Have you ever encountered a work of art that has drawn you in and overwhelmed your soul? Like many of you, my answer to this question is an emphatic yes! That being said if I am honest with you, and myself, I must admit that I have never sought to discover why such encounters with art occur. It was not until I came across a Christian Icon Cross in an old abandoned church while visiting a farm in southeastern Wisconsin that my desire to better understand the production of art and beauty began. The cross, which I call the “Salvation Cross”, is a collage of Christian Iconography. Even with years of dust and dirt dimming its colors, its beauty and radiance shown through and penetrated deep within my heart and soul. Although the artist of this piece is unknown, I feel a profound connection to them almost as if they live on in their work. It’s as if the artist was consumed and completely in love with the one true good, which is God, and because of that the love and beauty of God reaches out to my soul through the cross.
Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism has helped me to better understand why art, such as the Salvation Cross, has this ability. Specifically, Maritain has provided great insight into to the production of art and what beauty is. In regard to the production of art, Maritain states that before anything else art is intellectual and consists in impressing an idea upon the matter. In regard to the Salvation Cross, I can see how this is true. The icons and their arrangement on the Salvation Cross existed in the mind of the artist before it was ever produced. Once formed in their mind, the artist possessed and embodied with the goodness of God, was capable of impressing God’s love for humanity upon the wood and in the pigments of the paint. Maritain refers to this as the habitus of art; which means that the artist’s disposition and habits directly effects the art work produced.
In regard to the production of art, I believe this to be the most important point because it has allowed me to better understand why my encounter with the Salvation Cross is so profound. The reason I was drawn to the Salvation Cross and why the beauty and radiance of the colors shown through years of dust and dirt was because it was created by an artist who was consumed by God’s love and goodness. As such, the artist’s very nature, habits and disposition were good because their foundation was in the greatest of all good, God. The simple and inexpensive materials used to make the cross were transformed by the artist into something beautiful, striking, provocative, contemplative and transcendent.
These qualities are what make the Salvation Cross beautiful. Saint Thomas defined something as beautiful if it gives pleasure on sight. Saint Thomas expanded on his definition by stating “If a thing exalts and delights the soul by the bare fact of it’s being given to the intuition of the soul, it is good to apprehend, it is beautiful. Saint Thomas’ definition of beauty applies to the Salvation Cross remarkably well. From the moment the Salvation Cross captured my gaze it was pleasing to my very being. Its colors and images not only delighted, but did in fact exalt, my soul just by being presented to my senses. Maritain’s definition of beauty reinforced my understanding of my encounter with the Salvation Cross because he describes the beautiful as not a kind of truth, but rather a kind of good that stirs desire and produces love.
To put it simply, the Salvation cross is beautiful because it is good. It was produced by an artist who was so consumed by God’s love for humanity that their very habitus, or disposition, became an extension of God’s love. As such, the beauty of the Salvation Cross transcended time, dust and dirt and penetrated every fiber of my being. God’s love reached out to me through the cross which delighted and exalted my soul not because it was made with expensive materials or because it had been preserved in pristine condition but because the very matter with which it was produced was infused with goodness. My profound encounter with the Salvation Cross was the result of the greatest of all good, God, becoming infused in the fibers of the wood and pigments of the paint and reaching out to me through the artist and the Salvation Cross.
My encounter with the Salvation Cross was so profound that I asked the owner of the farm if I could purchase the cross. We agreed on a price and the Salvation Cross is now displayed in my home and my encounter with the cross continues to this day. Just as the Salvation Cross drew me in and overwhelmed my soul when I discovered it in the abandoned church, it continues to do so to this day. Often I find myself looking further into the cross and lost in contemplation which reveals, through the art, God’s profound love and goodness.