aesthetics beauty

Beauty in the Light of the Redemption

8:30:00 AMChase J. Cloutier

This post is a continuation of my series considering Dietrich von Hildebrand’s philosophical appraisal of beauty. Here the significance of beauty in the light of the Christ’s redemption is considered.

Dietrich von Hildebrand sought to discover the truth about beauty and its role in our lives. In his writings he desired to bring his readers into a deeper experience of reality. His goal was to bring about a state of wonder at the mystery of the real. Among the many things one encounters in this life, beauty is absolutely central. The most profound realities such as goodness, truth, virtue, and love all captivate us insofar as they are beautiful. There is hardly anything else that gives rise to such a powerful experience.

One point that von Hildebrand makes is the distinction between metaphysical beauty and beauty of form. Metaphysical beauty is that splendor that shines forth from a thing on the basis of its inherent dignity. Every existing thing shines with a beauty by virtue of its very being. Beauty of form, on the other hand, refers to beauty that arises in visible and audible things whether it be in nature or in art. Various shapes, colors, and shades of light come together to form an appealing visual landscape. So too sounds, rhythms, and harmonies can function together as an attractive musical whole.

In his enlightening essay “Beauty in the Light of the Redemption,” von Hildebrand argues that both metaphysical beauty and beauty of form figure prominently in the Christian’s life. Metaphysical beauty is perhaps the more central of the two. Man yearns for the fullness of beauty in God himself. God, having made man, desires to redeem him: he “desires your beauty” as the psalm says (Psalm 45). So too we want to be beautiful for God, to live in accordance with his divine command so as to reflect his beauty in our lives, by living virtuously. Also, the love which the Christian is called to have for his neighbor, for his family and friends, and for God is a response to the splendor of their being, their inherent dignity.

But what role does beauty of form play for the Christian? How does that which is visible and audible relate to the Creator of all things who transcends creation? How do beautiful landscapes, masterful paintings, and majestic symphonies lead us to the divine? How do they manifest God to us?

Some suggest that galleries and concert halls are merely the stuff of the upper class. There tends to be an elite culture that revolves around these venues and so it should remain, some contend. In contrast, von Hildebrand wants to say that appreciation of the beauty of paintings and sculptures as well as that of operas and symphonies should go right along with recognizing the beauty in nature. Far from being reserved for the upper echelons of society, these forms of beauty are of such great significance in the life of man that they should be available to all in some form or another.

Acknowledging the beauty of form in the arts and in nature cannot be reduced to developing a high-browed aesthetic sense. While an education in the arts helps greatly in the appreciation of these works and of the beauty all around us, the experience of beauty goes beyond what can be learned in a classroom. To illustrate this von Hildebrand distinguishes between two levels of the beauty of form.

The most basic kind of visible and audible beauty is the agreeableness of the object’s proportion or harmony. Perhaps it is the pleasantness of a simple note or the comeliness of a statue’s shape. The second kind of the beauty of form is much more profound. Von Hildebrand says that qualitatively it is “entirely new.” (1) Imagine the most beautiful landscape you have ever seen. Certainly this experience went beyond a mere detached analysis of form. Something altogether new and wonderful is intimated to us through this level of beauty. This encounter with the beautiful object is so powerful and overwhelming that it opens one up to the divine. “This beauty, whenever it appears, calls into being in our minds a whole spiritual world.”(2) In a singular way it manifests to us the world of God.

“A beauty which reflects God’s world”

Beauty of form has been given an almost sacramental character by God. That is, through the earthly signs of the visible and the audible, we have been given a certain reflection of the divine beauty. “It is a great mystery which God has entrusted to visible and audible capacities: to be able to place before us sublime, spiritual qualities, a beauty which, in its quality, reflects God’s world, and which speaks of this higher transfigured world.” (3)

Certainly appreciation of beauty of form is not worthless in the life of the believer. It can be a palpable experience of God’s presence. His creation and even our own artistic creations can communicate to us his glory and majesty. While metaphysical beauty plays a central role in the life of the Christian, God has deemed it fit that nature and the work of artists should be able to disclose and manifest the beauty of spiritual reality.

Dietrich von Hildebrand’s masterful two volume treatment of beauty, entitled Aesthetics, is a forthcoming publication of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.


1. Dietrich von Hildebrand, “Beauty in the Light of the Redemption” in Logos 4:2 Spring 2001, 86.
2. Ibid., 86.
3. Ibid., 87.

Image 1: Sunshine across the Tiber, Rome, Italy.

Image 2: The Annunciation, Leonardo da Vinci. 1472-75. Uffizi Gallery. Florence, Italy.
Image 3: Ring of Kerry, Ireland.

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