What is the purpose of ‘beauty’ in the Eastern Orthodox faith? Are these mere externals, or is there something deeper behind our colors, shapes, and forms?
We could start by considering Dostoevsky’s famous line (from The Idiot):
Beauty shall save the world.
“This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60) Struggling with this very task, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn remarks:
What does this mean? For a long time it used to seem to me that this was a mere phrase. Just how could such a thing be possible? When had it ever happened in the bloodthirsty course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything? Beauty had provided embellishment certainly, given uplift—but whom had it ever saved?
For many, this is where the investigation ends. Of course beauty can’t save the world. And I think the majority of professing Christians today would say beauty is optional—at best.
But Solzhenitsyn concludes, on a brighter note:
It is vain to affirm that which the heart does not confirm . . . a work of art bears within itself its own confirmation: concepts which are manufactured out of whole cloth or overstrained will not stand up to being tested in images, will somehow fall apart and turn out to be sickly and pallid and convincing to no one. Works steeped in truth and presenting it to us vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power—and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them. And so perhaps that old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty is not just the formal outworn formula it used to seem to us during our heady, materialistic youth. If the crests of these three trees join together, as the investigators and explorers used to affirm, and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light—yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.
And in that case it was not a slip of the tongue for Dostoyevsky to say that “Beauty will save the world,” but a prophecy.1
Before we even begin to think about how the sacred arts of the Orthodox Church bring light from above—and at the same time raise our hearts from below—it has to be asked: Is beauty what God requires—or even desires—of us?
This was a struggle equally for the disciples as it is for some today. They wonder why thousands of dollars are spent on gold-laden temples, adorned from floor-to-ceiling with the most beautiful frescoes and panel icons, filled daily with the aroma of expensive, fragrant incense. Should not this money be donated or given to the poor?
And yet, in the Gospel we read:
Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head, as he sat at table. But when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. —Matthew 26:6–11
Not wanting to downplay giving to the poor, we must understand that the purpose of expensive adornment in the Church is not mere waste, excess, or vanity, but is rather the apocalyptic glory of God. In the sacred arts, whether architecture, iconography, or the careful craft of beeswax candle-making, the Church is anointing the Body of Christ. In her sacred beauty, the Church is carving out a space of heaven on the earth here below.
In iconography, the Church proclaims the changeless faith through the artful replication of changeless forms. Even in the midst of our modern abandonment of both Truth and Goodness (as Solzhenitsyn mentions above), the Beauty and faithfulness of the iconographic form refuses to be silenced; indeed, it cannot be. A craft dependent not on the genius of the artist or boundless imagination, iconography is an art homeless in both the Renaissance and the post-modern world. A picture speaks a thousand words, and the steadfast fidelity to the story in each icon testifies—in our chaotic and dysfunctional present—to the eternal and changeless One.
In saying that icons point to the eternal—to that very place—we are speaking to their role as ‘windows into heaven.’ The eternal as imaged by the transitory. As master iconographer Aidan Hart has put it:
Liturgical art and worship, when well executed, is a fragrance of paradise that beckons us to find its divine source.2
In early Christian theology, the communication of this ‘divine source’ with us creatures here below was identified with the divine Logos of God. On this, Andrew Louth notes:
God, as he communicates himself, does so as logos. This Greek word covers reason, meaning, communication—something that in popularized Stoic thought made the cosmos precisely kosmos, that is, ordered, harmonious, beautiful (kosmos is the root from which the modern word ‘cosmetic’ is derived). What Christians claimed about Christ could be put in this way: that in Christ we encounter the meaning of the universe, or better, the one who gives meaning to the cosmos.3
It only makes sense, then, that he who orders the universe itself would be a God of order; a God who ‘expresses himself’ with the aesthetic trinity of order, harmony, and beauty. And if these three qualities have a hierarchy from the divine Logos himself, then they are eternal. In other words, if our God is he who set the stars and galaxies in their place, then our God is also a God of beauty. And if beauty is ‘of God,’ then beauty itself has an eternality; a changeless form, much like our sacred icons.
From the very beginning, God’s people were oriented4 towards a worship that is “a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary” (Heb. 8:5). And in Christ, the ‘copy’ is both fulfilled and truly revealed.
This celestial hierarchy is at the heart of what it means to worship as Orthodox Christians. But beyond this, such an hierarchy of order and beauty is also at the heart of what it means to be truly human. In Christ, and in the sacred image, the eternal, changeless beauty is more fully revealed.
Beauty will save the world, not because beauty is something ‘extra,’ but because it is essential. It calls our spirit to heaven, and brings the eternal to the present.
If there is an identifiable ‘aesthetic’ of the Orthodox faith, it must begin and end with the express image of the Father; that is, with Jesus Christ, the divine Logos of God.
- Beauty Will Save the World: The Nobel Lecture on Literature, 1970 ↩
- Aidan Hart, “Liturgical Arts and the Eye of the Heart,” Orthodox Arts Journal ↩
- Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, pp. 58–59 ↩
- ‘Orient,’ of course, means to face the East, as early Christians always did in their Eucharistic fellowship. This is still the practice of the Orthodox Church today. ↩