Theological Aesthetics: The Unpicturability of God
“. . . the conflict between the idea of a unique, transcendent God, beyond all thought and imagination, and the religious need for images.”
When one speaks about sacred images, this verse in Leviticus may come to mind: “You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything - in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth . . .” (Ex 20:4) Yet the Catholic Church has allowed sculptures, fine art, and icons to fill the walls and sanctuaries of places of worship and beyond for centuries. This was actually an issue in the 8th and 9th century called the Iconoclastic Controversy. Today, this is a source of contention between denominations and a dispute that I wish to explore using a resident expert’s take on theological aesthetics. Father Richard Viladesau is a Professor Emeritus of Fundamental and Systemic Theology from Fordham University, and “in recent years he has become known primarily for his contributions to the field of theological aesthetics: theoretical (epistemology of aesthetics) and historical (theology and the arts).”
Richard Viladesau defines this controversy in his book Theological Aesthetics as “. . . the conflict between the idea of a unique, transcendent God, beyond all thought and imagination, and the religious need for images.” In order to delve into this topic, however, another theme must be addressed. On the broader scope of theological aesthetics, we have philosophers discussing the knowability of God, which seems to digress into two extremes. On the one extreme we have those who have concluded that religion is a myth, because the empirical and/or scientific evidence is lacking. This Victorian positivism (including Marxism) concludes that “historical religion is associated with myth, and seen as a sort of pre-scientific mentality that is to be overcome by the progress of empirical-based reason.”On the other extreme we have those who are deeply awed by the unknowability of God - that any and all images are deemed anthropomorphic and “restrict God’s freedom and infinity.”
First, we must address that God can be “known through his effects”. Secondly, we must understand that these effects (truth, goodness, and beauty) are transcendental and have come to be known as “the synthesis of all the transcendentals, since all of them must be present in integration for beauty to appear.” From this beauty, we move on to understand that human beings are intrinsically ordered for the empirical, thus necessitating the need for art forms. Viladesau explores the dangers within theological aesthetics by using Schoenberg’s opera “Moses and Aron” as an example. Aron points out the need for empiricism and Moses contends that God’s infiniteness should not be morphed into human terms. This leads to the dangers of theological aesthetics where the forms of God turn into idol worship or the creator of these works loses the transcendental balance and focuses on the human acceptance and lucrativeness of fame. Viladesau concludes this idea by saying, “God can neither be used nor submitted to selfish human desires. God is the ‘answer’ to human existence, but in order for this to be, human existence must be ‘ex-centric,’ centered outside of itself, in God. The artist needs to “enter into the presence of the ‘mystery’ of being.”
Stepping away from the metaphysical and even moral aspect of theological aesthetics, let us take a more “evangelistic viewpoint” towards art history. We can do this by reading about St. Paul in the book of Acts. "Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said: ‘You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything’." (Acts 17:22-25)
We have to consider that man has seemingly always used religious aesthetics. For instance, "The artistic traditions of Aztec art highly valued sculpture, geometric stamps for fabric and body art, architecture, metalwork, and pottery, among other things. One of the foremost reasons for the importance of art in Aztec culture was because art was an integrated part of Aztec religion. It was extensively used in the religious festivals and ceremonies throughout the year."
Aztec culture aside, when we go back to the Athenians, the natural course of action for those artists who were listening to Paul's message would be to start making art from the stories and lessons that they learned from the mouths of the Apostles. Those who built the Parthenon (the temple in Athens) or the sculptures of the Greek gods (Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, Artemis, etc.) would be disposed to create temples and sculptures to the living God such as the "Santa Maria in Trastevere (c. 340 AD)" or “The Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.” “Early Christian sculptors followed the Greco-Roman example of their time in their works just as the Romans imitated the Greek sculptors. Rather than imitate Greek myths, the Christians sculptors took as their inspiration the Bible.” It just goes to show that Van der Leeuw was right in Viladesau’s quote: "For no religion speaks in abstract concepts; religion speaks in myths, that is in the language of images. And no religion can get along without symbols . . .For even the bare walls and central position of the pulpit are 'symbols.'"
I leave you with “The Letter to Artists” written by Pope John Paul II:
The Law of the Old Testament explicitly forbids representation of the invisible and ineffable God by means of “graven or molten image” (Dt 27:15), because God transcends every material representation: “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14). Yet in the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God becomes visible in person: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son born of woman” (Gal 4:4). God became man in Jesus Christ, who thus becomes “the central point of reference for an understanding of the enigma of human existence, the created world and God himself”. This prime epiphany of “God who is Mystery” is both an encouragement and a challenge to Christians, also at the level of artistic creativity. From it has come a flowering of beauty which has drawn its sap precisely from the mystery of the Incarnation. In becoming man, the Son of God has introduced into human history all the evangelical wealth of the true and the good, and with this he has also unveiled a new dimension of beauty, of which the Gospel message is filled to the brim.
 Fordham University, “Faculty,” www.fordham.edu.
 Richard Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 39.
 Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics, 62.
 Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics, 48.
 Thomas Aquinas, _Summa theologiae_, I, q. 2, respondeo, at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.
 Norris Clarke, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 299.
 Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics, 58.
 Aztecs and Tenochtitlan, “Aztec Art,” https://aztecsandtenochtitlan.com.
 Oldest.org, “Oldest Cathedrals in the World,” https://www.oldest.org.
 Early Church History, “Early Christian Sculptures,” https://earlychurchhistory.org.
 Richard Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 55.
 John Paul II, Letter to Artists (4 April 1999), §5.