Museums, Churches, and Beauty

Archpriest Stephen Freeman | 10 November 2020

A great cry went up from Orthodox throats across the globe earlier this year when the Turkish government repurposed Hagia Sophia from museum to mosque. The cry was an echo of May 29, 1453, when the city of Constantinople fell to the forces of Sultan Mehmed II. That day, and its pain, have remained an iconic tragedy of a lost world and an abiding sadness. No one dared ask that the Church be returned to use as a Church – better a museum than a mosque. In truth, even as a museum, the loss remains intense. What is lost is not real estate, a building. It is the right place of beauty in the Christian experience. That loss is repeated in museums across the Western world.

Years ago, as a young Anglican priest, I visited the art museum at Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC (my home town). With me was an Anglican monk. Together we made our way through a surprising collection of Italian Church art, and, at the time, one of the largest collections of Russian icons outside of the Soviet Union. Guards followed us carefully through the museum – not that we were perceived as potential thieves. Rather, I think, we were perceived as potential idolaters. That “Christian” museum was, in many ways, a parallel of Hagia Sophia.

Indeed, across the modern world, museums have become secularized shrines for “art,” itself an unwitting attack on beauty and its proper place in the human life. This point will likely be difficult for some to understand. It can be found in the phrase, “Ars gratia artis” – “art for art’s sake.”

Imagine for a moment that you are in a museum. Rather than works of art on the wall, there are numbers. Here is Mondrian’s “22314,” and Van Gogh’s “55.” Just numbers posted here and there on the wall. We stare at them, and try hard to think deeply and appreciatively. Perhaps a number will remind you of something else. But the numbers have no context. “Numbers for numbers’ sake,” is something of an exercise in the absurd.

Beauty, like numbers, has a purpose beyond itself. It does not exist for “art.”

We tend to take beauty for granted (like numbers), and even reduce it to a function of the human psyche. But, like numbers, beauty is real. What is striking about human beings is our ability to perceive these realities (including numbers). Our ability to perceive the numerical structure of things, of the universe in general, is a key to our ability to practice technology. You do not put a man on the moon simply by aiming. It is a calculation, and the calculation works because numbers are real and true. By the same token, we perceive beauty because it is real and true, and discover in it, a gateway into the mystery of the universe, that which lies beneath and within. Beauty may be compared to the meaning in a text. The letters and words are the surface – our ability to perceive their meaning is something yet more. It is surprising that we tend not to be astonished by this fact.

We have retained our awareness of the functionality of numbers, as well as looking for a meaning within a text (though its practice in modern times is often greatly diminished). However, any number of things have conspired to remove beauty from its functionality and left it hovering in a precarious position, often dangling by the thread we imagine to be the “beholder’s eye.”

That loss of proper functionality can be seen by returning to the museum. The Russian icons at Bob Jones were originally created not just as exemplars of an abstract beauty, but as objects of veneration. They were (and are) “windows into heaven.” The Fathers said of icons that they “make present that which they represent.” They are a means of communion. In the museum-world of modernity, what is contemplated is our own feelings and thoughts. Beauty becomes “art,” serving only our self-gratification.

That which is made present in an icon is perceived only in the act of veneration. In that action, the one who sees also participates through the extension of the self towards that which is made present. It is not worship, but an act of communion. We have become enamored of ourselves as collectors of information. This serves our imagination of ourselves as the managers of the world. We particularly like numbers in that they give us the ability to manipulate things in a predictable manner. We have made beauty into an equally utilitarian event that serves our desire for pleasure. The human as the image of God becomes the human as pornographic object.

The veneration of icons is one of the last practices in which we interact with beauty in a manner that moves us towards communion. Beauty has not disappeared from the world. It is our loss of preception’s purpose that has changed. The perception of beauty is, at its best, a function of the nous, that organ whose primary purpose is our communion with God. Of course, it is not just icons that offer the opportunity for such perception – beauty is all around us. However, our perception must be combined with our active participation (which is the nature of veneration) in order to rise to the level of communion. Unfortunately, as we have lost our understanding of communion, so the beauty of the world loses its purpose. We imagine that it only has value because we “like that sort of thing.”

My back yard is rather prosaic and small. In autumn, it is overshadowed by large oaks, leaving my South-facing windows suffused with a golden light. It is into this wonder that I walk each morning when I get up. It is not the “uncreated light” of the divine energies. It is, however, something beautiful, and offers the opportunity for perception and communion. My back yard is only a tiny fraction of the beautiful world in which we live. St. Paul reminds us:

“For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead,” (Romans 1:20)

This is not an intellectual observation – but one that is noetic. We should not let this fall into disuse. It is then that we become like brute beasts, captive only to our desires, and driven to various forms of madness. The whole world and its beauty are a living expression of God’s unfailing providence. To perceive that beauty is a window into heaven. To rightly venerate what we see is for the window to become a door.

O LORD, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all.

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