Archbishop Bernardito Auza
Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the
“Beauty Will Save the World:
Art in the Service of Nations and the Common Good”
Opening Remarks of Archbishop Bernardito Auza
During the Conference entitled, “An Evening with Raphael”
United Nations, New York, May 10, 2017
Your Excellencies, Distinguished Speakers, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It gives me great joy to welcome you tonight to this event focused on the person, art and humanism of Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino that the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See is sponsoring together with the New York Chapter of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.
Here at the United Nations, we talk a lot about peace and security, human rights and development. But we hardly, if ever, talk about art and beauty as crucial in the achievement of the vision and mission of the United Nations. There is a subtle preconception, if not prejudice, that art and beauty have no role in achieving these UN pillars. Yet we believe that artistic beauty is not extraneous to the purposes of the United Nations. It is, rather, central to the formation of a culture without which the lofty goals to advance peace, foster sustainable development, and protect and advance human dignity and rights cannot be achieved. After all, isn’t beauty the superabundance of truth and goodness?
Pope Francis pointed to this connection between beauty and what he described as integral ecology in his 2015 Encyclical Letter on care for our common home, Laudato Si’. He wrote, “The relationship between a good aesthetic education and the maintenance of a healthy environment cannot be overlooked. By learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism. If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple. If we want to bring about deep change, we need to realize that certain mindsets really do influence our behavior,” and he emphasized the power of beauty — both natural and artistic — to elevate our mindsets.
Last December in the Vatican, in a message to participants in a conference dedicated to the role of beauty in giving a human face to our cities in an age of rapid urbanization, Pope Francis pressed the theme, stating that in response to the social and economic crises that are leading many to aggression and despair, beauty is needed to lift up people’s eyes and hearts, restore confidence and enthusiasm, help them begin to dream again and to rediscover the path.
Quoting his predecessor, Pope Benedict, Pope Francis said that the experience of authentic beauty “is by no means a supplementary or secondary factor in our search for meaning and happiness. The experience of beauty does not remove us from reality. On the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful.”
Popes, poets and ordinary mortals have been truly inspired by the healing and transforming power of beauty that illumines even the darkest evil. That’s why for the Catholic Church, the via pulchritudinis is not only an artistic and aesthetic journey, but is also a journey of faith, of spiritual nourishment, of theological inquiry, of arriving at the very source of beauty. Hans von Balthasar wrote so beautifully and copiously on this, and Simone Weil wrote in this regard: “In all that awakens within us the pure and authentic sentiment of beauty, there, truly, is the presence of God.” This is the spirit behind the Catholic Church’s championing of the art across the centuries.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in his novel The Idiot, asserted, Beauty will save the world.” Beauty may not have cured Prince Myskin’s epilepsy, but even the contemplation of his own illness transported him to “an instant of deepest sensation, overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion, and completest life.”
Dostoyevsky and the Popes have similar ideas to the healing and transformative power of beauty. Pope John Paul II, in his Letter to Artists, spoke of “The Saving Power of Beauty,” saying that “people of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm [of wonder] if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges that stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense, it has been said with profound insight that ‘beauty will save the world’” (16).
Pope Francis used the same idea of Dostoyevsky to affirm in Lumen Fidei that it is precisely in contemplating Jesus’ gruesome death that faith grows stronger and receives a dazzling light; then it is revealed as faith in the extraordinary beauty of God’s steadfast love for us, a love capable of embracing death in bringing us to salvation (16).
Enveloped within the magnificence of the Sistine Chapel, Pope Benedict, in his meeting with artists in 2009, cited another line from Dostoyevsky to underline the essential importance of beauty in human life, remembering the great Russian’s provocative affirmation: “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world.”
Beauty has the ability to unlock the deepest yearnings of our heart and to open our eyes to perceive the inmost reality of the person and the world around us. Beauty also has the capacity to unite people across generations and continents in shared admiration, establishing a transcendent common good that can be the foundation for future conversation, cooperation and even contemplation. That is why the promotion of beauty must always remain a crucial part of the work of the nations of the world.
One artist who has demonstrated the capacity to touch through beauty what is deepest in human persons across every generation in the last 500 years is the master we celebrate and study tonight, Raphael. Working at the Secretariat of State in the Vatican during a good number of years, I had the privilege to pass so often through the Logge di Raffaello, especially the Second Loggia where Raphael depicted salvation history on the 13 vaulted bays. It always felt like looking up to a living Bible. I was able to bring many friends to see the “Stanze di Raffaello, “ or the Raphael Rooms, in the Vatican Museums, where one cannot but experience profound wonder not just at the artist’s skill, but at the deeper truths and beauty to which his art points. The “Disputa” at the Stanza della Segnatura literally drives you to your knees in Trinitarian and Eucharistic adoration. Yet you cannot ignore the lateral scenes depicting the best and the brightest in animated “disputation” about the mysteries of the Eucharist before them on the altar and the Triune God with the Blessed Mother and the Saints above them.
Pope John Paul II, in his 1999 Letter to Artists, talked about what it was like to live in the Apostolic Palace, which he called a “mine of masterpieces perhaps unique in the world” where some of the greatest artists of all time “lavished the wealth of their genius, often charged with great spiritual depth.”
Tonight we will have the privilege to mine some of the masterpieces to which John Paul II referred, where Raphael continues to lavish across the centuries the wealth of his genius and the riches of his aesthetic and spiritual depth. I am so glad you’re here!
To watch the event in its entirety, click here.