This is the first installment in our series on the evangelizing power of beauty. In this series, we are looking at how beauty can bring us to God, convey a sense of the sacred, point us toward the Truth, and even help us know how to be good. Through essays and interviews, this series will examine how the beautiful can lead us to the true and the good.
“Art is useful in evangelization, the mission of the Church and her faithful to tell the great story of our salvation,” writes Elizabeth Lev in her book How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art (Sophia Institute Press, 2018). “Just as Jesus told stories, Christians recount their personal witness. Artists can make stories, old and new, come alive in paint, marble, or, in this age, film.”
Lev is an art historian; she teaches baroque, Renaissance, and Christian art at Duquesne University’s Rome campus, and is on the teaching staff of the Pontifical University of the Angelicum in Rome and of Christendom College. She has written a number of articles and books, including Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches with George Weigel.
In a recent interview, Lev speaks of the way that beautiful art can flow from the divine, and how it can lead us to the divine.
CWR: Why are we attracted to beautiful things?
Elizabeth Lev: It is a uniquely human trait to be attracted to beauty. No animal is moved by a sunset or arrested by a work of art. This sensitivity that makes us vulnerable to beauty is similar to our ability to perceive the presence of God in our lives. Beauty helps us to see beyond our immediate surroundings and encourages us to hope for and aspire to greater things.
CWR: What makes beautiful things beautiful, and ugly things ugly?
Lev: Firstly, let’s start with the fact there are objectively beautiful and ugly things. Kindness and selflessness are beautiful and moving to us, while greed and cruelty are ugly and repugnant. Art has tried to quantify beauty many times in history, using harmony, proportion, and order and rejecting the deformed or jarring, but these formulas do not guarantee beauty. Caravaggio’s grittiness offended the artistic ideal of his age, but has been considered beautiful by centuries of viewers. He mixed realistic accuracy, often playing up flaws and defects, but bathed everything in a mysterious light which confers an otherworldly greatness upon his characters. By contrast, Fra Angelico always painted even the most gruesome scenes with buoyant color and delicate harmony, which served to elevate the spirit while contemplating mystery. Beauty lies in the ability to transport the viewer to a better place, whereas the ugly leaves one mired in emptiness.
CWR: Are some things inherently beautiful?
Lev: Nature has produced so much inherent beauty that there can be no doubt that God delights in the loveliness of his handiwork. Rich or poor, sick or healthy, we can all share in a starry sky, the song of birds, or a glorious sunrise. Beautiful music delights everyone, and Handel has no geopolitical barriers. The lines for the Sistine Chapel suggest that there is indeed such a thing as universal beauty that can speak to different generations from different places and even of different beliefs. Ironically, in a world that loves stories, the lives of the extraordinary male and female saints are a font of beauty that often goes untapped, overlooked in favor of tawdry tales of celebrities that ultimately inspire no one.
CWR: In your book How Catholic Art Saved the Faith, you look at the role of art in the Counter-Reformation. What role did these works of beauty play in the post-Reformation period?
Lev: During the Counter-Reformation art served to 1) teach, 2) delight, and 3) inspire. That age suffered from confusion about fundamental tenets of the faith, often sown by ignorant or rebellious clergy and reinforced by the Protestant’s mastery of the printing press. The works of art commissioned by the Church were intended to reinforce Catholic teaching about saints and sacraments, using the most engaging techniques possible. The tenebrism of Caravaggio, the colors of Barocci, the spontaneity of the Carracci, and the elegance of Guido Reni made it enjoyable for the faithful to look at art, while they absorbed the truth that it represented. But most importantly, it helped to instill pride in the faith, a love of our beautiful tradition through our beautiful art. Life-sized figures of extraordinary saints, angels fluttering around the altar, and poignant images of Christ’s sacrifice encouraged the faithful to be not just conversant in their beliefs, but proud of the glorious story of salvation that we are heirs to, and to share that story with confidence to an ever-expanding world.
CWR: What role can beauty play in evangelization?
Lev: Beauty attracts, it makes people look twice. We will overlook a lot for a person with great physical beauty and in art, it invites people to take a closer look at the faith. Beauty also “wounds,” as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, meaning that it makes us vulnerable, breaking through our shell of complacency and allowing truth and goodness to “infect” us, as it were. If you think about how the cast of “beautiful people” in the series Friends succeeded in winning over thousands, if not millions, to embracing modern ideologies, imagine how true beauty—that of Mary, of Jesus, of personal holiness—could sway hearts and minds. I believe this is the reason why people often prefer titillating interpretations of great art—a married Jesus in the Last Supper, blatant sexuality in Bernini’s St. Teresa, and homoeroticism in anything by Michelangelo—because these defend them from the powerful call that art makes upon the soul.
CWR: How does man-made beauty participate and reflect beauty in God’s creation?
Lev: Human beings are driven to share in the work of the Creator—some through the arts, others through how they live out their vocations in family, work, and friendship. The artist chooses which color to add, what to polish, what to leave out, and this is what all human beings are expected to do as they craft their own lives. Our choices, actions, and omissions serve to polish, gild, or forge our own interior beauty. Every human being is called to be the artist of oneself, producing the most beautiful work to join the great gallery of heaven.
CWR: The Catholic Church has produced some of the most beautiful art in western civilization. Would you say this flows naturally from the beauty of the Faith?
Lev: It flows from the Incarnation. What could be more beautiful that God, author and source of all beauty, becoming visible so that we could know Him, see Him, hear Him, experience Him with our feeble human senses? The subtext of every great work of Christian art is the joyful cry, “we saw God!” Unique in all human history, this moment of God’s self-revelation has inspired the hearts and hands of cathedral builders, fresco painters, altar sculptors, tapestry weavers, chalice makers, and all those who have participated in helping us relive the Incarnation as we gather around the altar to welcome God into our world through the sacraments.
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