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Ugly as Sin

It must take a special kind of artistic audacity to attempt a portrait of Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon whose countenance was so hideous that those who saw it would turn into stone. Artists are usually far more worried about avoiding ugliness than deliberately creating it. But Caravaggio (1571-1610), who produced this dramatically realistic and gory image of Medusa’s severed head in 1597, was not a man lacking in self-confidence or bravado. He was notorious for street brawling, constantly alienated his patrons, and in 1606 killed a man, forcing him to live in exile from Rome for the remainder of his life, pursued by his enemies from Naples to Malta.

In his art he could be equally brash, but his talent and influence was and is undeniable. His bold realism and striking chiaroscuro (deep shadows contrasted with brightly lit figures) inspired many imitators and virtually defined the Baroque style of the 17th century. And despite his passionate temper, he was capable of creating highly affecting religious works, including well-known depictions of the Conversion of St. Paul and the Supper at Emmaus, that were perfectly suited to the needs of the Counter-Reformation Church.

Next to Godliness

This work, although inspired by a pagan myth, has much to tell the Christian, for even though Caravaggio does not shy away from depicting the most horrific details of his subject, the plain fact that we who gaze upon this archetype of ugliness are not petrified by the sight can be explained not by any failure on the artist’s part but by the nature of beauty and being.

Beauty is notoriously difficult to talk about. We all know beauty when we see it—in fact, St. Thomas Aquinas says we call beautiful “that which pleases when seen”—but what is it? Can it even be defined or discussed in any other than the most vague and subjective terms? Many prefer to say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and leave it at that.

There is much more to be said, of course, but the pitfalls associated with explaining beauty may explain why aesthetics, or the study of beauty, has had a relatively scanty history in philosophy, and an even scantier one in Catholic philosophy. As a branch of philosophy, aesthetics only began to develop in the 18th century, thousands of years after the Greeks first planted the tree of philosophy, and it was not until the 20th century that Catholic thinkers like Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, and Hans Urs von Balthasar began to write systematic treatises about it.

Previously, beauty was rarely discussed by itself; it was mostly brought up in connection with questions about the nature of truth and goodness, which were defined as transcendental qualities of being, that is to say, of God himself.

St. Augustine and Aquinas, for example, following Platonic and Aristotelian thought, assert that truth, goodness, and beauty are really the same thing, but that they differ in their mode of perception by us. Truth is being as apprehended by the intellect, and goodness is being as desired by the will, whereas beauty is being as experienced by the senses. The philosophers say too that just as God is not merely truthful or good—he is truth and he is goodness—so God is not just beautiful: He is beauty. God is the source and cause of all beauty, and all beautiful things share in the beauty of God. So the more beauty we experience, the more we experience God—and indeed, the more God-like we are.

Sensual and Immediate

Of the transcendental qualities, beauty is the only one that can be sensed by the physical body. Short of angelic intuition or divine revelation, truth is understood in the mind only after a process of reasoning, and the good after its effect upon the will. But beauty is visible. It is recognized immediately—without the mediation of thought—in material form and light and color. We have to resort to symbols and personifications to picture truth and goodness; beauty itself shines before the eyes naked and undisguised.

This explains beauty’s seductive, sensual power. Beautiful things “please” or gratify the senses, which are always ready to be pleased again. Catholic morality tells us that it is the job of the intellect and the will to assess whether such gratification is proper and rightly ordered, and to curb it if it is not. Aestheticism, the disordered affection for beauty, results when a person allows his hunger for the delights of beauty to dominate reason. It is possible to understand the story of Medusa’s death at the hands of Perseus, who used his shield as a mirror so that he did not have to look directly at her, as symbolic of the victory of the intellect over the senses: Perseus uses the good of his reason to rob ugliness of its power. But it is the same immediacy and sensuality of beauty, when rightly ordered, that can bring us so immediately and delightfully into the presence of God.

Too Perfect to be Real

The Platonic and Aristotelian traditions disagree about the existential status of beauty. For the Platonist, beauty is an abstraction, an eternal absolute, an objective, unchanging, immaterial ideal. (In this it is indeed much like God.) Beauty stands outside of nature, independent of anyone’s opinion or judgment about it. Things are beautiful to the extent that they “participate” in beauty, which is manifested by their perfection of form, their mathematically harmonious proportions, their symmetry, simplicity, unity, rationality, nobility, seriousness, etc. Whenever people talk about objective “standards of beauty,” they are speaking Platonically.

But true beauty is not to be found anywhere under the heavens according to Platonists, because physical reality is but a defective “shadow” of the ideal reality, and no physical, limited thing can perfectly embody infinite beauty. Artists may try to improve or “artificially” correct the defects of nature in their artworks by conforming them to an idealized model (in the same way that we exercise to shape our bodies or put on makeup to cover blemishes), but even this must fail, for art itself is but a “shadow of a shadow,” no matter how close it might approach the ideal.

In fact, Greek sculptures from the Classic era, which are highly idealized, can appear to be so “perfect” that they become inhuman, cold, and emotionless. The lively and dramatic art of the Hellenistic period that followed the Classic was the result of a perhaps predictable desire of artists to loosen things up and return to the realities of this world, just as Baroque art was after the Renaissance, or Romanticism after Neoclassicism.

Aristotelians like Thomas agree that there is an objective ideal of beauty that can be defined by perfection of form, symmetry, and so on, but for them beauty is also a property of real things or real beings, not just an abstraction. Insofar as a thing is real, it is beautiful. Realism, art that imitates reality (or nature), is therefore the most beautiful form of art; the more “artificial” art is, whether it is idealized or abstracted, the less beautiful it becomes. So Aquinas can say that “an image is called beautiful if it perfectly recreates the thing, even if the thing itself is ugly” (Summa Theologiae I:39:8).

In addition, Aristotelians acknowledge a subjective dimension of beauty, that it must be pleasing to the beholder. And with that addition, we encounter a perennial problem in aesthetics, how to reconcile the objective with the subjective. However, whether one is a Platonist or an Aristotelian, it seems obvious that at least our experience of beauty is personal and subjective, precisely because we perceive beauty through our bodies. We each have our own likes and dislikes, our own tastes, which we may try to justify on the grounds of idealism or realism, or some other criterion, even if there is an objective standard of beauty.

If we had the capacity to recognize beauty objectively, we would never argue with each other about whether something is beautiful or not, and we would all have exactly the same tastes. But beauty is not like truth. Everyone can see the objective truth of say, mathematics, because it deals with intellectual abstractions: 1 + 1 = 2 for any rational mind. But beauty is not perceived rationally, even if it is objectively in God, and all the more so if it is also subjectively in us.

All Being Has Beauty

So, what about ugliness? It is simple enough to say that ugliness is the opposite of beauty. If beauty gratifies the senses, ugliness must disgust them. Disproportionality, asymmetry, chaos, etc. must be intrinsically ugly for the idealist, and the abstract and artificial for the realist, because they are not natural.

But if beauty is a transcendental quality of being, then we should really say that ugliness is the absence of beauty, just as falsehood is the absence of truth, and evil is the absence of good. It would be dualistic to set these categories in opposition to each other: the God of beauty would have to be opposed to his ugly twin. But Satan, a created being, once the “brightest” of the angels, is not the opposite of God, though he is certainly opposed to God, and is therefore ugly. And he, like Medusa, cannot be perfectly ugly, because he is a being, and all being is beautiful. That is why we can look upon their countenances without fear. (Perhaps the final, perfect horror would be look upon absolute non-being, pure nothingness.)

Despite his notoriety and influence, Caravaggio was almost forgotten soon after his death, a victim of changing tastes and aesthetic standards. Twentieth-century critics restored his reputation, and his work now influences a new generation of contemporary artists. Readers may judge for themselves to what extent artists today are concerned with avoiding ugliness and creating beauty.

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