Beauty Adorns Virtue


by: Jason Watson in: Article 3 years ago

One of the most prized paintings in all of the Western world is Leonardo da Vinci's Ginevra de' Benci. A particularly striking aspect of the work is the reverse side has an inscription which reads virtutem forma decorat, which means beauty adorns virtue.

The idea is that outer beauty is only a representation of the inner radiance, and can thus only be true if it flows from this deeper source. But what if all is pomp and ceremony and hollowness within? Can beauty truly reside on such an unsteady frame?

For the ancient Greeks, beauty was a concept that could be captured in a number of different ways. In some views it was a harmony of sorts, a symmetry that forms a composition into a greater whole. The chaos of this transient world was brought to peace, and thus manifested itself self-evidently as beautiful. In this manner, beauty was not subjective but was such because of the nature of an object itself; if it conformed to this symmetry and found its harmony amidst the surrounding cacophony, it was beautiful.

Greek statuary tends to exhibit this ideal in the human form, and one writer enigmatically declared that 'man is the measure of all things.' Whatever was meant by such a statement, the idealized form of human beauty provided its own justification; the hard lines against the proportional curves delineating what beauty was for mortals, and perhaps even for gods.

After all, the gods of the Greeks tended to look much like the athletic diskobulus (disc-thrower). The nudity of the figures is not intended to illicit sexual desire, but to reveal the nature of the object, to depict its beauty in all of its obviousness and inescapability. The ideal form gives us a glimpse of what men are meant to strive towards, for the harmony in the outward appearance is meant to point towards the deeper harmony to be gained between the soul and the body:

"There can be no fairer spectacle than that of a man who combines the possession of moral beauty in his soul, with outward beauty of body, corresponding and harmonizing with the former, because the same great pattern enters into both." (Plato, Republic)

Of course, this golden mean is perhaps the heady stuff of philosophers, for lesser minds rarely have time for such finery. The writer Isocrates provides the counter-point, recognizing that outward beauty is really what most of us are on about, virtue be ****ed:

Beauty… is the most August, most precious, and most divine of all things. And it is easy to estimate its influence; for, while many of the things which have no part or lot in courage, wisdom, or justice, will be seen to be valued more highly than each of these, we shall find that none of those things which have no share of beauty are objects of admiration, but are universally despised, except in so far as they share this attribute, and that virtue owes its reputation chiefly to this, that it is the most beautiful of the aspects of life. (Isocrates, Encomium to Helen)

In other words, if something isn't sparkly, we usually pass it on by. Even the virtues that we give so much lip service to are only worth the effort if they are beautiful too. With impeccable honesty he concludes:

The strongest proof of what I have stated is that we shall find that more mortals have owed their immortality to their beauty than to any other excellences. (Isocrates, Encomium to Helen)

The Jewish scriptures have a somewhat different approach to beauty. We know that "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting…" (Proverbs 31:30); "As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field" (Psalm 103:15). Outward beauty is a contingent thing, for God "remembers that we are dust…" (Psalm 103:14).

God, on the other hand, is always beautiful, and that beauty radiates from his holiness. "O worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth." (Psalm 96:9)

Holiness is thus the beauty of God, like the shimmering corona of the sun in its dazzling light. Beauty is found in imitation of God, and thus in imitation of holiness: "From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth" (Psalm 50:2); "Is this the city [Jerusalem] that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of the whole earth?" (Lamentations 2:15)

Apart from this holiness, beauty is little more than a broken crown. Rather than set in opposition to virtue, beauty is meant as its adornment. If the harmony and order of the two is lost, disaster is not far behind.

During the time of the Maccabean revolts, the Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes tried to establish Hellenism upon the Jewish people, forcing them to obey Greek customs and religious observances, going so far to erect a temple to Zeus in Jerusalem. This extravagance of outward beauty set over against the beauty in holiness leads to a hollowing out of true beauty:

And there was great mourning in Israel, and in every place where they were: And the princes, and the ancients mourned, and the virgins and the young men were made feeble, and the beauty of the women was changed. (1 Maccabees 1:26-27)

This battle between Greek and Jew is seen by some as the culmination of Noah's prophecies in Genesis, where Shem (the father of the Hebrews) is set over his brother Japheth (the father of the Greeks):

May God extend Japheth’s territory;
may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,
and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth. (Genesis 9:27)

The Hebrew name Japheth is understood by some to come from the word yophi, which tends to describe masculine beauty. Some rabbinical commentators have linked this with the Greeks, and given the natural predisposition towards masculine beauty in ancient Greek thought, there was a natural consonance between Hebrew and Greek which led to the translation of the Septuagint, among other things. The larger point, however, is that the interpretation of this prophecy is that the beauty of Japheth is meant to dwell in the tent of Shem; that is, outward beauty is meant to be subsumed under holiness, the beauty of "hod" which is overflowing, awesome and fearful.

To disrupt this order- to separate beauty from holiness- is to pervert it, to hollow it out and set up a statute bereft of life and vitality. It makes the beautiful to be merely pornographic, useful only for tantalizing and titillating, but not for transcending.

Beauty is a dangerous thing, and must be treated with respect. The Scriptures praise the virtues and beauty of the beloved in one breath (Song of Songs) while warning against the deceptive beauty of the adulteress (Proverbs). Our senses can play the master, leading us to destruction. But the glory of holiness is perhaps more terrible in its purity and its wonder, for the nearer we come the nearer we get to the precipice of plunging into the depths of the glory of God.

The artist must therefore tread with care, for his path is fraught with danger. The creations of the mind and the hands can be an instrument of both salvation and ****ation. He may set out to build icons, but end up erecting idols.

Beauty, then, is not a god to be captured on film or set into song, but is rather an adornment for virtue, the frontispiece of a work that leads into the holiness for which we were created. The highest attainment of our craft is to be a fitting diadem for holiness, and at the end of it all to lie down to rest in its tents.