Saturday, June 8, 2019

IV. Beauty and the Kingdom of Heaven

In my previous post, I concluded by setting myself this question to answer:

"The second difference is an artistic question of how--if Christ is the icon of the Father, and therefore the only reliable means by which we can know and commune with the God who is Beauty--all of the other arts (particularly those which are non-liturgical or not specifically religious) can be arranged so as to be transfigured by the Light of Tabor."

In the many weeks which have transpired since writing that post, I have had time to contemplate the salutary phrase "the artistic question of how..." For it is exactly a question of art--"the art remaining with the artist." Here I am not so much interested in the question of art as a "thing" ("but is it art?!") as I am in ars as craft, such as "the art of cheesemaking" or "the art of storytelling" or "the art of Iconography." I am enough of a traditionalist to insist that while cheesemaking, storytelling, and iconography each have their own distinct associated skills and techniques (the combination of which defines the "art" of the thing), yet too they each have a capacity to which they can (according to their kind) be integrated into a world which is not merely fallen, but which has been redeemed.

The best pattern for understanding the arts is that of the hierarchy. All the arts contain a hierarchy within themselves, relate to each other in terms of a hierarchy, and produce artifacts which move the human person towards a specific place in a hierarchy. We may think of a hierarchy in terms of a mountain--as St Gregory of Nyssa understands the progression of the human person toward God in The Life of Moses. We may also think of it in terms of a king's court, or of the Ptolemaic model of the universe (concerning which, more later)--Dante uses all of these models in The Divine Comedy.

Some of us may find the notion of hierarchy repulsive, for any number of reasons which point to any number of disorders in the human condition. Some of us have been wronged by evil hierarchies, some others of us have spent so much time staring at inverted hierarchies that they have begun to look normal to us--thus the Inferno is always the most popular book of The Divine Comedy with any audience, with interest waning as Dante purges more and more of his sin and comes closer and closer to God. I have never believed the fault lay with Dante's genius.

Still others of us have been formed by habits of thought, culture, and education to explicitly reject traditional hierarchies, having become oblivious to those present within our own society which we accept without question. Once, beginning a long-running study on the books of the "Kingdoms" (1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles) I asked a room full of evangelical adults what sort of government or society best mirrored or imaged Heaven (these are the sorts of unfair, troublesome questions which young and arrogant teachers like to use to break the ice). The answer, given nearly unanimously and without hesitation, was "democracy" (though one clever person suggested a "representative republic" instead). This, despite the fact that Christ has very little to say about "the Democracy of Heaven." Like most Evangelicals, they considered themselves "people of the book," but they had always been taught that the American model of government was the most inherently biblical and therefore the most like Heaven.

I am of course neither interested in nor qualified to set out any kind of political theory. The fact that congregationalists equate democracy with the Divine order is not really a comment which requires much consideration, nor am I keen on the idea of elevating any of our current political leaders to the status of absolute monarch. Much more important to the Fathers of the Church--and in my view, much more immediate to us--is the fact that each of us contains, as human persons, a microcosm--a whole cosmos in miniature--within ourselves. This microcosm, because it images the Divine, is inherently hierarchical. Learning to perceive beauty requires the restoration of this hierarchy to its proper order (which is the goal of asceticism).

There is of course the danger that you have already tuned me out due to the repeated use in this post of words such as "hierarchy" and "tradition," all of which we have been taught to think of as stale, dead, and irreparably corrupt. Over the course of the next four posts, I will attempt to show how when we engage with and participate in these things we find them living and breathing, dynamic and attractive. For true hierarchies are not static things--rather, they are processions, or parades: as stately as a coronation; as ecstatic as David dancing before the Ark; as festal as any triumphus through the streets of the Eternal City.

We will consider four works of art: two visual, one poetic, and one literary. The artistic hierarchies I intend to examine are, in order:

  1. The Multi-Dimensional Iconography of the Orthodox temple
  2. Rogier van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments
  3. The Divine Comedy
  4. The Silmarillion

Currently reading: The Person in the Orthodox Tradition, Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
Current audio book: Bread, Water, Wine, and Oil: An Orthodox Experience of God, Meletios Weber

No comments:

Post a Comment

Joining the Chorus of Martyrs: Culture, Evangelical Copypasta, and the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste

Today, on the Revised Julian Calendar used by the Orthodox Church in America, it is the feast of the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. This feast ...