by Thomas Cole and Michael Verlander

To be a disciple of Christ and to authentically love God is to die to self; as Our Lord admonished: “If you love me keep my commandments.”  We cannot expect students to respond to such a challenging vocation with an appeal that is silly, shallow, or dishonest.  As Catholic educators, who seek to bring our students to Christ, what we put before students must be intellectually satisfying, ennobling, and respectful of their capacity as rational persons.  The most effective presentation of the Gospel is one not unlike that of Christ Himself: it is appealing and compelling to the intellect, but also to the emotions.  It draws the entire person.  In Catholic education, one ingredient is particularly effective in making that appeal, but is too often lacking: the presentation of authentic beauty.

There is a universal appeal of beauty, and a natural desire to know what is true and good, even in a fallen world. In the classical sense, art reflects, at least, an ideal of order, balance, and form. The flaws of our physical existence serve to point to that which we lack; thus, even in art that relays the imperfections of life, we are to be reminded of the perfection of our Maker and our perfect end in Him. Further, worthy art portrays or communicates universal experiences of the human heart, ideally inspiring a sense of the higher reality beyond our basic senses, and thus appeals in a way that is lasting beyond the mere evocation of emotion or sentiment. 

The ill-formed imagination often has a skewed sense of what is good; hence, we should instruct with care so that young minds especially can come to know a beautiful thing when he sees it. The temptation is to reduce art to whatever pleases the eye of the beholder, or simply makes the artist “feel good.” What is this but an inversion of the Christ-centered life?  Whatever is worthy of creating, indeed we partake in the creative power of God in this way, must necessarily point to God and His order of reality, not become an exercise in disordering what He has ordered for the sake of self. Our fallen nature confuses and distorts perception: at worst such that man himself is the source and summit of meaning, and at least such that what is ugly is called beautiful. Pope Benedict XVI notes duly the source of inspiration for artists who are attuned to the really beautiful things of this world, no less than Christ, God-made-man, and names the perception with which gifted artists are endowed, and with which we can encounter true art, “the way of beauty”: 

The via pulchritudinis, the way of beauty, is a privileged and fascinating way to approach the Mystery of God. What is beauty, which writers, poets, musicians, and artists contemplate and translate into their language, if not the reflection of the splendor of the Eternal Word made flesh?

He goes on to draw on St. Augustine, who instructs us to find evidence of the ‘beauty of the unchangeable’ in the beauty of changeable things:

Ask the beauty of the earth, ask the beauty of the sea, ask the beauty of the ample and diffused air. Ask the beauty of heaven, ask the order of the stars, ask the sun, which with its splendor brightens the day; ask the moon, which with its clarity moderates the darkness of night. Ask the beasts that move in the water, that walk on the earth, that fly in the air: souls that hide, bodies that show themselves, the visible that lets itself be guided, the invisible that guides. Ask them! All will answer you: Look at us, we are beautiful! Their beauty makes them known. This mutable beauty, who has created it if not Immutable Beauty?

Therefore, we should instruct students such that their imaginations are formed in what is good, true, and beautiful, and so that they know what real beauty is. Further, the student in Catholic education should not only recognize but be inspired by the art of Catholic tradition, that is, the beautiful art used in churches, holy places, or collected in museums for the edification of everyone, which most often relays a story from Scripture, Church history, or the natural world, experiences, events, and literature that shape our culture. 

When we look at Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew,” for example, it is easy to be struck by the realistic details in the painting as well as the masterful use of light and dark (chiaroscuro). Anyone can appreciate these elements. Consider, too, the posture and expressions of the figures in the painting, as well as the setting. Can you identify the subject even without being told the title of the painting? Most students should recognize that this is St. Matthew, the tax-collector called by Christ to be an Apostle (Matthew 9). His figure, dressed in the clothing of the artist’s time, is bent intently over a table as he counts money; he is employed in – and clearly consumed by – the trade that has made him detestable to his own people. St. Matthew is not even aware he is being called, while his companions attend to Jesus, whose pointing figure stands on the right, and they mirror His gesture to clarify His meaning. Jesus, whose body is mostly hidden from view, is still plainly recognizable, not least by the halo which denotes His sanctity. Incarnate, He is supremely holy and of divine manifestation. All-present, He will pierce St. Matthew’s heart in person and convert him to the divine will. His arm stretches out toward St. Matthew, invocative of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” – indeed Jesus is the New Adam, obedient even unto death on a cross – as He calls the man, Matthew, into a new life. Moreover, the light in the scene emanates from Jesus’ direction, magnifying the divine significance of the moment. St. Matthew is chosen by God, hand-picked by the Lord, to collect not money but souls for God’s glory. There are echoes of the Creation story and elements of the relevance of Scriptural truth for all mankind in Caravaggio’s work, giving us food for thought and inspiration for the soul.

Art at its best is meant to evoke a sense of transcendence, recall us to the universal truths, and awake a realization of meaning beyond our individual existence, freeing us to encounter God in His Creation, confirm the dignity of our souls, and seek His will. In Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew,” we can readily identify with the tax-collector, distracted by our daily affairs and needful of the transformative call of The Lord through Whom we find vastly more beautiful meaning in life. 

Our students need beauty.  Our students need Christ.  As Catholics, we are the inheritors of an inestimable treasure of sublime beauty in the lives of the saints, art, and music.  May we share these riches with our students for the good of their souls!

St. Jerome – 30 September 2020