On Beauty and the Sense of the Sacred
Beauty is a crystallization of some aspect of universal joy; it is something limitless expressed by means of a limit.
Beauty is a reflection of Divine bliss, and since God is Truth, the reflection of His bliss will be that mixture of happiness and truth which is to be found in all beauty.
Beauty is always beyond compare; no perfect beauty is more beautiful than another perfect beauty. One may prefer this beauty to that, but this is a matter of personal affinity or of complementary relationship and not of pure aesthetics. Human beauty, for instance, can be found in each of the major races, yet normally a man prefers some type of beauty in his own race rather than in another; inversely, qualitative and universal affinities between human types sometimes show themselves to be stronger than racial affinities.
Like every other kind of beauty artistic beauty is objective, and therefore discernible by intelligence, not by “taste.” Taste is indeed legitimate, but only to the same extent as individual peculiarities are legitimate, that is, in so far as these peculiarities translate positive aspects of some human norm. Different tastes should be derived from pure aesthetics and should be of equal validity, just like the different ways in which the eye sees things.
Beauty, being perfection, is regularity and mystery; it is through these two qualities that it stimulates and at the same time appeases the intelligence and also a sensibility which is in conformity with the intelligence.
In sacred art, one finds everywhere and of necessity, regularity and mystery. According to a profane conception, that of classicism, it is regularity that produces beauty; but the beauty concerned is devoid of space and depth, because it is without mystery and consequently without any vibration of infinity. It can certainly happen in sacred art that mystery outweighs regularity, or vice versa, but the two elements are always present; it is their equilibrium which creates perfection.
The cosmic, or more particularly the earthly function of beauty is to actualize in the intelligent creature the Platonic recollection of the archetypes, right up to the luminous Night of the Infinite. This leads us to the conclusion that the full understanding of beauty demands virtue and is identifiable with it: that is to say, just as it is necessary to distinguish, in objective beauty, between the outward structure and the message in depth, so there is a distinguo to be made, in the sensing of the beautiful, between the aesthetic sensation and the corresponding beauty of soul, namely such and such a virtue. Beyond every question of “sensible consolation” the message of beauty is both intellectual and moral: intellectual because it communicates to us, in the world of accidentality, aspects of Substance, without for all that having to address itself to abstract thought; and moral, because it reminds us of what we must love, and consequently be.
Beauty is not only a matter of formal rectitude but also of content, as we have said, and the content of beauty is its richness of possibilities and its cosmic generosity, so that there is a beauty which possesses or envelops and a beauty which gives or overflows. Harmony of form is not merely the trueness of a square or a triangle, it is also and essentially the manifestation of an internal infinitude; it is such in so far as it is all that it is capable of being.
The archetype of beauty, or its Divine model, is the superabundance and equilibrium of the divine Qualities, and at the same time the overflowing of the existential potentialities contained in pure Being. In a rather different sense, beauty stems from the divine Love, this Love being the will to deploy itself and to give itself, to realize itself in “another”; thus it is that “God created the world by love.”
All terrestrial beauty is thus by reflection a mystery of love. It is, “whether it likes it or not,” coagulated love or music turned to crystal, but it retains on its face the imprint of its internal fluidity, of its beatitude, and of its liberality; it is measure in overflowing, in it is neither dissipation nor constriction. Human beings are rarely identified with their beauty, which is lent to them and moves across them like a ray of light. Only the Avatara is a priori himself that ray; he “is” the beauty that he manifests corporeally, and that beauty is Beauty as such, the only Beauty there is.
Beauty has something pacifying and dilating in it, something consoling and liberating, because it communicates a substance of truth, of evidence, and of certitude, and it does so in a concrete and existential mode; thus it is like a mirror of our transpersonal and eternally blissful essence. It is essentially an objective factor which we may or may not see or may or may not understand but which like all objective reality, or like truth, possesses its own intrinsic quality; thus it exists before man and independently of him.
Every beauty is both a closed door and an open door, or in other words, an obstacle or a vehicle: either beauty separates us from God because it is entirely identified in our mind with its earthly support which then assumes the role of idol, or beauty brings us close to God because we perceive in it the vibrations of Beatitude and Infinity which emanate from divine Beauty.
The de facto ambiguity of beauty, and consequently of art, comes from the ambiguity of Maya:just as the principle of manifestation and illusion both separates from the Creator and leads back to Him, so earthly beauties, including those of art, can favor worldliness as well as spirituality, which explains the diametrically opposed attitudes of the saints towards art in general or a given art in particular. The arts reputed to be the most dangerous are those engaging hearing or movement, namely poetry, music, and dance; they are like wine, which in Christianity serves as the vehicle for a deifying sacrament, while in Islam it is prohibited, each perspective being right despite the contradiction. That the intoxicating element—in the widest sense—particularly lends itself to sanctification, Islam recognizes in its esoterism, in which wine symbolizes ecstasy and in which poetry, music, and dance have become ritual means with a view to “remembrance.”
Beauty, whatever use man may make of it, fundamentally belongs to its Creator, who through it projects into the world of appearances something of His being. Thus, one must live the experience of beauty so as to draw from it a lasting, not ephemeral, element, hence realizing in oneself an opening towards the immutable Beauty, rather than plunging oneself into the current of things; it is a question of viewing the world, and living in it, in a manner that is sacred and not profane; or sacralizing and not profanating.
The sense of the sacred is the innate consciousness of the presence of God: it is to feel this presence sacramentally in symbols and ontologically in all things.1 Hence the sense of the sacred implies a kind of universal respect, a kind of circumspection before the mystery of animate and inanimate creatures.
The sacred is the projection of the celestial Center into the cosmic periphery, or of the “Motionless Mover” into the flux of things. To feel this concretely is to possess the sense of the sacred, and thereby the instinct of adoration, devotion, and submission; the sense of the sacred is the awareness—in the world of that which may or may not be—of That which cannot not be, and whose immense remoteness and miraculous proximity we experience at one and the same time.
The two poles of the sacred are truth and holiness: truth and holiness of persons and of things. A thing is true by its symbolism and holy by the depth of its beauty; all beauty is a cosmic mode of holiness. In the spiritual order, man is in truth through his knowledge, and he is holy through his personal conformity to the truth and through the depth of this conformity.
The combination of sanctity and beauty which characterizes the Messengers of Heaven is transmitted so to speak from the human theophanies to the sacred art which perpetuates it: the essentially intelligent and profound beauty of this art testifies to the truth which inspires it; it could not in any case be reduced to a human invention as regards the essential of its message. Sacred art is Heaven descended to earth, rather than earth reaching towards Heaven.2
The multiform beauty of a sanctuary is like the crystallization of a spiritual flux or of a stream of blessings. It is as though invisible and celestial power had fallen into matter—which hardens, divides, and scatters—and had transformed it into a shower of precious forms, into a sort of planetary system of symbols, surrounding us and penetrating us from every side. The impact, if one may so call it, is analogous to that of the benediction itself; it is direct and existential; it goes beyond thought and seizes our being in its very substance.
There are blessings which are like snow; and others which are like wine; all can be crystallized in sacred art. What is exteriorized in such art is both doctrine and blessing, geometry and the music of Heaven.
The Sainte Chapelle: a shimmer of rubies and sapphires set in gold. No individual genius could improvise its splendors. One might think that they had sprung from the lily and the gentian.
1 Ramakrishna, when he saw a flight of cranes, a lion, a dancing girl, used to fall into ecstasy. This is what is called “seeing God everywhere”; not by deciphering the symbolisms, of course, but by perceiving the essences.
2 Within the framework of Christian art, the second image is nevertheless applicable to late Gothic art, in a relative manner and without abolishing the first. Let us point out at this opportunity that the spiritual criterion that is beauty cannot apply to the neo-pagan art that poisoned Europe in the sixteenth century and that expresses the fatal marriage between religion and humanist civilizationism. No doubt, neither the cold and anthropolatrous gigantism of the Renaissance nor the morbid inflatedness of the Baroque [see ill. 52] prove anything against Catholicism in itself, but what they certainly prove is on the one hand that a religion which supports this language and expresses itself through it cannot have the monopoly of the absolute and exclusive Truth, and on the other hand that Catholicism, by this amalgam, exposed itself finally to being its victim; not in a total manner, which is excluded in advance, but nevertheless in an extremely serious manner. The humanization of the art—a priori divine—prefigured that of the religion, at least of the official religion.