aesthetics beauty

The Sensibility of Beauty

6:00:00 AMChase J. Cloutier

Years ago, in the midst of darkness on the night before Good Friday, the solemn and sobering office of Tenebrae would be celebrated in the heart of Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel. Though normally luminous with the beauty of the murals and mosaics, bright in daylight, now but a few candles stood lonesome, casting little light on the room as most of the scene remained veiled in shadow. As numerous penitential psalms were sung one after the other, the sparse candles would be extinguished one by one. This signified a gradual descent into darkness and sorrow in accordance with the theme of the day: atonement for sin. Most of the service would be chanted in simple melodies, alternating back and forth from one side to the other. The ethereal sound of the pure human voice echoed back and forth across the hard floors.

At the conclusion of the office, the Roman Pontiff, who presided at the ceremony, would kneel while the last candle, the last source of light, was put out. Then would come a moment of utter stillness and waiting. From the midst of this pristine silence, the voices of the choir would break out into singing the awe inspiring Miserere Mei, composed by Allegri. This majestic setting of Psalm 51 pierces the heart with its beauty. The magnificent harmonies sung so organically by these voices would draw the congregation into the depths of contemplation.

Beauty awakens love in my heart.
Moments like these move us into a state of wonder, of marveling. Experiences of sublime beauty possess a unique capacity to affect our hearts and open our minds to the truth. Indeed, when I am struck by the beautiful, I am inspired to consider realities of the highest spiritual significance. The aesthetic experience is one of transcendence in which I realize the great value of beauty, its intrinsic worth and splendor. Beauty awakens love in my heart for the true, the beautiful, and the good.

But also of critical importance is the role of the senses in our apprehension and appreciation of certain forms of beauty. When we look upon a glorious landscape bathed in light from the setting sun, when we listen to the sound of voices elegantly soaring to the heights, we are struck with the unique beauty of visible and audible things. Our eyes recognize the shape and color of a visual image, our ears discern the contour of sound. In order to perceive the beauty inherent in visible and audible forms, the eyes and the ears need to be functioning well. The eyes and ears are a necessary element in aesthetic experience of the visible and audible.

File:Philippe Mercier - The Sense of Sight - Google Art Project.jpg
On the basis of this fact, some go so far as to claim that beauty can be reduced to an epiphenomenon of our senses. For some inexplicable reason, it is said, we are pleased when our sensing organs receive certain input. It is almost as if they were saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” nuancing the popular phrase. However, the precondition for experiencing visible and audible beauty (functioning eyes and ears) must not be confused with the beauty itself which attaches to visible or audible objects. Visual beauty in particular provides for us a model for what beauty means. This is why Aquinas identifies what is beautiful by saying the following: “Things are said to be beautiful, which please when seen.” (1) Put more broadly, things are said to be beautiful which please when observed. According to this explanation spiritual beauty could be seen as well, but with the sight of the mind.
In Chapter 4 of his Aesthetics I, Dietrich von Hildebrand examines the role that the senses play in apprehending beauty. There he contrasts metaphysical beauty, which he characterizes as “the irradiation and fragrance of other values,”(2) with beauty which is accessible to the senses. In the case of visible and audible beauty, the beauty of what we see and hear is presented to us precisely as attaching to the object itself. When we perceive this beauty, we experience a “conscious of” the beauty as something distinct from the feeling of our eyes and ears.
The mysterious splendor of a Van Gogh is irreducible to a feeling I may have.
Yet we are bodily beings. If our eyes are feeling irritable on a specific day, it may be difficult for us to spend much time perusing the art gallery. If we are assailed by an ear infection, it may even be painful to attend a musical concert. But this only goes to show that the beauty of a thing is altogether distinct from the bodily feeling one has while observing it. The mysterious splendor of a Van Gogh has a beauty that is not reducible to a pleasant feeling I may have, whether in my eye or otherwise. When my eyes and ears are working normally, phenomenologically the focus is on the object.

I think of musical works like Allegri’s Miserere. How mysterious it is that sensible beauty can move us to such spiritual transcendence. The material realm has been given a noble task in conveying to us such enrapturing beauty. May we open our hearts to marvel at the sublime beauty which waits to be discovered.

1. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, Q. 39, Art. 8c: “Pulchra enim dicuntur quae visa placent.”
2. Hildebrand,
Aesthetics I (Publication forthcoming, Hildebrand Project) 68.

Video: Allegri's Miserere sung by the Tallis Scholars. (source)

Image: The Sense of Sight by Philip Mercier (c. 1689-1760). 1744-1747. Yale Center for British Art.

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