art Augustine

Beauty, Brideshead, and the Blessed Sacrament

6:00:00 AMKaitlin Fellrath

Pierre-Auguste Cot (French, 1837–1883). Springtime, 1873. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Steven and Alexandra Cohen, 2012 (2012.575) #springCan beauty bring about  conversion? 

British author Evelyn Waugh answers this question with a resounding “Yes.”  Waugh used the beauty of the written word to communicate his answer.  Hailed as one of the twentieth century’s greatest (and most overlooked) novels, Brideshead Revisited is a deeply theological novel about beauty, art, conversion, and the workings of Divine Grace.  

Charles Ryder is an agnostic artist who pursues earthly beauty through his own artistic endeavors. Left unsatisfied with his own art, Charles turns to beauty in human form, through his relationship with Sebastian Flyte and Julia, Sebastian’s sister. 

In The Confessions, St. Augustine of Hippo recounts the same  phenomenon, writing, "In my unloveliness, I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all."  

Charles recognizes beauty and pursues it in created things, but he does not yet realize that beauty is not meant to lead one to the passing things of this earth, but to eternity. 

 In St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists,” he writes: “Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence...That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy.” Beauty “stirs that hidden nostalgia for God.” As an artist, Charles Ryder is a lover of beauty. He recognizes the power that beauty holds on the human heart, exemplified by his desire to pursue it wherever he finds it. 
However, he has not yet discovered the source of the beauty he pursues so persistently.  

When Charles first visits the estate at Brideshead, he is immediately struck by the beauty of the house and its grounds. 

 However, when asked to give his aesthetic opinion on the medieval Catholic chapel, Charles turns up his nose.  The chapel is a “remarkable example of its period,” but nothing more. It is not until after his conversion that Charles finally recognizes the source of all earthly Beauty, which is contained in the tabernacle of the tiny medieval chapel.  “Something has come out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame – a beaten copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten copper doors of a tabernacle.” This flame, of course, is the flame of the sanctuary lamp, which is placed before the tabernacle as a sign that the Blessed Sacrament is reserved.  It is the presence of Christ that Charles finds, “burning anew among the old stones.”

Beauty can lead us to conversion. 

The pursuit of beauty is not merely a search for the aesthetically pleasing, but a search for the Greatest Beauty, the Beauty that comes to earth in the Blessed Sacrament.

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