Note: The following essay replaces my earlier American Arts Quarterly article on the metaphysics of representation.




"The sports spectator who, beholding an extraordinary play or action, cries out, 'Wow, that's beautiful,' is experiencing the same enjoyment or disinterested pleasure that is experienced by the auditor of an extraordinary performance of a Beethoven quartet . . . or a person witnessing an extraordinary twist of the fan by an actor in a Kabuki drama or an extraordinary pas de deux by ballet dancers."
Mortimer Adler, Six Great Ideas (New York: Macmillan, 1981, 129)


A triple play, a forward pass, a pas de deux, the twist of the fan, the violin performance – all are physical acts, energetic and exacting, performed in time and space in such a way that every component of the action occurs at just the right time, and in just the right place – yet in some manner unpredictable -- in the unfolding of the whole. Something flashes forth from the event, a sensation of marvelous, ever surprising fulfillment. An energy expands -- explodes even -- from the event, and surrounds and enters the spectator. This expanding radiance is the hallmark of beauty. Thomas Aquinas called it “claritas.”

Such resplendent expansiveness has always characterized beauty in visual art as well. A great painting, such as Giotto’s Epiphany in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, acts across distance, transcending the dimensions of its frame. It advances to meet the approaching viewer. This claritas is not a function of bright colors or sharp details. One can easily find paintings which have brighter hues and sharper details than the Giotto, but which lack clarity, which have little presence, appearing confused and muddled even from a short distance, collapsing in on themselves instead of expanding. The claritas flashes forth from the energetic action within the painting, just as occurs in the sport, the dance, or the concert.


But, you might object, a painting does not move. Neither does this page think or speak, yet it communicates thought; it says things. A good painting communicates movement through form. Generally defined as the visual shape, configuration or appearance of a thing, form (in nature and in art) always results from movement and expresses movement. A tree has a certain shape because of the way it grows. An ocean wave or a mountain has a shape corresponding to the forces molding it. A teapot is formed by the actions of the potter. The first step in drawing a tree, a wave, a mountain, or a teapot, is discovering its gesture, how it moves.

At the metaphysical level too, form results from and expresses movement. Form is a primary principle of nature. Aristotle observed that a sculptor may take some matter, say a lump of clay, and give it a certain shape, of Socrates for example.   Then the sculptor may mash up the clay, take away the form of Socrates, and give the clay the form of Alexander. Aristotle realized that as it is in art, so must it be in nature. Every material thing has to be constituted of two principles: form and matter. No material thing exists without form. Form determines the essence or nature of a thing; and at the same time it is through its form that a thing receives existence, as Boethius observed, because existence is always that of some actually existing thing, and a thing is what it is by virtue of its form. So form causes a thing to be, to be what it is, and to be beautiful, which is to say “full of form,” for beauty is the splendor of being. The Latin word formosus means both “full of form” and “beautiful.”

Art can reveal, dramatize and magnify the splendor, the expansive superabundance of being, the mysterious gushing forth of the act of existing. Existence is an act. The very word exist is a verb; be-ing describes an action. Thomas Aquinas said that being, entity, reality, is the first and proper object of understanding, because an object is knowable only to the degree in which it is actual. Likewise, we may say that the act of existence is the first and proper object of art.  An artist takes what is called secondary matter, matter which exists in nature and already has some form, as paint, clay, stone, or some other material; and infuses pictorial or plastic form to create a pictorial or sculptural being, having the act of existence as a work of art. In other words, and referring back to the origin of Aristotle’s insight: as it is in nature, so it is in art; the artist must so inform his matter, must so dispose the masses, lines, shapes and tones, that the resulting work of art is in act. Otherwise the work tends toward non-being, nihilism, whether or not that is the artist’s intention.

This requirement of active form implies that the splendor of being, the transcendent quality called beauty, is manifested in visual art, no less than in sports, as movement. In a painted canvas or a sculpted stone, this happens by virtue of rhythms -- rhythmic relations of lines, shapes, volumes, or tones.  These rhythms generate a perception of movement.  Pictorial form and perception of movement are inseparable.  As the painter and theorist Hans Hofmann observed, “A represented form that does not owe its existence to a perception of movement is not a form, because it is ... spiritless and inert.”

God is everywhere, within objects and within air, sustaining all things by His energies. This activity is rendered by artists through rhythms:

Chardin’s painting is expansive. The splendor of being radiates from the painting as a whole and from each of its parts. Chardin gets inside everything in his painting, to make every fruit, every object, exist from the inside out. He feels the creative energy which operates in nature to hold things in being from within, the pulse of existence. The process by which he creates his work is a participation in the triumphant thrust, continually renewed, by which each and every being in nature stands out from nothingness.

This means the artist must work inside the forms. Specifically, the artist feels each form as though it were his own body. When you shift part of your body -- taking weight off of one foot for example -- the rest of your body must adjust to compensate. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Chardin's jug can exist in his painting only by virtue of the painter's exercise of kinesthetic identification with its volume. If I am that jug and my upper right contour is a fast straight line (itself a response to the surrounding forms), I compensate by swelling out below and, on the opposite side, curving upward (in the bright handle). I maintain my balance by give and take among my parts and with the environment. We shall say more later about the body-centered character of both the forms in paintings and pictorial space as a whole. It is the key to our theme, and to Saint Paul's theme of identification with the Body, as we shall see. Note that this is a universal phenomenon in art, and can easily be demonstrated in such diverse masters as the Northern Sung painter Guo Xi, the Renaissance Venetian painter Titian, the iconographer Andrei Rublev, and Picasso.

 Nothing in the painting looks as if it were imposed from outside; every object exists spontaneously, freely, having its vital principle within. Each form is ceaselessly renewed from within by virtue of the rhythm of its contours, the pressure of its tone against those contours and the precise registering of tonal relations inside and outside the form. In the very structure of a masterpiece like Chardin’s we see an analogue to the mystery of the divine conservation of nature as described by Thomas Aquinas and other philosophers. Nothing exists unless God acts within it, as the wellspring of being, at every moment. There is no such thing as inertia of being, in nature or in art. Penetrating this mystery, Chardin’s art gives birth to forms whose presence is ceaselessly renewed by a continuous pulse.

In prayer, one can find the internal place where one’s own contingent being depends upon the continual creative action of God, and one can abide there, not escaping from corporeality but experiencing the divine energy within one’s body. Various spiritual traditions, such as the hesychast tradition in Eastern Christianity, foster body-centered prayer, a rooting of the act and the state of prayer in God’s presence and action within the heart, which is within the body. The heart which is transformed, permeated by divine light, in turn sends claritas to the rest of the body, so that the whole body participates in transfiguration (μεταμόρφωσις, metamorphosis, in the New Testament). [i] Because we are bodily creatures this does not occur ethereally; it takes place through our breathing, our heartbeat and circulation, our speaking and acting in the world; it involves movement. A saint is an athlete of virtue. The transforming of matter and of vision is also the aim of art, and here too it is centered in our bodily experience; it is kinesthetic.


Let's see how this plays out in the Giotto:



 The analysis we have made of Giotto’s Epiphany in its broadest aspects can be continued indefinitely, down to the smallest nuance, to show that every detail is rhythmically related, by line, shape and tone, to every other element and to the whole, in dynamic spatial equilibrium. All the constituents of the painting enjoy a communal life, like members of a team. They interact freely, spontaneously; nothing is forced or arbitrary. A masterpiece differs from a daub precisely in this quality of freedom. An inferior work appears forced, as if the artist willed, from outside, the existence of the things in his painting and imposed, externally, some kind of order on the parts, as one might build a machine. A great work of art, like a good athletic team, is not mechanical but organic, as nature herself is organic. An organism does not merely move, like a machine. An organism acts.

In painting and sculpture as in sports, music and dance, everything has to occur at the right time and in the right place, must take its ordained place in the sequence of spatial movements, so that the whole unfolds rhythmically, organically, as a unified life internally balanced. The artist’s experience of the total space within the painting while he is creating it, and the experience of anyone who really perceives the painting fully, is very much like the experience that an athlete, an acrobat, or a dancer has of his or her own body in action.

The freedom exhibited by a beautiful work of art results from the very mastery of the artist, and is the opposite of arbitrariness. It is directly and intimately connected with the inner order of the work. Order does not restrict freedom. Freedom must not be confused with license, which is a caricature of freedom. A masterpiece is free; it freely and spontaneously unfolds and breathes a fragrance of freedom, lifting the viewer into an atmosphere of freedom, precisely because the work is thoroughly ordered. The providence of a true artist creates the freedom of the work and the spontaneity of each of its parts. Likewise an athlete’s movements are not arbitrary, but ordered, disciplined and intentional, and therefore free.

Giotto’s masterpiece lives as a unity, and the many parts of this unity also live; and in the work’s beauty we sense the unfolding of infinite life, power and love. God moves nature in her totality and in all the multitude of creatures that fill her, in such a way as not to obliterate the freedom of those creatures but rather so as to create that freedom. Reflecting this mystery, the providence of an artist in making sure every stroke, every nuance of his work occurs at the right time and place and develops freely, organically from within -- instead of being mechanically imposed from without -- reflects the supreme Artist’s governance of the universe.

The structure of art thus corresponds to the deepest structure of reality, an order which is obscured for us by sin, but revealed afresh in the Church: “If anyone be in Christ, he is a new creature... All things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) The same Holy Spirit that governs each transformed Christian from within and makes him free also governs the whole Body of Christ, the Church of which each Christian is a member; so that the freedom and spontaneity of the Christian is exercised according to the requirements of the whole Body. All the members share together the organic and free life of the Head. The organic freedom in unity which characterizes art, and which distinguishes an athletic team whose members freely work together in one spirit to bring about an amazing play, reflects the freedom in unity of the Church and can help us to understand and realize it.

Making all things new, lifting creation from its state of slavery and rebellion and restoring it to a condition of free, radiant order (kosmos, cosmos), demands a struggle. The passion and victory of Christ the Head are shared by all the members of His Body. All the players share an athletic team’s agonies and triumphs. In a painting, too, all the elements participate in a tension and resolution, a struggle and a breakthrough or transformation.

This kinesthetic character of pictorial space has been written about by many artists, most thoroughly perhaps by the eighteenth century artist Baldassare Orsini and, more recently, by the sculptor Adolf Hildebrand and by the painter Hans Hofmann. The key to drawing anything, and to the appreciation of anything drawn -- be it a human figure, an animal, a tree, a stone or a teapot -- is identifying kinesthetically with its balance and gesture, its way of occupying and moving through space. The experience and creation of pictorial space and volume, and of the movements, rhythms and tensions which generate claritas, amounts to an artistic transfiguration, a metamorphosis, of the world centered in the body of man -- an event remarkably analogous to the cosmic transfiguration which Saint Maximus the Confessor describes in his writings.


In Cezanne’s Mont Sainte Victoire in the Metropolitan Museum, the world within the picture undergoes a tremendous upheaval, with every action provoking an equal and opposite reaction.  As in all great paintings, near and far planes interact in the picture plane -- just as all things far and near, past and present, interact in the providential divine plan to which a saint is attuned, and all the football players interact in a scrimmage.  The way that the left side of the painting plunges back and the right side tumbles forward, as though an earthquake were occurring on a fault line running obliquely through the depth, with the side-to-side prying apart of the trees dramatized by the punch of the viaduct, and all these movements and counter-movements held in tension with each other and with the picture plane, provides an emphatic example of the paroxysm which characterizes the space in a masterpiece.  Everything snaps tautly and resonantly into place, like a trampoline, a rope in a tug-of-war, or a violin string or a drum head.

(If you like you may watch a two minute video of how the forms move in the Cezanne, posted below this essay.)

The pictorial transformation of the world can only occur through a paroxysm, because, as we pointed out earlier, art is a way of knowing reality, and the world itself undergoes transformation through a cataclysmic event -- the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, adumbrated in a series of Old Testament types. “The earth shook, the heavens also dropped at the presence of God: even Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel.” (Psalm 68:8 KJV) “For thus saith the Lord of hosts: Yet once, a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, the sea, and the dry land;  and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come:  and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.” (Haggai 2:6-7)

 The energy is explosive in a great painting. Hans Hofmann compares it to the atomic transformation of matter into energy which can only take place if the right components are assembled in just the right ratios, so that “the effects potentize themselves.” A painting by Raphael, Rembrandt, Vermeer or Chardin, or any great master, is closer to a football game or a wrestling match than to a photograph. A great painting like the Giotto or the Cezanne images a transfigured cosmos which rests not in a state of frozenness or randomness, but rather in a living, vibrant dynamism.

The providential choreography of the pictorial elements in a great painting is not simply copied from nature, but is transposed to the canvas as experienced by the artist internally, according to the painter’s own kinesthetic sensibility.  The painter must feel the pressures, the weights, the pushes and pulls of pictorial forces, in all their interrelations, as forces within his own body, as if the work of art were the artist’s own body; he must know and feel his work from the inside, and he must exert this body athletically. A merely objective observation and recording of appearances (in the sense of mechanical copying, even if done by hand) would miss this necessary quality. A painting is a masterpiece insofar as all things in it suffer a rebirth to an existence in which they work together for good -- for beauty, for the free, harmonious and radiant unfolding of the whole.  A painting is produced from, and manifests, a personal and individual relation to the forces of nature, of reality –- to providence, if you will.

Artists and viewers of art must cultivate this sensibility, just as, according to Saint Paul, Christians must cultivate the love of God in order to see all things working together for good.  The casual sightseer in Provence is no more likely to see the interactions and interdependencies between distance and foreground, among mountain, trees, and aqueduct, which Cezanne registers in the Mont Sainte Victoire, than is the casual observer of events in the world to see everything working together for good.  Yet both Paul Cezanne and Saint Paul (like coaches in what the Apostle calls ὁ καλός ἀγών, ho kalos agon, the good/beautiful, struggle, in 2 Timothy 4:7) try to awaken us to transformed vision -- and transforming action which builds up the Body of Christ.

Each virtuous member of a team, like each integral element in a painting, finds freedom in playing his proper role within the whole and according to the whole (kat’ holon in Greek). Likewise the Church is kat’ holon, catholic -- each member accords with the whole. The integrity, the wholeness or holiness through which each of us seeks to be a temple of God, is identical with that by which we are made one Temple, “fitly framed together,” (Ephesians 2:21) radiant in beauty, by the action of the Spirit of Christ.


James Patrick Reid

Feast of Saint Benedict, 2016


[i] See Matthew 17:2, Mark 9:2, Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 3:18.