God declares His creation “good” seven times in the first chapter of Genesis. On the seventh occasion (seven being the number of perfection or fulfillment), He calls the work “very good.”
Yet sin has made a mess of things. Often the goodness of creation seems hidden or marred; or it shines through only occasionally, offering fleeting glimpses. The world is not, in general, “picture perfect.” One of the functions of art is to provide loci to which we can turn to experience the shining through of goodness, of beauty, whether the locus be a symphony, a poem, a painting, or some other work.
Things exist because God upholds them, but then things decay. God providentially governs creation with Fatherly care, yet terrible things happen all the time. Under such conditions, the experience of beauty can be poignant, as a glimpse of unattainable perfection; and the more intense the ray of beauty is, the more it rends the heart.
One can sympathize with the sentiment expressed in Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat (trans. Edward FitzGerald):
Ah, Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire!
Would not we shatter it to bits — and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!
In the present “sorry scheme of things,” it can be hard to believe in divine providence or in transcendental beauty. If faith is, as atheists might claim, an escape from reality, then all fine art is but a diversion or an analgesic, or a Promethean attempt to create order and meaning within a chaotic universe.
Art consists in “re-moulding” things “nearer to the heart’s desire.” In a masterpiece, everything is providentially ordered, harmonized and resolved, and the process often includes a radical re-interpretation of sensory data.
It always entails a special way of seeing, akin to the vision of faith, which sees all things working “together unto good.” (Romans 8:28) From a Christian point of view, an artistic transformation of perception and material, resulting in a work of beauty, is not a divergence from reality, but a testimony to the deepest truth of things.
Let us look at The Martyrdom of Saints Cosmas and Damian and their Companions, painted by Blessed Fra Angelico (1395-1455). At the left, a group of casually swaying and apparently indifferent onlookers culminates in a blue-robed man, whose face and gesture register the beheadings with trepidation. The walled city behind these onlookers repeats their verticality and their shape as a group, but in an austerely cool and geometric fashion. The towers diminish into the distance, and their echoes fade in the far-away hill towns.
Suddenly our attention is pulled to the foreground by the tree trunks, which echo the vertical towers, but now with the insistent regularity of prison bars – or heartbeats like hammer blows. Then even these heartbeats die away into the brown hill. Nature holds her breath as the hill stretches diagonally up to the right, along the very axis of the executioner’s sword, and the curving line of the road offers a track for the weapon’s fatal swing.
The painting magnifies God’s conservation and providential governance of creation, through the rhythmically ordered interrelations of all its lines, shapes, colors and volumes, notwithstanding the fact that the picture shows even elements of the natural world co-operating with man’s malevolent act.
In a masterpiece, every shape, every line, every nuance and every note of color, occurs at just the right time and place in the organic unfolding of the whole. The providential choreography of the pictorial elements in a great painting cannot be copied from nature; it must be transposed to the canvas or panel as experienced by the artist internally.
The painter must feel the pressures, the weights, the pushes and pulls of pictorial forces, in all their interrelations; he must know and feel his work from the inside. A painting is a masterpiece insofar as all things in it suffer a rebirth to an existence in which they work together for good — for beauty. It is produced from, and manifests, a personal relation to the forces of nature, of reality –- to providence, in fact.
Artists and art lovers must cultivate this sensibility, just as Christians must cultivate the love of God in order to see all things working together for good. Both the saint and the true artist see things as a providential arrangement, and both would maintain that their vision is true at a deep level, however shocking and objectionable such faith may appear in the face of all the terrible things that go on.
The sensibility of the saint and that of the artist are as related as the two meanings of the Greek word kalos: “good” and “beautiful.” What a saint expresses by his words and deeds, and by his very appearance, is the life that wells up within. Similarly, an artist is always expressing his inner life in his art, no matter what the work’s motif.
Hence the saying of Cosimo de Medici, which became a proverb in Renaissance Florence: “Every painter paints himself well.” Cosimo was a patron of Blessed Fra Angelico (whose memorial is celebrated in chapels of the Dominican Order on February 18).
Look again at the painting. The execution of these five innocent men takes place in a flowery meadow, with glorious light and color everywhere. The tops of the trees lift triumphantly into the heavens, so that the verticality of their trunks sustains the red-robed kneeling martyr. This is martyrdom seen from a saint’s point of view.
The transformation of perception and materials in art points to the final transfiguration of the cosmos itself (Revelation Chapter 21), and the fulfillment of the heart’s deepest desire. “Behold,” says the Crucified, “I make all things new.”
*Image: The Martyrdom of Saints Cosmas and Damian and their Companions by Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro), c. 1440 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]