“Beauty attracts…beauty also wounds”

Art historian Elizabeth Lev on how beauty opens us to transcendence and truth—while “breaking through our shell of complacency.”

Photo by Calvin Craig on Unsplash

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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About Paul Senz 67 Articles
Paul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry. He lives in Oregon with his family.

6 Comments

  1. Beauty attracts, beauty wounds is Elizabeth Lev’s ineffable insight into beauty’s spiritual identity. It escapes definition since it references the divine nature. Beauty for example that of a young woman’s lovely features is for most ‘angelic’, an attraction that speaks to goodness and purity. We are made that way, that is as Lev points out we’re inherently aware of beauty wherever it appears. As we well know the external beauty of someone doesn’t always coincide with the interior. Often a deceptive disconnect. Philosophers and theologians have spoken of God as infinite good, perfect Beauty. Only in God is Essence what he is and Existence identical (Thomas Aquinas). Giovanni di Fidanza [Saint Bonaventure] Franciscan contemporary of Aquinas taught beauty leads to the divinity. Nature, its beauty mirrors God’s love and beauty (Breviloquium). Wounded by beauty we become vulnerable says Benedict XVI. What then might the wounding of identical perfect beauty infinite good draw from us?

  2. It could be said that all beauty has the potential to stir the heart and leave it yearning for more.
    I was about two years old when I had my first encounter with the Divine in creation, while encountering the sea, with its wide glorious sunlit expanse, for the first time, which captivated my heart in a glorious ‘Timeless Moment’, leaving a residue of joy over several days. We all carry a divine timeless spark within us; we are more than a physical being. Places/things/ of natural beauty can create a spiritual replenishment, as in a state of wellbeing, something akin to the residual effect of a ‘Timeless Moment’, so it could be said that they are afore taste of what our ‘hearts yearn for’, that is unity with God our Creator. Spiritually speaking, to hug a tree is to embrace Him in creation…

    Moist kiss, morning mist, lingering cling, covered hill quiet and still
    Gentle glance heavy ray autumn day,
    Full tree, heavy wasp and bee
    Wet bark dank and dark
    Field gate broken with weight
    Hush of bush, sleepy leaf touching moss and peat
    Thistle downs, dowdy crown
    Dandelion fluff waiting for puff
    Stinging nettle, abandoned kettle
    Wet thread spider’s web
    Sticking snail on empty pail
    Rising Sun, long shadow on the run
    Peek-a- boo discarded shoe, curled toe nowhere to go
    Full nettle heavy with petal
    Morning stars, rain droplets of the night, reflecting light
    Sod of green hay stalks between
    Bottle top, rusty tin, country bin,
    Touch of love opening bud, plastic bag discarded fag.
    Falling nut chesty Rook, full brook
    Croak of frog below dead log.
    Rubber tire protruding wire
    Floppy poppy red as cherry, hawthorn berry.
    Drying land caress of hand, warmth of day rolled hay
    Cropped wheat, bleat of sheep
    Weary oak, blackberry fruit, clinging near root
    Touch- me- not, still in flower, pod of power
    Bird eye maple, with wing, I take to flight
    Consciousness, with gift of sight
    Praise the Lord!
    The beauty that is found within manmade endeavors is a pale reflection of the natural beauty that is found within creation as “Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed to one these” (Lilies of the field),
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  3. Lev writes that “Every human being is called to be the artist of oneself, producing the most beautiful work to join the great gallery of heaven.” But, is it true, really, that every person is really an artist? Let’s hear from the great teacher and American artist, Robert Henri (d. 1929) in his THE ART SPIRIT:

    “Art appears in many forms. To some degree EVERY human being is an artist, dependent on the quality of his growth. Art need not be intended. It comes as inevitably as the tree from its roots, the branch from the trunk, the blossom from the twig.

    “Those who have lived and grown at least to some degree in the spirit of freedom are our creative artists. They have a wonderful time. They keep the world going. They must leave their trace in some way, paint, stone, machinery, WHATEVER [….] The world would be stagnant without him [the artist], and the world would be beautiful with him; for he is interesting to himself and he is interesting to others.

    “He does not have to be a painter or sculptor to be an artist. He can work in ANY medium […] a “Carpenter” or a “Gardener,” or others anywhere, working on a railroad, running a boat, playing a game, selling things.”

    To produce “art”, Henri insists, is not the object, but the “by-product” of being fully alive. Even a graceful gesture while simply walking, he reveals, is art (The Art Spirit, 1923/1958, caps added).

  4. True Art always comes from God in one way or another, even if it is not directly religious at all. False art comes from our sinful nature and leads away from Him. ALL sin is ultimate ugliness, while True Beauty is always a reflection of God’s Holiness.

    I could see this very clearly in the man that repaired our washing machine last year. He was so much into it and payed such devoted attention to detail that I was in silent awe. He just put his whole heart into it. I also saw it at a Walgreens when I saw a rail-thin 8 year old girl carrying her sick and very heavy 4 year old brother with so much love. Again, I was in silent awe. When working in jail as teacher and counselor, I emphasized art in any way to the inmates. We did little drama skits to emphasize Language, the class they hated the most. I also taught my students to stand up and clap every time a new inmate was brought at the door and the first thing they always said was: “I hate school and you can’t make me learn”. When the other inmates and myself stood up and clapped loudly, they were shocked and I explained that they all had felt the same way and now they were happy to learn.

    They were in awe. One year, I got permission to get a group of ten inmates to help build a large cardboard fortress at the city’s Lion’s Club, as the set for their High School Equivalency graduation. It had a drawbridge that worked and everything. They rejoiced at creating this work of art and did a great job all day. The van from the prison that should have brought our food did not show up and they were to be picked up at night with no food! I was not going to leave them hungry so I broke protocol, packed them into my car like sardines and took them to my mother’s house where she fed them. They behaved like true gentlemen and I was in awe of them and they knew it [many years later, one of them saved my life when I took the wrong turn, my car broke down and I found myself surrounded by armed thugs in the middle of a dangerous housing project; he even had his dad fix my car].

    True art in work and behavior, even if they still had a long way to go! That’s why I’m also in awe when I see anyone doing anything truly right. It’s true art!! That’s why I strongly believe that any art that does not help us escape and get rid of our sins is not True Art. That’s also why you must be careful and discerning of the promoters of “beauty” inside the Church. Even more, all of this also gives a way to defeat temptation and that I personally use. When you see any person or thing that attracts you with its Beauty, and your lower human appetites get aroused, out loud or quietly make a prayer celebrating that Beauty as GOD’S and Him as the Infinitely Beautiful! Do this with the very same intensity that is pushing you to sin and force yourself to use it toward GOD, praising Him with all you got at that moment!! Yes, it works and, of course, you must divert yourself away from that purely human attraction and move on, glorifying God in your God-Given Faithfulness!! That’s BEAUTIFUL ART!!

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