Not Just To See, But To Eat Beauty

I’m in London with some students for spring break, making an English pilgrimage. The nice thing about your first day after a transatlantic flight is that you have no expectations for “seeing” anything or “doing” anything. Just try to remember your name at Border Control and don’t leave your passport on the bus. Check.

But sometimes, along the way, maybe even because of your low expectations, you encounter something of beauty that stops your heart, takes your breath, makes you pause, leaves you silent, in awe, just like it used to happen when you were the age of your students.

One of the great parts of my job is that I get to talk about beauty, all day. I lecture on it with my students, lead seminars, show slides, play them music, read them poems, show some little clip from a smart documentary, trying to make them love it, too. One of the bad parts about this is, because I’m a “professional,” I don’t have all that many new experiences of beauty. When I tell my students, “Hey, ready this passage from Homer,” or, “Hey, here’s a poem by Wilbur,” I’m reaching back into my memory, reconstructing, and sharing with them something that I’ve carried around in my heart for a long time.

But when I was sleep-deprived in London the other day, the old feeling came back over me: icy wonder, awe-filled silence. You don’t want to talk about it while you’re there: you just want to look, or, in this case, touch…

17th century monstrance featuring the Madonna and Child. Photo courtesy of Jason Baxter.

What I saw was a 17th-century monstrance at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s not particularly important. It’s not made by a famous artist and didn’t belong to a particularly famous person. But that’s part of the charm of beauty: it doesn’t have to be important. In fact, importance might be an impediment to beauty. No one for decades, for instance, has seen the Mona Lisa, because when you go to Paris to see it, it’s not only behind inches of bullet-proof glass, and you’re not only nearly trampled by the hundreds of people in the room, but even if you do fight your way up to the front, you’ll probably just take a picture, as some sort of weird proof that you were there. You didn’t see anything. You just stood there in front of it saying, “wow, and here it is, it’s really here,” but you’re so overwhelmed by the fact that it is here that you don’t—you can’t—take the time the to see what it’s like.

But no one (except my wonderful friend and student, Luke) cared about my monstrance. We just looked at that monstrance for half an hour, and I kept wanting to open up the glass case, set off the alarm, and touch it. I wanted to caress the smooth little figure of our lady at the top in all gold… I wanted to feel the cool surfaces of the larger gems or touch the littles clusters of pearls and opals (it seems as if the artist were trying to include all the gems mentioned in the Apocalypse). And so I just kept looking at it, as if I was touching it with my eyes, wanting to hold it, wanting to be close to it… And all of that might be very important. It is a monstrance, after all. Could such a desire—to be close, to touch, to hold forever—turn out to be the core component of the experience of beauty?

I bet you think all of this sounds strange. We’re a very in-the-head kind of society. We think that you are a Christian, if you have the right opinions (although our ancestors would have been scandalized by this). But I’m not the first to have such an experience. In the Middle Ages, a lot of sculptures, carved out of alabaster, are worn smooth by generations of touching, because the viewers wanted to be close to them, not just to see them or think about them. And, furthermore, modern scholars have a term for all of this: they call it, “haptic aesthetics.” You might have read about “hap suits” (the newest investment in making VR seem real) or seen the “haptics” feature on your phone (like, the vibration pattern), but when it comes to artistic experiences, “haptic aesthetics” are really about that layered experience of beauty that comes about when a sense of “touch” or other senses might co-exist within a looking experience.

Again, this might sound strange, but almost all of our medieval art was made with the intention of invoking a reaction that was deeper than mere recognition of correct opinion: “yep, that’s gotta be the Annunciation.” No. In contrast, they wanted to embody art (you can experience this haptic dimension in my new translation of Dante!). For instance, Dante has St. John ask the pilgrim, not just if he knows what love is, but how he came to love. But the way John asks is what I’m talking about: “Say further if you feel still other cords/ that draw you to Him, so that you may declare/ the many teeth with which this love does bite” (Hollander translation).

I come back to my monstrance. I’ve begun to think that the monstrance is the best symbol for what beauty is, especially those wonderful Baroque monstrances with their waves of gold irradiating out from the center. The artists wanted to make the Eucharist seem like a heart that had caught on fire, or a sun that was releasing the warm spiritual, radioactive energy of grace, or maybe, both at once! If beauty, then, is like the monstrance, then at the heart of beauty (the empty circle of my monstrance) is Eternity, which the ancient Christian tradition defined as the whole and simultaneous possession of life.

Beauty, then, is the awakening, sometimes haunting, for eternity, but not just that! As Lewis puts it once, we don’t just want to see beauty, we want to be beauty. Or, because we’re Catholics, we say: we don’t want just to look at beauty, we want (like Caravaggio’s Thomas) to touch it or, in the case of my monstrance, we want to eat it. The experience of beauty, then, involves all of these wonderful and related and complicated layers: it is an awakening, of that strange, icy, nostalgic ache for the world’s beginning, accompanied by the desire to have Eternity embodied in my life, close. But now I’m just repeating Plato, who already knew all about this.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-2) by Caravaggio.

Top image: Victoria and Albert Museum,
Noel Treacy Flickr.

Jason Baxter

Dr. Baxter is the Director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College. He holds a Doctorate in Literature from the University of Notre Dame. Prior to joining Benedictine, he spent time as a visiting associate professor at Notre Dame preceded by twelve years at Wyoming Catholic College. His written works include The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis and A Beginner’s Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy, among others, and he is currently working on an original translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Baxter has written many academic and popular articles, and he frequently makes media appearances ranging from podcasts to EWTN.