Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
It’s interesting how our vices lose strength when they are brought out into the open; they gain power when they’re hidden in the dark spaces of our spirit. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I see to be my own vices and how I should deal with them. I want to rid my heart and soul of my vices, but shame forces me to keep them hidden, where their strength only multiplies.
Confession and the Grace of God
St. Augustine had a similar issue with his own vices. At one point, he famously prayed, “Lord give me chastity—but not yet.”
In his book “The Confessions,” St. Augustine explores the soul’s struggle between virtue and vice. He begins every chapter with a prayer to God and confesses his own struggles with sins such as ambition, pride, and lust. In the end, he suggests that humbly confessing one’s imperfections to God is necessary for correcting one’s vices. Only God’s grace can help with overcoming sin.
Philippe de Champaigne’s ‘St. Augustine’
Between 1645 and 1650, Philippe de Champaigne, painter for Cardinal Richelieu and King Louis XIII, completed a painting titled “St. Augustine.”
Champaigne depicted St. Augustine sitting in a chair in front of a desk. He is wearing a white robe covered by a golden cloak embroidered with religious imagery. His right hand holds a quill that has ink on its tip as if he is in the process of writing, and his left arm rests on the book in front of him while his left hand holds a flaming heart. The flames from the heart move as if they are blown toward the back of his head, which also appears to be aflame.
St. Augustine looks not at the book in front of him, but turns to look behind him, where he sees a shining light with the word “veritas” or “truth.” This light seems to shine toward St. Augustine and illuminate his face. Below the light is a book with the words “Biblia Sacra” at the top of its pages, which translates as “Holy Bible.”
The Passion of St. Augustine
To me, the word “veritas” in the light unequivocally suggests that the word of God is truth. But why does St. Augustine look at the light and not the Bible? Is it because there is more to God’s word than what is written? Is there a truth beyond the Bible that is only communicable between the individual and God’s grace? Does this communication take place, at least in part, by way of confession?
It is this light of truth that seems to illuminate the face of St. Augustine. Is this light of truth also what inflames his heart and mind? I don’t think these flames, this passion, come from St. Augustine himself but are a result of looking into the light of truth.
St. Augustine, for instance, does not look at the quill in his hand as if his writing is what inflames his heart and mind. He does not look at books beneath or behind him. He doesn’t even look at the Bible. He only looks in awe, mouth agape, at the light of truth as if it is this light that inspires him.
Have a Confession to Make
Confession necessitates looking inward: It necessitates self-reflection and examination, and it requires honesty and sincerity in searching out the very things that can exist only in the dark places of our minds and hearts. Every time I’m honest with myself about my vices, I come to recognize the hurtful consequences they have for me and those close to me.
Confessing my vices has ramifications not only for me but also for my family, friends, and community. Confessing my sins is an act of compassion: It requires the courage necessary to sacrifice the comfort of avoiding shame for the well-being of myself and my loved ones; it is an act of love. What is the light of truth, the grace of God, if not the essence of love?
If the light of truth, the grace of God, is the essence of love, then in the process of confession, St. Augustine has the courage to allow himself, as he is, to be purified by the light that is love. He exposes all of his vices to the light of love where they are unable to thrive. In the loving light that is the grace of the divine, I’m reminded to confess who I am now and who I’d like to become.
Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions we explore in our series Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).
Contributed by Eric Bess