“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere on earth. We cannot describe it to you; we only know that God dwells there among men….” (Grand Prince Vladimir’s envoys on their impressions of Hagia Sophia and its liturgy)
Beauty—what is it? Something quite indefinable that is often taken for granted, whether by laymen or professionals in the area of æsthetics: something that is nevertheless there, whose presence beholders admit without any full or clear explanation. The beauty of an object or living creature may unite people in a moment of consensus, whether silent or verbalised, who would never agree with each other on any other kind of subject.
This world was created by God, and God saw that it was very good. The Septuagint’s καλὰ λίαν (kala lian) can equally well be translated as very beautiful . Living in our post-lapsarian world we can understand the general idea that there is good and evil, beauty and ugliness, difficult though it is to get into details. Some might say that there is more beauty in a young deer than in an octopus; others can add that there is more beauty in an octopus depicted on a Mycenaean vase than in a living prototype. Ancient Greeks definitely knew something about beauty, and we are still applying the laws that they discovered. “Man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not”—these words of Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490-c. 420 BCE), together with the Canon of Polykleitos, give us no choice but to admit that Man is the key.
Pagan though they were, the Greeks were seeking something beyond only the physical beauty of Man, so a perfect person for them would be καλὸς κἀγαθός (kalos kagathos), both beautiful and virtuous. Their idea of moral goodness was, in many aspects, not too different from the one that we Christians have. Later, in Byzantine literature, good and kind, beautiful and wise heroes and heroines, and ugly, cruel villains (as in descriptions of Zeno and Stavrakios, the iconoclast emperors who were ugly, and of comely and brave Basil I), illustrate and elaborate on this idea.
Then it changes. In Anna Komnene’s Alexiad, for example, we can see many handsome villains. Outer, physical beauty becomes separate from moral goodness, and may be a feature of any type of character.
Travelling further through the centuries, we recognise another perspective in Dostoevsky and his “beauty will save the world.” By “beauty” Prince Myshkin, the character in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, means inner beauty, virtue. This idea surely stems from the Christian Φιλοκαλία, the Philokalia [love of beauty, love of good], a collection of texts written by spiritual masters for whom beauty is spiritual, moral, and ethical, not “easy on the eyes.”
In fact, the harmony of the physical world, or those traces of heavenly harmony that are still there and keep us all going, is often undeservedly disregarded by those who discover the world of Christian spirituality for themselves.
But is it really possible for inner beauty to exist completely apart from a suitable form? An ugly body can be a vessel for a pure soul, there is no point in denying it. But it needs at least some body to contain it, and the human body was originally created in God’s own image, so the outer beauty of the human body is in accordance with Divine beauty. Would it be too wrong to suggest that it can only exist when a measure of this accordance is sufficient?
In the same way, a great thought or idea is no use when badly worded. The first and the best texts of church services were created according to the rules of ancient rhetoric; otherwise the brightest inner revelations of the Fathers and the Teachers of the Church would not have been delivered to us. And were it not for the Byzantine artists, who had developed their skills of depicting the Divine based on the rules and laws invented by the ancient Greeks, and had created the wonderful mosaics of Hagia Sophia, the ambassadors from ancient Rus’ [quoted above] might not have been inspired by the idea of what Heaven is.
The first and basic aspect of beauty—order—once helped to reduce the level of crime in the New York Subway in the 1980s. The eradication of graffiti, and the cleaning of windows each time trains arrived at a station, helped create an ordered social atmosphere. I am referring to this case because I see it as the process of making the environment as its Creator designed it. Mess, dirt, chaos, and crime are alien to the objectives of architects and designers—they try to provide public space in which people move efficiently and peacefully.
However far “normal human existence” is from the ideal, it is most likely to turn into its beastly version, or just cease to exist, in an inappropriate environment. If some elements of primordial harmony are so crucial for people’s mundane activities, what can we say about the salvation of souls? And going to church on Sunday, seeing everything not just clean and neat, but designed and created in obedience with the laws of heavenly harmony, one has a better chance of his or her soul receiving proper nourishment, enriching the mind and charging their “inner battery” to then get back to terrestrial life as a bit of a heavenly alien.
Irina Gannota is an artist with a degree in Ceramic Arts from the Stroganov Moscow State Academy of Industrial and Applied Arts. During her third year at the Academy she “discovered” Orthodox Christianity for herself. This led later to her artwork mainly in porcelain icons. (See www.irina-gannota.com.) She lives and works in Moscow.