayton had, so he went looking for answers. He is now sharing the fruit of that research with the rest of us.

I spoke with Clayton, author of The Way of Beauty and co-author of The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying In the Home, about his work and a new project he has just undertaken: Pontifex University.

CWR: Your work has focused on the idea of via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty). How did you get to this point?

David Clayton:​ It began before I was a Catholic. Crucial to my conversion was seeing beautiful liturgy in a beautiful church. The music was wonderful—it was one of the best choirs I have ever heard and, by the way, it was the place where the Sacra Liturgia 2016 conference will be held [Editor’s note: The conference is taking place July 5-8 in London]. Also, I noticed how the art in the church deepened my participation in the liturgy.

When I was received into the Church I decided that I wanted to be an artist who produced new works of art that worked with the liturgy in this way. Also, I was influenced by some bad art that I saw: I saw a crucifix in another church and although the content, that is, what was painted, was right—there was Christ on the cross, Our Lady and St. John—it looked all wrong to me, very ugly, and was a distraction to my prayer and worship. I wondered why it was ugly. Was it just my personal judgment or were there principles that governed the style? I couldn’t find any book or school that could teach me, so I had to start doing research myself on the traditional ideas of sacred art and beauty. 

CWR: How would you describe the Way of Beauty to someone who has never heard of it before?

Clayton: I would liken it to St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s “Little Way,” in which she said her vocation was love. She endeavored to all things lovingly, especially the mundane and little activities in life. Beauty in the world around us attracts us to itself (though we can be resistant to it) and then beyond itself to God, the source of all beauty and the ultimate standard of beauty.

In the Way of Beauty one endeavors to do all things beautifully, gracefully. Obviously this is an ideal, but it is through the grace of God, or the love of God shining out of our actions, that people are attracted. ​To the degree that we do that, then the product of our work will be inspired and beautiful—giving us a culture of beauty—and our own lives will be joyful and loving.

For our big projects and the broadly considered structures of things that we do, this is a conscious process that in some cases would even be planned out in advance. When I paint an icon I think about it carefully in advance. However, as soon as I start to execute it and put the flesh onto the skeleton, so to speak, I am relying strongly on my intuitive sense of what is beautiful. Similarly as I go about daily life, I can’t always be thinking, “This is beautiful.” The goal is to be formed so that it is natural to us to live and work gracefully. This is what the Christian life is all about. That formation is in part natural—it can be educated—and in part supernatural—we are formed so that we are open to inspiration, as the great artists were in the past, so that what we create is beautiful.

This formation is possible, it is in fact a traditional Christian education that would have been given not just to artists, but to all people. John Paul II summed this up in his Letter to Artists when he said: Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yes, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life; in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.

CWR: How do you see beauty relating to the liturgy?

Clayton: Sacrosanctum Concilium (and following from that, the Catechism) calls the liturgy the “source and summit” of the Christian life. In this sense, the personal encounter with God in the sacred liturgy is the end for which we are made in this life. And participation in the liturgy is the most powerful and effective prayer that forms us to that end and for daily living in accordance with that end. Our worship informs all else that we do. So in this context, the liturgy is the greatest influence that there is on giving man the capability of working beautifully. It is also the human activity that the beauty in the world, including the beauty of the culture, should point us to.

So thinking about how it influences, there are two ways: first, it has been said that historically “all the great​ art movements began on the altar.” If our worship is beautiful and if the ​forms of the art, architecture, music, and so on are in harmony with it (two big “ifs” not always fulfilled!) then those forms in some way are close to the beauty of God. When we go out from the church, the forms of art, music, and architecture, and all other aspects of the culture are informed by those sacred forms that impressed themselves upon our souls. History bears this out—we see how the baroque of the 17th century, for example, began as a liturgical renewal, then styles of art, architecture, and music were created to be in harmony with the Tridentine Mass and the Divine Office (the paintings of Caravaggio, for example). These were radically new at the time, but so beautiful and striking that they became the models for the mundane forms—portraiture, still life, landscapes were now painted in the new baroque style. Then Protestant countries saw the beauty and adopted those styles themselves, and we see Holland and England starting schools of painting in these styles. They even adopted their own parallel Protestant theology to justify their choice of this Catholic art form. 

A second form of influence is supernatural. When we are part of the mystical Body of Christ, the Church, we are divinized by grace—supernaturally transformed so that we participate in Christ’s transfiguration. As St. Athanasius said, “God became man so that man could become God.” We are not transfigured fully in this life, but by degrees and to the degree that we cooperate with grace, it happens. Then our lives are joyous, and just by being, we shine with the light and love of Christ, and our work and the way we do things attracts others. This is the beauty and grace of the Christian life that draws converts to the Church.

When those who are not Christian see this beauty in the culture and love of Christ in the lives of Christians, they are curious about its source and will investigate. At some point later, when they get into the church and see beautiful liturgy and art in harmony, then they recognize it as the source of what they saw outside the church building. That is exactly what happened to me in 1990 in the Brompton Oratory in London.

You may question whether this is happening now, incidentally, and I think you would be right to do so. Right now I would say it is not, or not very much. We need to fulfill those two first conditions I mentioned above before it can happen powerfully. So we need liturgical renewal and then cultural transformation led by the creation of new art, music, and architecture, and so on, that is in harmony with that renewed liturgy. Benedict XVI’s papacy, it seems to me, was devoted to putting the things in place that might allow that to happen in the future. And I think we see the signs of something new occurring now.

CWR: Tell us about Pontifex University. Where did the idea come from and what goals do you have for it?

Clayton: When I decided I wanted to be an artist for the Church I looked for training and couldn’t find it. I could just find people to teach me the skills, but I couldn’t find anyone to tell me how to understand the forms of sacred art in the traditions of the Church, and how to get a formation that might enable me to apprehend beauty and be creative. Ideally, if this was possible, I wanted to be formed so that I might be open to inspiration (should God choose to inspire me). I had to do years of research and I found out that there was a traditional formation for artists that did just that. It was an enculturation that combined history, philosophy, theology, and the practice of the Catholic faith, with the worship of God at its center. It occurred to me that this was something that would be of value not only to artists, but also to anyone as part of a general education in any vocation pursuit. Who doesn’t want to work creatively and beautifully in their work, whatever they are doing? So in order to make the case that it should be included in a general education for all Catholics, I started to read the encyclicals on education. To my surprise, I found out that what I had discovered was in fact the essence of a general Catholic education; it was not being followed fully anywhere that I knew of. So I wrote a book that described all my research, it was called The Way of Beauty and was published by Angelico Press last year. The book was read by the people behind Pontifex, who are part of a Catholic organization called the Solidarity Association (based in Atlanta). They were looking to create a new online educational platform. They invited me to come and create this program as the inaugural course for the new Pontifex University. We are at the pilot stage right now and have a team of great teachers, experts in the practice and theory of art and culture, who are creating the first set of classes for release in the Fall. 

​The plan is to create a core program first, and it will be accredited and could be done in conjunction with any vocation course taken elsewhere. Then in both cases building on this foundation, we plan to extend the practical content and make an MFA; and to expand the theoretical content and create also a master’s in Liberal Arts. ​

​We have a unique approach that is a combination of theory and praxis, all connected to that great forming influence, the worship of God.

CWR: In the book The Little Oratory that you co-authored with Leila Lawler, you have a chapter on applying the principles of beauty to a friend’s shop in England. What concrete suggestions did you make?

​Clayton: Oh, I loved this project. I suggested the following: that he lay the shop out so that it was, broadly speaking, symmetrical and ordered in its design, with a bit of variation in detail that took it off the absolute conformity to symmetry. There was immediate push-back from the layout “experts” on this, who all said he should do grand curved sweeps. Then I suggested that he change the spacing of the shelves and the layout of the clothes so that the pattern followed traditionally harmonious proportions as might have been used by a traditional architect. For the colors, he used natural earth colors and then also built shelves for plants in pots. Furthermore, I suggested that he get an icon of the face of the Christ and place it somewhere where it would be seen, visible but discretely placed. He put it on the wall low down behind the till so that every customer who went to the counter saw it, but it looked as though it was there to inspire the staff, it was in their space, and not to push into the faces of the customers. This was gently bearing witness, and the beauty of the icon has a special effect on people. Furthermore, I suggested that Jim—who runs the shop and is a Catholic—start praying the Divine Office, and praying to God for the happiness and well-being of his staff and customers. Jim told me that people in the market town (in Surrey in southern England) used to stop him and tell him how beautiful and peaceful his shop was! Jim still does all of this today and his business has expanded—he is now importing clothes into the US. Nobody can prove that my suggestions are responsible—Jim was a pretty good businessman anyway—but he says he is sure that it has helped. 

CWR: Do you think these kinds of ideas can also be applied to our daily lives? If so, in what ways?

​Clayton: I do—the book you mention, The Little Oratory goes into this in much more detail. The book was about creating a domestic church at home (not just families, by the way—all houses can be homes, whatever your state of life; I mention this because single people who are not consecrated or religious often feel neglected in these discussions), based upon the prayer life of artists as I describe it above. The point of that chapter you asked about in the previous question was to say that this is something that you can do anywhere. Whatever our networks of association, we can be an influence for community, harmony, and beauty through our interactions with others.​

About Carrie Gress, Ph.D. 0 Articles
Carrie Gress has a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America and was the Rome Bureau Chief of Zenit's English Edition. She is the author of Nudging Conversions and Ultimate Makeover, and co-author with George Weigel of City of Saints. A mother of four, she and her family live in Virginia.