David Lyle Jeffrey, The Beauty of Holiness

David Lyle Jeffrey, In the Beauty of Holiness. Eerdmans, 2017. 448pp, $49 cloth.

See also reviews by John Wilson, Richard Viladesau, Jeffrey Lyle Bilbro, and Jonathan Homrighausen.

1. Beauty and Holiness

Jeffrey’s book sets off firmly on the right foot by framing the two terms of its title in relation to one another: beauty and holiness. Beauty, in fact, is only really valuable in relation to holiness. To appreciate the value of this, one must remember all the ways that it’s possible to go wildly astray when thinking about beauty.

  1. Beauty is not just a tool of phallogocentric cisheteropatriarchal sexist oppression (as one might learn in Frankfurt school critical theory)
  2. Beauty is not worthwhile if treated only as the object of an aestheticist cult that leads only to death (a la Oscar Wilde)
  3. Beauty is not justa matter of pure relativist fun and enjoyment (as one might glean from Dave Hickey, the most prominent art-world advocate of beauty in the last 25 years)
  4. Beauty is not just an evolutionary adaptation that serves to maximize reproductive fitness, as one might learn from the evolutionary psychologists discussed in Denis Dutton’s Art Instinct

No, beauty is more than all of things. But since this is not a book of aesthetics, Jeffrey lays out his view rather briefly at the beginning of the book, instead of arguing it at great length.

Beginning from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, Jeffrey writes: beauty is a gift from God. God gives beauty to us, and then we, like the craftsmen commissioned to build the Temple, and the poets and songwriters throughout Scripture,

Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.       

Reflecting on this also makes it possible to clearly see what is wrong with so much modern art: that artists in the whole system are encouraged to focus entirely on themselves, instead of looking to God. That will not lead to much beauty or holiness at all.

2. The Theology of Light

One of the most powerful aesthetic dimensions of Christian art and architecture is the way (optical) light stands for (theological) light. As Procopius described the Hagia Sophia in 544:

You might say that the [interior] space is not illuminated by the sun from the outside, but that the radiance is generated within, so great an abundance of light bathes this shrine all round….

Jeffrey traces this development to its climax in the Gothic—with windows and arches soaring into space, literally reaching for the heavens, Gothic cathedrals are perhaps the most perfect expressions of spiritual yearning ever built. (Jeffrey cites George Herbert’s poem “The Windows.”)

There does seem to be something about the grandeur and purity of these buildings that can pierce the hearts of people who have no Catholic or Christian convictions whatsoever. See, for example, Christopher Caldwell, “Why Did Nonbelievers Grieve for Notre-Dame?” (NYT, 4/20/19).  Or Rod Dreher’s account of how his encounter with Chartres Cathedral, at the age of 17, set him on a quest for God:

Of vaults, spires, and rose windows, I knew not a thing. Even less did I understand the medieval worldview, or the Christian religion beyond Sunday School basics, which I had by then discarded as childish fairy tales. What I knew, standing at the center of the labyrinth in the nave, was that God existed, and that He was calling to me. I can’t explain why this happened, or why it affected me that way. I was overcome with awe, with wonder. Nothing in my life as a bookish small-town American growing up in the late 20th century had prepared me for Chartres. It struck me with the force of revelation.

I was never again the same. What was once seen cannot be unseen. I left the cathedral on a quest for God. I wanted to know the God that inspired men to build such a magnificent temple to His worship. It was a quest that I did my best to refuse over the next few years, but I could never forget it. The God whose voice I could not hear in the Bible, or in the way of life that formed me, spoke to me in the limestone and colored glass of that Gothic cathedral in France. I was an illiterate peasant — in part a willfully illiterate one, I confess — but entering the Chartres cathedral was like finding a message in a bottle. In time, I surrendered to the faith, and my eyes were opened to the Bible, and everything else. (“Hope in the Ruins,” 4/16/19)

Jeffrey doesn’t really have space to discuss it in the book, but similar attitudes informed the 19th- and early 20th-century Gothic Revival within Anglicanism.

3. The Medievalist Battleground

Since the medieval period is recognized as an “age of faith” when the established church exercised the maximum possible influence on society and culture, it’s not surprising that the historiography on the period would be somewhat polarized. On the one hand, studies such as that of Andrew Willard Jones, Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX, praised as an “integralist manifesto” in First Things, look to the period for inspiration towards a truly Catholic and Christian social order. On the other hand, many medievalists in the academy are horrified by this prospect, and are determined to interpret the period through the lens of contemporary progressive social justice. (See Charlotte Allen, “In the Academic Sandbox” and “Higher Education’s Medievalist Moral Panic” [2019]).

And within the field of art history, the same polarizing pressures are also present. Earlier, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, medieval art attracted scholars who saw it as embodying a lost unity of faith and practice, society and culture, technology and art—everything that modern society was tearing apart, once integrated into a harmonious whole. Examples might be Charles Rufus Morey, father of Princeton’s Index of Christian Art, or Émile Mâle, among art historians; Augustus Pugin in architecture, or John Ruskin in art theory and criticism. A great many of those attracted to the study of medieval art were attracted to its Christian vision…

But here too, there has been a backlash, and more recent scholars of medieval art, following Meyer Schapiro or Michael Camille, are more likely to gravitate toward the marginal, the queer, the secular, the grotesque, the repressed—anything other than the straightforward expression of Christian piety.

4. The People and the Powerful

As the medieval turns to the Renaissance, Jeffrey draws an interesting contrast between the heights of elite culture in Rome, and the developing culture of ordinary life. He considers the grandeur of Saint Peter’s and much of the High Renaissance, and then asks: but is it holy? Well… It’s undoubtedly great art, but is it really all that Christian? And of course he mentions the world-historical irony of Johann Tetzel, fundraising for Saint Peter’s with indulgences, spurring Martin Luther into action.

An exception within Saint Peter’s would be Michelangelo’s Pieta, which Jeffrey praises for its representation of Mary’s point of view. He generally has many good things to say about Mary’s value as a kind of “model Christian” and artistic inspiration, reflecting a “deep desire to unite beauty and holiness” (185).

In contrast to the sordid world of the Borgia popes, Jeffrey shows how Saint Francis and the Franciscans, the Dominicans, Dante, Giotto, Donatello, and Fra Angelico all drew strength from sensing the importance of the experience of ordinary people in ordinary life—and how that could be transfigured through the beauty of holiness. He shows Giotto as a high point in making the ‘ordinariness’ of the world of scripture seem both real, and stunning in its power.

5. Protestantism…

For all the good things about Protestantism, it must be admitted that Protestantism appears to be, at best, something of a mixed bag, as concerns beauty and holiness. Jeffrey states that from a purely ethical point of view, reformers had good reason to object to the worldly, or even quasi-pagan elements, of medieval and Renaissance spirituality and worship. However, if we look at the eventual results of Protestantism in art, these do seem to be somewhat lacking in the perfect synthesis of beauty and holiness. On the one hand, there is the tendency to become rather thin, dry and didactic (Lucas Cranach, the Nazarenes), and on the other hand, there is the tendency to become swept up in Nature-spirituality (Caspar David Friedrich, Wordsworth).

Rembrandt, Bathsheba At Her Bath, 1654. Louvre.

That said, Jeffrey aptly cites a few examples of Protestant art that does strike the right balance: above all, Rembrandt’s Bathsheba, but also Van Gogh’s brief evangelical period, and the work of William Holman Hunt. Rembrandt’s Bathsheba is one of the high points of the book, and the climax of a chapter on that subject that fits somewhat awkwardly in the larger narrative. In that chapter, Jeffrey reviews a long tradition of painting Bathsheba—whereas Protestant painters were perhaps excessively prim, moralistic and decorous, Catholic painters all too often used the subject as an excuse for providing their male viewers with an opportunity to lustfully ogle the fleshy maiden, with very little holiness in view. Only Rembrandt, it seems, was able to really empathize and see into the situation that Bathsheba must have found herself in. She is holding a letter from David, and contemplates her situation: not one that must have allowed for much freedom of action. By treating Bathsheba as a fully-fledged person, rather than an object lesson, Rembrandt brings this story to life more than any other painter had done.

6. Millet and Modernism

In something of a detour, with the advent of modernism, Jeffrey moves to consider four artists who were emphatically not concerned with holiness: Edvard Munch, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali—as a way of showing what happened to holiness when modernism triumphed.

He notes that all of these artists (and others mentioned) were raised within serious Christian households, making for an impressive record of utter rejection of the faith. One wonders about how each of them developed. Is it possible that the faith of their childhoods was expressed primarily as moralism and dogma, without the liberating power of the gospel?

Jeffrey shows how artists such as Dali and Ernst, far from being merely indifferent or apathetic about Christianity, were intensely antagonistic to it. He notes Dali went so far as to undergo an exorcism at one point, and Paul Tillich wrote with concern about “the demonic” in modern art.

He is also duly critical of the tendency of Christian critics, desperate to be able to affirm something about modern art, to latch on to any vaguely “Christian” symbolism in a painting and call it a “Christian painting.” Jeffrey shows very well how merely referencing Christian iconography, as Dali (and later Warhol) were wont to do, is hardly enough to make a painting Christian, if one employs a mere “fragment of beauty…” to a disunifying purpose to subvert the holy” (315).

Even amidst the degradation of modern art, however, it is striking how much some faint echoes of conscience remain. This is most evident in the tormented fascination, even obsession, that numerous modern artists had for the  painter Jean-François Millet (1814-1875). Millet painted simple, humble, country people in a plain, pious manner.

The Angelus, 1857–1859. 22 x 26 inches. Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

His painting The Angelus (1857-1859), shows two peasants stopping their day’s work in the field, to say the devotional prayer.

And his painting The Gleaners (1857) shows three women in a field, engaged in the backbreaking labor familiar to Ruth and Deuteronomy.

The Gleaners, 1857. 33 x 44 inches. Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

Were Millet’s sincere, earnest paintings derided or ignored by cynical modernists? On the contrary, they seem to have been impossible to ignore or forget. Dali in particular was obsessed with The Angelus, painting numerous twisted and distorted versions, while Pissarro, Renoir, Seurat, and Van Gogh all were repeatedly inspired by The Gleaners. It seems that Millet’s simplicity and power were impossible to ignore.

7. Modern art: Chagall, Rouault and Arcabas

To conclude the book, Jeffrey chooses three artists to stand for the 20th and 21st centuries: Marc Chagall (1887-1985), Georges Rouault (1871-1958), and Arcabas (Jean-Marie Pirot, 1926-2018). These are outstanding artists and excellent choices. But the alienation of the contemporary “art world” from the church is so great, that not a single work by any of these artists can be found in the survey textbook Art Since 1900the voice of the academic contemporary-art establishment.

The reason is simple. The academic establishment is entirely controlled by radical leftists whose flagship journal is titled Octoberin honor of the Bolshevik October Revolution. In such circles, nothing could be less welcome than artists whose faith is serious. So, if people are to learn about Chagall, Rouault and Arcabas, it is not going to be through university courses in 20th-century art. But, aside from Jeffrey’s book, what are the chances that interested people might encounter these artists elsewhere? These three artists have somewhat different reputations.

Rouault, Christ Mocked by Soldiers, 1932. MoMA, New York.

Rouault: In the years after World War II, when Western audiences were prepared to consider profound and existential questions, Rouault enjoyed some significant attention in New York. (He is well-represented in the MoMA collection.) Michael Kimmelman wrote in 2007:

At one time Rouault’s reputation rivaled Matisse’s, and his clowns and prostitutes were as ubiquitously reproduced as Ben Shahn posters. He had retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art in 1945 and 1953; when he died in 1958, at 87, the French government organized a state funeral.

Then he slipped down the memory chute. The French expression “jolie-laide,” applied to women whose beauty is of the unconventional sort, applies to Rouault too, which half explains his vanishing. He’s an acquired taste.

Clement Greenberg called him middlebrow. That was the other half of the explanation. Greenberg had a point. The lesser works are overripe and formulaic. They’re hard to love for generations that have come of age since the 1950s. The art has a sanctimony and sincerity that resonated after the war but came to seem dated in an art world besotted by American Pop and bling.

In other words, at a time when the art world was prepared to think seriously about life and death, God and fate, Rouault was worth considering. But since the rise of Pop Art, fashionable taste has become entirely devoted to materialistic, superficial spectacle, and therefore Rouault is now irrelevant.

Jeffrey, however, makes the case that Rouault’s very sincerity and piety is a source of great power in his art.


Chagall is in a somewhat different situation. The charm of his peasants and animals has ensured continuning popularity with the public, and his prominence as a highly visible Jewish artist has also garnered interest from that community. However, that very public popularity (e.g. dorm-room posters) has counted against him, in terms of elite reputation. The very charm of his work has led to its being damned as kitsch. Kimmelman again:

You are excused if the name Marc Chagall makes you think first of Chagall Inc., purveyor of ethnic kitsch. During his later years, he did become a one-man industry, flooding the market with amiable, middlebrow confections. He died in 1985, at 98, in an almost all-encompassing nimbus of popular affection. But he had stopped being interesting long before that.

Jeffrey, however, explores Chagall’s participation in a fascinating phenomenon (which had been completely unknown to me): an early 20th-century interest, on the part of Jewish artists such as Chagall, in exploring the figure of Christ as a Jewish figure, even a Jewish exemplar. Chagall was far from the only artist to do this, and Jeffrey discusses other examples from literature as well. The necessarily brief treatment in Jeffrey’s book leaves one with many burning questions: Whatever happened to all of this? Where did it come from? Could it promote interfaith dialogue today? What did Christians think about it?


Arcabas is a bit of a surprise, since whereas the other two figures are fairly well-known to historians of modern art (if not to their unfortunate students), Arcabas is quite unknown. As a rough gauge of their relative standing, we can consult the website artfacts.net, which attempts to quantify modern and contemporary artists’ reputational standing (Andy Warhol is #1, Picasso is #2, etc.). On this site, Chagall is ranked in the top 1000 (on the strength of 1,153 exhibitions), Rouault in the top 10,000 (with 441 exhibitions), and “Arcabas” is not found. However, if we search for Arcabas’s given name of Jean-Marie Pirot, we find Pirot ranked in the “top 1,000,000” with a mere 2 exhibitions in the database.

So, Arcabas is a bit of a left-field choice. However, Jeffrey makes a strong case for his merits. Like Chagall and Rouault, the genuineness of his faith is attested in his humble, saintly life, devoted to truth, beauty and goodness.

For me, the most striking Arcabas painting was his treatment of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). Jeffrey offers it as a counterpart to his earlier review of Bathsheba paintings. But, whereas David encounters Bathsheba with a smoldering, possessive lust, Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman with tender love and understanding.

This really comes through in Arcabas’s painting—the delicacy of the situation, and the subtlety of the encounter between the two. At the central point of the painting, Christ’s eyes glow with light. How can we not think of his teaching on adultery, lust, and the eye?

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. (Matt 5:27-29)

Whereas the sinful, lustful male gaze leads to darkness, possession, domination and degradation, the light of Christ’s truthful, loving eye radiates warmth and tenderness.

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