“Well, isn’t this pretty!” I remember overhearing a lady make this remark as she entered Salisbury Cathedral in England during a time we also happened to be visiting. She might as well have been commenting on the wallpaper in somebody’s bathroom. What of the picture on the cover of God, Morality, and Beauty—of light streaming through the cathedral onto the image of the crucified Christ? Can we call that pretty? Clearly, modern folks have a big problem understanding the difference between “the pretty” and “the beautiful.” A major reason is that we have been cut off from the transcendent source of the beautiful. In this regard, understanding the architecture of a cathedral as well as its adornments can help us recover a sense of what the beautiful is. Gothic cathedrals were fitted with pointed arches to allow more light into the cathedral. There was not only a functional reason for this architectural modification, but there was a spiritual reason as well. Light, after all, had long been associated with the divine glory that streams forth from the divine transcendence.
A Christian theological vision informs the aesthetics of Gothic cathedrals. The first Gothic cathedral, built by Abbot Suger, was intended to be a visible representation of the heavenly city—the city of God—on earth. Its stained-glass windows are suffused with light just as the precious stones in the walls of the heavenly Jerusalem refract the one light of the Lord God and of the Lamb, who are the lamp in the city of God. At the same time, the windows purvey the universality and unity of God’s reality through the particularity of the diverse biblical narratives that the pictures in the windows signify. The luminous colors that bathe and delight the sense of sight also compel the eyes to contemplate the stories’ meanings as well as the unity of light that streams through them. Our senses are, in this way, provided with stepping stones whereby we may ascend from the world of sense to the dimension of thinking where complete truth, which is symbolized by the oneness of the light, can be grasped. We find conveyed in the function of stained-glass windows a theory of beauty where the aesthetic is intended to be viewed in the light of the mind’s eye. Initially, the colors of the windows bathe the human visual sense with delight; but we are not left to experience only aestheticor sensualpleasure. If this were so, then we would then be left stuck in the “pretty” and would never be able to ascend to the “beautiful.” Instead of allowing us to get stuck, the symbols and stories portrayed through the medium of colored glass draw the senses upwards into the realm of understanding, and the light draws the mind beyond even the realm of thought to contemplate the mystery of the sublime reality who is God. The light, which represents the manifestation of the transcendence of God, is both veiled and revealed by the translucent glass through which it passes. Similarly, revelatory meaning is both hidden in and revealed through the various particular stories of God’s mighty acts of creation and redemption that tell the one story of God. The divine transcendent meaning thus remains indefinite and elusive at the same time it is mediated through the particulars of artistic media. True beauty thus provides us with a way of valuing God. This is something that the “pretty” simply cannot do.