Monday, January 07, 2013

“The Adoration of the Magi”

“BEHOLD,” says Our Lord, “I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Redemption applies not only to our souls, but also to our works — transforming, even, our works of art. This is evident in the art of Christendom, long in decline, but now experiencing a revival. “...The riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you...” (Isa. 60:5), so says the first reading for the liturgy of the Epiphany, and with a humble, obedient faith, these riches can be put to good use, even in art:
Man, if he tries to be a god in his art, makes a fool of himself. He becomes like God, he makes beauty like God, when he is too much aware of God to be aware of himself. Then only does he not set himself too easy a task, for then he does not make his theme so that he may accomplish it; it is forced upon him by his awareness of God, by his wonder and value for an excellence not his own. So in all the beauty of art there is a humility not only of conception, but also of execution, which is mere failure and ugliness to those who expect to find in art the beauty and finish of nature, who expect it to be born, not made. They are always disappointed by the greatest works of art, by their inadequacy and strain and labour. They look for a proof of what man can do and find a confession of what he cannot do; but that confession, made sincerely and passionately, is beauty. There is also a serenity in the beauty of art, but it is the serenity of self-surrender, not of self-satisfaction, of the saint, not of the lady of fashion. And all the accomplishment of great art, its infinite superiority in mere skill over the work of the merely skillful, comes from the incessant effort of the artist to do more than he can. By that he is trained; by that his work is distinguished from the mere exclamation of wonder. He is not content to applaud; he must also worship, and make his offerings in his worship; and they are the best he can do. It was not only the shepherds who came to the birth of Christ; the wise men came also and brought their treasures with them. And the art of mankind is the offering of its wise men, it is the adoration of the Magi, who are one with the simplest in their worship—
Wise men, all ways of knowledge past,
To the Shepherd's wonder come at last.
But they do not lose their wisdom in their wonder. When it passes into wonder, when all the knowledge and skill and passion of mankind are poured into the acknowledgment of something greater than themselves, then that acknowledgment is art, and it has a beauty which may be envied by the natural beauty of God Himself.
— excerpt from the essay “The Adoration of the Magi,” from the book Essays on Art (1919), by A. Clutton-Brock (1868-1924).

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