Saturday, September 05, 2015

Book Review: David Clayton's The Way of Beauty: Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration for Family, School, and College

Readers of NLM are no strangers to the fine work of David Clayton, as painter and iconographer, teacher and writer, and generally a whirlwind of interesting ideas on all things aesthetic. Over the years he has contributed some of my favorite articles here at NLM, be they on mathematical proportions in architecture and music, on what makes a work of art sacred rather than merely religious, on the many links between the liturgy and the fine arts, on the conditions for a rebirth of ecclesiastical art in our times, on the profound connection between education and liturgy (something that is, sad to say, understood by few), and on comparisons between different stylistic periods in art and how these differences affect the representation and perception. Just the other day he was writing about gardens -- appropriately for a man who seems, garden-like, to produce an abundance of intellectual flowers and fruits.

Clayton's remarkable compendium, The Way of Beauty: Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration for Family, School, and College, was published this summer by Angelico Press. The book and its subtitle tell you a great deal: this book indeed covers "the way of beauty" in so many rich ways, tying together not only the several fine arts themselves (in detailed assessments of how works of art actually function educationally and liturgically), but also the larger cultural context in which art is always situated and which it powerfully shapes in turn, the optimal environment for the arts to be practiced and their works contemplated, and the philosophical and theological roots of artistic endeavor as found across cultures and civilizations. The book is an extended meditation on the meaning of beauty, which has its exemplar in God, and how this beauty is expressed among us in number, weight, and measure, in form and matter, in signs and symbols, in complementary styles.

Although ambitious and detailed, the book is easy to read. It falls into distinct sections; indeed, one might say that it is four slim books published in one volume. Part One (pp. 1-96), "The Connection Between Liturgy, the Culture, and Education," is a set of variations on the theme, made popular by Dawson, of the link between cult, culture, and cultivation. While I think everyone should read the book, it's perfectly obvious to me that anyone involved in Catholic education, at any level, should make a point of studying this part, which is not merely speculative but chock full of practical suggestions for improving school environments and curricula.

Part Two (pp. 97-172) pursues the argument into universal principles that govern the arts and tie them into the universe, the human heart, and the Catholic faith. I have often thought that people need to study this kind of treatise in order to see examples of natural law at work in areas other than hot-button moral issues.

Part Three (pp. 173-232) is a remarkable mini-treatise on "The Forms of Figurative Christian Liturgical Art," rightly subtitled "A Guide for Artists and Those Establishing a Canon of Images for Study in an Education of Beauty." Clayton takes his point of departure from The Spirit of the Liturgy, where Joseph Ratzinger identifies the Byzantine, the Gothic, and the Baroque "at its best" as the three authentic styles or modes of sacred art. Clayton fleshes out this judgment of Ratzinger's by a careful examination of the qualities of sacred art and how they relate to theological anthropology and the Christian liturgy. This part contains a marvelous introduction to the theology of the icon, a discussion of how and why naturalism entered into sacred art, and "case studies" of icons ancient and modern as well as Gothic and Baroque works of art, where the author applies his principles to particulars. All of this part should be required reading for any Catholic artist or artisan.

Part Four (pp. 233-261) brings together a number of short pieces that fill out or illustrate points made in parts 1-3.

In the photos below, I have favored pages with artwork, to show the way Clayton brings his analysis to actual examples, rather than dwelling in the clouds among generalities. In the book the illustrations are in grayscale, but thoughtfully, Angelico Press has gathered onto one internet page all the color versions, here.

Looking over it as a whole, where I find Clayton's book most exciting is his compelling case for the integral place of the beautiful -- of fine arts and sacred art, and aesthetic education -- in the New Evangelization. Beauty is not an extra or an add-on, a luxury or an indulgence, but an essential and inherent dimension of truth itself (when it is really the truth!), an attribute of our Lord Jesus Christ and of His liturgy. If we abandon our pursuit of excellence and understanding in this domain, we stand to lose our faith, our our ability to transform the world for God's sake, and even our sanity. This, of course, is a drum I've been beating, too, for years and years, in the hopes that more and more people will wake up to the reality that ugliness, like ignorance, error, and sin, is a privation and a deprivation, with a peculiar de-evangelizing force, while beauty, like truth and goodness, converts, perfects, and elevates us to God. Moreover, without faith and the ordering it gives to our final destiny in God, art itself can become pernicious. Christianity is the art of salvation and the salvation of art.

I most highly recommend this book to all who are genuinely captivated by the new liturgical movement and all that it stands for. The way of beauty is, for us, absolutely essential, and Clayton has produced an exceptional guidebook to it.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: