We Need Beauty: Ancient and New
Often I have been moved, and at times also puzzled, by these 1700-year-old words of St Augustine: “Late have I loved you, beauty ever ancient yet ever new, late have I loved you.”
Perhaps it is because the idea of beauty being both ancient and new is a bridge too far for my mind to cross. It may also arise because, being a woman in her mid-twenties, I was nourished in youth by a diet of pop music and girly magazines — not exactly the best reference points for beauty, I would say.
Too often beauty is, especially in visual art, customised, personalised and individualised with some unintended consequences. What I mean by this is that in our modern world, beauty has been hurriedly chewed upon by the chaotic beast of subjectivity. So many of us do not believe that there is one single thing or person that can captivate us, that can forever delight us, or that can stir within us a tearful joy. Thus, deeply tainted by this thought, we dare to create beauty for ourselves.
We write its definition, chart a map for its course and fit it to our measurements. And woe, woe, woe to those who criticise our “beautiful things”. Oh, how easy it is to wander from the source of beauty itself! After feeding so ravenously on the tender flesh of “perspective”, we are left to look at a spiderweb of our thoughts, both enlightening and disturbing. And to the world we say, “Gosh, isn’t this beautiful?” Admittedly, I have done this in my art many times before.
But as St Augustine tells us, true beauty is timeless. It has no need of our intervention. Quite the contrary, it is we who are in need of its radiance. I know I am not alone in this. It is the gnawing ache that occurs when something of beauty which so greatly enchants us is brought to an end. It’s never enough, is it?
In your consciousness, somewhere below, is a desire to be filled to the spiritual brim by an everlasting beauty. We have been made by Beauty itself and we will be restless and, I dare say, tormented until we are firmly held in its embrace. And what price shall there be to pay when those who long to drink from the font of beauty do not find it within our church walls?
The gift of art
One of the most incredible ways that anyone can open themselves to this divine beauty is through sacred art. Now, before you roll your eyes, I am not suggesting we awaken Michelangelo from his tomb (not that I would complain), but I do think that sacred art is in need of revival. Though many more people can read today than their ancestors in centuries past, there is still great biblical illiteracy.
It is true that no painting or sculpture could ever depict in its entirety what St Paul calls “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Still, I believe much can be done to help each of us understand that “in him dwells the whole fullness of the deity bodily” (Colossians 2:9).
God the Father, the Almighty, felt it was important to give to some of his children the gift of art. So it can be seen, then, that the divine source of the gift points to its divine purpose. Let artists then humble themselves before the throne of God, and once nourished by the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of his Son, Jesus, may they be able to show to others his Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension into heaven.
And hopefully, then we too may be able to whisper the words: “Late have I loved you, beauty ever ancient yet ever new, late have I loved you.”
This article was published in the February 2022 issue of The Southern Cross magazine