Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain

Chapter VIII

Christian Art

By the words "Christian art" I do not mean Church art, art specified by an object, an end, and determined rules, and which is but a particular -- and eminent -- point of application of art.[*k] I mean Christian art in the sense of art which bears within it the character of Christianity. In this sense Christian art is not a species of the genus art: one does not say "Christian art" as one says "pictorial" or "poetic" art, "Gothic" or "Byzantine" art. A young man does not say to himself "I am going in for Christian art," as he might say "I am going in for agriculture." There is no school where one learns Christian art.[141] Christian art is defined by the one in whom it exists and by the spirit from which it issues: one says "Christian art" or the "art of a Christian," as one says the "art of the bee" or the "art of man." It is the art of redeemed humanity. It is planted in the Christian soul, by the side of the running waters, under the sky of the theological virtues, amidst the breezes of the seven gifts of the Spirit. It is natural that it should bear Christian fruit.

Everything belongs to it, the sacred as well as the profane. It is at home wherever the ingenuity and the joy of man extend. Symphony or ballet, film or novel, landscape or still-life, puppet-show libretto or opera, it can just as well appear in any of these as in the stained- glass windows and statues of churches.

But, it may be objected, is not this Christian art a myth? Can one even conceive of it? Is not art pagan by birth and tied to sin -- just as man is a sinner by birth? But grace heals wounded nature. Do not say that a Christian art is impossible.[142] Say rather that it is difficult, doubly difficult -- fourfold difficult, because it is difficult to be an artist and very difficult to be a Christian, and because the total difficulty is not simply the sum but the product of these two difficulties multiplied by one another: for it is a question of harmonizing two absolutes. Say that the difficulty becomes tremendous when the entire age lives far from Christ, for the artist is greatly dependent upon the spirit of his time. But has courage ever been lacking on earth?

Besides, wherever art -- Egyptian, Greek or Chinese -- has known a certain degree of grandeur and purity, it is already Christian, Christian in hope, because every spiritual radiance is a promise and a symbol of the divine harmonies of the Gospel.

Inspiration is not a mere mythological accessory. There exists a real inspiration, coming not from the Muses, but from the living God, a special movement of the natural order,[143] by which the first Intelligence, when It pleases, gives the artist a creative movement superior to the yardstick of reason, and which uses, in superelevating them, all the rational energies of art; and whose impulse, moreover, man is free to follow or to vitiate. This inspiration descending from God the author of nature is, as it were, a symbol of supernatural inspiration. In order for an art to arise that is Christian not only in hope but in fact, and truly liberated by grace, both forms of inspiration must be joined at its most secret source.


If you want to make a Christian work, then be Christian, and simply try to make a beautiful work, into which your heart will pass; do not try to "make Christian."

Do not make the absurd attempt to dissociate in yourself the artist and the Christian. They are one, if you are truly Christian, and if your art is not isolated from your soul by some system of aesthetics. But apply only the artist to the work; precisely because the artist and the Christian are one, the work will derive wholly from each of them.

Do not separate your art from your faith. But leave distinct what is distinct. Do not try to blend by force what life unites so well. If you were to make of your aesthetic an article of faith, you would spoil your faith. If you were to make of your devotion a rule of artistic activity, or if you were to turn desire to edify into a method of your art, you would spoil your art.

The entire soul of the artist reaches and rules his work, but it must reach it and rule it only through the artistic habitus. Art tolerates no division here. It will not allow any foreign element, juxtaposing itself to it, to mingle, in the production of the work, its regulation with art's own. Tame it, and it will do all that you want it to do. Use violence, and it will accomplish nothing good. Christian work would have the artist, as artist, free.

Nevertheless art will be Christian, and will reveal in its beauty the interior reflection of the radiance of grace, only if it overflows from a heart suffused by grace. For the virtue of art which reaches it and rules it directly, presupposes that the appetite is rightly disposed with regard to the beauty of the work. And if the beauty of the work is Christian, it is because the appetite of the artist is rightly disposed with regard to such a beauty, and because in the soul of the artist Christ is present through love. The quality of the work is here the reflection of the love from which it issues, and which moves the virtue of art instrumentally. Thus it is by reason of an intrinsic superelevation that art is Christian, and it is through love that this superelevation takes place.

It follows from this that the work will be Christian in the exact degree in which love is vibrant. Let's make no mistake about it: what is required is the very actuality of love, contemplation in charity. Christian work would have the artist, as man, a saint.

It would have him possessed by love. Let him then make what he wishes. If the work conveys a note less purely Christian, it is because something was lacking in the purity of the love.[144] Art requires much calm, said Fra Angelico, and to paint the things of Christ one must live with Christ; it is the only saying that we have of his, and how little systematic . . .

It would therefore be futile to try to find a technique, a style, a system of rules or a way of working which would be those of Christian art. The art which germinates and grows in Christian man can admit of an infinity of them. But these forms of art will all have a family likeness, and all of them will differ substantially from non-Christian forms of art; as the flora of the mountains differs from the flora of the plains. Consider the liturgy: it is the transcendent and supereminent type of the forms of Christian art; the Spirit of God in Person fashioned it, so as to be able to delight in it.[145]

But the liturgy is not entirely immutable, it suffers the passage of time; eternity rejuvenates itself in it. And the Maronite or Pravoslav liturgy is not the Roman liturgy: there are many mansions in Heaven. Nothing is more beautiful than a High Mass -- a dance before the Ark in slow motion, more majestic than the advance of the heavenly hosts. And yet in it the Church is not seeking for beauty, nor for decorative motifs, nor to touch the heart. Her sole aim is to adore, and to unite herself with the Savior; and from this loving adoration beauty, too, overflows.


Beautiful things are rare. What exceptional conditions must be presupposed for a civilization to unite, and in the same men, art and contemplation! Under the burden of a nature always resisting and ceaselessly falling, Christianity has spread its sap everywhere, in art and in the world; but except for the Middle Ages, and then only amid formidable difficulties and deficiencies, it has not succeeded in shaping an art and a world all its own -- and this is not surprising. Classical art produced many Christian works, and admirable ones at that. But can it be said that taken in itself this form of art has the original savor of the Christian climate? It is a form born in another land, and then transplanted.

If in the midst of the unspeakable catastrophes which the modern world invites, a moment is to come, however brief, of pure Christian springtime -- a Palm Sunday for the Church, a brief Hosanna from poor earth to the Son of David -- one may expect for these years, together with a lively intellectual and spiritual vigor, the regermination of a truly Christian art, to the delight of men and the angels. Even now this art seems to herald itself in the individual effort of certain artists and poets over the past fifty years, some of whom are to be reckoned among the greatest. We must above all be careful not to disengage and isolate it prematurely, and by an academic effort, from the great movement of contemporary art.[146] It will emerge and assert itself only if it springs spontaneously from a common renewal of art and sanctity in the world.

Christianity does not make art easy. It deprives it of many facile means, it bars its course at many places, but in order to raise its level. At the same time that Christianity creates these salutary difficulties, it superelevates art from within, reveals to it a hidden beauty which is more delicious than light, and gives it what the artist has need of most -- simplicity, the peace of awe and of love, the innocence which renders matter docile to men and fraternal.

Chapter IX Art and Morality