Indiana University Bloomington

Reflections on the Traditional Idea of Beauty

Imad Jafar, religion and art history

New York University – New York City, NY

“God is Beautiful and He loves beauty.”

Prophet Muḥammad

“From the Divine Beauty the being of all things is derived.”

St. Thomas Aquinas

“The Good… [is] at once the Fountain and Principal of all beauty.”


It is evident that many of the great religions and philosophies of the ancient world understood the earthly phenomenon of beauty to be nothing less than a finite manifestation of the Infinite Beauty of the Divine. In other words, they believed that all temporal beauty—both that which was natural and that which was wrought by human hands (for more on this distinction, see end note)—did nothing but partake of Beauty Absolute; and this indeed explains why ancient man’s role in creating a work of sacred art served as much a sacramental as an artistic purpose. This traditional theory of beauty believed, moreover, the human figure to be the greatest example of earthly beauty, for the Divinity had crafted man, to use the phraseology of Genesis, in Its “own image” (Genesis I.26-27, V.1-2), a truth outlined in the Hindu doctrine in Bhāgavata Purāṇa XI.19: “Human birth … reflects My image,” and in the Islamic tradition in the widespread ḥadīth: “God created Adam in His own form” (cf. Greek Hermetica, Libellus I.12: “Man was very goodly to look on, bearing the likeness of his Father”).

The author of the Dionysian corpus tells us that “the Beautiful” is one of the sacred names of God, stating: “By the Beautiful all things are made one … [for] the Beautiful is the origin of all things” (Divine Names IV.5-7). Letting the Areopagite speak for the ancient metaphysical perspective as a whole, we can deduce from his words that the traditional theory asserts that the idea of beauty is one inseparable from the universal notion of Divine Unity, or of non-duality more generally, wherein all multiplicity—all of the Absolute’s innumerable aspects or names, of which the angels or devá are, as it were, the created personifications or embodiments—“are made one” by and in the glory of His “singular beauty.” The same principle occurs in the scripture of Islam: “God: there is no divinity save Him! To Him belong the most beautiful Names!” (Qur’ān XX.8). In accordance with the words of the Areopagite, the Qur’ānic mention of “Names” implies a certain multiplicity or plurality, but all such diversity is understood as ultimately converging in the Deity’s unity, viz. in Its capacity as the transcendent “Beauty above all beauty” (Pseudo-Dionysius, Liturgy).

In connection with this link between the notions of beauty and unity, it is also important to mention the following point: the traditional perspective understands the concept of beauty to be one that conveys above all a sense of order; and sees, moreover, in the Oneness of the Divine the ultimate symbol of such an order. Several of the Greek philosophers echoed this notion, but perhaps Plotinus was most explicit, when he stated that one should see “beauty everywhere, by discerning the One Principle underlying everything” (Enneads I.3.2). In the Christian context, St. Ambrose implied much the same through his dictum, “All nature testifieth to the Unity of God” (Exposition I.4.1; cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia I.4.18; St. Augustine, Confessions I.2; Qur’ān XVII.44, LVII.3), with the doctor’s use of the word “nature” conveying the ideas of both beauty and order precisely because, according to orthodox Christian doctrine, “the universe [i.e. nature] … cannot be better, because of the most beautiful order given to … [it] by God” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I.48.1 and I.25.6 ad. 3).

Having surveyed several examples of how the ancient authors understood the Absolute to reflect Its Beauty in creation, we may consider sources which speak of the nature of the Divinity Itself. Pseudo-Dionysius stated that God is named “Beauty” “on account of the beauty transmitted from Himself to all beautiful things” (Divine Names IV.7) just as a Muslim saint no less than Jāmī taught that “every beauty and perfection” is a reflection of “His Perfect Beauty” (Lawā’ih V). To the words of these two men we may add the Platonic dictum that it is the “Beauty Absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which is imparted to the ever growing and perishing beauties of all other beautiful things without Itself suffering diminution or increase or any change” (Symposium 209D ff.; cf. Phaedo 100E; Plotinus, Enneads I.6.6: “Each thing receives a share of the Beautiful [μοῖρα τοῦ καλοῦ] according to its capacity”). The same truth, moreover, was echoed by St. Augustine, when he forthrightly declared that it is “the Supreme God, whose Beauty is Unseen and Ineffable” (City of God X.14) who reaches down to all “these earthly things below” and allows them “to silently proclaim … the Ineffably and Invisibly Beautiful” (City of God XI.4) Principle which is Himself (City of God XI.4; cf. St. Hilary of Poiters: “Surely the Author of all created beauty must Himself be the Beauty of all beauty”; St. Anthony of Padua: “If things are so full of loveliness, how resplendent with beauty must be the One who made them”; William Law: “All that is sweet, delightful, amiable in this world … is nothing else but Heaven breaking through the veil of this world,” in Stephen Hobhouse [ed.], Selected Mystical Writings [London: C. W. Daniel Company Ltd., 1938], p. 44).

One thing that is always closely tied to the idea of beauty in the traditional theory is the doctrine of Archetypes.  As stated earlier, the “imitation below of things above” allows one to partake of Heaven’s glory, whence it follows that every earthly thing must naturally have its origin in the infinite and innumerable attributes, functions, or aspects of the Supreme Principle. Furthermore, the traditional doctrines affirm that man may get to know the latter by the former, “for by the greatness of beauty, and of the creature, the Creator of them may be known thereby” (Wisdom XIII.5; cf. Tatian, Oratio ad Graecos IV: “Him we know from His creation”). We need only quote three sources—though one could cite many more—in order to showcase the universality of the doctrine of Archetypes: “Every shape you see has its Archetype in the heavenly world … and if the shape perished, no matter, since the Original is everlasting” (Rūmī, Dīvān-e Šhams-e Tabrīzī XII); “Earth containest all the things in an earthly manner that Heaven containest celestially” (Proclus, Comment. on Timaeus); “This world is the likeness of that (one)” (Aitareya Brāhmaṇa VIII.2; cf. Qur’ān II.25). This universal doctrine was perhaps most clearly elucidated, however, by Philo, who said: “God Himself has imparted of His own to all beings from that Fountain of Beauty which is Himself. For the good and beautiful things in the world could never have been what they are, save that they were made in the image of the Archetype, who alone is truly Good and Beautiful” (On the Cherubim). The same truth, furthermore, is with the author of the Greek Hermetica, when he says: “Know that all shapes and images which you see … are mere semblances and copies of … those Forms which are Eternal and which will never cease to be” (De Castigatione Anime I.6), these “Forms” constituting nothing other than the immutable attributes of “God … the Ideal Form of the Beautiful and the Good” (Libellus VI.4B-5).

Knowledge of God, or gnosis—the method of those authentic religious “mysticisms” which are jñānic rather than bhaktic—is also closely related to beauty in the traditional philosophy. “If you seek the knowledge of God,” says the Greek Hermetica, “you are also seeking the knowledge of the Beautiful” (Libellus VI.4B-5).

This innate link between beauty and knowledge manifests itself most clearly, of course, in the realm of sacred art, where it is only a precise knowledge of a given religion’s orthodox doctrines, symbolisms, and canons of art that allows one to produce—and interpret—a work that is “beautiful” in the truest sense of the word. As an example of one who adhered to this artistic rule, one may recall the words of the great Chinese monk and painter Tao-Chi, who said that it is only when the painter’s “intellect reaches the Origin of things” that his “heart … [becomes] inspired” and his “work can penetrate into the very Essence” (cited in Osvald Siren, The Chinese on the Art of Painting [New York: Schocken Books], 1963, p. 191). of his subject matter, enabling him to produce a true work of art in the highest sense of that word. In fact, many of the traditional doctrines of art—the medieval Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Chinese, for example—explicitly posit that a thorough knowledge of the established rules of a particular sacred art form is a fundamental prerequisite for anyone looking to begin work on a canonical image or inscription. In other words, any work of art that did not correspond to a given religion’s orthodox doctrines and artistic canons—the knowledge of which could only be acquired through “preparatory learning” (Democrates, Golden Verses XXV)—was considered “ugly” from the traditional point of view, for “that which falls short of canonical [i.e. divinely-ordained] proportion is not beautiful” (Śukranītisāra IV.70-71). Plato essentially says the same thing when he declares that one cannot “give the name ‘art’ to anything irrational” (Gorgias 465A), in other words to anything that is antithetical to the Divine Reason. The ancient Chinese perspective was the same, for it was one no less than Li Jin-Hua who said that the “old painters” painted their works of art “by natural inspiration … [but] never contrary to Reason and Truth” (cited in Siren, op. cit., pp. 158-59), viz. to the Eternal Truth, which is “the same now as it ever was, the same to be forevermore” (St. Augustine, Confessions IX.10).  This intrinsic link between man’s thirst for divine knowledge and his pursuit of divine beauty is ultimately grounded, of course, in man’s love for God, for, as John Smith the Platonist put it, it is our desire of “divine knowledge [that] makes us amorous of divine beauty” (Select Discourses [Delmar: Scholar’s Facsimiles and Reprints, 1979], p. 24).

Another key aspect of the spiritual life that is very closely tied to the notion of beauty in the traditional perspective is virtue. Virtue, according to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, aids the soul, effectively increasing the soul’s “heavenly beauty that is her birthright,” allowing her to adorn herself “with all of the … love that she deserves” (Sermons LXXXIII.1). In the Christian perspective, all virtue on man’s part is by its very nature “beautiful,” for it constitutes, like the use of one’s Intellect (Greek νοῦς = Latin Intellectus = Arabic ‘Aql), an “imitation below of things above.” In fact, traditional civilizations sometimes looked upon “beauty” and “virtue” as being so closely linked so as to be almost conceptual synonyms for one another; in the Hebrew scriptures, for instance, one reads of the sages “rich in virtue, studying beauty” (Sirach XLIV.3-7). That Cambridge Platonism underscored this same link is evident from the words of Peter Sterry, who taught that “the chief things of Beauty are Light and Proportion,” with one only living “beautifully when this Light … [ran] along [one’s] thoughts, affections … [and] actions” (cited in in Vivian de Sola Pinto [ed.], Peter Sterry: Platonist and Puritan [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934], p. 177).

We had begun this brief essay with a discussion on order and harmony. Concluding this work, we may add that proportion and order is often held in the Philosophia Perennis to be the foundation stone of all earthly beauty. As we said earlier, in the realm of traditional sacred art, “proportion and order” does not imply perfect symmetry or bodily depiction but, rather, a general conformity to the established canons of a particular sacred art form. It is only in these circumstances, then, that a work of art may indeed be considered “beautiful” in the traditional sense, which is undoubtedly the sense St. Frances de Sales had in mind when he pertinently observed that it is only “proportion and agreement in finished things [that] make true beauty” (Treatise on the Love of God I.1).

Note on “man-made” beauty:

“Natural” denoting the beauty of the natural world; “man-made” denoting works of art crafted with a higher purpose and on the basis of a divine model, as was the case, for example, with the Kaʿba and the Temple of Solomon. In traditional sacred art, it is usually “in imitation of the angelic works of art that any work of art is wrought here” (Aitareya Brāhmaṇa VI.27, cf. Sāñkhāyana Āraṇyaka VIII.9: “There is this celestial harp: this human harp is a likeness of it”). Why? “For that which falls short of canonical (i.e. divinely-ordained) proportion is not beautiful” (Śukranītisāra IV.70-71).

As regards the phenomena of “artistic inspiration,” traditional examples include: Exodus XXV.40, where Moses is told to craft the tabernacle not according to his own whims or imagination but “according to the pattern which was shown … on the Mount”; Homer, Odyssey XIX.138, where Penelope says that the Divine Genius [i.e. Immanent Eros, Sanctus Spiritus, Ar-Rūḥ] “breathed into my heart to weave”; Hesiod, Theogony 31-32: “The Muses breathed into me a divine voice … and bade me sing” (cf. all the examples of divinely inspired “songs” in the Hebrew Bible, and in particular the psalmody of David); Plato, Ion 534-535, where we are told that the true poet does not speak by himself but “the God Himself [i.e. Eros] … speaks” through him (cf. Henry Reynolds, Mythomystes, cited in Edward W. Tayler [ed.], Literary Criticism of 17th Century England [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1967], p. 233, n. 1: “For Plato, the poet is ‘quickened with divine afflatus’”); Ovid, Fasti VI.5: “A God is in us, as He moves us, we wax inspired” (Deus in nobis, agitante calescimus illo); Qur’ān XXI.80, where God tells the Prophet Muḥammad that He inspired man with “the art of making coats of mail to shield … from each other’s violence” (in fact, from the point of view of the Islamic tradition, nearly all of the traditional arts and crafts—which includes everything from weaving and comb-making to armory and writing—have a divinely-inspired point of origin; thus, the art of comb-making is popularly believed to have originated with Seth, the art of weaving with Enoch, the art of armory with David, and so on and so forth); St. Augustine, City of God I.3: “The poets, therefore, when they composed and sang these things about the conquered gods, had no intention to invent falsehoods, but uttered, as honest men, what the Truth extorted from them”; Dante, Purgatorio XXIV.52-54: “I am one who when Love [Amor, Eros, as per I John IV.8] inspires me (mi spira), attend, and go setting it forth in such wise as He dictates within me.” For a sound overview of the traditional notion of artistic inspiration, see Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Figures of Speech or Figures of Thought: The Traditional View of Art (Bloomington: World Wisdom Books, 2007), pp. 19-22.

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