Mary Boneno, The Catholic University of America
The way Mary’s veil of marble folds delicately about her head in Michelangelo’s “Pieta.”
The gracefulness of a ballerina’s final pirouette at the end of Aurora’s variation in The Sleeping Beauty.
The glorious, almost other-wordly sound of Carmelite monks chanting “Salve Regina.”
The structure of syllables and pattern of quatrains and a concluding couplet in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.
All of it is beautiful. And all of it can certainly glorify God.
In his Letter to Artists, Pope St. John Paul II calls artists to cultivate their gifts in service to the Lord. In working with their own hands, minds, and voices, artists are, in their own special way, an image of God the Creator. The Pope continues to say that since God is the Supreme Creator, artists are like His craftsmen, using the various gifts on earth given to us by God in their own work. The letter concludes with an exhortation for artists to develop their talents in accordance with grace, to be obedient to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and to seek to illuminate the infinite beauty of God in all ways.
The Pope makes it clear that art should indeed serve as a window to the Divine. The innovative dome atop the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence designed by Brunelleschi is certainly an example of artistic excellence explicitly at the service of the Church and for the sake of glorifying God. Yet it must also be noted that art does not need to explicitly quote the Scriptures or reference the Doctors of the Church to truly glorify God.
I have always had a deep love for the way art can implicitly glorify God. I was a ballet dancer for 15 years, and even if dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy was not an act of praise in the most usual sense, it was still a way for me to not only thank God for the gift I had been given to dance, but also to allow others the opportunity to experience just a moment of beauty. Before every performance, I would lead my company into prayer as we stood in a circle on stage with the curtain down, asking our Lord to protect us from all injuries and give us the grace to perform to the best of our ability so that our audience could enjoy a taste of the beauty that was all His to begin with. We were not preaching the Gospel or handing out rosaries, but we were putting the gifts we had been so graciously bestowed by the Creator to good use and crafting a display of beauty and goodness for others to enjoy.
All of this talk about art being a window to the Divine is good, just as art can be good. But if art can be good, must there be a certain standard to which it is held, an objective nature about it?
In short, yes.
Art can be bad. That is a sentence nobody wants to hear, and frankly, nobody ever speaks, in this age of subjectivity. Certainly if a piece seeks to glorify something other than God — sex, fame, power, money — it is inherently bad. There is no goodness about a song that objectifies women or a movie that worships sex.
But what about artwork created by those with the best intentions, whether or not they explicitly wished to glorify God?
Despite a person’s best intentions, there is still an objective quality of art that cannot be ignored.
I could not take a piece of paper, haphazardly scribble a few lines of crayons, and call it “good art.” For one, I, as the artist, would not be a true image of God the Creator, Who creates with intention, with structure and order. Think about the pattern on a monarch butterfly, or the petals of a rose; these things of nature have a clear structure. In our own art, we must strive to imitate God, Who brings order to the chaos of the universe, by crafting our skills in a structured manner.
This is more clear in ballet, which is a very structured form of dance. In a basic pirouette, a dancer’s leg must be turned out, her arms must be rounded in front of her body, and her head must be parallel with the floor. Even if she could do more turns with her leg turned in or her arms out to the side, it would not matter because she would not be showcasing proper technique, and it would be rightly called poor dancing. It would not be beautiful.
This is not to shame artists who may be missing the mark in their craft; I have certainly had my fair share of “less than lovely” moments as a former instructor would call them.
This is a call to unceasingly strive to do better, to never settle in mediocrity when we know we are made for more, called to be more through grace.
I look at art exhibits showcasing a drip of paint on a plain canvas, and I know that more could be done. I look at churches that are structured like school auditoriums, and I know that there is more that could glorify God.
This is also not to say that God needs any of our art. He certainly does not need anything of us. Our limited art pales in comparison to the grandeur of all that He can create.
But if He’s given us so many great things to adore — the rushing waters of the sea, the colors of the rocky deserts, and most importantly, His very own Son — should we not want to give Him reverence and respect in the highest manner? Should we not feel compelled to honor Him with whatever gifts we may have to the fullest extent?
However small our gifts may be, they can be made great when we place them at His feet.
If you sing or play an instrument, I encourage you to train diligently so your music may be made worthy of joining the choirs of Cecilia, Gregory, and Hildegard of Bingen in Heaven.
If you dance, I call you to take care of your body — your instrument — and work intentionally to showcase the beauty of telling a story without words, of transcending our common method of communication to display that which is true and good.
If you paint, I exhort you to take inspiration from God’s very own creation, to study it well so you may better portray the grandeur of all that is around us with your own unique palette.
Whatever your art may be, I call you to pray as you create, to give room for grace to sanctify your work, so that it may be true, good, and beautiful, that it may glorify God, the greatest Artist beyond all created things.
May the Blessed Virgin Mary wrap you in her mantle and bring you to the Most Sacred Heart of the One she bore, and there you shall find all that is full of delight and magnificence, possessing all sweetness and beauty.