Beautiful art is window to God, professor says

Nissa LaPoint

In the Catholic tradition, sacred art is not intended to be viewed passively.

“Art isn’t simply to be interpreted, but art in turn helps us interpret our lives,” said Augustine Institute professor Tim Gray.

Over a one-hour lecture, Gray talked about famous pieces of art in history and the Catholic viewpoint on its importance. Paintings have the power to raise hearts and minds up to the heavens and God himself, he said.

His lecture was shared live online Sept. 18 from the Greenwood Village-based institute before an audience from the Colorado Chapter of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.


Father Mark Haydu, international director of the patrons, gave a video introduction sharing that it was the first webinar sponsored by the organization. The lecture was intended to inform why the Church takes such a care and interest in the arts.

“The reason is very simple—because God in the beginning created all things good. He created the material world to communicate his goodness.” Father Haydu said.

Movements to destroy religious icons and images, or iconoclasm, in the eighth century were rejected by the Church.

“The Catholic Church, after a period of reflection, said what (art) represents is a reality and a reality that God himself chose to become human, to use the material world to communicate spiritual truths,” Father Haydu explained.

The 40 members of the Denver chapter sponsored the restoration of a work of art, the Bust of the Dacian Prince, said chapter president John Odenheimer.

“We’re all really excited to see it get done,” he said.

The organization works to save and preserve art, which can depict a beauty and truth that can elicit contemplation, Gray said.

“All beauty can lead us into deeper wonder, appreciation and love because what we’ll see in all the good things of this world, even the commonplace things, is we’ll realize that the beauty reflected was made by the beauty that moves the sun, the moon and the stars,” he said.

Beauty can lead us to God.

He showed several pictures of artwork intended to provoke viewers’ thoughts about God. Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel is one example. The painting shows God’s arm stretched out about to touch Adam to give him life. Around God is depicted a woman and a cherub, representing God’s creation and future plan to create the “new Adam,” or Christ, and the “new Eve,” Mary, Gray explained.

“This is art at its best. It provokes and invokes in us wonder and meditation and reflection,” he said.

Another example Gray pointed to is Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s painting “The Inspiration of St. Matthew.”

The painting shows the apostle deep in thought, receiving inspiration from an angel above him.

“It shows inspiration is a work that’s fully divine and fully human, which is a beautiful depiction of the Catholic theology of inspiration,” Gray said.

Matthew is also robed in orange, red and yellow, like the colors of a flame.

“It’s like the flame of the candle, because he’s inflamed with the inspiration and love of Christ,” Gray explained.

He said the beauty about Catholic tradition is it’s not afraid of art.

“It is for all,” Gray said. “This is why the Church collects, keeps and protects and becomes a patroness of the arts because art is the school of contemplation, and by contemplating we are transformed into the love that we adore, that infinite love that makes all love and all things good and beautiful.”

“Altar of the Aesthetic” Lecture
Watch Tim Gray’s talk about the Catholic vision of art online:

Chapter of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums
Colorado membership: $250 per person over 35 years old, or $600 for members over 35 years

COMING UP: A caveat on the great Tom Wolfe

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When the great Tom Wolfe died on May 14 — he of the white suits, the spats, and the prose style as exuberant as his wardrobe — I, like millions of others, remembered the many moments of pleasure I had gotten from his work.

My Wolfe-addiction began on a cross-country flight in 1979, shortly after The Right Stuff was published. Always an airplane and space nut, I was fascinated by Wolfe’s re-creation of the culture of America’s test pilots and astronauts at the height of the Cold War. And there was that extraordinarily vivid writing. At one point I burst out laughing, scaring the daylights of the elderly lady sitting next to me but not daring to show her the passage — it must have involved Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club, a saloon outside Edwards Air Force Base — that set me off.

After The Right Stuff got me going on Tom Wolfe, it was impossible to stop. The first half of Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers — Wolfe’s scathing account of a reception thrown for the Black Panthers by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein — remains the quintessential smack-down of political correctness among the 1% cultural elites. From Bauhaus to Our House explains why anyone with an aesthetic sense thinks something is seriously wrong with modernist architecture, and does so in a way that makes you laugh rather than cry.

Then there was Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. One of its chapters, “The Masque of the Red Death,” takes its title from Edgar Allan Poe and with mordant humor dissects the vacuity of Manhattanites consumed (and in some cases destroyed) by their grotesque, over-the-top consumerism. I recently re-read that stunning set-piece and the thought occurred, as it had before, that it was a far more effective polemic against materialism than anything ever issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Bonfire was also brilliant in skewering the destructiveness of New York’s race hustlers, the obtuseness of a values-free media, and the fecklessness of too many politicians.

Asked once by monks who run a prestigious prep school what they might do to disabuse parents of the notion that their sons were doomed if they didn’t get into Harvard, Duke, Stanford, and the like, I suggested giving a copy of I Am Charlotte Simmons to the parents of every incoming senior. Wolfe’s fictional tale of life on elite American university campuses in the 21st century is a sometimes-jarring exercise in the social realism practiced (a bit less brutally) by Dickens and Balzac. But Charlotte Simmons, like Wolfe’s other fiction, has a serious moral core and an important cultural message. The young innocent, the brightest girl in town who makes it to an elite university, gets corrupted by stages: and her moral corruption is preceded by intellectual corruption — the class in which she’s taught that there’s really nothing properly called “the truth.”

I do have one post-mortem caveat to register about Tom Wolfe’s oeuvre, which takes me back to The Right Stuff (and while we’re on that subject again, forget the inane movie). The central figure in Wolfe’s tale of aeronautical daring-do is Chuck Yeager, the man who first broke the “sound barrier” in the Bell X-1, and did so with a couple of broken ribs, which he managed in flight with the aid of a sawed-off broom handle. Yeager was an extraordinary figure who never became a national celebrity because of the (absurd) news blackout surrounding the X-1 project, and Wolfe clearly wanted to pay tribute to him as an unsung American hero.

To do so, however, Tom Wolfe seemed to think he needed a foil, and he cast astronaut Gus Grissom in that role: “L’il Gus,” the Hoosier grit lampooned as a bumbler to make Yeager look even better. And that was a grave disservice to the memory of Virgil I. Grissom, who did not mess up the second Mercury space flight (Wolfe’s account notwithstanding), and who gave his life for his country in the launch pad fire that consumed Apollo 1 — which Grissom knew to be a deeply flawed spacecraft and had urged NASA to improve.

So now that Tom Wolfe and Gus Grissom have both crossed what Wolfe once called the Halusian Gulp, I hope these two American patriots are reconciled. Both had the right stuff.