Wounds to Beauty

by Bruce Herman

1Most history seems to carry on its back vestiges of paradise… There is hardly a civilization, perhaps hardly an individual consciousness, that does not carry inwardly a sense of distant catastrophe. Somewhere a wrong turn was taken in that “dark and sacred wood,” after which man has had to labor, socially, psychologically, against the natural grain of being.

-George Steiner

Nostalgia for a golden age, for a kind of childhood of the world appears to be universal. Harmony and perfection always seem clearer in the rearview mirror, and we all feel a certain sense of exile in the more severe landscape and colder light of maturity. The Genesis story of Adam and Eve is the archetype of paradise-lost, and much of poetry and art is dedicated to a romanticized vision of Eden.

Our sense of the beautiful often participates in this backward glance. For over two hundred years the cultural standard of perfect human beauty has been the female figure just-past-puberty—an evanescent moment in a woman’s life, and one that requires ever more effort to preserve or extend. Most of our cosmetic culture aims at this ideal, and the rise of eating disorders alongside the billion-dollar industries of fashion, diet fads, plastic surgery, and facial cosmetics all prove this. “Beauty” (as regards the body) is everywhere colonized by the romantic longing for perpetual youth. Adam and Eve are eternal teenagers.

Elegy for Perpetua and Felicitas, Bruce Herman, oil on wood with silver and gold leaf, 2003, 72” x 48”, Collection of Laity Lodge, gifted by Pat Jones and John McCray

Christians as well as their good pagan neighbors seem easily seduced by these commercial interests that prey upon this nostalgic aesthetic. Is there a truer, more redemptive image of the beautiful human form? Is there an aesthetic that bears the wounds of Christ’s resurrected body—marks that memorialize suffering but move beyond it towards redemption, healing, and eternity? I believe that Jesus’ resurrected body can be treated as a starting point for a new aesthetic—a broken beauty that points beyond pain to a perfection that isn’t idolatrous and doesn’t cave-in to the unattainable standards of our celebrity and youth-obsessed culture.

The question is the same for beauty as it is for the other two “transcendentals” of goodness and truth: how are we to understand a good God in a broken world—how are we to encounter divine beauty in an ugly or disfigured human society and a wounded environment teetering on a climatic point of no return? As adults we need to come to grips with the implications of goodness where universal moral failure is acknowledged. This is a commonplace in ethics. But Beauty seems to be a Cinderella of sorts—left out of the party while her sisters, Goodness and Truth, enjoy the attentions of the great minds of Christian tradition. My hunch is that, as Hans Urs Von Balthasar has said, “beauty requires at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness.” He goes on to say, “We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past—whether he admits it or not—can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”

Is there a theoretical basis for receptivity to a non-nostalgic, mature aesthetic of the human form—a beauty that acknowledges suffering, aging, contingency, and need? A vision of beauty that accounts for Christ’s wounds in his perfected form? As a painter my deepest intuition is this: Beauty is only truly glimpsed in long-term relationships, not in the romantic “love” that idolizes the body just past pubescence. Marriage, not the unrequited erotic longing of adolescence, is for me the model of the beauty I’m trying to see. The wounded Christ, raised in perfection after his burial, is the Bridegroom to the Church, not Adonis; and Mary Magdalene, not Aphrodite, is the image of the Bride. Both are wounded and hence beauty is wounded. Christ himself has taken our sin and suffering on his own body – “by his wounds we are healed” the prophet said. Our own beauty depends on this countercultural aesthetic.

A broken or wounded beauty – not the idealized romantic form of the body – flows from a deep and committed love that, by God’s grace, ultimately defies time and sin, and in time yields the fruit of true intimacy and union. The love found in a good marriage that is subject to the ravages of time and sin is a real image of this beauty, because it involves real persons who struggle and sin, seek forgiveness, and are offered reconciliation. As a painter, I cannot disentangle my art from my life (and therefore my marriage) and so I paint from this place of entanglement. Plainly stated, my idea is that beauty is inextricably intertwined with Eros, and that the best expression of both (Beauty and Eros) is seen in the face of an earthly beloved—not an idealized and unattainable one. This contradicts our own artistic traditions of the beautiful which flow from pagan assumptions about love, knowledge, and ideal beauty. In place of that former aesthetic, I would interpose the wounded but redeemed Body of Christ—which is who we are and who we will be eternally.

1 cf. George Steiner, The Great Ennui—from the T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at YALE, March 1971; published in In Bluebeard’s Castle (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972).

2Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Seeing the Form, vol. 1 of  The Glory of the Lord :A  Theological Aesthetics (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1982), p. ?.

Bruce Herman is a painter, writer, and public speaker. His art has been published widely and exhibited in Boston, New York, Los Angeles and most major cities in the U.S.A.––as well as abroad in Italy, England, Israel, Japan, and Hong Kong. Herman’s art is featured in many public and private art collections––including the Vatican Museums in Rome, Cincinnati Museum of Fine Arts, Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and the DeCordova Museum and Cape Ann Museum. 

Bruce Herman’s art and writings are available in books and journals nationally and internationally, and in a thirty-year retrospective hardbound volume Through Your Eyes published by Eerdmans Publishing. His essays and talks are found in print and online journals such as IMAGE, CommentBooks and Culture, and others––as well as on numerous online sources. 

Herman taught studio art and theory for nearly four decades at Gordon College. He holds the endowed Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in Fine Arts at the school and is Gallery Director and Art Collection manager there.  

3 Responses to Wounds to Beauty

  1. You addressed some thoughts that I have been mulling over for some time, starting with the oddity of defending Beauty as much as we would Goodness and Truth. Then there is the matter of affirming beauty where we would just as soon not go. And then, we would just as soon not fight for Goodness or Truth in those unwelcome places either.

  2. I deeply appreciate the Hans Urs Von Balthasar quote and your summation: “Plainly stated, my idea is that beauty is inextricably intertwined with Eros, and that the best expression of both (Beauty and Eros) is seen in the face of an earthly beloved—not an idealized and unattainable one.”