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Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

Derek Caldwell

There was a man whose face filled the whole sky. Only a slight rim of a pale green sky adorned his head like a halo. He had a white beard, and eyes squeezed shut in laughter. At least, I thought he was laughing. Inside his weathered mouth was utter darkness, like a volcano ready to erupt in an old tale and recycled laughter. I sensed a life of sweet memories emanating from his experienced face. Memories of family, friends, some gone and some missed. In him was delight. His face was as rough as his beard, the sky as rough as his face. I was young, very young, when I first saw my grandfather’s painting of this mysterious man who was either—according to my young imagination—an artist on the streets of Paris or a fisherman freshly docked.

Amidst the palettes of scraped rainbows and snapshots of Americana speckled across the walls— depictions of dilapidated barns with “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco” signs nailed to the sides, vintage semi-trucks driving by roadside general stores, snow-covered split rail fences, and the aura of “honest work”—I could not help staring again and again at the painting of the man, which I consider to be the pinnacle of my grandfather’s work. I still have it today. There was always an inexpressible beauty in his paintings—no doubt increased by my love for the artist—but there was also something of a disturbing beauty in them. That which was not supposed to be considered beautiful somehow became beauty in the skilled hands of Grandpa Jim. When I look at his paintings, it feels like Grandpa gave his love and memories to me.

Perceiving Beauty

“Beauty … is a relation, and the apprehension of it a comparison,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins.[1] In perceiving the beauty of an object, we are perceiving its likeness and difference. We perceive a leaf on the ground and marvel at both its likeness to others and its difference from others—each is beautiful in a common, communal way and a peculiar way. Deviations from certain types of aesthetic norms have often been called the grotesque, and yet even with these there is a beauty seen with the right eyes—the right eyes directed to its beauty by a masterful hand. Picasso’s bizarre surrealist art is said to be all the more impressive because it came from a master neoclassicist painter: The master of the form creates communal beauty, and this allows peculiar beauty to be understood as all the more breathtakingly genius. A master’s eye and skill can properly frame the beauty for you. What is beautiful may become grotesque, and grotesque beautiful, depending on the frame, the story to which it belongs.

I like to wander in nature. The good kind of wandering, where I don’t know where I’m going, but I know roughly how to get back. I like to get lost. It’s like I’m walking on one giant canvas, like I was dropped into one of Bert’s sidewalk chalk drawings in Mary Poppins. From within a forest, I could look up into the sky and witness sparkling bodies and far off worlds beyond earth; if I had a microscope, I could witness busy worlds within earth.

We are always searching for something, aren’t we? We search for beauty, real beauty, knowing intuitively that what is truly beautiful is in some way both good and true. But we have grossly objectified beauty to the point where it no longer points to anything beyond itself. It has become a mere instrument to be manipulated for our pleasure and benefit. But something is deeply wrong about this. We have attempted to subjugate beauty, to domineer over it. When we objectify beauty, though, the result is that it makes us feel ugly, at least before the addiction to subjugation is in full swing.

Finding Beauty

I was recently privy to a conversation on beauty and the relatively young debate on whether beauty is objective or subjective. Today most of us would believe that it is subjective, “in the eye of the beholder.” There are decent arguments on both sides, but historically the question has been settled: beauty is, indeed, objective, not in the eye of the beholder but recognized by the eye of the beholder.[2]

There is something quite startling about beauty in that it can confirm a truth difficult for the rational mind to comprehend. This is why Hans Urs von Balthasar said that the goal of contending for Christianity is actually to show, rather than argue for, the truth.[3] Some truths are so difficult to grasp—because overturning intellectual paradigms is more emotional than we recognize—that they need the imagination to turn them into fathomable worlds. While some may argue that the imagination and the rational mind do two different things, they in fact should be doing everything together. They were made for each other, after all. The three Platonic transcendentals of goodness, truth, and beauty are inseparable. To pull one out is to change the others into something very different.

As I began to think for the first time about the objectiveness of beauty, I was struck by something in an essay by Edward T. Oakes. A scholar of Balthasar, Oakes was also someone concerned with the meaning of beauty. In looking at some of the despair in modern art, he cited a gentleman and native of Littleton, CO, the site of the Columbine school shooting. This individual was, for obvious reasons, thinking about despair in the world and how it comes to be. He discussed the transformation of the American landscape from towns with local stores where you and your family are known into one large, uniform, dehumanizing marketplace. In other words, from “Americana” to “strip mall”:

Growing up in an anonymous landscape, how can anyone escape his own encroaching sense of anonymity? In this world, meaning evaporates. In a world of monotonous getting and spending, the need to shake things up, to make a mark—and mark—may overpower everything else, including sense. … The Trench Coat Mafia’s particular brand of evil may have stemmed from a terrible absence—a loss of perspective that might be one of the unforeseen consequences of a loss of place.[4]

Oakes adds that what art tries to be is “both a reflection and a summing up of our image of ourselves. In other words, all art seeks to be, as it were, a condensation of reality.”[5] What we have lost in something of an artless, beauty-choked world is that sense. We either feel too big or too small, leading to head-spinning disorientation. Small without being seen, known, loved, or understood; large without seeing, knowing, loving, or understanding. We see how the lack of beauty can disintegrate into a lack of goodness and truth. But if beauty is inextricably tied with the Good and the True, both of which are objective, then it must be objective. But what does that even mean?

Feeling Beauty

Strangely enough, it might help to start by describing how beauty feels, subjectively. This is not to question its objective reality, though, as all objective truths are finally recognized through subjective means. So then, even if I cannot yet pinpoint what precisely beauty is, I can describe what it does, which will allow me a glance at what, or who, it is. Beauty communicates to me that I am small, which can either be experienced as refreshing or horrifying. That doesn’t mean I am insignificant. No, it is a different kind of smallness: A “part of a much larger whole” smallness.

More than that, though, it tells me that that which I look at, in some way, looks back at me and into me. Like those painted eyes that follow you all around a room, the presence behind the beauty, the true and good beauty, sees me. When I see true beauty, I sense almost telepathically that I am seen in return. Experiencing and feeling beauty thus imparts to me the objective knowledge of beauty, like hearing a kind voice and gaining the knowledge that it belongs to an old friend calling out to me. This is not simply a desire to be seen, for most of us desire to be seen as larger than we are, posing like a sideways cat. This is a recognition of my place in the universe: loved and connected to many others in a big world created for me to discover.

Beauty brings awe, wonder, and reverence. I am not swallowed up in the enormity of beauty. Sometimes you can find enormous beauty in the smallest thing. The enormity does not negate my person; rather, it is as if my soul recognizes a long-lost relative who has been trying to contact me, unaware that I changed my number. A perfect example of small enormity would be the Christ child, for beauty—even of the largest mountain—is always bigger on the inside. It is in the Christ child, after all, where Hopkins tells us is “God’s infinity, dwindled to infancy.”[6] The beauty transcends the form, though it is intrinsically linked to it, and it tells of a different reality that our fallen state has left in disrepair. Or, put positively, it points to a divine order. True beauty brings me to my knees, for its sublime qualities tell my soul that veneration of Whoever created it is proper and right. The experience can be overwhelming in the best way, words failing except for a few whispered hallelujahs.

Heavenly Beauty

It is Christ Himself, the embodiment of the Good and the True, who peers back at me as Beauty. Through Him all beauty was created, and His love is on display in each piece. From Gregory of Nyssa to Thomas Aquinas to Jonathan Edwards, more than one Christian theologian has reached this conclusion.[7] “The divine is beautiful by its own nature,” Gregory writes.[8] And if Christ is Beauty, then that means the world is the Seen—that connection which we feel to beauty is because in, with, and under beauty is Christ, declaring His glory, approaching us wherever and however we are, and calling us to Himself. All of us. Christ is El Roi, the God who sees us (Genesis 16:13).

It is no surprise, then, that the word “good” in the New Testament, kalos, is so closely linked to the notion of beauty. In which case, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, we read of the beautifully good creation of God, just as in the New Testament we read of the beautifully good Shepherd who is God. Indeed, Bruce Herman posits that beauty is so intrinsically connected to God’s glory in the Psalms that glory is better translated as sublime beauty.[9]

LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your sublime beauty in the heavens. Psalm 8:1

Psalm 8:1

The heavens declare the sublime beauty of God.

Psalm 19:1

Lift up your heads, you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of sublime beauty may come in.

Psalm 24:7

Humans, created in the image of God, are designed to recognize the beauty of God in the order of the cosmos and the greatness of His ways.

Beholding Beauty and Beauty Beholding

God truly is a Father to us in many ways. And like a good parent, He delights in our discovering Him, in our delighting at what we discover, in our beholding the beauty that delights us. Like a mother laughing when her child finds their own laugh, or a father cheering on his child taking their first steps, our Father loves our process of discovery. And each discovery—if our eyes are tuned aright, if they are framed by the beautiful story of God’s love—will lead us back to Him, back to His love and care for all things. And each discovery will unveil more to behold. As Aslan said to Lucy and to us all, “Every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”[10]

For all those who wander, for all those who imperfectly search and fall, for those who have grown tired of navel-gazing and instead, like the Magi of old, turn to stargazing, know that you have not done so by accident. I think we stare at nature as some penultimate beauty because we feel nature, or rather something beyond nature, stares back and sees us. When we feel shunned and neglected by the world, we feel the stars will hear our cries and know our worth. And in a sense, we are right. Whatever ugliness we feel, we can know that God is the Artist who can turn ugliness into beauty again, just as He turned a twisted cross of unforgiveness into a symbol of inestimable grace. In our moments of oneness with beauty, we are beheld by God. As Amy Brown Hughes, channeling Gregory of Nyssa, writes, “We are the beholders of the Beholder’s beholding of us. … God’s beholding activity is not a passive quality but an intimate triune engagement with humanity.”[11]

Looking now at the painting of that waggish man, I see my grandfather’s beautiful soul in each brushstroke. And in my grandfather’s soul, I can see the God who crafted him, “awesomely and wonderfully” (Psalm 139:14, NASB). Every brushstroke to His glory, every flourish for our delight. Let us all venture out into His world, seeking the beauty our souls long for, beheld by the Beautiful Beholder. 

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[1] Gerard Manley Hopkins, fragment from “On the Origin of Beauty: A Platonic Dialogue,” in Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins (London: Penguin, 1985), 103.

[2] In other words, while some things may have some subjective quality to them—such as “Do you like this color of paint for the kitchen?”—there are some things that just are beautiful and are misunderstood if not recognized. Not recognizing the beauty in, say, the first steps of a child would be like not recognizing two plus two equals four. There is something incorrect about these conclusions outside of opinion.

[3] Edward T. Oakes, “The Apologetics of Beauty,” in Daniel J. Trejer, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin (eds.), The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 212.

[4] Ibid., 221-22.

[5] Ibid., 222.

[6] Hopkins, “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe,” 55.

[7] See, for example, Natalie Carnes’s Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), Brendan Thomas Sammon’s The God Who Is Beauty: Beauty as a Divine Name in Thomas Aquinas and Dionysius the Areopagite (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013), Owen Strachan and Doug Sweeney’s Jonathan Edwards on Beauty (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2010).   

[8] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and Resurrection, Popular Patristics Series, trans. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), 77.

[9] Bruce Herman, “Beauty,” in Zondervan Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 297.

[10] CS Lewis, Prince Caspian, The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 4 (New York: HarperTrophy, 2002), 148.

[11] Amy Hughes Brown, “Beholding the Beholder: Precision and Mystery in Gregory of Nyssa’s Ad Ablabium,” in Michael F. Bird and Scott Harrower, Trinity Without Hierarchy: Reclaiming Nicene Orthodoxy in Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2019), 131.