It is easy to recognize how beauty can be understood as ‘being in the eye of the beholder.’ As such, we think of it as a feature of our ‘subjective’ perception and experience. So, a concept of beauty may be ‘in here‘ (between my ears) as a component of my consciousness. Yet, beauty may also be important to me because it is first ‘out there‘ as an object of my subjective experience. For beauty is ‘there’ to behold, in the world around us, and is not simply something we project outwardly upon the face of Creation.
One way to discern this is to reflect upon art that is representative, especially landscape paintings the beauty of which grabs our attention. As with Monet’s painting, The Magpie (above), we view and are affected by an artist’s rendering of something he or she observes in nature. At first, an aspect of Creation captures the painter’s awareness. The painter then offers what she or he sees, for us to appreciate. Something which was ‘there’ for the artist is also ‘there’ for us, even if it appears differently as a result of its re–presentation. This is beauty that we recognize, rather than merely something we imagine and or synthesize.
Within our broader cultural tradition, beauty can be thought of as the first of the three so-called ‘transcendentals’ ~ beauty, goodness, and truth. These three, considered in this sequence, are associated with the thought of the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard.
In common human experience, many of us are at first most attentive to the phenomena of beauty, to things in our perception that summon our positive regard and give us pleasure. As we mature, the concept of goodness —especially as manifest in human acts— also arouses our interest and our concern.
Attentive reflection upon beauty and goodness can lead us to ask significant questions about them. Such as, where do they come from, and why are they part of the world? Why are they important to us? Asking such questions may then lead us to pursue the concept of truth, and to begin to appreciate this third transcendental in relation to the other two. Indeed, in a way that is parallel to the Christian concept of the inter-relationship between the members of the Holy Trinity, our appreciation for beauty, goodness and truth gains depth when we consider them in relation to one another.
Sensing that beauty is real, and something with which the order of Creation is imbued, becomes a doorway to appreciating the reality of goodness and truth. This reality is not dependent upon our acts of perception and imagination. Scripture provides support for this, and for recognizing how beauty exists as an aspect of Creation and as a quality of the Creator. With the Psalmist, we can pray these words: “One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD… (Ps. 27:4).” Or, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth (Ps. 50:2).” Or with Isaiah, “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord… (Is. 62:3).” These words are fulfilled as we live in Christ.
In Morning Prayer, we say, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him (based on Psalm 96:9, KJV).” We do so because “honor and and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are his sanctuary (Ps. 96:6).”
Attending to beauty in ‘the book of nature’ is like attending to the revelation we find in ‘the book of Scripture. Both have the same ‘author,’ and there is much ‘there’ for us to find and discern in each.
The image above is of Claude Monet’s painting, The Magpie. A thoughtful reflection upon its significance, in connection with a quote by Henry David Thoreau, can be found in Christophe Andre’s book, Looking at Mindfulness: 25 Ways to Live in the Moment Through Art.