The Truth of Ugliness

An interesting article that a friend sent me recently, concerning an interview given by Pope Benedict XVI in Brixen, in the Austrian Alps, started me thinking about a favourite subject: beauty. Well, that is to say, specifically, beauty and how it reveals the truth of the Divine to us. B16 states:

Christian art is a rational form of art – we think of Gothic art, great music, or the Baroque art right here – but this is the artistic expression of a much broader form of reason, in which the heart and reason come together. This is the point. This, I think, is in some way the proof of the truth of Christianity: the heart and reason come together, beauty and truth touch. And to the extent that we are able to live in the beauty of truth, so much more will faith again be able to be creative, in our own time as well, and to express itself in a convincing artistic form.

This pronouncement in particular, given its wording, reminded me immediately of a couple of key moments in “Babette’s Feast”, which I wrote a little about in a previous posting, but spoke on recently before our young adult group. There is a great deal of complex Eucharistic symbolism in the film, as is well-known among many serious critics. However, given the Holy Father’s recent comments, there is some possibility as well that the simple beauty of the film is also what helps to bring the viewer into a greater understanding of the truth God reveals in His creation.

In the film, Psalm 85 is of significant importance and recurrent symbolism, particularly verse 10, “Love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss.” This verse is given early in the narrative, and then comes back to remind the characters of their relationship to God, and to each other, and what they ought to be striving for in their lives at the end of the film. Moreover, it holds special resonance for the idea of the artist in the film, for another repeated line spoken initially by Achille Papin, and later by Philippa at the conclusion of the film, whereby the great artist realizes that they are never poor, and that in heaven their gift will reach its fullest expression and give joy to the angels. I cannot be sure of course, but I do wonder whether the Pope has a particular affection for this film given the context of his remarks to the priests at Brixen.

However: I am going to go a step beyond the Pope, and if he were speaking in a more fully-fleshed interview on the subject, I am sure he could do the same. For the reality is that in ugliness, we may also learn the truth, in at least two instances that come to mind. There is an ugliness which can conceal the true beauty within, and there is also an ugliness that is like a veil drawn back upon those things which we fail to acknowledge about ourselves – our maltreatment of one another, our pathetic attempts to avoid our own mortality, and the like. In a way, both of these types of ugliness are, in fact, really a type of beauty because they reveal the truth.

The type of ugliness which conceals beauty makes one think of people like St. Vincent de Paul or Mother Theresa of Calcutta, picking up the hideous rejects of society off of the streets and caring for them, even if they know there is no hope of survival for the person they have plucked from the cold of man’s inhumanity to his neighbour. St. Francis of Assisi saw this as well when he embraced the leper, who was revealed as a celestial visitor only after St. Francis overcame his natural, human repulsion toward ugliness. All of these of course, are examples after Christ doing the same, turning toward those thought to be ugly, in a society which thought that an ugly exterior was a type of sin (sound familiar?)

At the same time, and this may be my Iberian origins talking, there is a beauty in ugliness itself which reveals the truth. Spain in particular has never, in its art, shied away from showing what is truly ugly or unattractive in order to challenge the viewer to reconsider their prejudices, and to accept their own mortality. This is one reason why the crucifix was so traditionally omnipresent in Spain, and particularly any kind of crucifix showing Christ in suffering – not pastel and seemingly suffering-free. Spanish crucifixes have hair matted with sweat and blood. As my sister likes to point out, the best of the Spanish crucifixes show Our Lord with bloodied and bruised knees from his falls on the Via Dolorosa.

Similarly, in the work of the great Spanish Baroque painter Juan de Valdés Leal, the “memento morii“, popular in Medieval and Counter-Reformation painting, reaches an unprecedented height of putrification. The decayed are brought out on display, to remind the viewer that we are mortal, and all of our finery and achievements are for nothing in preventing our death. This of course is something that Mediterranean people seem to have a better time of accepting than Northern Europeans.

A comic example of this is an exchange in “Moonstruck”, one of my favourite films, between the characters of Cosmo and Rose Castorini, played by Vincent Gardenia and Olympia Dukakis, respectively. In the film, Cosmo is cheating on his wife; Rose knows it, but cannot find the strength to confront him about it. At a pivotal moment, when Cosmo returns home after an evening at the opera with his mistress, Rose asks where he’s been, and he will not tell her. “I don’t know, Rose. I don’t know where I’ve been, and I don’t know where I’m going. Okay?”

Rose then goes on to say:

Rose: Cosmo, I just want you to know that you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.
Cosmo: Thank you, Rose.
Rose: You’re welcome.
Cosmo: I’m going to bed now.

Later on in the glorious, almost “opera buffa” climax of the film around the kitchen table, Rose finally confronts Cosmo, who realizes that his life, his house, is not built on “nothin‘ ” like the man who built his house on sand, but rather on the firm rock foundation of love and faith. And touchingly, it is when Rose asks Cosmo not only to stop seeing his mistress but to go to confession that Cosmo finally comes to see the truth that he has been denying for so long.

So far be it from me to add to anything the Holy Father has said! However, it is important for all of us to realize that those things which we find difficult to watch may also be vehicles of truth. It does not mean that we must desensitize ourselves in the way that contemporary media would like. However it does mean that it becomes even harder for us, in a culture obsessed with a plastic kind of beauty, to recognize beauty in its true form, when it presents itself.

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