Book Review: Newman gives us hope for beauty

Newman gives us hope for beauty
Unearthly Beauty. The Aesthetic of St John Henry Newman by Guy Nicholls, Gracewing, 352pp, 64 plates, £25.00 reviewed by Timothy Finigan
In the film Gladiator, the hero Maximus defeats a crew of terrifying opponents in a seedy theatre in North Africa, to the fanatical cheers of the crowd. Disgusted, he looks around at the horde, shouts aggressively at them, asking ‘Are you not entertained?’ and then spits on the ground when they applaud him more loudly. It is a potent metaphor for the current state of aesthetic understanding, whether it be in the daub of a celebrated artist, the taunting of a concert hall audience unable to step out of line by deriding meaningless sounds, or even the dutiful respect given by a congregation to ‘liturgical dance’. Yet probably the most well-known quotation concerning aesthetics remains the defeatist claim that ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’
The purpose of beauty
Fr. Nicholls, in giving us this fine study of Newman’s aesthetic, offers a way out for Catholics and anyone of sense so that they might return more confidently to the question of what beauty is and what it is for. From the outset, the thesis of a teleological view of beauty is laid down squarely. Beauty, in other words, does not find its importance in moving us emotionally or entertaining us. St. John Henry Newman was concerned rather to examine for every man ‘whence beauty comes and whither it leads him.’ This book examines the answer as it is shown in art, architecture, music and ultimately in the art that is put at the service of the worship of God. In every case beauty has its origin in God, the one true source and origin of all that is beautiful, and its end, purpose or telos for us is found in the vision and the worship of God in heaven.
Foretaste of heaven
Allied to this theme is the relationship between the visible and the invisible, between the image and the reality. The notion of the ultimate reality being found in the divine, and the image being the foretaste of heaven, runs throughout the examination of all forms of art. Nicholls succeeds in presenting this abstract principle by means of detailed examples from Newman’s life and works which themselves provide many fascinating insights into Newman’s life as it relates to the various themes under consideration.
Thus we learn of Newman’s complicated relationship with Pugin and with the Gothic movement. He recognised in the
Blessed Sacrament chapel at St Giles, Cheadle, the Porta Caeli (Gate of Heaven) but admitted that although his reason
had gone with the Gothic, ‘my heart has ever gone with the Grecian.’ Newman was not always opposed to Pugin, though he could write with characteristic humour about the practical unsuitability of Puginesque architecture for celebrating the more solemn form of the Liturgy, and he dismissed Pugin’s attribution of heresy to those who disagreed with his ideas on architecture.
Eternal harmony
For non-specialists, the lengthy chapter on music offers some challenges, but these can be overcome easily with a brief search for information, and there are quite fascinating biographical details of Newman’s own playing and composition, for example his morally courageous resistance to the fashion of snooty opposition to musical performance in his early days at Oriel. We also learn of his preferences for Mozart, Cherubini and Mendelssohn, his love of Beethoven and perhaps surprisingly his lack of enthusiasm for Bach’s counterpoint. Here again, though, the more important point is kept in view, and underlined at the end of the chapter, that Newman saw the harmony of earthly music as an outpouring in earthly life of the eternal harmony, associated with orderliness and peace. Music is also an echo of our true Home which can only be hinted at on earth. Thus music is a language that we cannot fully comprehend because it is concerned with realities to which we do not have full access here on earth.
Delicious details
Following naturally from this consideration of music, the sacred Liturgy in Newman’s understanding brings us more closely to eternity which will be the transcendent experience of what music, art and poetry point to, a Liturgy in which the living God is
worshipped fully, with the participation of all the hosts of heaven and every person who is present, in the perfect harmony to
which all earthy beauty is a signpost and dimly perceived foretaste.
The treatment of the Liturgy is principally dealt with in the context of the life of the Oratory, and again we are treated to some delicious details. We learn of Newman seriously proposing to use the melody from the aria ‘se vuol ballare’ from Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro for Caswall’s hymn ‘Hail Queen of Heavens’, the problems Newman encountered when trying to set hymns to themes from Beethoven, and the desperate measure of asking Bishop Ullathorne to allow vernacular hymns to be used at Mass when there was not sufficient money to hire a choir to sing the propers. Newman contrasts the Oratorians as Athenians with the Jesuit Spartans and quotes the speech of Pericles in support of cultivating the beautiful with frugality.
The beauty and glory of God
Nevertheless, in accord with the purposefulness of the treatment, we are by no means simply left with amusing anecdotes. The book is brought to a fitting climax with the examination of how human beauty finds its fulfilment in the beauty and glory of God. To establish this Nicholls deftly makes use of three works of Newman: the novels Callista and Loss and Gain, and what is by now the almost necessary finale, the Dream of Gerontius. After the development of the main theme and variations of it, the last chapter is akin to a final movement, drawing from the prolific output of Newman and at the same time illustrating its excellence not only in general but also when applied to the specific matter of aesthetics, or simply the meaning and end of beauty.
Aesthetics is hard to get a grip on philosophically, and many Catholics would shy away from attempting to set out a case for a properly grounded aesthetics at all yet know instinctively that some of what they experience is not simply contrary to a subjective preference but is missing something essential. Unearthly Beauty is a book that gives hope for those who want to find a foundation for the assessment of beauty. From the focus of aesthetics in St John Henry Newman, Nicholls has opened a path to understand and appreciate the image that points more surely to the real, the earthly beauty that genuinely leads to the eternal.



Fr. Timothy Finigan is a priest of the Archdiocese of Southwark and is a theologian and popular writer.

Faith Magazine

July/ August 2020