At the close of the 15th century, Michelangelo carved two figures out of what he claimed was the most perfect block of Carrara marble. The statue, which depicts the Virgin Mother holding the body of the crucified Christ, gained renown immediately upon its completion and is still a most sought-out masterpiece.
Shortly before the beginning of Lent, a dear friend gave me a small book that consists solely of images of this statue — the Pietà. The hundreds of black and white snapshots, captured from all angles, bring one to the foot of the statue and, even more, to the heart of Mary’s sorrow. I determined that praying with these images throughout the 40 days of Lent would draw me into a deeper understanding of the Passion; they would, I believed, pierce my heart, drench me with sorrow and enable me to fall into greater knowledge of Christ’s sacrifice. What I did not expect was that, through these photographs, he would teach me about beauty.
The world loves to tell the lie that beauty is something that we can artificially create. We are made to believe that we can fashion ourselves into our own golden calves with the cheap tools of a society that, more and more, ignores the one who created all. Truly, our society has constructed a definition of beauty that does not at all elucidate its true meaning, but rather has worked to mar, contort and even undermine beauty. We have been told to look to curated images on tabloids, screens and billboards for the meaning of beauty when the real definition can only be found in an image that many consider gruesome, shocking and perhaps even ugly. To discover beauty — real beauty — we must look to the sacrifice of the cross.
In considering the photographs of the Pietà — some taken at such close range that one feels capable of reaching out and caressing the stony curve of Christ’s nail-pierced foot and the tumbling garments of Mary — I became intensely aware of the physicality of Christ and the Virgin. Like us, they were flesh and blood, arms that held, legs that journeyed, eyes that saw and wept. The forms carved by Michelangelo are intensely human and intensely beautiful. They are not, however, simply beautiful in some dead-end aesthetic sense; they are beautiful because of what they reveal, what they have sacrificed, what they have created.
I am not suggesting that beauty is utilitarian — that its fullness is found in practicality or usefulness. Rather, the fullness of beauty is found in that which points to love. Beauty is the outward presentation — the very depiction — of love. The battered corpse of Christ, lying limply in his mother’s grieving arms, shows a love so immense, so selfless and entirely perfect. He suffered and died so that our sins would not forever damn us. She said “yes” to the swords that pierced her heart, knowing that her sacrifice would enable the salvation of souls. Thus, in the brokenness of his breathless body, the weary feet that limply hang, the torn hands that once touched lepers, one cannot help but see beauty. In the mourning bosom of the mother, the downcast gaze fixed upon her child, the hands that hold and seem to say ‘behold,’ one cannot help but see beauty. These two figures bespeak affliction, torment and heartache, but they also show that nothing was endured in vain. Rather, the suffering was born for love. And to love with one’s entire being in this way is beauty.
In “Theology of Home II,” the authors relay the tale of author and convert Tom Howard who, upon seeing a photograph of Mother Teresa commented, “There she was in old age looking a bit like a walnut and somehow she was much more beautiful than the latest debauched young starlet with her Maybelline mascara on the magazine next to her.” This observation illuminates the truth of beauty. It is not about lines and curves and structure itself. It is the way in which lines and curves and structure manifest that for which we should be living. Mother Teresa may not possess the allure of a 25-year-old supermodel. But, in her deeply lined face, her hunched back, her rather gnarled hands, one could see surpassing beauty because, in that face, that back and those hands are signs of selfless, true and enduring love. She, like the crucified Christ, displayed a beauty that was creative; her very self was, day after day, given for the salvation of others.
That is what I saw looking at the Pietà. Yes, I saw suffering. I saw sorrow. I saw the pains of his passion. But it did not end there. In all of that, I saw the purest beauty. I saw the beauty that the world has tucked away in its quest for raising up other gods — selfish idols. I saw the beauty of a love that gives without question, without hesitation, without any reservation. I saw a love that sought not for himself, not for herself, but for the sake of you and me and every single sinner that has walked — and will walk — upon this earth. I saw a love that, in its sacrifice, enabled the creation of abundant life.
While studying the photographs of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, a line from Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Idiot” often surfaced in my mind: “Beauty will save the world.” At first glance, the statement seems superficial, misguided and even silly. But, upon deeper reflection, one finds that it is absolutely true when one speaks not of a worldly beauty, but of the beauty that points to that which is beyond our world, a beauty that may appear ugly in the eyes of the world — a beauty that bears scars for the other, that suffers in order to bring forth new life, that exists not for itself but for the triumph of all that is truly good. Indeed, this beauty already has saved the world.
As I gazed upon the beauty of Our Lord, lying upon his sorrowing mother’s lap and bleeding out with love for us, I saw that this is the beauty that we should all be seeking. While the temptations to chase after the glimmering fool’s gold beauty of the world are nearly everywhere, we must deny them and look, instead, to the cross. We cannot get caught up in the mire of seeking a false and superficial beauty. We must renounce the lies of the world and proclaim our true worth.
And our worth is this: that he died for us, so that we may live lives of holiness and virtue, building up his kingdom. Our lives should not be lived for ourselves, but for the sake of others. Our hearts should be turned outward, and our hands should follow. This is what will make us truly beautiful. Our radiance will come not from gadgets and gizmos, glamour tips and tricks, but from looking to our savior, draped across his mother as the sacrificial lamb, and saying, “I wish to live as you lived.” For, when we emulate his beauty, we too can help save the world. And that is beautiful.