Appeared in Winter 1999-2000, Vol. XXIV-XXV

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IN HIS TREATISE ON THE TRACING BACK OF THE ARTS TO THEOLOGY,THE GREAT Doctor of the Church St.Bonaventure takes as his theme the nature of art and the activity of an artisan.1 In the course of his discussion he makes this remarkable claim:we shall be able to discern “the eternal generation and Incarnation of the Word, the pattern of human life, and the union of the soul with God” if we meditate prayerfully on “the production, the effect, and the advantage”2 of any work of art. In this article we will look at each of these aspects of art in order to see more clearly the theological truths the seraphic Doctor himself discerns in them. Our brief study of this key element in his theology will make manifest the foundations and implications of a doctrine of artistic analogy.3

I. The Production of Art

All productions of art, as of nature, require not merely some matter to be worked upon, but matter suitable to the firmit will receive, and a source of that form, an agent by whose activity the form will be enmattered or “incarnated.” Form holds pride of place; it explains the why of matter. The artist masters the materials of his art because he brings to them a plan, a figure, a purpose, through which the lower nature of the artifact can partake in some way of the higher nature of its artificer. Whether his purpose be delighting an audience, satisfying an innate love of beauty, honoring a beloved, or worshipping God often all of them at oncethe artist seeks to produce a work that will fittingly achieve its end by making manifest the conception in his mind. The work exists for the sake of the conception it is meant to display or convey. “In art the reasons are nothing other than the likenesses of the objects that are to be produced as they are known by the artist.”4The underlying conception is the “soul” of the work of art, animating its features and functions. In this sense, the work necessarily preexists in a higher form in the mind of the artist himself.

If we consider the production,we shall see that the work of art proceeds from the artificer according to a model existing in his mind; this pattern or model the artificer studies carefully before he produces and then he produces as he has predetermined. The artificer, moreover, produces an exterior work bearing the closest possible resemblance to the interior model.

It is not enough, however, to point out the congruity of the product with the intention behind it. Art seeks, to the extent possible, to reproduce something of the nature of the producer that through his works the maker thereof might be known. The best work of art does more than stand by itself. By exemplifying some perfection that the intelligence possesses, the work continually draws the beholder back into the intelligence from which it originally came.

All great works of art exhibit a wondrous power to evoke and lead the mind back to the original reality from which their beauty is derived. With respect to its essential condition of having-been-made, the beauty of the artifact is always secondary or derivative. Unable to confer beauty or, for that matter, truth or goodness upon itself, it hearkens back to what is per se beautiful, true, and good. The better the artwork, the more active and potent will it be in leading back to that original, so as to illuminate the fount of undivided beauty which the imitation divides into streams by presenting various aspects or parts of it. The “mechanical arts” (Bonaventure includes under this title what we call the fine arts), which impose a form upon suitable matter, may thus be ranked according to the degree of their perfection in imitating the source from whence they arise. For example, painting imitates the colored form without its full dimensionality; sculpture, the form as it appears in nature; drama, the actions and passions of living men, represented by actors on the stage. Just as living and knowing are superior to mere existence, so too the work of art that imitates the life and knowledge of the artist is superior, in a sense, to an image that furnishes a lesser token of human presence. By this standard, drama in its fluid progression of deeds and words may be considered as representing more of man’s nature than portraiture, which selects and freezes some aspect of human appearance.

But one should go further. If the artist could make not only a representation of human life in the mode of drama, but could make other beings like himself sharing in actual existence he will have done a far greater work. We see the chief example in the procreation and rearing of children, by which parents assist in bringing forth new persons, images who are inclined to love, and are capable of friendship with, their origin. In order to assist the offspring in reaching maturity, father and mother lower themselves for a time, as it were, to the level of children, in order to lead them to maturity. In this work of human birth and development, we may catch a faint glimpse of the perfect and eternal begetting of the Word in heaven by the Father “of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named” (Eph. 3:15). Nevertheless, even when the love of man and woman bears fruit in a child who is like themselves, the likeness is far from perfect, the artistry far from absolute. The parent is not the absolute cause of his child; the soul of parent and child alike emanate from and return to a higher spiritual cause, who stands to them as artist to clay.

Conceive now of a supreme artificer with infinite perfection of mind, infinite love, and infinite power, whose causality extends to the whole being of his effect and not to some particular disposition in it. This universal architect would be able to exercise his artistry over every aspect of the work, including its materiality and even the essence of the form to be enmattered. “The more perfect and prior-in-being the producing principle, the greater its influence on reality. From this we may conclude that the First and most perfect principle influences everything and. flows into every-thing.”5Not stopping at the mere production of an artifact, so powerful a maker would extend his creation to the powers and operations of his creature, guiding and regulating it according to the archetype by which it had been designed.