The via pulchritudinis
Zenit today translates Pope Benedict’s lovely meditation yesterday on the via pulchritudinis, beauty as a way, a path, to God. Before speaking of art that is expressive of Christian faith, he has two paragraphs on the experience of art as a signal of transcendence:
Perhaps it has happened to you at one time or another — before a sculpture, a painting, a few verses of poetry or a piece of music — to have experienced deep emotion, a sense of joy, to have perceived clearly, that is, that before you there stood not only matter — a piece of marble or bronze, a painted canvas, an ensemble of letters or a combination of sounds — but something far greater, something that “speaks,” something capable of touching the heart, of communicating a message, of elevating the soul.
A work of art is the fruit of the creative capacity of the human person who stands in wonder before the visible reality, who seeks to discover the depths of its meaning and to communicate it through the language of forms, colors and sounds. Art is capable of expressing, and of making visible, man’s need to go beyond what he sees; it reveals his thirst and his search for the infinite. Indeed, it is like a door opened to the infinite, [opened] to a beauty and a truth beyond the every day. And a work of art can open the eyes of the mind and heart, urging us upward.
Two theologians in particular have focused on beauty as a way to God. Hans Urs von Balthasar made it the pivot around which much of his theological enterprise turned, and David Tracy has made use of the encounter with classics of art as an analogy for the moment of faith. This may strike many people as too “subjective”–what would be required to find beauty in the cross of Christ?–they want more “objective” ways to faith, “proofs”. But the via pulchritudinis usefully reminds us (and this is something true not just of religious faith) that it is fatal to disjoin the objective and the subjective since it is only by exercising our subjectivity authentically that we can reach the objective, the real. Truths reside in minds.