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Towards an Incarnational Aesthetic

March 3rd, 2008 | 3 min read

By Anodos

The Sword and the Shaving Brush

Towards a Biblical understanding of fashion

by Timothy Bartel

Part VI - Towards a Christian Aesthetic

Now that this first principle of Christian aesthetics has been reached, it will be helpful to turn to two 20th century Christian theorists whose work in aesthetics is both indispensable and largely overlooked. The first of these theorists is Dorothy Sayers, whose fame as a detective novelist has, perhaps, unfairly eclipsed her excellence as an essayist and aesthetic theorist. In her dazzling little essay “Toward a Christian Aesthetic,” Sayers bemoans the fact that Christians have never successfully articulated a thoroughly Christian philosophy of art. “I will go so far as to maintain,” she writes, “ that the extraordinary confusion of our minds about the nature and function of Art is principally due to the fact that for nearly 2,000 years we have been trying to reconcile a pagan, or at any rate a Unitarian, aesthetic with a Christian—that is, a Trinitarian and Incarnational—theology.”

Sayers explains that this Unitarian aesthetic is inherited form the Greeks, for whom art was primarily mimetic, that is, representational. “‘Art imitates life,’ the old saying goes, and for the Greek that often spelled trouble, for in the Greek theology, the physical realm was a shoddy copy of the divine. Art was, consequently, a copy of a copy.” Yet Sayers takes issue with this conception of art because it fails to take into account a very real aspect of a piece of art.

She gives, for example the experience of a playgoer watching Aeschylus’ Orestia: “‘This,’ we shall say, “is not a copy or imitation of something bigger and more real than itself. It is bigger and more real than the real-life action that it represents’… The true work of art, then, is something new—it is not primarily the copy or representation of anything.” Sayers redefines art as not a ‘copy,’ but a ‘creation,’ and in doing so brings us back to Christian Theology.

Yet she finds in the Christian doctrine of the incarnation an even more revealing window into aesthetics: “God, who is a Trinity, creates by, or through, His second Person, His Word or Son, who is continually begotten from the First Person, the Father, in an eternal creative activity. And certain theologians have added this very significant comment: the Father, they say, is only known to Himself by beholding His image in His Son.”

Sayers here echoes the words of St. Paul in Colossians 1:15-16: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” Christ not only reveals the Father to Himself (a mystery to be sure), but also to humanity. “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” Christ says.

An incarnational understanding of art, then, will treat art primarily as image, not as copy. The difference is that a copy communicates another physical object in a degraded, lesser form. An image communicates clearly and powerfully that which may lack physical form all together. If it is true that the artist, as Sayers says, “images forth” when he creates, then in creation man is imitating God. And this imitation of God may provide new prospective on that old and oft debated phrase.

Elsewhere Sayers points out that up until God’s famous “imago dei” statement in Genesis 1:26, all that the reader knows of God is that he creates and calls His creations good. Sayers concludes that contextually “image of God” refers most immediately to God’s attribute of creative activity. “Man is most himself—” she concludes, “man is most manlike—when engaged in creative activity.” This is because God’s primary activity is creation, and we, as His image, create not just to image forth created objects, but to image forth the nature of God Himself.