After a lovely liturgy at All Saints Mission in South Weymouth yesterday morning I made my way into Boston with Fr. Dionysius, the priest at All Saints. Fr. Dionysius graciously dropped me off downtown. I had a few hours to kill before heading to sing the evening service at Trinity so I decided to head over to the MFA and spend my time there.
The last time I was at the MFA was this past semester with my Ancient Greek Drama class and our professor. And when we were there we stuck to the Greek art section (and a very fine collection it is). Other than that I hadn’t been to the MFA for years. The wonders of the museum were truly apparent to me yesterday as I walked through the corridors. I was particularly struck by the beauty of the the sun sending its rays through the high windows of the Koch Gallery onto the painting hung on the walls. I sat there in that large room, reminiscent of a church in Rome with its marble and high ceiling, and looked a long time at a painting of Christ being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is a busy scene, I believe by a Dutch painter, with a wonderful interplay between light and dark. Christ is being kissed by Judas in the right hand top portion of the painting, Peter is pulling out his sword to cut off the servants ear, light illuminates the scared faces of disciples. All of this crammed into a painting about 6 feet wide and 5 feet tall, the figures bursting out at you. Above this painting was one of Christ crucified with the Virgin Mary and St. John at the foot of the cross, weeping and tearing at their clothes in grief, a powerful scene. A few feet away was a large full-figure painting of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by adoring angels, crowned with a silver coronet, a look of peace and grace upon her face that radiates towards the viewer.
This is art. This is beauty, true beauty. It is beautiful in and of itself, it possesses it, holds on to it, shares it. The artist merely reveals this kind of beauty, for it has always been and always will be. This type of beauty is eternal, it surpasses time and fad, preference and pleasure. A problem facing us today, especially in America, is that many people do not appreciate beauty. And I don’t mean the beauty of clothes, supermodels, fast cars, or things people try to pass off as art (putting a dead animal in a case and letting it decompose, the new art). The art I’m talking about is natural and special. And it is sadly missing from our daily life. Sometimes you still see glimpses of it these days, although more often than not it was not made by human hands. The waves of the sea by the moonlight, a forest glade at sunset, a flower hanging from a trellis.
Much of art in the past was religious in nature and that contributed to religious art being given a special status. It was a special status that was entirely deserved. The artist, or craftsman, was spurred on in his art by his love for God. And God spurred on the artist by that creative gift, that natural talent given to the artist by God. The difference between that artist and most artists today is the denial of that gift, the denial that that gift comes from anyone other than themselves. I posit that it is through this recognition and thanksgiving that truly remarkable works come, works that are “revealed” more than “created”. When worshipers walked into the grand cathedrals of Europe, or the great churches of the East, they were immediately met with colors, shapes, faces, gestures, smells, and tastes. The impact of this overwhelming sensation was the great enhancement of worship. It confirmed to the worshiper that church was truly “not of this world” and that it wasn’t meant to be.
We’ve lost that sense of otherworldliness, both in our daily secular lives and our churches. We need to bring that back. Not by slavishly copying the ancient masters and forms, not by throwing off all modern innovations, but by remaining truly focused on what beauty, true beauty is and what it is meant to do. Beauty is meant to enhance our lives, to focus us towards God who is all perfection, all glory, all beauty. It is he who grants this gift of true beauty to us. And this beauty goes beyond art, it goes deeper, much deeper. Spiritual beauty is the pinnacle of beauty, the utmost form. A form that all art, all music, everything, seeks to show and express. And when somehow we manage to give viewers or listeners a glimpse of that beauty, we glorify the creator of all things.