Last year I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The gallery consists of a classical style building where they display paintings, and a vast geometric sprawl of building which houses modern art. I decided to start off exploring the modern collection. Red leatherette drainpipes were stuck on the wall, a plastic box held fruit pies made out of plaster, enormous mobiles hung from the ceiling and the floor was littered with carved shapes like some gigantic baby had left his blocks lying around. The walls displayed huge canvases—all wonderfully colorful, anarchic and meaningless.
In fact it was rather tame. I was surprised not to find three tons of carved animal fat, a pile of trash or a squashed hat. Where was the dog turd collection? Where was the slattern’s unmade bed? Why couldn’t I see a desiccated sheep in a tank of formaldehyde, a two-headed monkey or Jack the Ripper’s undershirt? An authentic modern art gallery is supposed to be a cross between a porn shop, a freak show and an insane asylum isn’t it? In that sense the modern wing of the Washington gallery was a let down.
I decided to talk to the gallery guard instead. He was a young black guy with a suspicious eye and a smart grin. I asked him what gallery he liked best. He said he preferred the early Italian stuff. So I asked if he had a favorite painting. He smiled and suggested I find the Small Cowper Madonna. I took his suggestion and made my way to a room half full of paintings by Raphael. There in one corner hung an exquisite painting of the Madonna and Child. Raphael is famous for his Madonnas, but this one was smaller than most. It was more intimate and the beauty more immanent. The setting conveyed all the natural innocence and simplicity of a woman with her child; but somehow this one was different. Mary’s enigmatic expression and the luminosity of the colors hinted at the extraordinary mystery that was locked within that most ordinary scene. I was captivated. For a moment time was transposed into eternity and the mysterious theory that God at one point took human flesh was concrete and real in that mixture of pigment and paint on a piece of canvas.
It made me wonder later why we consider anything to be beautiful at all. Why should a we look at a landscape, a painting or another human being and feel that surge of delight, wonder and desire which we call “beauty”? Modern aesthetic theory follows the old wives and says, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But what if it is the other way around and beauty is actually in the thing we are beholding? Isn’t that what our experience tells us? We see a sunset, a Raphael Madonna or a beauty queen and we gasp and say, “That’s beautiful!” We don’t say, “As I regard that object my cultural and educational background has conditioned me to interpret my inner feelings as something called beauty.” Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the essence of the beautiful object. That’s why we all feel that beauty takes us outside ourselves and puts us into contact with something greater, more mysterious and wonderful than we thought existed before.
In a way, that picture of the incarnation of God said also something about every painting and poem and piece of music that aspires to be beautiful. The object of art particularizes beauty. It makes beauty real and physical. That Raphael painting was full of grace and truth, and I beheld its glory, and that’s what Christians say about the relationship between Jesus and God. He incarnates the beauty, truth, grace and glory. In him all beauty, truth, grace and glory come alive.
As I gazed on that luminous Madonna I made contact not only with something beautiful, but with Beauty. It was also an astoundingly intimate experience of purity and power. For a moment I caught a glimpse of a kind of purity which was both as soft as moonlight and as hard as diamonds. I suddenly realized that purity, like all things beautiful and refined, is an acquired taste. Like the fragile beauty of a Mozart aria, or the calm, exquisite beauty of a Chinese vase, purity can only be fully sensed by those who pursue purity themselves, and this realization made my own sordid and tepid life seem small. While looking at the naked child and the Madonna’s subtle smile I also realized that purity is a hidden and subtle virtue—available only to those who have been given the eyes to see.
But as soon as I speak the word “purity” I am aware of a certain sang froid. Don’t you curl up a little at the word “purity”. I do. Like most people, I am embarrassed and confused by the concept. I find that the mere word conjures up images of the “pure” girls of my youth who were all long skirts, buckteeth and big Bibles. The Raphael Madonna stunned me with real purity, and I realized we are confused about purity because we have been blinded by false images of purity. We confuse purity with naivete. We are amused and embarrassed by a kind of “aw shucks” purity which consists of grinning boys with Brylcreamed hair, girls in bobby sox, bubble gum and “Let’s go out to the ballgame.” We are rightly embarrassed by a false vision of purity that is the product of black and white TV programs where the married couples sleep in twin beds. This is not purity in all its magnificent power. It is Pollyanna purity.
If we confuse purity with wholesome naiveté we also confuse it with grim puritanism. The word “purity” summons up the images of hatchet-faced nuns stalking the corridors of concentration camp convent schools. When we hear “purity” we think of a squeaky clean fundamentalist college with a sincere, but sinister agenda. The word “purity” gives us nightmares of the black and white world of the Puritans with their big black hats, big black books and big black witch-hunts. This kind of “purity” points an accusing claw at all those sordid “sins against purity” which haunt the adolescent conscience. So “purity” instead of being an image of shallow goodness, has been hi-jacked and twisted to become a tool of repression, guilt and sour religion.
We also confuse purity with celestial otherworldliness. We think of Botticelli angels and cultivate a vague notion of a lofty, unstained realm of existence where the saints and angels sit together in unimaginable and somewhat boring bliss on a pink cloud. If we’re really unlucky our false religion mixes all three false images so that the cruelty of puritanism has a gloss of grinning pollyanna along with the sentimentality of pink angels. It doesn’t take long to realize that the concept of purity has been so twisted in our modern minds that it almost doesn’t exist. And yet, when we say in the creed that Jesus Christ was “born of the Virgin Mary” we are saying that he came into the world through a stupendous kind of purity that makes all our shallow concepts of purity look puerile. When we say in the creed that Christ was “born of the Virgin Mary” we embrace the fact that in a Jewish girl in Nazareth two thousand years ago there existed a new matrix of purity and power the like of which had not been seen in the world since the dawn of time.
Mary the mother of Jesus is an icon of beauty and purity because she is a virgin. But I am aware that this term too, has been misunderstood and maligned. We think of a virgin simply as a person who has not had sexual intercourse. This is the shallowest of definitions. Defining a “virgin” as someone who has not had sexual intercourse is like defining a person from Iowa as someone who has never been to Paris. It may be true that most Iowans have not been to Paris, but to define an untravelled Iowan by that simple negative definition is too small. Even the most stay at home hayseed from Iowa is bigger than a negative definition.
When the early Christians venerated the Virgin Mary they were venerating far more than the biological fact that a girl was intact. For them the Virgin was not just an untouched maid. Her physical virginity was a sign of something far more. It was an indication of her whole character. In her they sensed a virginity that was a positive and powerful virtue, not simply a negative naiveté. Mary represented all that was real, whole, and simple. She stood for everything that was natural, that was infinite, that was “yes”. Mary was a virgin in the same way that we call a forest “virgin.” A virgin forest is fresh and natural, majestic and mysterious. Mary’s virginity was not simply the natural beauty and innocence of a teenage girl. It held the primeval purity of Eden and the awesome innocence of Eve. Read More.