The Art of the Sublime

ISBN 978-1-84976-387-5

The De-sublimations of Christian Art

Ben Quash

In modern western philosophy God has been separated from nature and the sublime from the beautiful. However, Ben Quash argues in this essay that art in the Christian tradition need not accept this separation.
The idea of the sublime, it may be said, arises from a sort of ‘dissolution of being’1. Only when the traditional unity of the true, the good and the beautiful – a unity so cherished by medieval metaphysics – has been thrown into question is it possible to conceive of a fundamental opposition between the representable, on the one hand, and that which is beyond representation, on the other. Or, to put it another way, between the beautiful and the sublime. Before this rift, a belief in the participative ordering of all things in coherent and coincident ways allowed one to say that earthly beauty was irradiated by divine glory, even if quite incapable of encompassing or capturing it. Afterwards, notions of the simplicity and fecundity and radiance and gratuity of creation seemed untenable. Glory as the infuser and animator of beauty gave way to sublimity as the enemy of form and proportion.
The rise of the sublime parallels the event of modernity within philosophy, in which God and nature are likewise divorced, and set in mutually exclusive opposition to one another. Nature – the world of beings – is ‘transcended’ by God in a way that really means that God is absent from it: veiled and impenetrable. God’s transcendence can only now be understood, it seems, as God’s ‘exile beyond’ the world: occasionally breaking through perhaps, but only as an alienum.2 And postmodern thought in various ways continues to exalt the unrepresentable in direct continuity with this modern trajectory, as though the utterly unrepresentable is ‘being’ at its truest and most untrammelled; being known precisely through its enmity towards ‘the fragile frozen present of representation’; known at the points when representation (whether conceptual or artistic) is ruptured or dissolved.
What I propose to do in this short essay is suggest that the view of God’s transcendence and unrepresentability that are characteristic of Christian tradition – both in its written theology and in its art – ought not to accept the opposition between God and nature set up by modern philosophy, nor between sublimity and beauty followed by artists of the same period. Properly Christian art cannot accept the ‘presumed incompatibility between form and infinity that recurs, almost obsessively, in postmodern thought’. It cannot say that ‘the beautiful leaves off where the sublime begins, and the sublime itself falls away when it has sufficiently suggested to reason the formless power of the infinite’. This would be to make the relations between them – the beautiful, the sublime and the infinite – somehow ‘linear and irreversible’.3 It would make the sublime a partition that assures ‘an inviolable division between the beautiful and the infinite’.4 But Christianity is premised upon different convictions and a different worldview, namely, a metaphysics of relation, and of communication, in which the infinite, as itself communicative relationship, is the wellspring or source of all natural things and their relationships with each other. God’s infinite activity may exceed the comprehension of creatures, but it cannot be conceived as fundamentally in competitive relationship to them, or only present when they are displaced or obliterated. So it suggests a penetration or infusion of the beautiful by the infinite, such that finite creaturely forms can open up to the infinite depths that are theirs by virtue of being created – having as their truest meaning the fact that they are gifts, and more precisely gifts of the self-communicating infinite. Transcendence, on this account, is not the opposite of immanence, or presence, or form; transcendence is at work in all these modes of being.
Hart has followed, as I do, the twentieth-century Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in wanting to get at a Christian aesthetic that corresponds to, and reflects, this metaphysic. No evocation of God’s glory, to echo Balthasar, ought to construct itself through an opposition to the body, to language, to the material realm of finite creatures and their relations. And this is because this God chooses to speak through the body of Torah, and – for Christians – the body of Christ, which then continues to be reinstantiated in time by the canon of Scripture and the embodiments of the sacraments.
The relational metaphysic intrinsic to Christianity, I would argue (and want to suggest in this article) is also deeply ethical. It has ethical effects on the way in which human beings treat one another, as well as the way that collectively and as individuals we relate to our natural environment. If the sublime tends towards the suggestion that our concerns with proportionality and responsibility have nothing whatsoever to do with the boundlessness, independence and violence of nature, then the relation with nature will be one of alienation, warfare, or mere spectacle.

The Kantian background

This reference to the dangers of mere spectacle and to the importance of mutual relationship between creatures leads me to the suggestion that there are one or two other aspects to the sublime – at least in its Kantian strain – with which Christian theology ought to have trouble. We can add these to the first problem, already noted, by which infinite and finite are simply opposed. The second problem is that secretly the viewer retains a sort of mastery of sublime experience in the exercise of his or her reason. The viewer of sublime spectacle never really loses his or her footing, and in some cases comes away with a strengthened view of the powers of the rational mind. The third problem is that sublimity – Kantan sublimity at least – tends towards the de-particularization of actual phenomena. This means that these phenomena are not related to with integrity; they are generalizations of the mind. Real relationship – including real ethical relationship – is not given a secure footing by such de-particularization.
Famously, in Kant’s contrast between the beautiful and the sublime, both the beautiful and the sublime are somehow contained by reason. ‘For Kant’, so the academic Nicholas Adams writes, ‘our deepest satisfaction is not in the object but in our response to the object’:
Our discovery that there is a harmonious relation of imagination and understanding, in the case of beauty, or that there is something like an intention to defy our comprehension, in the case of the sublime, awakens a renewed appreciation for reason.5
Kant considers both the beautiful and the sublime as ‘indefinite’ concepts, but where beauty relates to the ‘Understanding’, sublime is a concept belonging to ‘Reason’, and ‘shows a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of Sense’6. For Kant, sublime events – enormities like earthquakes, for example, or storms at sea – reveal the inadequacy of one’s sensibility and imagination to process them. But simultaneously, one’s ability to identify and to think about such events, and about oneself as the experiencer of such events, indicates the superiority of one’s cognitive, supersensible powers over them at the level of reason. Or to put it another way, when we have what are (at the sensible level) overwhelming experiences, we retain the capacity to think about ourselves having these experiences. A sublime object can thus create in us a fearfulness ‘without [our] being afraid of it’.7 For Kant, as Adams writes:
the sublime thus reveals our superiority over nature; it displays our mind’s power over sense; it enables us to appreciate our autonomy; we simultaneously see our physical selves as subject to the overwhelming power of nature and our rational selves as independent of it.8
Adams expresses crisply what is theologically interesting – and provocative – about Kant’s account of the sublime:
Two contradictory tendencies are displayed. In one direction nature’s awe overwhelms us. In the other direction the transformation of fear into delight seems to reveal our autonomous superiority. We are both at the mercy of, and independent of, nature.9
This, as he notes, reflects ‘a particularly intense form’ of a typical opposition in modern views of human agency, namely, the view of humans as subject to cause and effect (the deterministic tendency in modern accounts of the human) as opposed to the view of humans as utterly free (the autonomy-promoting tendency in modern accounts of the human). ‘The sublime expresses this opposition simultaneously.’ And, to reiterate, ‘[w]hat is revealing is the insistence that reason wins out’:
Even the most violent, majestic, crushing magnitude of nature is finally contained by reason’s contemplation. It is tempting to wonder if the sublime represents Kant’s fantasy of reason’s invulnerability in the face of the incalculably great. The idea that even ‘that than which nothing greater can be thought’ can be contained by reason is the most astonishing triumph of human subjectivity.10
Another revealing, and theologically controversial implication of Kant’s account is that:
It is not the particular object – the particular natural phenomenon, the particular earthquake, the particular storm – that is marvellous in the end. It is ourselves. The storm is merely the occasion for a display to ourselves of our autonomy. It does not much matter whether it is a storm or a volcano, or whether it is this storm or that storm. Insofar as they are occasions, they are indistinguishable. We certainly transfer this self-respect to some natural object. Indeed, this transfer is what provides the occasion for the intuition that our rationality is superior to nature. But in the end what we respect, in our respect for that which overwhelms us, is ourselves. This argument has perhaps the single most important theological resonance in the whole of Kant’s philosophy. It has a similar shape to Feuerbach’s argument in The Essence of Christianity that human speech about God is, in the end, merely a projection of human self-understanding. Kant’s claim, ‘the feeling of the sublime in nature is respect for our own vocation’ is close to Feuerbach’s ‘in the consciousness of the infinite, the conscious subject has for his object the infinity of his own nature’. Kant does not go so far, of course: his remarks in §27 of the Critique of Judgement are solely concerned with nature, not God. Moreover [...] Kant refuses in §28 to interpret natural phenomena as signs of God’s agency. Nonetheless it is striking that Kant shows a strong tendency to see in the apparent greatness of what lies outside us an expression of authentic human superiority over it.11
We can conclude, with Adams, that Kant’s aesthetics, particularly in his account of the sublime, present a challenge for Christian theology. This is, first, because of the way that Kantian reason ‘subdues all that appears superior to it’; and, second, it is because ‘particulars are, at the deepest level, of no consequence’. These two tendencies lead to the conclusion that, for Kant, respect for sublime nature is in fact more deeply a form of self-respect. We see this exemplified in an image like Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog: (Kunsthalle Hamburg, Germany) a paradigmatic example of the Romantic art of the sublime. ‘Kant’s habits of thought’, concludes Adams, present some tall hurdles to any attempt theologically to make sense of the particularity of Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice both calls for human self-dispossession and surpasses human understanding.

Transcendence good and bad

But let’s turn back now to the first problem – which is the main one I want to focus on – and that is the ‘bad transcendence’, from a theological point of view, which finds expression in the ideas as well as the art of sublimity.
The question of the relation of God’s ‘transcendence’ of the world and yet his ‘immanence’ within the world is central to Christian theology. But – as is forcefully argued by the theologian Paul Janz – the problem is that we usually do not even formulate the question well, let alone begin to answer it. Janz writes of ‘the basic limitations of discursive or cognitively speculative reason even to form the question of God’s transcendence properly at all’.12 He reserves especial criticism for what he describes as ‘the emergence and special prominence of the language of “alterity” in present-day theology, which echoes similar trends in phenomenological, post-structuralist and literary theoretical talk’. Such concerns to speak in terms of alterity have doubtless to do with what it quite widely recognized today as certain basic failures of ‘ontological’ language to accommodate adequately what Christians affirm when they speak of the reality of God.13 The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously declared that ‘einen Gott den “es gibt”, gibt es nicht‘. God is not a ‘constituent’ in the created realm of the ‘there is’ but is rather, in his eternal and living reality, the Creator of all ‘there is’.
It is therefore out of the inability of such ‘totalizing’ ontological language to address properly what theology understands in the ‘being’ of God, that the language of ‘alterity’ or the radical ‘otherness’ of God has recently become especially prominent.14
However, the language of alterity has it in common with the language of ontology that it is ‘unable to accommodate what Christians affirm when they speak of the transcendent reality of God’.15 Why?
Janz’s argument is that the idea of alterity – like the idea of ‘infinity’ – remains something that thought generates from within itself, even if it is generated as a boundary-breaking thought about something that exceeds our intellect’s ordinary proportioning powers. Janz quotes Levinas saying that ‘[T]he idea of infinity is exceptional’ (in relation to what Janz calls other ‘focuses of reflective interest’ and their corresponding ideas) in that ‘its ideatum [i.e. its referent] surpasses its idea’. And again: infinity is ‘an idea whose ideatum overflows the capacity of thought’, and as such it is ‘infinitely removed from its idea, that is, exterior, because it is infinite’.16
In this sense ideas of alterity and infinity remain the prisoner of human cognition, and are inevitably thoughts about a different sort of transcendence from the transcendence only God can reveal. ‘[A]ny such alterity must be thoroughly and utterly a theoretically engendered one, whereas divine transcendence is not theoretical’.17
The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art of transcendence, however, and especially its expression in the sublime, is precisely an aesthetic version of this evocation of infinity. And an interesting story can be told about how in the nineteenth-century the tradition develops forms that begin to point towards abstraction. A concern with the ‘spiritual’ and an expectation that this ‘spiritual’ reality will be found at the edges of life, in confrontation with world enigmas, or boundless space, is already clearly at work here. And these instincts are precisely not friendly to traditional theological ways of putting things, which are (perhaps understandably) perceived as dogmatic and restrictive.
Maybe there is a continuity to be traced here with the temptations experienced by St Augustine (and others of his more neo-Platonically-saturated era) towards the disparagement of the mortal body. More precisely, the early Augustine, as Carol Harrison describes him, was tempted to oppose two paths (and prefer the former): on the one hand, a spiritual ascent from out of the material realm, through the disciplined use of the intellect, and on the other, a being enmired within the world of corruptible creatures.
‘[A]rt’ as theory or archetype, and the arts in practice, are separated in [the early] Augustine’s mind in much the same way as the sensible and intelligible and the body and soul are. It is not the temporal, corporeal manifestations of art which should win man’s attention, but their eternal Idea or Archetype.18
As Harrison traces it, Augustine’s intellectual development is marked by a progressive turn towards bodies; towards a more positive evaluation of creation, the body of Christ, and the body of scripture (all of them interrelated).
Augustine’s turn towards a more fulsome embrace of the corpus of scripture displays itself in his shift from a certain distaste for what he perceived (pre-conversion) as its ludicrous pretensions – for example, its supposition that crudely folksy stories about peasant men from Galilee could disclose anything about the true God – to an appreciation of it as a sort of extension of the incarnation itself. The Christian revelation is incarnate ‘again’, in a manner of speaking, in scripture’s witness to Christ; in the body of material that increasingly funds Augustine’s preaching and elicits his exegesis. Scripture is significatory of divine truth in a way that bears a positive analogy with the sacraments. ‘Like the flesh of Christ, [scripture] enables man to be lifted up to His divinity. [De Div. Q. 83 52]’.19 It carries the divine image, as bread and wine impart the divine life. This in turn grounds a new appreciation that created, temporal, particular realities need not be seen as obstacles to apprehension of God, but as media of it. By the same token there can be an earthly beauty that is a mode of relation to divine beauty, not the opponent of it.20
In Confessions, Augustine writes:
I saw that many passages in these books which had at one time struck me as absurdities, must be referred to the profundity of mystery. Indeed the authority of Scripture seemed to me to be more revered and more worthy of devoted faith in that it was at once a book that all could read easily and yet it preserved the majesty of its mystery in the deepest parts of its meaning: for it offers itself to all in the plainest words and the simplest expressions, yet demands the closest attention of the most serious minds.21
‘Moreover’, adds Harrison, ‘(and even more surprisingly, given Augustine’s normal invectives against “lying fables”), it attracts men to discover the truth by its literary artistry’.22
[T]he very darkness and obscurity of man’s temporal life, and especially of the revelation of God recounted in Scripture, becomes a positive quality for Augustine. It is treated as sacramental, as inspiring man’s desire and love, as demanding of him an intuitive, imaginative, symbolic, image-making apprehension of God’s Word, expressed in a manner which is more characteristic of a poet than a philosopher, since it is no longer an abstract word, theory, or truth but is embodied in Scripture, Creation, history, the Incarnate.23
If we accept that sublime art is concerned aesthetically to evoke conceptual ideas of infinity in a distinctively modern vein, then we may conclude with Janz that it is not equipped to open any particularly privileged way to an appreciation of the divine glory, at least in traditional Christian terms. Like philosophy’s fascination with ‘alterity’, or phenomenology’s with ‘limit experiences’ of various kinds, we may say that the art of the sublime ‘will show itself inadequate for approaching the question of the transcendence of God’.24
And yet, Christians claim, God can be apprehended in some way in the midst of creaturely reality. It just won’t be this way: the way of the modern sublime. ‘God is really alive for us at the center of life today, guaranteeing the promise of the life to come. This is the heart of the Christian affirmation and it must as such be the fundamental and deciding focus of any Christian apologetics’.25 So what alternative is there, then – if any? The answer would, I think, be a surprising one, and perhaps a distasteful one, to many moderns. It is the incarnational turn to the body – and with it to the particularity of persons – that opens for a Christian tradition of art its best possible chance at transcendence.
The art of the embodied Christ does not of course capture or describe God’s transcendence; rather, it relinquishes its desire to realise it as a human idea or image, and prepares itself to receive the unsettling intuition – in faith – that God is beyond any artificial border we may set up between what is interior to the world and what is exterior to it. There is nothing in relation to which God is ‘outside’ or ‘beyond’. ‘God is not contained within the created ‘there is’, nor is God in his transcendence comparable to anything created’.26 And the ‘surpassingness’ of God’s transcendence is in no way the ‘surpassingness’ we sense when we feel the limits of our powers of sense perception and rational apprehension (our cognitive powers). We need to reject the often attractive instinct that ‘if our sensible and rational powers were only greater, the transcendence by which God surpasses these capacities might then perhaps after all come into view through a magnification of the sensible or intellectual vision’.27 These powers ‘are intrinsically objectifying and thus limiting (determining) powers, whereas God’s transcendent reality is not a determinate or even indeterminate cognitive ‘object’ of any kind’.28
And yet, to address ourselves to the body or the face or the words of Christ, as artists and writers have encouraged us to do in countless ways, is to do something different. ‘Ecce homo’ is their proper invitation to ask the question ‘Who are you?’ of Christ. As the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer has insisted, this is the only genuine way to approach the transcendence of God, rather than the transcendence of limit experiences or limit thoughts. Or, to put it another way, it is to encounter a limit at the centre of life, and not at its edges; one who resists our possessive appropriation, and yet is wholly embodied and real and historical. Bonhoeffer writes:
[B]ehold God become human, the unfathomable mystery of the love of God for the world. God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human being but human beings as they are, not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love. ... [It is] not enough to say that God embraces human beings ... [for] this affirmation rests on an infinitely deeper one ... [namely] that God, in the conception and birth of Jesus Christ, has taken on humanity bodily.29

Some ethical implications

There are, perhaps, ethical implications to be drawn from this discussion, both in relation to humanity’s relationship with non-human nature, and also in the sphere of human to human relations. I will give just one example of the latter, drawing upon the work of academic Vivienne Jabri. She writes:
Politically, the sublime must remain a problematic concept, for it assumes the capture of the subject and the capture of the universal. It appears to deny difference and places itself beyond politics and political agency; it is assumed to belong to a realm that is beyond contestation and the ‘stuff’ of the public arena. In referring to the transcendent, it has a certain aura conferred on it that is forever extraordinary, defiant of the everyday and the routine. This article argues that any reflection on politics, and distinctly one that seeks to explore the relationship between art and a politics of resistance, is one that in a sense de-sublimates, that is, relocates that which may be construed as constituting the sublime into language and representation.
The invasion of Iraq was a distinctly late modern affair, with its high technology rendering, its unashamed display of power, intended as a spectacle for a global gaze. The initial images of the invasion were not of troops crossing sacrosanct state boundaries, occupying territory in the aftermath of victory over a vanquished enemy. Across the globe, the images that will be remembered are those of overwhelming night-time aerial bombardment of a capital city, with persistent second-by-second explosions that lit the darkness of the metropolis below. The ‘shock and awe’ tactics celebrated by their perpetrators in the Iraq invasion were not simply aimed at the defeat of a spent regime, but rather at a global public gaze, a display of overwhelming power the immediate target of which was not just the high-density population of the city, but the Middle East as a political region and the global population as a whole.
The strategy of ‘shock and awe’ was devised by its strategists in the Pentagon as one based on the assumption that the unleashing of firepower so overwhelming in its intensity and frequency would compel the enemy into almost immediate surrender. Punishment had to be performed in excess and such excess had to be turned into a form of spectacle, to generate awe in those witnessing the performance of sovereign power that was, in the act, reconstituted as triumphant power. But when war is spectacle, experience and its materiality in the body are somehow occluded.30
But, Jabri argues, there is a sense in which art can desublimate, enabling resistance to that which seeks to produce awe as a tool of political aggrandisement. It will do so if and when it concentrates on the depiction of smaller-scale realities – most effectively, perhaps, the suffering and mutilation of human bodies which follows as a direct consequence of the spectacular displays of military power that seek to dominate our visual perception of the events in question.
Jabri’s viewpoint is interesting in this context, because (like Janz) she issues a call for a return to the body. But for her this is premised upon an insurmountable opposition between the idea of the sublime and the fragile fact of the human body. The two things cannot for her be reconciled in the same space. The totalising, universalising pretensions of the modern sublime must always in the end eclipse or crush the human form, and the depiction of human-scale things – the body and its suffering above all – are to be understood as a necessary act of resistance to this sublime. The body can achieve a very necessary de-sublimation of a godless sublimity’s excesses, on occasions when the sublime is used to further an ambition to wield absolute power; but there is no sublime, for Jabri, that could come to any sort of reconciliation with the body.
Christian accounts of the glorious body of Christ do not, however, accept that there must be this incompatibility between sublimity and corporeality, glory and the body. A brief look at the quintessential iconographic subject of the Transfiguration shows this to be the case. The light of infinity shines from and through the body of a human being, and does not overcome it. This is because, encoded in Christianity’s traditions and practices, is a different sort of sublime: a divine light which is adoptive of, and not hostile to, particular, local form. A Christian aesthetic can on this basis articulate a notion of the sublime that is most certainly not what the modern period has made of it.
Here is Hart again:
[A] Christian understanding [...] entirely reverses the logic of the modern or postmodern sublime, by proceeding from a theological account of beauty: a beauty in which a truer sublime (the inexhaustible glory of being) is contained.31
This set of Christian commitments has manifested itself – in various ways at various points in history – in what I would call a ‘habitable’ art; an art which nonetheless remains an art of the divine transcendence. In this tradition, in a way that corresponds closely to Augustine’s awakening appreciation of the sacramental power of the mundane, the beautiful is shown not to be trivial, and often to be simultaneously worldly and divine. A concern with habitability is – equally and by the same token – shown not to be a despicable concern. The body is central to this aesthetic – although so is the space around and between bodies. Whether in the Fra Angelico frescos in San Marco, or the dead Christs by Mantegna, or the delicate evocations of human presence and human hope through dislocated humanly-made objects like those of the contemporary British artist Anna M.R. Freeman,32 there is a sense that ultimacy can be discerned in human-scaled things by the grace of a God who works sacramentally in them.
Although the theology in his work is often implicit, we might turn to David Jones at this point, and to the fascinating essay-fragment published after his death and entitled ‘An Aspect of the Art of England’.33 It is speculative – almost whimsical – but also rings true in its identification of a ‘distinguishing quality’ of the art of what ‘the Greek geographers,’ Strabo and Diodorus of Siciliy called ‘the Pretanic Isles’:
[T]he Romans got their ‘Picti’ from the same source – the Old Welsh Priten, the Old Irish Cruithin, the speckled, mottled, variegated, painted men.34
The distinguishing quality in question is a love of the ‘fretted, meandering, countered image,’ and it is paradigmatically found in ‘the one art which has taken its name from us,’ namely, ‘that kind of needlework called “Opus Anglicanum”.’ Eclectic as ever, Jones traces this ‘flexible, delicate and chequered art’35 through the English Gothic tradition in architecture, and the poetry and watercolours of William Blake, and ends up in a garden:
It is said that the ‘cottage garden’ is peculiar to this island, and that is not without interest – for the dappled complexity that makes the unity of those small gardens... – especially after sunset, when each colour and each form is distinct and like an embroidery and as complex as an embroidery – is very much akin to the quality I mean.36
An alternative to any nature-excluding rationalism would find better expression in an English garden. Not the highly regimented, geometrical gardens of continental Europe and its imitators (rationalist aesthetics may aim to subdue a nature that is feared to be inhumane, but in doing so can become inhumane itself). Instead, the tumbling, intertwining, organic shapes of, say, Sissinghurst in Kent, which represent not an imposition on wild nature, nor an attempt to suppress it, but rather a sort of ‘settlement with’ it. Such a sampling of wild nature cannot regard it as simply ‘other’ or even ‘irrational.’ On the contrary, it expresses the view that we can be at home with the non-human creation, and that our loves – the things that give us pleasure – are qualities that reside in nature already, and that can be elicited further by our human interaction with them.
This is a characteristically Christian theological sensibility, affirming what we find ‘out there’ in the world; seeing ‘not some independent “nature,” but God’s creation and creatures’.37 We belong among non-human creatures, neither identical to them nor wholly separate, but in relation to them as well as to their creator. ‘Wisdom’ is the deepening of our relationship to creation and its ongoing history, and is not something accomplished by an a priori ‘reason’ located strictly in us. Reason is ‘nothing less than the Logos, God’s Word as it continually creates the world and as it is revealed to us in Scripture and in the body of Jesus Christ’.38 Such a theology insists on the affinity of human reason with the grain of the world, and stands in the tradition of Hooker, Traherne, Herbert, Coleridge and many others. As Coleridge put it, we find what we have discovered inside us actually outside us too, and the arts are beautiful when they ‘make the external internal, the internal external’, and when nature is turned into thought, and thought into nature.


The question with which the modern stand-off so sharply leaves us is whether finite difference can be shown by a sufficiently rich notion of beauty ‘to belong – before all else – to an infinite display of blessings at peace with one another, whose intervals are places of aesthetic mediation in which difference may be shared under the aspect of gift’?39 That is a challenge to Christian theology as much as a question to the disciples of an impersonal, dark sublimity.
My argument has been that fundamental to a Christian treatment of space in art is the experience – and the expectation – of ‘communion’; of a mysterious sharing and bonding between created things. This is participatory beauty – the beauty of things connected, relating, displaying their ‘at-homeness’ with each other, all sharing in a hymn of praise in which there is both light and shadow; abstraction and figuration; depth and surface. Each particular thing in our environment can be wonderfully individuated – but also fully related to the others. And their being fully individual-and-related in this way can be acknowledge in acts of aesthetic unification which refer them all to God, their deep source. The ‘deep’ here is a good ‘deep’; a trustworthy ‘deep’, a ‘deep’ that loves the individual forms whose being it supports, and that wants to preserve such forms in all their diversity within the generous space that it has provided for them.


This point and the argument of the few paragraphs that follow, draw on the work of David Bentley Hart; see The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth Grand Rapids, Mich., 2003, p44.
Ibid., pp46-47.
Ibid., pp46–47.
Adams, Nicholas, Unpublished paper, 2009.
Kant, Immanuel, The Critique of the Power of Judgement, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews, Cambridge 2000, § 25
Ibid., § 28
Adams 2009
Paul D. Janz, The Command of Grace: A New Theological Apologetics, London 2009, p57.
Janz 2009, p58.
Ibid., p60.
Ibid., p61)
Ibid. p67, quoting Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity)
Ibid. p68
Harrison, Carol, Beauty and Revelation in the Thought of Saint Augustine, Oxford 1992, p30.
Harrison 1992, p86.
Harrison 1992, p82.
Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford 1998, VI.5.8
Harrison 1992, p93.
Ibid., p95–96.
Janz 2009, p68.
Ibid., p57.
Ibid., p70.
Ibid., p74.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford Green et al., Philadelphia 2005, p84.
Vivienne Jabri, ‘Shock and Awe: Power and the Resistance of Art’ in Millennium: Journal of International Studies, vol. 34, no.3, 2006.
Hart 2003, p72.
see , accessed 29 November 2012.
Jones, David, ‘An Aspect of the Art of England’ in The Dying Gaul, and Other Writings, London 1978. p59–62.
Ibid., p59.
Ibid., p60.
Peter Ochs, Another Reformation: Postliberal Christianity and the Jews, Grand Rapids, Mich. 2011, p170. This is a fascinating recent study of post-liberal Christian theology in both the UK and the US by the Jewish philosopher and semiotician Peter Ochs.
Ibid., p170.
Hart 2003, p90.


Some sections of this article were delivered in the form of a public lecture at Gresham College, London, in March 2012, and are reproduced on the College’s website.
Ben Quash is Professor of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London

How to cite

Ben Quash, ‘The De-sublimations of Christian Art’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013,, accessed 25 April 2024.