Saturday, February 14, 2009

What is Beauty?

If you were asked to define beauty, how would you answer?

The Scriptures teach us before corruption entered the world God made all things "very good" (Gen. 1.31) and that "the heavens declare the glory of God" (Ps. 19.1); and that things which are "lovely" and "pure" are among those things which are praiseworthy and ought to be thought upon (Phil. 4.8); and they teach us that our chief desire ought to be to "behold the Beauty of the LORD" (Ps .27.4) and to "worship the LORD in the Beauty of Holiness" (Ps. 96.9); that our prayer should be for "the beauty of the LORD our God [to] be upon us" (Ps. 90.17); and that he is to us a "Diadem of Beauty" (Isa. 28.5).

But as Alain de Lille, Thomas Becon, George Turberville, William Shakespeare, and other have well said, "All that glitters is not gold." The world with its vain adoration of the creature before the Creator has loved beauty for its own sake and so destroyed what is beautiful in its quest for beauty. Therefore, what emanates from the Lord, who is Beauty itself, that is beautiful. While Satan may appear as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11.14) and so deceive, and what Thomas Watson referred to as "spiritual beauty" may be found inside one's character and not on the cover of a magazine in a grocery store checkout aisle, yet beauty is of the Lord, wherever it is found, and sometimes in the most unlikely places. It is to be appreciated for that reason, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the Potter who took the clay and fashioned it in his own image and for his own glory. Even fallen man is worthy of respect for being made in the image of his Creator, and while "[t]here is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice" (John Calvin, Serm. No. 10 on I Cor., 698), and that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like the lilies of the field (Matt. 6.28-29), yet to delight in the works of God, apart from God, who alone is the Creator and the Giver of good gifts, is to seek beauty apart from the Beautiful.

Many from Samuel Coleridge to Felix Mendelssohn have argued that beauty is to be defined as "unity in variety." Elio Carletti is said to have characterized it thus: "Beauty is a summation of the parts working together in such a way that nothing is needed to be added, taken away or altered." Whether in nature or art, symmetry, order, unity in that which is manifold, all highlight these truths about beauty. Beauty and truth indeed, together, represent the harmony found in God.

Philip G. Ryken, Art for God's Sake, p. 43:

Beauty and truth belong together. As the poet John Keats said in his famous "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "beauty is truth, truth beauty -- that is all ye need to know." Taken literally, Keats's identification of truth and beauty (to say nothing of his claim that this is the sum of all knowledge) is an exaggeration; yet truth and beauty are interconnected.

With all of this said, are we here any closer to understanding what drives the artist to compose his words or notes or colors so that another will find them beautiful? Why is it then said that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and why so subjective, if beauty comes from God? (For Ralph Waldo Emerson said, " Love of beauty is Taste. The creation of beauty is Art." And everyone knows that taste is personal and art is not appreciated alike by all.)

While much-maligned in this area, Calvinism with its love of the "book" of nature, as well as the book of the Bible, teaches us that all beauty, rightly understood, points us to Him who is Beautiful.

Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism: Calvinism and Art:

Standing by the ruins of this once so wonderfully beautiful creation, art points out to the Calvinist both the still visible lines of the original plan, and what is even more, the splendid restoration by which the Supreme Artist and Master-Builder will one day renew and enhance even the beauty of His original creation.

Martin E. Marty, book review of Seeing Beyond the Word: Visual Arts and the Calvinist Tradition, ed. by Paul Corby Finney:

But Calvinism is also rooted in "Calvin's love of creation and beauty"--which may be the "least known and appreciated" of Calvin's claims. Calvin marveled at scientific marvels, and he concluded that creation was not only useful: "God also intended it to be a source of delight to human beings."

Beauty strikes each of us differently, for we are variable and differently made, but beauty that is true reflects Him who is triune, holy and perfect. I can't claim to define beauty in a blog post, but I welcome thoughts from readers who may seek to answer the question "What is beauty?" in their own way. Meanwhile, I leave the reader with another thought from John Keats, who said it very simply elsewhere (Endymion): "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."


  1. "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" -- taken in conjunction with what you referenced, that God is the Beautiful, that is certainly truth.

    Thanks for this post; it was good to read just now.

  2. PS. Just wanted to add a thought that perhaps what all these people have sensed in beauty -- the manifold in unity -- is traceable to the beauty of the Trinity. Ruben tells me that the music of Bach is an irrefutable argument for the 'Three Person'd' God.

  3. You are welcome, Heidi, and I think you and Ruben are quite right about the unity and perfection of the manifold being tied to the beauty of the Trinity, and I too find that connection in Bach.