BEAUTY AND TRUTH
The phrase “arts and sciences” is used to define schools of learning, since these two disciplines represent all the knowledge of mankind. What these two schools stand for in the more abstract sense is beauty and truth - art is beauty and science is truth. These two qualities are, therefore, the underlying principles of the entire education system. The painter, the musician, the craftsman, and the poet all set as their governing principle the attainment of beauty. The inventor, the technician, the physician, and the chemist, on the other hand, strive for truth. In between these separate camps, the philosopher sets himself the task of reconciling the two, by finding truth in the arts and beauty in the sciences.
In the area of religion, the properties of beauty and truth are generally given as attributes of the Deity. He is described as the ultimate Beauty and the final Truth. But with His followers there is often an imperfect actualization of this ideal in the theology and liturgy of their faith. For example, the hymnody of the church, while beautiful, falls short of being completely truthful. It is often shallow and misleading, and this is because of the following delimiting factors: 1) truth must be compromised when theological concepts are forced into the straitjacket of rhythm and rhyme, 2) musical composers are not always great religious thinkers, and 3) congregations do not care to vocalize on difficult and profound themes. As it stands, music is characterized by catchy tunes, repetitive phrases, simple lyrics, popular beats, and an emphasis on the melodic effect over clear verbal communication. This is typified by the phenomenon that many people enjoy operatic music delivered in unintelligible foreign languages. Likewise, young people delight in singing words with little or no content as long as the songs are set in an acceptable style and rhythm. Furthermore, in choral singing, some motifs such as fugues (rounds) and heavily embellished obbligatos seem purposely designed to obscure the intelligent comprehension of the song.
Now this is not to say that the ideal combination of beauty and truth is never realized in church music, for there have been great thinkers, like Martin Luther, who also wrote music. And the church tends, over time, to weed out the more shallow hymns in favor of those of lasting value. And certainly all of this is not to downplay the value of beauty in its own right. A lovely song can transport the soul to the very throne of God, just as the profound thoughts conveyed through a book or sermon can open the eyes of the spirit to supernal vistas of the sublime. One cannot fault the beauty of the Christmas carol “Away in a Manger,” but one must be on guard against falsehood as conveyed in the phrase “the little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” And, of course, for discerning Protestants an “Ave Maria,” no matter how beautifully played or sung, is simply a deification that is out of keeping with purer concepts of Godhead.
With respect to religious art, the same failing can be found. Beautiful masterpieces in stained glass and on canvas are replete with gross inaccuracies and are yet still held in high esteem. Popular Bibles that carry illustrations from the masters, such as Rubens or Rembrandt, provide much beauty but little truth. In these Bibles the stories are misrepresented by artists of medieval and later times, who reproduced scenes from their own day and age, including false details of European racial features, landscapes, architecture, and clothing, etc. Paintings of Bible characters having the dress and features of Renaissance Dutch, German, or Italian people contemporary with the artist exhibit the same fault as that of reading into the Bible text misleading anachronisms - later customs and meanings foreign to the biblical authors and their original readers. In opposition to such modernizing corruptions, scholarship affirms that the ancient world must be discovered and revealed on its own terms if the Bible is to be rightly understood.
Typical of this problem, a blonde Eve receiving an apple from a python is commonly depicted as a representation of the Garden of Eden account. But since it is obvious that the author intended a Mesopotamian setting for his story, the scene would be better shown by means of a brunette, a fig, and an asp, all of which are more representative of that region of the world. Also, whenever the conflict between David and Goliath is pictured, the giant Philistine is usually clad in Greek or Roman armor. These are gross anachronisms in art that should be corrected.
And it is time that the three Arab sheiks on camels were banished from Nativity tableaus. The Magi should be shown as Occidental, white-robed, Zoroastrian priests riding on white Persian stallions, for one need search no further than an ordinary dictionary to see that the Magi were Persians. And the Persians of Bible times were white-skinned Aryans, not the dark complexioned Iranians of today.
But, on the other hand, if semitic characteristics have been incorrectly ascribed to the Magi, the error is in the opposite direction with Jesus. For too long a time auburn-haired, blue eyed Jesus portraits have conditioned His followers to see Him as a handsome European Adonis, despite the fact that the Gospel accounts affirm His Jewish lineage.
Likewise, little pink cherubs and fair-haired, feminine angels are European inventions. The cherubs are nothing but Roman cupids, while the angels are Greek nymphs or goddesses. More specifically, angels are modeled after the either of two Greek goddesses, Nike or Aurora. Like angels, Nike bestows the victor’s wreath, and Aurora heralds the coming of day. Thus, these images should be relegated to whence they came, i.e., pagan statuary. The true picture is this: the Hebrew cherub was a fierce human-headed bull with wings, and the Hebrew angel was a mighty masculine warrior with fiery eyes, a thunderous voice, and a great black beard.
The day is over when an artist like Leonardo or Raphael could illustrate Bible scenes without due regard to authenticity of detail. It is time for artists to employ sufficient research to stop misrepresenting sacred history. Surely with all of the archæological material that is available, religious art will eventually develop a useful authenticity that will bring it up to the level of other scholastic achievements in the field of biblical expostion.
The amalgamation of beauty with truth should be the ongoing goal of society in all areas of life, for the introduction of truth into the arts and beauty into the sciences can only result in measureless benefit to both. But before truth can invade the realm of the arts, however, there must be some concessions on the part of artists as follows: 1) to curb so-called “artistic license” when it might corrupt whatever the artwork essays to represent, 2) to undertake diligent research into the subject matter represented, and 3) to have the courage to present the truth even when it is not popular or accepted. There must be exceptions to these restrictions, of course, as, for example, where some surrealist artist or composer is only trying to convey emotions or impressions not necessarily based on fact. Also, in the realm of folklore and fairy tales, the artist should be free to incorporate mythical elements, because he is not claiming to portray realism as such. A good example of this is the frankly surrealist portrayal of Christmas legendry in the musical opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
And speaking of Christmas legendry, what is one to do with the myth-laden holy days of Christendom that have strayed so far from their biblical basis? Certainly here is a prime example of popular esteem for beauty over truth. With respect to Christmas, for instance, man-made accretions have often been deliberately invented as though calculated to add more and more gaudy ornaments on a Christmas tree. Originally, of course, the central character was the baby Jesus. Then were added the wise men. Next came Saint Nicholas, then Santa Clause with elves, then Mrs. Claus, then reindeer, then Rudolph, then Frosty, then the Grinch, etc. - ever more fairy tales to beguile, entertain, and mystify young minds. And yet who would be such a Scrooge as to dismiss all this fanciful conglomeration as mere humbug? For although censorship was certainly the approach of the English Puritans, theirs was a cold, if truthful, faith that failed to appreciate what was simply beautiful in its own right. They wantonly smashed stained glass windows whenever unbiblical error was detected, just as earlier iconoclasts had destroyed beautiful pagan works of art. And now the world is the poorer for their misguided zeal. Better to have kept the old artifacts for historical value, if nothing else, and then strive to educate modern-day artists in the need for consideration of both beautiful treatments and truthful themes. For after all, the best judgment in the matter of holidays is to accept whatever is simple, innocent, and enjoyable when it is not outright heresy, and to be on guard against loss of the central message of the occasion, which is the core of truth, albeit overladen with frivolous trappings of beautiful ornamentation.
And finally, with respect to religion, it is especially vital that this fusion of truth and beauty take place. For false concepts couched in lovely settings can lead to heresy, and it is such deception that Scripture warns of when it describes Satan, the deceiver, as an angel of light. Thus, in the realm of religion, nothing can be exempt from scrutiny. Even the Bible itself must be updated and authenticated by continued scholarly research until the purest form of the text and the best understanding of every word and concept is available to the student. And since the religion of so many people is limited to the hymns they sing and the mental pictures they carry based on the church’s iconography, it is vital that these be the best that truthful scholarship can provide.
Richard L. Atkins