Transcendent Art: Seeking the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in a Time of Isolation and Uncertainty
God makes himself known to us in different ways at different times. He asks us to seek him always, no matter what the circumstances are. As the One who Is Goodness, Truth, and Beauty itself, God speaks to us through the good, the true, and the beautiful in this world. Made in His image and likeness, he has given us the capability to raise our thoughts to him through the good, true, and beautiful and the capability to participate in the creation of good, true, and beautiful things. This is especially apparent in the arts, where we’re able to imitate Him in composing a musical score or song, writing a book, jotting a poem, performing a play, or creating a piece of art that speaks to the human experience and expresses something greater than itself. Art transcends itself. It points to something else. It can, and often does, expresses what is good, true, and beautiful.
In these strange and uncertain times, it is especially important to look beyond ourselves. Though we might have to stay in physical isolation, it is best to not withdraw inwards in fear and anxiety. We must remember that God is sovereign. He is in control, and we are not, and we ought to cast our fears, doubts, and anxieties at His feet. We need to try and open ourselves to transcendence – to open ourselves to those things beyond the new normal of social isolation. Many people are finding hidden graces in their new normal, which is a great gift. It is also good to find new or remember old ways of transcending the situation at hand in those darker moments of fear. One great way of seeking God’s presence is in seeking the good, true, and beautiful in art. Below I will share with you five of my favorite pieces of art that draw me out of myself and draw my eyes and heart heavenward.
The Annunciation, John William Waterhouse
Any painting of the Annunciation to Mary draws me out of myself. I ponder what’s going through Mary’s mind? How did the artist interpret her body language? How did the artist render the angel? In this beautiful, colorful rendition by Waterhouse, Mary appears outside her house, on the edge of a garden. Next to her is a book stand with scrolls on it – presumably the Torah. She is shown here as a young woman, but not a girl. With one hand on her heart and the other on her head, she demonstrates both shock and also an awareness of the greatness of her visitor. Both head and heart seek to understand what the angel is saying to her. She lifts her mind and heart to God and courageously says “May it be done to me.” The angel, not an overwhelming golden display as in other paintings, wears royal purple. The white flowers in Gabriel’s hand are simultaneously representative of Mary’s virginity and of the Holy Spirit who is about to come upon her. I love that you can really see the eye contact between Mary and Gabriel in this painting. The positioning of the bodies might even be a reversal of Eve cast out of the garden with the angel guarding Eden with a sword of fire. Gabriel invites Mary into the garden, offering her the flowers. Mary is startled, but totally engaged, and ready to say yes. May we say yes to whatever God has in store for us during this strange time, and may He provide fruits from our sufferings.
The Presentation in the Temple, Rembrandt
The chiaroscuro (strong contrast of light and dark) happening in this painting of the Presentation immediately draws me in. Where is the light coming from? Why is the rest dark in comparison? This is a rendition of Mary and Joseph appearing in the Temple to present the infant Jesus. The main figures are small in comparison to the vastness of the Temple, and draw you in even more so you can study them. Mary and Joseph kneel before the Temple priest, whose face you cannot see. But the light comes from behind and above him – and shines on Simeon and the Christ child, whom Simeon has taken into his arms. This is the moment of recognition – this is the Messiah! Simeon has faithfully waited and longed for this moment and the light has come upon him. May we faithfully pray and discern God’s will for us, no matter what circumstances he may draw us into.
The Elder Sister, William-Adolphe Bouguereau
This is one of my favorite paintings of all time by one of my favorite painters of all time. Bouguereau made incredibly beautiful, detailed, life-like pieces of art. His portrayals of Mary and the infant Christ are some of my favorites. But this painting of peasant children makes me stop and stare. The sister looks out and engages the eyes of the viewer. The details are exquisite and intensely realistic. You can see individual strands of her flaxen hair, and little tufts of curls on the baby’s head. She’s comfortable and at ease, just taking a break with her little brother. In the background, you can see a pond and a cottage. Is that their cottage? Do they live there? Did the affectionate elder sister take the baby out for a romp in the afternoon to get him out of their mama’s way? It is a quiet country afternoon, and makes me want to go explore the country lanes of France. May her ease and affectionate care of her baby brother remind us that we are tenderly cared for by Christ and his angels and saints.
Sketching the Ruins of Tintern Abbey, Samuel Colman
I read “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth in high school and was totally captivated by the countryside described. I looked into the ruins of Tintern Abbey and found this painting by Colman which captivated me on another level. In this scene, a party is collected near the ruins of the abbey, supposedly for sketching it. Slight light comes from the background, but the sky is cloudy and the ruins are dominated by dark green overgrowth. It is hauntingly beautiful, both sad and slightly hopeful. People are clearly appreciating the beauty of the gothic architecture, but do they remember that this once was a great Cistercian abbey? Do they remember the hundreds, thousands of monks who worked and prayed here, who dedicated their lives to God here? What happened to the monks who lived here during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII? Did any of them resist? Were any of them put to death for their adherence to the Catholic faith? Yet there is hope – people do want to remember and preserve the abbey, and they walk the grounds that were dedicated to the glory of God. They cannot fail to at least faintly think of Him. May we remember, too, that even when things look bleak and dark, there is always a ray hope in God’s promise of love.
(Editor's note: Unfortunately, no public domain image is available to include on this blog post, but a quick Google search will yield an image of the painting referenced above.)
The Eucharist, Jan van Kessel the Elder
Christ in the Eucharist is obviously the centerpiece of this gorgeous painting. The Host, on which you can just see the outline of Christ crucified appears to hover over the chalice. It is not held aloft by a monstrance, but floats alone. It is almost as if Christ’s eyes are boring into your own as you gaze at it. The chalice is exquisitely and delicately detailed, even down to the glimmer of the gold rim. The candles burn, but pale in contrast to the glow of the Eucharist. The altar is decorated with beautiful, bright flowers, grapes, and wheat – all symbolic of the Eucharist, but also of Christ’s fruitfulness. When we worthily receive the Eucharist, Christ’s love bears fruit in our hearts. In this time when very few are able to participate in the Mass, may your devotion to the Eucharist never waver. May you make spiritual communion worthily and well, and long for the day when we are able to gather together again to celebrate the liturgy.
May you seek God’s presence in the good, the true, and the beautiful during this time and always. He is present, and He often waits for us to seek him. Whether it is in beautiful artwork, in inspiring books, in a masterful movie, a powerful song, or in the daily tasks of your everyday life, may your days ahead be filled with that which is good, true, and beautiful.