Tuesday, June 22, 2021

A Classic Book on Art and Beauty to Be Republished: “The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty”

Fr John Saward’s classic theological meditation on the works of Fra Angelico is to be re-published by Angelico Press, almost 25 years after it first appeared. You can purchase it here.

In October 2001, I decided to make a trip to the USA from London, where I was living at the time. I had just read John Paul II’s Letter to Artists. This short text, a survey of the range of Christian art over the centuries, and an exhortation for contemporary artists to emulate the greats of the past, was the first coming out of the contemporary Church that I had read that had any stamp of authority on it and which seemed to be making a case for the re-establishment of a Catholic culture of beauty. I knew nobody in the US, but wanted to try to connect with Catholic universities over here to persuade them to establish a new sort of Catholic art school that might create artists capable of responding to the Holy Father’s call.

I didn’t know the world of Catholic education at all, and approached, without any introduction and out of the blue, a number of big-name “Catholic” universities. In some cases, I just walked unannounced into the art departments on campus and asked to speak to the head. I was, naively, hoping to persuade them to stop teaching secular art and start forming Catholic artists.

Unsurprisingly, most couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. Here was a strange Englishman waving papal encyclicals at them and telling them they had been getting it wrong for years. It was not something they particularly relished, it seems. However, some did listen and explained that it was not as easy as I thought to transform the teaching goals of an established art school. They tried to connect me with students who they knew would feel as I did. As I started to talk to these two names kept on cropping up. Nearly all suggested first that I go back to England and approach someone called Stratford Caldecott, who lived in Oxford and published a journal called Second Spring (this I did, and he became a mentor to me). Second, they suggested that I read this book by Fr John Saward. By coincidence, Fr John also lived in Oxford, and Stratford Caldecott introduced me to him on one of my subsequent trips there.

I was captivated by this book, a work on Catholic art that was actually sympathetic to Catholic culture, and written by someone who unapologetically believed in the truth of the subjects portrayed in the paintings. Until then, every account of Catholic culture and painting I had read (with the exception of the very brief Letter to Artists) came under the category of art history, and was written by people who were clearly non-believers. They spoke of Catholic art - even if they appreciated its beauty - as the product of antiquated superstitious thought and formed by socio-economic factors (what I now realize is the standard Marxist critique, although they never said so). But this was different. Here was someone who not only talked about the content knowledgeably, but extended his discussion to the necessity for art and beauty in the culture. It was as much about philosophy and theology as it was about art. The name alone told me that this was different.

As a result, I understood that there was a Catholic way of discussing and appreciating art and culture that could begin to explain why the Church had been the source of so much beauty through the centuries...and why it had ceased to be so in recent times. The cleverness of the name alone captured my attention and told me that this was special. So much of what I have tried to do in the years since then in the mission to re-establish a Catholic culture of beauty has been inspired by what I read in this book.

Below are the reviews that appear on the book itself, including one by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, whose The Spirit of the Liturgy was first published around the same time as Fr Saward’s book, and translated from German into English by Saward himself.

The first, unattributed, is the summary from the publisher:
“Beauty will save the world,” said Dostoyevsky. In this book, John Saward presents a study of two ways in which the saving beauty of Christ shines upon the world: in the lives of His saints, and in the works of Christian art—“the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty.” This unique and unprecedented theological meditation centers on several works of art of the Dominican blessed, John of Fiesole, known to the world as Fra Angelico. Drawing on the wisdom of the Church’s Fathers and Doctors, Saward has written a book not on art history, but on the attractive radiance of Catholic truth. Its goal is to help Christians grow in wonder at the glory of Divine Revelation, to which both the Church’s saints and the Church’s art bear witness.
“The importance of this luminous book can scarcely be overestimated. The substance of Saward’s scholarship and his understanding of culture are dazzling. His vision is of utmost urgency. This is wise, deeply moving, and invigorating—a masterpiece!”
“The more I read of John Saward’s work, the more I am inclined to include his name on the very short list of preeminently important twentieth-century Catholic writers. He opens to us yet another rich aspect of the Faith that seems scarcely to have been touched on before. Read it, and find your vision vastly deepened and heightened.”
“Professor Saward provides his readers a great service by his careful treatment of the connection between sacred art, the heroic virtue of saintly people, and the fullness of truth taught by Christ and His Church. The numerous citations of Catholic artists, poets, and musicians demonstrate how the Catholic Faith elevates civilization. Perhaps through efforts such as Professor Saward’s, we will see the prevailing culture of death in our day pale in the light of a civilization of life and love radiating from the beauty of holiness, and the holiness of beauty, that truth inspires.”
You can purchase it here.

FR. JOHN SAWARD is a Fellow of Blackfriars’ Hall and priest in charge of the parish of SS. Gregory and Augustine, Oxford.

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