Awakening to Beauty

Some historians tell us that the beginning of Western civilization, which through the process of globalization has become the world-wide paradigm, had its origin in ancient Greece. In other words, P-B can be traced to the city-states surrounding the Athens of Pericles. If artistic expression is revelatory of consciousness, then the art produced by ancient Greece was a stunning improvement over that of Egypt and the empires of Mesopotamia.

The most outstanding achievement of the Greeks was the eloquent expression of beauty—of the Romans—roads, baths and aqueducts. One a response of the soul—the other a reaction to the needs of the physical body or “form.” One expressed an intuitive seeking for truth or consciousness and the other a perpetuation of an unconscious worldview. A good example of the latter is the Colosseum. (See A Roman Amphitheatre: the Colosseum in Rome 80 C.E.)

“On the whole it is a utilitarian structure.” Utilitarian is a word that expresses the need of the human false-self. The false-self had its genesis as a necessary survival strategy and hence epitomizes a “utilitarian” creation that ensured the survival of the ego and indeed the physical human being or the human “form.” It is the sensation energy-center of this false-self survival strategy that is impressed and influenced by “the grandeur that was Rome.”

The relationship among beauty, truth and consciousness is profound and is such that they can often be used as synonyms. Conscious people (those who have present-moment awareness) are vividly alive to the beauty surrounding them. But beauty in art has evolved as has consciousness in humanity. Notice that the highlighted words by art critic E. H. Gombrich used to describe the art that is cited in this essay can also be used to describe the “feelings,” i.e., the “beauty” accompanying an awareness of the NOW.

For example, Gombrich describes An Ionic Temple: the Erectheion on the Acropolis in Athens, c. 420 B.C.E.: “The whole impression of these buildings with their finely wrought details is one of infinite grace and ease.” Similarly, when we look at A Goddess of Victory, 408 B.C. we can see “how softly and richly the thin drapery falls over the beautiful body.”  And finally, the Interior of the Pantheon in Rome built about 130 A.D., is seen by Gombrich as conveying an “impression of serene harmony.”

The Romans did what we need to do today and that is to engage in a process of synthesis. “It was typical of the Romans to take from Greek architecture what they liked, and to apply it to their own needs. They did the same in all fields.” P-A is a synthesis of the most profound ideas throughout all of human history and we need to use these ideas to create a new sustainable worldview in response to the Three Great Questions.

To attempt the process of synthesis, however, will not work without profound goals, including values such as beauty, awareness and compassion. Without these ideals, the process of synthesis can be subverted by the false-self which contains the ego. For example, in The Lower part of Trajan’s column in Rome, dedicated in 114 C.E., we see how this happened when skilled engravers lacked the higher ideals. The purpose of the column was to impress the people of Rome by depicting the military victories of Trajan’s legionnaires in Dacia. “All the skill and achievements of centuries of Greek art were used in these feats of war reporting. The main aim was no longer that of harmony, beauty or dramatic expression.” There is no more “art” on that column than one would find on the front page of today’s newspapers.

Once a paradigm becomes dominant as is the American worldview today, it can influence, for better or worse, less vital cultures and their stories. “During the centuries after Christ, Hellenistic and Roman art completely displaced the arts of the Oriental kingdoms even in their own strongholds.” Moses striking water from the rock 245-256 C.E. is an example of the influence of Greek and Roman art as far away as Mesopotamia. “Even in far-distant India, the Roman way of telling a story, and of glorifying a hero, was adopted by artists who set themselves the task of illustrating the story of a peaceful conquest, the story of Buddha.” For example see the Head of Buddha c. 200 C.E. “Greek and Roman art which had taught man to visualize gods and heroes in beautiful form also helped the Indians to create an image of the savior. The first statues of Buddha with their expression of deep repose were also made in this frontier region of Ghandara.”

“When Christian artists were first called upon to represent the Savior and His apostles it was again the tradition of Greek art which came to their aid. Christ with St. Peter and St. Paul 359 C.E. [From the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus] shows one of the earliest representations of Christ. Instead of the bearded figure to which we have become accustomed through later illustrations, we see Christ in youthful beauty, enthroned between St. Peter and St. Paul, who look like dignified Greek philosophers.”

As it had been in ancient Egypt, art is once again employed for religious purposes or storytelling and loses much of its vitality and beauty. “Its main purpose was to remind the faithful of one of the examples of God’s mercy and power. [See The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace c. 200 C.E.] Once more ideas of clarity and simplicity began to outweigh ideals of faithful imitation.  These three men seen from in front, looking at the beholder, their hands raised in prayer, seem to show that mankind had begun to concern itself with other things besides earthly beauty. To a Greek of the time of Praxiteles these works would have looked crude and barbaric. [See Portrait of an official from Aphrodisias 400 C.E.] Indeed, the heads are not beautiful by any common standards.”

The rise of Christianity signaled the end of the ancient world but for a time at least the end of beauty in art. We can see in “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes 520 C.E., that the mosaic is concerned with communicating the essential facts of a story. Artistic skills had been lost. “Artists no longer checked their formulae against how to create the illusion of depth.”  Once again the paradigm when too rigid in its control, stifles artistic expression. “The Eastern Church, therefore, could no longer allow the artist to follow his fancy in these works. [See Enthroned Madonna and Child 1200 C.E.] Surely it was not any beautiful painting of a mother of God, but only types hallowed by an age-old tradition. Thus the Byzantines came to insist almost as strictly as the Egyptians on the observance of [and] stress on tradition, and the necessity of keeping to certain permitted ways of representing Christ or the Holy Virgin, made it difficult for Byzantine artists to develop their personal gifts.” Individual artists were no longer evolving new and better techniques and also lacked the inspiration to create beauty. The search for truth had stopped as well.

In today’s “globalized” world we can look to the state of artistic expression to tell us if the dominant worldview has stifled the expression of truth and beauty. When and if that happens we can expect that artists have become the heralds of a story that is nearing its end.

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References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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