Friday, April 21, 2017

Fr. Benedict Ashley on What Art Imitates

Objects of Imitation

Since an imitation receives its form from the object imitated, we need now to ask: what objects are imitated by the fine arts? The answer must be given in terms of two principles:
1. An artist should seek to imitate what is most beautiful in itself insofar as he can.
2. But he is limited in this by the kind of matter he uses.

The Beauty of the Divine

If we consider the first principle, then, of course, the most beautiful of all things is the One God in the three divine Persons. God’s Being is seen especially in the Father, his Truth especially in the Son, and his Goodness in the Holy Spirit. Since beauty is a kind of goodness (namely, the good of knowledge), the Beauty of God is seen especially in the Holy Spirit. Since beauty is the splendor of truth, it is especially especially as the Holy Spirit is the very splendor of the Word of God that he is Beauty.
[262] After God the most beautiful reality is the Triumphant Church (taking its Head and its members together) as it will be after the last judgment. This Church will then include all glorified rational creatures and the whole glorified physical universe as its temple. The damned in hell will remain to render this glory more clearly, in the same way that something of ugliness remains in a work of art as the sign of the catharsis achieved. In this Church our divine Saviour [sic] and Our Lady are most beautiful. By reason of his human nature, our Lord, who is a divine Person, is fitted to our knowledge, and is thus most beautiful to us. But even more evident than the beauty of our Lord as man is his sublimity, whereas his beauty is found most clearly for us in Our Lady, who so perfectly resembles him. Our Lord’s beauty appears especially in his actions, his life, since it is by these that his Person is manifested to us. For this reason the history of the Church (and in it the story of our Lord’s life) is the most beautiful of dramas. The life of Christ is also strongest in its catharsis, since we can completely identify ourselves with him who has become our brother, and his life moves from the extremes of sorrow to those of perfect joy. It is in the Sacrifice of the Cross and in the Resurrection that this catharsis attains its goal.

The Beauty of the Human

Among other human beings, the saints, who most resemble Christ, are most beautiful; and their heroic actions, especially martyrdom, share the tragic power of his own life. But it is particularly in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (which is a sacramental imitation of the Sacrifice of Calvary, truly re-presenting it) that this beauty is found at its highest.
It is also found, however, in the humble life of the home where he lived in Nazareth, and in his daily contacts with weak humanity. In these incidents is found the comic spirit, ranging from the burning satire of his exposure of the Pharisees, to the gentle humor with which he dealt with his disciples. The sublime sorrow of his life, however, prevents the comic from being seen there fully, but it is fully evident in the life of his members in the Church, who alone of men can afford to laugh at themselves. The sublimity of our Lord’s life, on the other hand, is fully seen only in the entire panorama [263] of history outlined in the Bible and filled in by the details of secular histories.

The Chief Object of Imitation

Thus it is human action (whether tragic or comic) which is the chief object of imitation in fine art. For this is the highest object which appears perfectly adapted to our understanding and sympathy, and hence the one which produces in us the most perfect purification of our emotions (catharsis, see pages 152 ff.) and the most perfect contemplation of the beautiful. Divine things and cosmic things are represented, but as they are reflected in human action, as its law and goal. When we see human life in relation to its ultimate consequences beyond this life, in its relation to God and the society of the universe, we have a tragic vision. When we see human life in relation to the less consequential affairs of everyday life in human society, we have the comic vision. In the former the catharsis is more profound, because it is a lasting joy attained by conquering sorrow. In the latter the joy attained is less perfect and final; it is the commonplace joy of daily life.
When we consider things below man we consider them as ordered to man and reflecting human life, as similar to man and sharing in his beauty or ugliness. Sometimes they appear as obstacles to his action (hence as ugly), sometimes as the instruments and appropriate setting of his action (hence as beautiful). Such humble things also have a sublime aspect, since they reflect the cosmic order of which man is not the highest part. They suggest to us man’s subordination to the Creator who made both man and ant. Thus in looking at apples on a table, not only do we see a design, but also a reflection of man in his daily domestic life, and, further still, a reflection of the mystery of the universe in which man finds himself as a part. Seeing the reality of the apples in sunlight we realize that the world is not our work, but the work of someone greater than ourselves whose art is infinite.

Consequently, the landscape painting, the still-life, the picture of animals, the poetic description of the weather, are subordinate and minor objects of imitation in art which take their meaning from their relation to human life and to God.


Source: Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication: A Handbook of the Liberal Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 261–263.

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