Saturday, July 24, 2021

Tradition: Handing Down, Not Holding Back

 From Daniel Mitsui:

I cannot define beauty as a theologian or a philosopher, because I am neither. I am an artist, and an artist concerns himself less with rules in the abstract than with the question of what works and what does not.

I also want to be very clear that I make no claim whatsoever to speak for the entire Catholic tradition. I have come to realize that the theology of beauty that I embrace is specific; it is indebted to Dionysius, the author of The Celestial Hierarchy and The Divine Names, and to the exegetical works of Augustine and other church fathers. These Dionysian and Augustinian influences were brought together in the 12th century, by Hugh of St. Victor, Suger of St. Denis, Hildegard of Bingen, and some others.

This theology of beauty is not the only one proposed in the history of Catholic religious art; there are celebrated thinkers and canonized saints who disagree with it. In its time, it was resisted by Bernard of Clairvaux. It is far, far apart from the mind of someone like Pius X. I nonetheless am convinced that Hugh and Suger and Hildegard were right, because their understanding of religious art and music led to so extraordinary a flourishing of both. All Gothic art and architecture, and most of western art music, follow in some way from their insight.

Hildegard perhaps said it best in her epistle to the prelates of Mainz:

Adam lost that angelic voice which he had in Paradise, for he fell asleep to that knowledge which he possessed before his sin, just as a person on waking up only dimly remembers what he had seen in his dreams.... God, however, restores the souls of the elect to that pristine blessedness by infusing them with the light of truth so that they might, by means of His interior illumination, regain some of that knowledge which Adam had before he was punished for his sin.

And so the holy prophets, inspired by the Spirit which they had received, were called for this purpose: not only to compose psalms and canticles (by which the hearts of listeners would be inflamed) but also to construct various kinds of musical instruments to enhance these songs of praise with melodic strains. Thereby, both through the form and quality of the instruments, as well as through the meaning of the words that accompany them, those who hear might be taught about inward things, since they have been admonished and aroused by outward things. In such a way, these holy prophets get beyond the music of this exile and recall to mind that divine melody of praise which Adam, in company with the angels, enjoyed in God before his fall.

Hildegard speaks here of music, but the lesson here can be applied, I think, to all forms of art. The recognition of beauty is, essentially, a nostalgia for Eden, a vague memory of blessedness that was not entirely destroyed in the fall. Beautiful music and art are means to elevate the heart and mind toward that blessedness; in this way, beauty is like virtue. (Read more.)


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