Transcendent Beauty

Have you ever stood in front of a painting that was so beautiful that you wanted to cry, or felt a moment of unity with an image that seemed to speak to your heart? That paintings are capable of this kind of experience is an extraordinary truth; they can move us so powerfully and inspire such strong emotional connection to the work. “Looking” at a painting doesn’t describe this kind of empathic experience – it’s too shallow a word – perhaps “experiencing” would describe it better?

I’ve been thinking about my first experience of Lippi’s Madonna and Child with Two Angels at the Uffizi, which took place last week while on a short trip to Florence. Having waited with a patient line of patient fellow tourists for an hour, all of us on our own pilgrimages to the cultural offerings of old Europe (Michelangelo’s David, check; Uffizi, check; Louvre, check; Eiffel tower, check…) and the necessary exploration of the not particularly exciting collection of Roman sculptures that fills the halls of the old building I found myself among the collection of gilded religious paintings from the fifteenth century. I appreciate the craftsmanship and the impressively lavish decoration of icon paintings, but seldom feel any warmth of personality emerging from the works, either from the people depicted or of the painter who made them. Following the press of people on their way to find the Botticelli masterpieces (Primavera, check; Birth of Venus, check) I found it difficult to focus on individual works, but this painting was different; now I stood among a small cluster of fellow devotees, my fingers lightly touching the metal guard rail while a silly grin ran across my face. I remember feeling warm, and feeling a sense of solitude – although there were many other people in the same gallery, the sounds of conversation and bustle about me seemed to fall away, while the painting almost glowed with an inner light.

I love the impossible grace of her hands and the simplicity of her face. The colour choices are simple but beautifully balanced, the drawing is delicately composed and rendered, with lovely attention to the expression on the children’s faces. While the fabric is full, the veil is so wispy that it feels as if it might blow away at any moment. To me this is a superb piece of work and I think it’s absolutely beautiful; I want to paint like this, with that same quality of design and delicacy, capturing peace and beauty in a painting.

This brings me to the “problem” of experiencing transcendent beauty. Although right now I find this painting thoroughly fulfilling I’m absolutely sure that many other people do not have the same experience when they stand before it, and accept that many people will find it completely boring, superficial, and irrelevant; to them it’s representative of a long-gone era whose religious ideas have no relevance to the post-modern age. To them this painting is a flat, sentimental bauble. How can this painting be so beautiful to me, but so completely not compelling to many hundreds of my fellow tourists who walked straight past it with no interest at all in its charms?

Because our individual reactions to any work of art are clearly not universal, beauty can’t possibly be entirely a quality of the work of art; it’s also experienced through our own individual conceptual framework that recognizes stuff that we like and appreciates when a thing is outstanding within that group of stuff. Lippi’s painting is a subtly distinct departure from the mass of icon paintings around it because it shows the mischievous character of the children with Mary; because she has a face and hands that are more slender than those in the paintings that surround her; because the figures “break the frame” in an unusual departure from other icons and because she’s painted in a slightly more linear style which makes her feel more modern (think about graphic novels). Even the most pragmatic viewer must agree that this is an unusual piece of work that’s been crafted particularly well, in a way that stands out from the crowd of other more generic icons, although they might not necessarily find it beautiful.

The aesthetic philosopher Adorno said that for art to be beautiful (which I interpret as: to have a transcendent impact) it has to both resonate with the viewer’s own experience and desire (I wish to paint images that have the same impact on other people, to paint tall slender women, to master technique) and it must be outstanding within the group of its peers (it must differ slightly in form and content, design, colour, pattern etc, while broadly remaining within the conceptual framework of the group). Because the Lippi Madonna does both of these things for me, I can be overwhelmed by its beauty, captivated by its elegance and transported away from the everyday, even if only for a short time.

Transcendent Beauty? Check.


About pearce

Michael Pearce is an artist, writer, and professor of art. He is the author of "Art in the Age of Emergence."
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