Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism

Here are six summary statements of ideas in Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, each followed by related quotations from the book.

(Quotations are from the 1974 translation by Joseph W. Evans online here. Also, the earlier translation by J. F. Scanlan is online here.)

1. Real communication between subject (artist/viewer/public) and object (the work of art, or other objects) is possible. The alternative is to fall into the sterility of purely subjective or purely objective modes. In aesthetic experience, we are ‘really’ making contact with the Creation and through it, with the Creator.

the splendor or radiance of the form glittering in the beautiful object is not presented to the mind by a concept or an idea, but rather by the sensible object intuitively grasped — in which there is transmitted, as through an instrumental cause, this radiance of a form… Contemplating the object in the intuition which sense has of it, the intellect enjoys a presence, the radiant presence of an intelligible which does not reveal itself to its eyes such as it is. If it turns away from sense to abstract and reason, it turns away from its joy and loses contact with this radiance….the perception of the beautiful is accompanied by that curious feeling of intellectual fullness through which we seem to be swollen with a superior knowledge of the object contemplated, and which nevertheless leaves us powerless to express it and to possess it by our ideas and make it the object of scientific analysis. Thus music gives us enjoyment of being, more so perhaps than the other arts; but it does not give us knowledge of being, and it is absurd to make it a substitute for metaphysics. (footnote 56)

It is important, however, to note that in the beautiful that we have called connatural to man, and which is proper to human art, this brilliance of the form, no matter how purely intelligible it may be in itself, is seized in the sensible and through the sensible, and not separately from it. The intuition of artistic beauty thus stands at the opposite extreme from the abstraction of scientific truth. For with the former it is through the very apprehension of the sense that the light of being penetrates the intelligence.
The intelligence in this case, diverted from all effort of abstraction, rejoices without work and without discourse. It is dispensed from its usual labor; it does not have to disengage an intelligible from the matter in which it is buried, in order to go over its different attributes step by step; like a stag at the gushing spring, intelligence has nothing to do but drink; it drinks the clarity of being. Caught up in the intuition of sense, it is irradiated by an intelligible fight that is suddenly given to it, in the very sensible in which it glitters, and which it does not seize sub ratione veri, but rather sub ratione delectabilis, through the happy release procured for the intelligence and through the delight ensuing in the appetite, which leaps at every good of the soul as at its proper object. Only afterwards will it be able to reflect more or less successfully upon the causes of this delight. (ch. 5, paras. 5 & 6)


2. The mystery of beauty, which can be apprehended (grasped) by us, but not comprehended (exhausted) by us. We can “get” it, but it points to something more.

Saint Thomas, who was as simple as he was wise, defined the beautiful as that which, being seen, pleases: id quod visum placet. These four words say all that is necessary: a vision, that is to say, an intuitive knowledge, and a delight. The beautiful is what gives delight — not just any delight, but delight in knowing; not the delight peculiar to the act of knowing, but a delight which superabounds and overflows from this act because of the object known. (ch. 5, 1st para., emph. added)

By “radiance of the form” must be understood an ontological splendor which is in one way or another revealed to our mind, not a conceptual clarity. We must avoid all misunderstanding here: the words clarity, intelligibility, light, which we use to characterize the role of “form” at the heart of things, do not necessarily designate something clear and intelligible for us, but rather something clear and luminous in itself, intelligible in itself, and which often remains obscure to our eyes, either because of the matter in which the form in question is buried, or because of the transcendence of the form itself in the things of the spirit. The more substantial and the more profound this secret sense is, the more hidden it is for us; so that, in truth, to say with the Schoolmen that the form is in things the proper principle of intelligibility, is to say at the same time that it is the proper principle of mystery. (There is in fact no mystery where there is nothing to know: mystery exists where there is more to be known than is given to our comprehension.) To define the beautiful by the radiance of the form is in reality to define it by the radiance of a mystery. (footnote d)


3. Forms ultimately have significance because they have been created by God. Beauty is transmitted from God’s Intelligence to our intelligence.

“Every form is a vestige or a ray of the creative Intelligence imprinted at the heart of created being.” (ch. 5, third pg.)

Beauty is essentially an object of intelligence, for that which knows in the full sense of the word is intelligence, which alone is open to the infinity of being. The natural place of beauty is the intelligible world, it is from there that it descends. (ch. 5, second para.)

“If beauty delights the intellect, it is because it is essentially a certain excellence or perfection in the proportion of things to the intellect. Hence the three conditions Saint Thomas assigned to beauty: integrity, because the intellect is pleased in fullness of Being; proportion, because the intellect is pleased in order and unity; finally, and above all, radiance or clarity, because the intellect is pleased in light and intelligibility.” (ch. 5, third para.)

Beauty is the splendor of the form on the proportioned parts of matter,[54] is to say that it is a flashing of intelligence on a matter intelligibly arranged. The intelligence delights in the beautiful because in the beautiful it finds itself again and recognizes itself, and makes contact with its own light. This is so true that those — such as Saint Francis of Assisi — perceive and savor more the beauty of things, who know that things come forth from an intelligence, and who relate them to their author. (ch. 5, third para.)

Art, first of all, is of the intellectual order, its action consists in imprinting an idea in some matter: it is therefore in the intelligence of the artifex that it resides, or, as is said, this intelligence is the subject in which it inheres. It is a certain quality of this intelligence. (ch. 4, second para.)


4. Thus, art is not about “mere” imitation–mechanically or literally copying appearances–but about getting to the deeper truth, the ‘splendor’ of things, through their surface appearance.

What is required is not that the representation exactly conform to a given reality, but that through the material elements of the beauty of the work there truly pass, sovereign and whole, the radiance of a form. But if the delight in the beautiful work comes from a truth, it does not come from the truth of imitation as reproduction of things, it comes from the perfection with which the work expresses or manifests the form, in the metaphysical sense of this word,[121] it comes from the truth of imitation as manifestation of a form. Here we have the formal element of imitation in art: the expression or manifestation, in a work suitably proportioned, of some secret principle of intelligibility which shines forth. It is upon this that the joy of imitation bears in art. It is also what gives art its value of universality.
What constitutes the rigor of the true classical, is such a subordination of the matter to the light of the form thus manifested, that no material element issuing from things or from the subject is admitted into the work which is not strictly required as support for or vehicle of this light, and which would dull or “debauch”[122] the eye, ear, or spirit. Compare, from this point of view, Gregorian melody or the music of Bach with the music of Wagner or Stravinsky. (ch. 7)

I think that my exposition has sufficiently shown that the evocation or imitation of things is in no way the aim of art, but that our art nevertheless cannot recompose its own world, its autonomous “poetic reality,” except by first of all discerning, in that which is, the forms that it manifests, and by thus resembling things in a more profound and more mysterious manner than any direct evocation possibly can. (footnote 121)

in reality it is not a question of slavishly imitating the object, but, what is entirely different, of manifesting with the utmost fidelity, at the cost of all the “distortions” that may be necessary, the form or ray of intelligibility whose brilliance is apprehended in the real. (footnote 131)

The imitative arts aim neither at copying the appearances of nature, nor at depicting the “ideal,” but at making an object beautiful by manifesting a form with the help of sensible signs.
The human artist or poet, whose intellect is not the cause of things, as is the Divine Intellect, cannot draw this form entirely from his creative spirit: he goes and imbibes it first and above all in the immense treasure-house of created things, of sensible nature as also of the world of souls, and of the interior world of his own soul. From this point of view he is first and foremost a man who sees more deeply than other men, and who discloses in the real spiritual radiances which others cannot discern.[130] But to make these radiances shine in his work, and therefore to be truly docile and faithful to the invisible spirit that plays in things, he can, and he even must, distort in some measure, reconstruct, transfigure the material appearances of nature. Even in a portrait that is “a perfect likeness” — in Holbein’s drawings, for instance — the work always expresses a form engendered in the spirit of the artist and truly born in that spirit, true portraits being nothing other than “the ideal reconstruction of individuals.”[131] (chapter 7, middle)

The ancient maxim ars imitatur naturam, does not mean: “art imitates nature by reproducing it,” but rather “art imitates nature by proceeding or operating like nature, ars imitatur naturam IN SUA OPERATIONE.” (note 134)


5. Art is made by the physical hand of the artist, within a specific, tangible community, at a specific place and time. (Inspired Walker Percy’s critique of “angelism,” mind-body split; Farrell O’Gorman, Renascence 2000.  Also inspired David Jones community at Ditchling).

Thus, contra the myth of the solitary, misunderstood, sequestered, lone artistic genius, art inherently exists of and for the community [of faith].

But art does not reside in an angelic mind; it resides in a soul which animates a living body, and which, by the natural necessity in which it finds itself of learning, and progressing little by little and with the assistance of others, makes the rational animal a naturally social animal. Art is therefore basically dependent upon everything which the human community, spiritual tradition and history transmit to the body and mind of man. By its human subject and its human roots, art belongs to a time and a country. That is why the most universal and the most human works are those which bear most openly the mark of their country. (ch. 9, section 3)

There is a fundamental need of art in the human community: “Nobody,” says Saint Thomas following Aristotle, “can do without delectation for long. That is why he who is deprived of spiritual delectations goes over to the carnal.”[155] (ch. 9)


6.. Every artistic medium (pottery… the sonnet… the harpsichord…) has its own logic, its own rules, which determine its nature and its quality but these rules do not exhaust or determine the purpose or end of art.

“Art, which rules Making and not Doing, stands therefore outside the human sphere; it has an end, rules, values, which are not those of man, but those of the work to be produced. This work is everything for Art; there is for Art but one law — the exigencies and the good of the work.
Hence the tyrannical and absorbing power of Art, and also its astonishing power of soothing; it delivers one from the human; it establishes the artifex — artist or artisan — in a world apart, closed, limited, absolute, in which he puts the energy and intelligence of his manhood at the service of a thing which he makes. This is true of all art; the ennui of living and willing, ceases at the door of every workshop.
But if art is not human in the end that it pursues, it is human, essentially human, in its mode of operating. It’s a work of man that has to be made; it must have on it the mark of man: animal rationale. (ch. 3, last pg.)

The cathedral builders did not harbor any sort of thesis. They were, in Dulac’s fine phrase, “men unaware of themselves.”[140] They neither wished to demonstrate the propriety of Christian dogma nor to suggest by some artifice a Christian emotion. They even thought a great deal less of making a beautiful work than of doing good work. They were men of Faith, and as they were, so they worked. Their work revealed the truth of God, but without doing it intentionally, and because of not doing it intentionally. (ch. 7, last para.)

Moreover, there cannot in fact be any purely “gratuitous” work of art — the universe excepted. Not only is our act of artistic creation ordered to an ultimate end, true God or false God, but it is impossible that it not regard, because of the environment in which it steeps, certain proximate ends that concern the human order. The workman works for his wages, and the most disincarnate artist has some concern to act on souls and to serve an idea, be it only an aesthetic idea. What is required is the perfect practical discrimination between the aim of the workman (finis operantis, as the Schoolmen put it) and the aim of the work (finis operis): so that the workman should work for his wages, but the work should be ruled and shaped and brought into being only with regard to its own good and in nowise with regard to the wages. Thus the artist may work for any and every human intention he likes, but the work taken in itself must be made and constructed only for its own beauty. (ch. 9, third section)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s