Monet and the Catholic approach to beauty

Jared Staudt

In his new book, Beauty: What It Is and Why It Matters (Sophia, 2019), John-Mark Miravalle relates how beauty combines the objective quality of order with the subjective experience of surprise: “We can always be surprised by forms, natures or essences and the order that reveals them” (49). We think things are beautiful when they convey proportion and harmony, but also in a way that catches our attention, makes us stop in wonder, and inspires us. The artist does not simply reproduce nature but presents it to us in a new way to help us to see more deeply into what we can take for granted. Great art combines this ability to see and perceive the inner nature of things with an objectively pleasing presentation.

This artistic vision can be experienced in Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature exhibit currently on display at the Denver Art Museum until Feb. 2. I find it interesting that in a relativistic society, we find the word “truth” in the exhibit’s title. St. Thomas Aquinas defined truth simply as the conformity of mind to reality. Monet, as part of the impressionist movement, pushed the boundaries of this conformity, giving an impression of things rather than portraying them with photographic precision. There is a deeper way of seeing nature than simply reproducing it by peering into its inner form and expressing it in unexpected ways. Monet’s portrayal of the truth of nature even used artistic deception to convey reality, using unexpected colors and brush strokes that, at first glance, do not seem to match nature, yet combine to help us to see things in a fresh and more profound way.

Although not the focus of this exhibit, Monet was also known for painting churches, most famously the Rouen Cathedral at different times of day. One painting, “Vétheuil in Summer” (1879), gives a sense of how architecture compliments nature, with Our Lady’s church dominating the hillside town, with Monet’s classic technique of using a water reflection. Sky, land, and water blend together seamlessly, with the church as the central bridge between them: its spire reaching into the sky and stretching the entire length of the reflection. The painting also provides a wide color palatte, with a light blue and white at the very top and bottom strips, a line of green in the middle at the water’s edge, and vibrant colors such as pink, orange, and red in the town and its reflection on both sides of the green. The presence of the church bears witness to the culture that arose, almost naturally, from the European landscape, as well us pointing us toward its transcendent fulfillment.

Looking at nature with Monet helps us to recognize and appreciate beauty. Miravalle even speaks of the surprise of the epiphanies of beauty as a glimpse of the beauty of the divine. He defines the surprise of beauty as “being delightfully transfixed on something for which there is no prior anticipation … Our entrance into heaven, the participation in the Trinitarian life, will be, in one sense, nothing more than a share in God’s aesthetic experience. We will, with Him, marvel at the order and integrity of What and Who He Is” (114). Although Christian art can never fully depict this exceeding beauty, it, nonetheless, provides “the manifestation of a spiritual reality in physical form” (142). The Catholic artist leads the viewer beyond the truth of nature to a beauty that “is the perfection of nature and the incarnation of spiritual truth and goodness in a physical way” (ibid.).

Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature provides a delightful and moving opportunity to experience great art. I found the exhibit a bit overwhelming (in a positive sense) with over 120 paintings spanning Monet’s life and the various places he lived and traveled. It takes about two hours to enjoy the exhibit leisurely and I found it necessary to take some short breaks to be able to keep taking in all of the details. It certainly provides a great opportunity for learning how to look: paying attention to details of color, brush stroke, and the change of appearance from different distances and angles. It may not present the fullness of a Catholic approach to beauty, but by communicating the truth of nature it helps us to delight in God’s own handiwork.

COMING UP: A pilgrimage through the arts

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I recently visited the Denver Art Museum to see the Degas: A Passion for Perfection exhibit, which runs until May 20th. My kindergartener summed up the thematic content: “Horses and dancing girls.” With this inspiration, Degas’ genius spanned an array of materials — graphite, charcoal, ink, pastel, paints, and sculpture — as well as a spectrum of vision, from rough sketches and undefined abstraction to unexpected color and precision of line (sometimes in the same piece). Following from his study of classical artists, Degas developed new techniques to explore the contours of modern life.

As Catholics, we have abundant opportunities to enter into the beauty of our faith through art — old and new. Here are some recent books to guide us on a pilgrimage of the arts.

Painting

Painting serves as a good entry point into the Catholic arts and Madeline Stebbins’ Looking at a Masterpiece (Emmaus, 2017) provides not only over 40 paintings, but also guides us in how to understand them. It is a large book, which reproduces the paintings in beautiful fashion. Chapter 19, “A Beautiful Journey,” features Francesco Botticini’s “The Three Archangels with Tobias (c. 1470) and typifies the pilgrimage through the arts, as we imitate Tobias in being led by the hand through a journey of beauty, drawing us more deeply to God.

Architecture

Gijs van Hensbergen also leads us on a tour of the greatest modern church with his The Sagrada Familia: The Astonishing Story of Gaudi’s Unfinished Masterpiece (Bloomsbury, 2017). Hensbergen describes the complexity and paradoxes of the church and its architect, Antoni Gaudí, whose cause for canonization has been opened. Sagrada Familia, a shrine to the Holy Family, is thoroughly modern and even surrealist, while conveying a truly transcendent and beautiful vision.

Music

Anthony Esolen offers us not simply a theoretical overview of great Christian hymns, but a guide through these hymns, with an accompanying CD, in his Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (TAN, 2016). He arranges the book’s chapters based on major themes, such as the psalms, major events of salvation, the Holy Spirit, and the Eucharist. This beautiful guide could help Catholic singing to come alive again, both in the home and in parishes.

Poetry

The reading and memorization of poetry were common practices not too long ago. Joseph Pearce hopes to get us reading beautiful, classic poems again with his Poems Every Catholic Should Know (TAN, 2016). He includes the poetry of some great saints, such as Francis, Gertrude, and Robert Southwell, Catholic artists such as Dante, Chaucer, and Hopkins, as well as other great writers of the English language. In Pearce’s own contribution, he describes the Christian poetic spirit, responding the presence of God: “Thus transfixed / in transient transfiguration, / the impression / of mind’s gaze / becomes expression / and finds praise” (282).

Literature

Dr. Joshua Hren, professor of literature at Belmont College, has founded a new Catholic press to publish both classic and contemporary works of Catholic fiction, Wiseblood Books. An accomplished writer himself, he recently released a collection of short stories, This Our Exile (Angelico, 2017). In the line of Flannery O’Connor, Hren uses the violent afflictions of our culture to contemplate our pilgrimage through this place of exile, hoping to arrest us into a greater awareness of life’s underlying spiritual realities.

The Eternal Pilgrimage

When people ask me what great classic of literature they should read first, without hesitation I answer: Dante’s Divine Comedy (though it helps to read Virgil first). Wyoming Catholic College professor Jason Baxter offers an entry point into the work with his A Beginner’s Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy (Baker, 2018). Baxter offers a wonderful introduction to Dante and a section by section commentary, taking the reader through Dante’s own journey through the afterlife, woven deeply with the poet’s own experience of Tuscan culture. Just as Virgil and Beatrice guided Dante, so some extra support helps to catch the Divine Comedy’s historical and spiritual references.

An Actual Pilgrimage!

The United States has a richer Catholic culture than we might expect at first, with the Spanish settling many parts of the South and West, the French in the Great Lakes Region and Louisiana, and English Catholics in Maryland. We can experience firsthand the great heritage left behind by these Catholic settlers by going on pilgrimage! Santa Fe, N.M., offers many amazing treasures, as well as the beautifully situated missions of California. For a vade mecum while visiting these missions, see Stephen Binz’ Saint Junipero Serra’s Camino: A Pilgrimage Guide to California Missions (Franciscan Media, 2017). You can also come with me to the Louvre on my Saints, Monks, and Beer pilgrimage this October (rtijourneys.com).

The great heritage of Catholic art should shape our imaginations, anchoring us in God’s truth, goodness, and beauty during our pilgrimage to his heavenly city.