“Just as when we are learning the art of painting, the teacher puts before us on a panel a beautifully executed model, and it is necessary for each student to imitate in his own panel the painting of that model in every way, so that the panels of all will be made beautiful [καλλωπισθῆναι – kallopisthenai] in accordance with the example of the beauty set before them; in the same way, since every person is the painter of his own life, and choice is the craftsman [technitees – literally, artist] of the work , and the virtues are the paints for executing the image, there is no small danger that the imitation [μίμησιν] may remodel the prototype into a hateful and ugly person instead of reproducing the master form, if we sketch the character of evil with muddy colors. But, since it is possible, one must prepare the pure colors of the virtues, mixing them with each other according to some rule of art for the imitation of beauty, so that we become an image of the image, having achieved the beauty of the prototype through activity which is also a kind of imitation, as did Paul, who became an “imitator of Christ,” through his life of virtue.”
St. Gregory of Nyssa, On Perfection, 110–11
There are a couple of pertinent things to know about the words used in this text to extract all of the beauty we can out of it.
- First; The word used for beauty here is kalos. This Greek word denotes both beauty and goodness and can often be found used in the Greek biblical text and the Church fathers as either beauty or goodness (for example, the tree of the knowledge of ‘good’ and evil could equally well be translated as “the tree of the knowledge of the wicked and the beautiful”. This is counterintuitive to us moderns because we think of beauty as being that of an aesthetic content, how a thing looks externally. Whereas for the ancients and especially for the Christian Church beauty implied an ontological content-a thing is truly beautiful because it resembles the beautiful or rather participates in Him-today we have reduced things to being flat and only worth their external content or appearance. The Good and the Beautiful are tied because the aesthetic is not the reality behind things, only a mask or appearance. The reality to things is tied both to substance, what a thing is ontologically, and to telos, what a thing is becoming.
- Second; The Greek word for art is techne, from which we have our word for technique. So art in the ancient world isnt a thing you point to or look at but rather a technique or a way/approach to things. We see this hold-over in our language when we say things like, ‘the art of the medical encounter’ or ‘the arts’ as a study of how humanity exists. So when the human being is ‘craftsman’ or ‘artist’ over their own life it is because they repaint in themselves the image upon which they were made, Christ.
- Third; Finally one of the important distinctions is in how we consider art and creative endeavour generally. For the ancients the point of ‘art’ was mimesis or imitation of higher reality. Today we view art as creating reality or expressing higher inner realities to the denial of an ontological superior outside of oneself. This is why modern art looks so different from ancient icons, why the focus today is on evoking passionate (read impassioned-pathos) emotional responses from the viewer and of seeing beauty only in the aesthetic-in only outward form. This culminates in movements like realism and surrealism which are either meant to resemble only aesthetic reality (with nothing higher) or to be hyper-real and the pairing of absurd pairings-a good euphemism for the modern condition. Charles Taylor calls this a move from mimesis to poiesis.
With this in mind, we see St. Gregory of Nyssa teach us that the inner beauty(goodness therefore) which we paint (techne) on our souls is that of the Divine, the Beautiful, The Good Himself. This is done through imitation (mimesis) which is the primary, or proper, mode of reality with created being in imitation of the Divine Good. The modern world has reverted to idolatry with the erecting of our own goods as ‘icons’ or ‘ideals’ (various pleasures, desires, etc that we give all of our attention to) or the complete denial of the Divine Reality operating at this level. The two poles of this are seen in the use of images to arouse our passions-magazine covers, unrealistic examples of physical form, or even shows called ‘American idol’- and on the other side in the Protestant complete denial of the icon, of the physical form hallowed by Christ’s Incarnation moving beyond itself to bring us to the higher reality behind it.