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: Relativism: An obstacle to the pursuit of truth

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When I was a kid, my favorite television show was The Partridge Family. Mostly because I was completely enamored of the late David Cassidy, whom I was convinced I would marry some day. But also because the show featured just the kind of mildly corny humor a seven year old is inclined to enjoy.

I remember one joke in particular. Keith (David Cassidy) is trying to give big brotherly advice to Danny (Danny Bonaduce). He says “If you just believe, you can be anything you want to be.”

Danny responds, “Great! I want to be a black woman.” Laugh track ensues. Because everybody knows that a pale white, red-headed, freckle-faced kid cannot grow up to be a black woman.

I was thinking about that scene as I was listening to Bishop Robert Barron Feb. 6, giving a riveting talk on relativism to a packed house here in Denver. As he spoke about the philosophical underpinnings of relativistic thinking, I realized that joke couldn’t be told today. Because, as a society, we don’t seem to agree that race, gender, or just about anything else, are based in any kind of objective truth.

Bishop Barron spoke of a video you may have seen. A rather short male interviewer asks college students what they would think if he told them he identifies as a woman. Then an Asian woman. Then a 6’4” Asian woman. They hesitate at times, but all ultimately agree that if that is his “truth,” then he is indeed entitled to be a tall Asian woman.

That is the ultimate expression of relativism.

Relativism, boiled down, is essentially the belief that there is no “objective” truth that is true for all. Rather, we as individuals, each establish our own subjective “truths,” and we live “authentically” to the extent that we honor these individual “truths.”

The speed with which we have descended down this path is breathtaking. When I was in my 20’s (which was not long ago at all — right???), I used to debate abortion at Berkeley. Not exactly a friendly audience — I remember mentally noting exits, including windows, that I could utilize if things got out of hand. But they showed up, and they listened, because there was still some understanding in society that there was such a thing as truth, and hence an openness to listen to others to see if together we could arrive at that truth. Or, at the very least, that I could employ the truth as I see it to convince you that your understanding of the truth is flawed.

Not so today. Open discussion of controversial issues is almost nonexistent on most college campuses. Of course. If I have my truth and you have your truth, what would be the point? We are just supposed to respect each others’ truths and move on.

But the problem is that we all have to play together in the same sandbox. Somebody’s truth has to rule our social interaction. If we can’t come to an agreement about whose truth is truer, then the only option left is force. And so, instead of listening to what you have to say, I attempt to forcibly shut you down. I smash windows. I disrupt your talk. Or, alternatively, I call on the authority of the university to do that dirty work for me while I hide in a safe space with my crayons and puppy videos.

Pope Benedict XVI called relativism a “dictatorship.” And, ironically, it is. The philosophy that purports to allow everyone to believe as he wishes, actually allows no one to believe in anything but relativism. And because there need be no rhyme nor reason behind any individual belief, enforcement through persuasion becomes impossible. Hence, the inevitable clash of ideologies. And it will be the stronger, not the most persuasive, who will prevail.

Parents, please — teach your children that there is such a thing as truth. That yes, we may disagree with others about what that truth is. That we respect people — all people — regardless of their beliefs. (Another objective truth.) But beneath the disagreement, there is a truth. There is a God or there isn’t. Jesus Christ is divine or He isn’t. Sexual expression has an inherent meaning or it doesn’t. Gender is fixed or it isn’t.

[And parents, if you want help with this, get your hands on Chris Stefanik’s book Absolute Relativism, and check out his YouTube videos on the same subject.]

In any disagreement about objective truths, someone is right and someone is wrong. Or perhaps both are partially wrong and neither grasps the full truth. But the truth is there.

In the old days, our goal was to find it.