Revisiting Beauty and Art: An Update From The Vatican

As some of you might remember, we started the year with a discussion of beauty and art, and more specifically, of the place that the concept of ‘beauty’ has (or should have) in our artistic practice.

I personally found it greatly illuminating to hear the reflections of such artistic behemoths as Ally Gordon, David Benjamin Blower, Huw Evans and Benjamin Harris. However, it appears that we stopped too soon and I neglected a source who would have added hugely to our discussion. To be fair, it was an understandable oversight, as the source in question was (and still is) dead. Even if this slight obstacle was removed, by means of, say, a time machine or a bodily resurrection, I still probably wouldn’t have got a personal interview though, as this source was also the head of the Roman Catholic Church, so may have been too busy to respond to any email correspondence. Fortunately for us though, Pope John Paul II explained his thoughts on the matter in some detail in a Letter to Artists, written on Easter Sunday 1999.

I’d thoroughly recommend anyone and everyone to read the whole document (half an hour read max- here), and I’d give a special prod to the more staunchly Reformed section of the Sputnik readership to put aside your Lutheran misgivings. This is soul food for anyone with an interest in the arts (and there’s only one Mary reference and indulgences are nowhere in sight 😉 )

But for the moment, as something of a late appendix to our ‘Beauty and Art’ series, I thought I’d summarise Pope John Paul II’s considered ruminations on the matter.

Beauty and Art

Early on in the letter, Pope John Paul nails his colours to the mast pretty firmly regarding the relationship between beauty and art:

‘The theme of beauty is decisive for a discourse on art… In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty. This was well understood by the Greeks who, by fusing the two concepts, coined a term which embraces both: kalokagathia, or beauty-goodness. On this point Plato writes: ‘The power of the Good has taken refuge in the nature of the beautiful’.

(Three things I’m always looking for in a good quote are: references to ancient Greek culture, unpronounceable foreign words thrown in for fun and any mention of ‘metaphysics’. Therefore, not only do I think this is a brilliantly succinct summary of beauty, but I felt genuinely brainier having read it, and doubly so having quoted it. A good start!)

For him then, ‘the artist has a special relationship to beauty’ and ‘beauty is the vocation bestowed on him (or presumably ‘on her’) by the Creator in the gift of ‘artistic talent’.

I guess this is the point where in the past I’ve felt some nervousness, as making beauty the vanishing point to which all artistic endeavour must recede seems to have a tendency towards the production of intolerable kitsch.

However, this is why it’s helpful that we’re in the hands of a Pope, because wherever you’d put them on the scale of fallibility, these guys do their research and tend not to leave loose ends hanging.

Beauty and Transcendence

As the letter goes on, a fuller picture of beauty forms. Just as beauty is the visible form of the invisible good, a sincere seeking after beauty is a reaching towards the great beyond:

Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery. The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one’s own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things.

This in turn makes art ultimately a search for God, and a reaching out to Him:

Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.


Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. 

And therefore, the kind of beauty that Pope John Paul II is referring to, the kind of beauty that he’d argue all true artists are reaching for, is essential for the world. He makes this point, quoting from another letter to artists, this time from the Second Vatican Council in 1965:

‘This world—they said—in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration!’

The Purpose of Art

So how does this all affect us as artists? Well, first of all he sees the artist’s purpose along these lines:

‘Artists are constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things, and their torment is to succeed in expressing the world of the ineffable.’

Hmm… I kind of agree, but isn’t there a danger here? If we’re constantly reaching towards the ineffable (unexplainable, transcendent) aren’t we likely to become disconnected from the human condition that we and our audiences are entrenched in? Isn’t part of the artist’s role to unflinchingly present the very effable: the mundane, rotten and down to earth elements of our experience?

Don’t worry Jonny! The Pope’s well ahead of you. His final appeal is an invite to artists:

‘to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.’

He isn’t encouraging us to make spiritual, otherworldly art that becomes totally disconnected from human experience, but to somehow unite the mysteries of man and God, the immanent and the transcendent, the earthly and heavenly. But while we may start with the former, our focus should be on reaching towards the latter.

And here is where he seems to define quite sharply what he thinks an artist’s purpose should be: to create in others (and ourselves) a sense of wonder. How about this for a prayer for artists?

‘May the beauty which you pass on to generations still to come be such that it will stir them to wonder!’

And in case you need some convincing, he follows it with a pretty robust rationale for the prayer:

‘Faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude.’

And, driving home the point, with an equally powerful exhortation:

Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.

Wow! I couldn’t have put it better myself!

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