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Compare and Contrast! Two Pictures from Different Ages – Which Age Looks Healthier?

October 25, 2015

blog10-25-001I was recently in Burgos, Spain and saw the splendid cathedral there. My first views of it came at night and I took the photo at the upper right. What a magnificent building; such proportion and symmetry! To me there is the echo of tall trees in a forest, majestically reaching up to the heavens. There is also evident a great advance in building technique in the flying buttresses that support the soaring walls and towers.

These were the skyscrapers of the middle ages. Such angular, geometric, and vertical beauty; a fair flower of the 13th century echoing God’s creation and pointing to  Him in a great work of human praise.

Two medieval phrases come to mind in the beauty of this building. Beauty is:

  1. Beauty is id quod visum placet – (Beauty is) that which pleases when seen.
  2. Pulchra dicuntur quae visa placent – Things that give pleasure when seen are called beautiful.

blog10-25-002 A mere thirty yards from this beautiful cathedral in the town square was something that is not beautiful in any traditional sense. I took the photo of it that is here on the left. It was not lightsome; it seemed to correspond to nothing in creation (unless one were to imagine a dinosaur dropping or some giant stumbling block). Frankly, like most modern abstract art, it looks more to me like someone’s nightmare. It seems to have little to say other than “Try to figure me out, you ignoramus.” For indeed, that is what I am usually called by art critics when I express dismay at these sorts of ugly blobs that clutter too many of our public squares and “art” museums today.

There are some who mistakenly call the Middle Ages the “Dark Ages” and smugly call our age “enlightened.” Certainly no age is perfect, but compare and contrast the two items in the photos here: one is lightsome, soaring, and inspiring; the other is dark, brooding, and opaque as to its meaning. One is a lightsome building from the 13th century, the other a dark “who-knows-what” from the 20th century. Based on representational art, which age seems more inspiring? Which seems more enlightened? You decide. But I’ll take the 13th century.

St. Thomas Aquinas (also from the 13th century) spoke of beauty as consisting of integritas, consonantia, and claritas.  He writes,

For beauty includes three conditions: “integrity” or “perfection,” since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due “proportion” or “harmony”; and lastly, “brightness” or “clarity,” whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color (Summa Theologica I, 38, art 8).

In applying these criteria to human art and architecture, we might consider the following:

 Integritas (integrity) – This speaks to the manner in which something echoes the beauty of what God has done. Thomas says that every created being is beautiful since God gives beauty to all created beings by a certain participation in the divine beauty. Therefore, human art and architecture are said to have integrity insofar as they participate in and point to the divine beauty of things. This need not mean an exact mimicry but at least a respectful glance to creation, holding some aspect of it forth so as to edify us with better and higher things. The cathedral above points to a majestic forest as its form, its soaring stone to the mountains. Its colored glass allows the natural light to dazzle the eye and tell the stories of the Gospel. It is a sermon in glass and stone. As such, it has integrity, since it tells forth God’s glory. I’m not sure what the dark metal blob says. To what does it point? I have no idea. As such, it does not have integrity, since it is not integrated into the glory of creation in any way that I can discern. It seems rather to mock creation. If you think it is beautiful and has integrity, I invite you so explain why and how. But I am at a loss to see any meaning at all in it.

Consonantia (proportion) – This refers to the order and unity within a given thing. What God creates has a unity and purpose in its parts, which work together in an orderly fashion to direct something to its proper function or end. Thus art and architecture intrinsically bespeak a unity and functionality or they point to it extrinsically. They make sense of the world and respect what is given, reflecting the beauty of order, purpose, and design that God has set forth. The cathedral is beautiful because its parts act together in an orderly and harmonious way. There is balance, proportion, and symmetry. There is a recta ratio factibilium (something made according to right reason). As such, the building participates in God’s good order; that is a beautiful thing. As for the dark metal “thing” (I don’t know what to call it), it doesn’t seem to me to have any proportion. It is roundish, but not really. Does it have parts? Do they work together for some end? If so, what end? I cannot tell. Rather than pointing to order, it makes me think of chaos. As such, I see no beauty echoed or pointed to.

Claritas (clarity) – It is through clarity that we can answer the question, “What is it?” with an ample degree of precision and ready understanding. Claritas also refers to the brightness or radiance of a thing. Something of God’s glory shines through; something about it gives light; something teaches and reminds us of God, and God and light are beautiful. The beautiful cathedral reflects the light shining on it, even at night. During the day it proclaims the glory of God by its soaring majesty, its sculptures, its windows, its order and proportion. It is a bright light showing forth the brightness of God and participating in it. As for the metal thing, it seems more to suck the light out of the room; it broods. I see no clarity, no brightness. I still cannot answer the question that clarity demands: “What is it?” There is no clear message. As such, it lacks beauty.

The criteria of beauty discussed here cannot be used for labeling things “beautiful” with absolute certainty, as if by applying a formula. They are more like guidelines to help us pin down some notion of beauty that is not purely subjective. Not all these criteria must be present for an object to be considered beautiful, and the presence of one does not guarantee that the object is beautiful.

So again, you decide. Each item pictured above is emblematic of its age. Were the “Dark Ages” really so dark? And is ours really so enlightened? Compare and contrast!

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Comments (25)

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  1. Nick says:

    “Based on representational art, which age seems more inspiring? Which seems more enlightened?”

    This argument has a number of fallacies:
    1) God created both Cathedral and the other artwork through their respected artists, yet it is we sinners who misuse His creations
    2) Art is expression of the artist, not intrinsic representative of the times, and beauty is measured by love, not by pleasure
    3) The 13th Century had bad art and bad people much like every other time in history, because the world is as a field of wheat and weeds
    4) The current times has its Saints just as well as the 13th Century did, such as Pope John Paul II, because God is Omnipresent
    5) Saint Thomas Aquinas is not the Magisterium but a Doctor of the Church, he is not infallible however wise God has made him
    6) Going by your argument, Jesus must not be God because He did not dress like a king nor live in a palace – yet He IS God

    • Scott W. says:

      Respectfully, I was waiting for you to present actual fallacies, but couldn’t find them. Briefly:

      1. Non-sequitur and strawman. Just because something is created for religious purposes does not necessarily mean God created it through the artist, and Msgr is not saying or implying that we are not sinners.

      2. Bald assertion without argument. “Beauty is measured by love” is arbitrary and holds up subjective intention as the measure which of course is too convenient. No one need dispute good intentions, but good intentions does not necessarily produce good art.

      3. At best a truism. Even if we grant bad 13th century art, it would be true but irrelevant to Msgr’s point.

      4. Off-topic Strawman. Msgr. neither says nor implies there are no modern saints.

      5. Strawman and dodge. Msgr. does not claim infallibility for St. Aquinas. You have to deal with whether St. Aquinas’ argument is correct, not whether it is infallible. Saying he is not infallible is a blithe dismissal of a serious point.

      6. Non-sequitur.

      • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

        Thanks for this assist Scott. I think you ably handle the problems with his objections. I would only emphasize that I do not assert this essay in a dogmatic way as Nick seems to think. I am just trying to have a conversation, stating my views and concerns and my reasons for them in the opening. It is also interesting that Nick says “Art is the expression of the Artist.” I think that is a problem for a lot of art today, even if that’s not what nick means. Too often modern art is narcissistic. In the past art served to edify others, to teach and so forth. Today the emphasis has shifted to understanding the artist and its more about self-expression” than edification etc.

        • I appreciate Msgr’s explication of St Thomas’s masterful Christian-metaphysical analysis of one the three classical transcendentals, Beauty, as ‘mystery-of-unity-in-trinity’ (an innovative heuristic Dante applied to his new poetry style of terza rima A-B-A, B-C-B, C-D-C, D-E-D like a daisy chain or chain stitch, parenthetical rhyming pairs echo a rhyme with an a priori ‘third’ strophe that came before, as God’s grace resonates cor-ad-cor-loquitur, anticedent to all human acts) calling to mind the hermeneutic of Blessed John Henry Newman “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments.”

          However I cannot defend Msgr’s relativistic dualist-moralist take down of contemporary developments in the history of art as “Try to figure me out, you ignoramus.”

      • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

        Oh, one other thing. I think the observation that there is good art in our times is valid. And thus it may not be fair to take one item from each era to make a judgment. However, the juxtaposition of the two items in the square at Burgos struck me and inspired this post. I WILL say in my defense that the blob is quite characteristic of art from the late 20th and early 21st Century. Indeed abstract art fills lots of public spaces and I would argue speaks volumes to the nihilism that permeates our times.

        • Scott W. says:

          It is a generalization about modern art, but sadly, it’s a fair generalization. Most modern art departments less emphasis is placed on your portfolio than on your paper describing your artistic temperment. This because they no longer teach mastery of painting and sculpture, but train students in an ideology to defend their chicken scratchings as art.

        • C Beltz says:

          Sadly, there are many more “abstract” blobs in our time than not and all seem to be the toast of the “art world”. This is in fact an expression of our times, as today’s art seems to be egotistic and self serving in nature (an expression of the artist), and that “beauty is measured by love” would imply that because the artist loves his/her creation, then it must be beautiful (also egotistic). From this I can draw the conclusion art is self-love, yet I know that is not always the truth.

          Sometimes, beauty in our creations is accidental or unintentional. A child’s “potato head” drawings done at around 3 or 4 years old that are quickly forgotten, remain beautiful to the parents/grandparents for the rest of their lives, though, specifically because they are representative of that time in the child’s life (an expression of the times).

          There is true beauty in the world not created by any human. Since we did not create it ourselves, does that mean we are incapable of loving/appreciating it?

          And yes, God created the artists in both pictures, but as each of these artists had the free will to choose what to make, I’m pretty sure God’s not taking credit for either one.

        • Who’s the ignoramus here?
          “In my sculpture there are three recurring themes: mother with child; the reclining figure; large form protecting small form. In this sculpture I have united all three motifs. I draw on human feelings, on the primary feelings of man. The need of protection is one of these feelings or primary instincts.” Henry Moore quoted from an interview with Constanzo Costantini in Il Messagero, Rome, 10th April 1974 |URL www*henry-moore*org/works-in-public/world/australia/adelaide/adelaide-university/reclining-connected-forms

  2. Giacomo says:

    Maybe the blob is a monument to the lord of the world. An idol, perhaps, which says “wonder at me” as the world increasingly scoffs at the Divine. Then, it is representative of this age where man increasingly declares ‘there is no moral or natural law, the world is what we will make it’. It relies on pretense of artist and observer to find meaning from something mysterious for mystery’s sake. I may be wrong, perhaps it’s just nihilism for nihilists and a con-artist well paid. To me, it’s just a blob.

    • You are free to equate ‘blobs’ with ‘scoffing at the Divine’ but I think you do a great disservice to the Church and your fellow man in your implication that your ‘idol’ interpretation is the ‘only true view’. Where you see an idol, I see an ‘eikon’ evoking the mysterious proportions of the irrational number √3 or ‘vesica piscis’ symbol of the marriage of Heaven and Earth in the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Holy Mass, am I wrong?

      We Brits are VERY proud of Henry Moore (the artist of the works exhibited URL obrasocial*lacaixa*es/deployedfiles/obrasocial/Estaticos/pdf/Exposiciones_Itinerantes/henry_moore_sevilla_en*pdf pilloried by this essay) precisely because of his lyrical, mystical quality of his oeuvre, using primitive anthropomorphic forms as semiotic eikons, signs pointing to those found in nature — women and children being among his favorite subjects, the work ‘Reclining Connected Forms 1969’ resembles a fetal ultrasound, for those with eyes to see — incorporating interior spaces or voids, reverently representing the ‘Unseen’ amidst the ‘Seen’ a way of looking over ‘episkopos’ all creation through a ‘Redeemed’ lens, an ’empty tomb’ perspective, as John Paul II’s “Crossing the Threshold to Hope” encourages us to do. We humans have ‘fallen’ natures, nature itself does not, it praises its Creator in its essential mutability, ever changing, ever new.

      If you can understand spoken Castillian Spanish six podcasts here offer an alternative (yet equally valid intepretation) of the works | URL obrasocial*lacaixa*es/ambitos/exposiciones/henrymoore_es*html

      Let us take up the call of the Holy Father on the Synodal Spirit of docens-discens, each can learn from the other, developing our anthropological insights a la phenomenological personalism, here’s Henry Moore again, on the culture of death that was WWI: in 1940 he wrote that “a year or two after [the war] the sight of a khaki uniform began to mean everything in life that was wrong and wasteful and anti-life. And I still have that feeling.” quote from BBC Radio found at |URL en*wikipedia*org/wiki/Henry_Moore

      In all honesty can any reader here say that the awfully regretable facile, reductionist and disproportionately overblown, overbearing, patriarchal ‘father’ figure — ie ugly per se, pace Aquinas — logo for the WMoF |URL www*cathdal*org/300px-World-Meeting-of-Families-SM*png is in any way superior to Henry Moore’s casting of a family group ? |URL en*wikipedia*org/wiki/Henry_Moore#/media/File:Henry_Moore,_Family_Group_%281950%29*jpg

      If “yes” you’re a ‘modernist’ pace Monsignor Pope!
      If “no” you’re an aesthete in a great conservative tradition of art as mater-magister “muse” of culture, pace Sister Wendy Beckett!

      • Giacomo says:

        I’m sorry, but I don’t understand most of what you’ve written. I am too simple minded, I suppose. I think you were explaining the piece. If my vision was better, perhaps I could make out what it’s supposed to be? I wasn’t serious about the idol part, I stated at the end what I saw.

        • Scott W. says:

          Don’t put yourself down as single-minded. Rather, when you encounter verbiage that seems like it was made by the post-modernism essay generator, recall this quote from Chesterton:

          “It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say ‘The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,’ you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin ‘I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,’ you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word ‘damn’ than in the word ‘degeneration.'”

          • Giacomo says:

            Thanks for kindness, but I’m not putting myself down. I am considered slow but, the way I see it, with many blessings. 🙂

  3. John says:

    I know nothing about art but I do like to read. I wonder if the same holds true with fiction writers who go experimental, so to speak, like Wiliam Faulkner’s “Absalom Absalom,” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses”? They both employ a form of writing which exhibits a character’s stream of consciousness thinking patterns which makes it difficult to read and understand, especially “Ulysses.”

  4. Jerry says:

    This blog post reminds me of this video I recently watched on YouTube about modern art. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNI07egoefc

  5. David F says:

    “Modern” art deliberately rejects beauty as the goal of art. Instead it calls the pursuit of beauty mere sentimentalism and stresses the subjectivity of beauty. This is an intentional thumb in eye of tradition and the lay audience. It’s gone so far as to be beyond parody; real piles of garbage win art prizes. Evidence of artistic skill is likewise rare. Fine Art has grossly distorted for ~80 yrs IMO.

  6. Nate says:

    Art should point to the True, Beautiful, and Good. In other words, it should point to God. Very little modern art, or anything found in modernity, points to God.

    And the current hierarchy’s disdain and ignorance of Aquinas is to its discredit and explains many of the problems in today’s Church.

  7. Chris says:

    Hmmmm, let’s apply this to much of what Pope Francis and Cardial Wuerl say and do….. are they more like the ugly blob……

    • For shame! Dissing the Diocese on the Diocese’s own website…

      Dante called such folks ‘ruffians’ (panderers, those who ‘use’ the resources of a host to sow discord) and punished them with hyperopia as hypocritical heretics in 6th circle of Hell

  8. p.s. in Syriac the ‘S’ glyph has two forms, one ܣ for use inside words, another ‘final’ ܤ form when the sound comes at the end of the word. Eastern Rite Christians use it to refer to Jesus in Aramaic as the Serta (the “Way) the truth, the life, the Messiah. Semiography is seminal in perception of medium as message (Syriac-Aramaic follows the same convention as modern Hebrew for the letter ‘m’ an open ‘receptive’ middle and a closed ‘final’ end, מִרְיָם Miriam Hebrew for Mary)

    Are we an end or a link in the chain?
    Do our actions act as links in mystery of faith or serve as closed ‘final’ contraceptive, abortive ends?

    • John says:

      I don’t have the foggiest idea of what you are talking about but have a hunch you are quite smart.

  9. Don says:

    Many modern works of art are not meant to show beauty but strive to draw out uncomfortable feelings, like disgust, anxiety, fear, etc.

  10. Cynthia Simon says:

    I love the ancient Cathedral’s of Spain. Thank you for posting a picture of one. They are truly inspiring and take my breathe away. Renaissance art was from the golden age producing some of the most important works of art of all time. Wish I could spend time in Europe to explore Cathedrals and such. How wonderful for you that you were blessed to do so.

  11. Beth Edejer says:

    I love all cathedrals in Europe built with the thought of the transcendence of God. I passionately hate the Cube in France. I’m not a modernist but I love Henry Moore’s work. I lived in Toronto for quite sometime and Henry Moore’s ‘Two Figures’ sitting right outside the Art Gallery of Ontario gave me endless pleasure. We were allowed to touch it, sit on it, lie on it. The “blob” in Burgos is just a temporary exhibit – and it’s called ‘The Locking Piece’. It should be treated with respect, nonetheless, by the residents and much more so by tourists.

  12. Tereska says:

    This is an excellent article that really makes me appreciate the good, the true and the beautiful in art. Thank you, Msgr. Pope for your insight.