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A violent beauty

16 February 2018

Our Lent series this year is based on talks given in 2017 at St John’s, Catford, exploring art in connection with the Passion. In the first part, Alison Milbank looks at the relationship between beauty and suffering

The Yorck Project/WIKI

Crucifix: wood panel, c.1265, by Cimabue(c.1240-1302/03) (Santa Croce, Florence)

Crucifix: wood panel, c.1265, by Cimabue(c.1240-1302/03) (Santa Croce, Florence)

THIS series has as its title “A violent beauty”, and I want to address the question whether it is right to see beauty in the suffering of Christ on the cross.

Other questions cluster around this main one. Was Christ beautiful? And do we fail to do justice to the appalling nature of the violence that he endured if we make of it something beautiful?

When people ask this last question, they are often assuming a neo-classical view of beauty as formal perfection — self-sufficient and ideal — which denies beauty to anything that lacks this cold symmetry. And they seek to avoid too quick a recourse to resurrection, wishing the cross to remain a true stumbling-block to meaningful appropriation.

Like many Jews in the aftermath of the death camps, who were reluctant to portray them, or even to name the events as “holocaust”, they fear that to make sense of the crucifixion is to deny its exceptional character.

Moreover, does not an aestheticising of the crucifixion fail to do justice to the ongoing suffering of the innocent today?

Although I understand these concerns, I believe that allowing the crucifixion to be a sublime abyss of unnaming is not theologically true or pastorally helpful. It does not aid justice, but encourages a passive terror.

Instead, I shall seek to argue, not for a violent beauty, but for the beauty of Christ — revealed even through the violence of his death and Passion. To make my case, however, I shall have to describe ancient Christian discussions of the nature of beauty.


FOR early Christian writers, beauty is one of the properties of being, and finds its source in God. Just being alive is to share in beauty. “Beauty calls all things to itself,” Dionysius the Areopagite writes. This is a democratic idea, because it means that we all have beauty. Earthworms, stones, and pigs have beauty, because they share in being; and, by recognising their form — the piggishness, or stoniness — we are called by beauty.

If this seems bizarre, let us look at the properties that make for beauty according to St Thomas Aquinas: proportion, integrity, and radiance. Integrity is fullness of being: a tree displaying as much arboreal character as possible. Lopped too severely so that it does not grow, it has less integrity. Proportion is the balance of the parts to the whole, which helps us to apprehend something. A child born with wasted limbs from thalidomide may lack proportion if viewed against other children, but, as Daisy, she may be wholly proportionate to herself.

In an essay on a child born with two heads, Montaigne wrote that what seem monsters to human apprehension are not monstrous to God, for whom every conceivable possibility is wholly active and united. Our vision is too limited.

Church TimesCimabue’s Crucifix partially restored after the 1966 floodTO SEE beauty, then, is to perceive a form: to receive an apprehension of some particular being and to understand its fullness and its proportion, to integrate particulars into a whole, and to see it within the rhythm of other forms, sharing in the dance of life.

Through the “this-ness” of the form, we perceive a radiance, which takes us to a depth of meaning beyond what we see.

To understand something is to view it as an epiphany: a gift. It is not a lone object, but shares in the divine splendour. It gives you pleasure just to know that it exists. This is as true of a pig as of a Michelangelo sculpture.


SO, NOW that we have a theology of beauty to work with, let us bring Christ into this way of thinking. You will not be surprised to learn that, for St Augustine — and for Thomas — the greatest beauty is to be found in Christ himself. In the prologue of St John’s Gospel, he is radiance: the light that shines in the darkness and is the source of our own shining.

For Augustine, Christ is the most beautiful person because he is the Son and Word, God’s own image: “Beautiful in heaven, beautiful on earth . . . beautiful in laying down his life; beautiful in taking it up again; beautiful on the cross; beautiful in the sepulchre.”

Yet Augustine has to hold this together with the prophecy of Isaiah’s suffering servant: “He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53.2).

For Augustine, the de-forming of Christ’s human beauty by the cross only revealed the depth of his divine beauty; for the important point that follows from the violence done to Christ’s beauty is that it is, indeed, still attractive and beautiful to the eye of faith. The deformity more finally discloses his hidden divine form of glory, which draws us compellingly to himself, and thereby saves us.

“The deformity of Christ forms you,” Augustine declares. “For if He had not wished to be deformed you would not have received back the form that you lost. Therefore, He hung deformed upon the cross, but His deformity was our beauty.”

To the believer, the ugliness is made beautiful, because this deformed beauty still sheds beauty on us, and we come to share in its radiance.


WE SEE, then, on the cross both beauty and deformity, and both are sources of beauty and goodness. We see a form, albeit a fragile one in its physical suffering; but even Christ’s weakness is salvific. Moreover, as Elaine Scarry points out in On Beauty and Being Just, by means of the vulnerability of the beautiful — its fragility in the hands of the violent — “the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care.”

And we do not look on the cross as on a pure object in a distant way; for, as Scarry argues, to see something lovely is to accord it a welcome, and to be transformed in some way.


AS AN example, let us look at Christ in Cimabue’s Crucifix, dating from before 1288, at the Basilica of Santa Croce, in Florence. It is regarded as an instance of the new realistic portrayal of a deformed, suffering body. Yet this figure fits Thomas’s criteria because it has integrity and proportion: the body’s length is identical to the length between the outstretched hands. The emaciated torso has a golden sheen, and even the loincloth has radiance, in that it is almost transparent, to emphasise the nakedness of Christ’s identification with humanity.

The body is beautifully shaped, and bent in an elegant S shape. The irony here is that the bending is the result of the violent physical effect of hanging from a cross, but this violence has been rendered beautiful.

This is a rood cross that was hung high above the nave, and thus images Christ’s words in John 12.32: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, shall draw all people to myself.” And the viewer is drawn up and round, sharing in the responses of St John and Jesus’s mother, weeping on either side. Although Jesus’s eyes are closed, his fingers open out towards John and Mary, as if in priestly intercession.

The effect of his pushed-up stomach emphasises his belly-button, as if that vulnerable evidence of his human birth is itself being offered to his Father. Christ here is both active participant and victim. It is as if he and his disciples are all involved in prayer, calling the beholder to be drawn into this self-giving beauty. We see here how even deformation can become beautiful.


I WOULD argue that even the later medieval images of an emaciated, suffering Christ can provoke ideas of beauty, if only by the extremity of their deformity, which becomes an action of solidarity with sinful and suffering humankind.

Paradoxically, the grotesque is a mode of deliberate distortion which gestures, in its deformity, to beauty’s absence, and to a truth and goodness that are beyond our capacity to convey.


AS CHRISTIANS, we cannot look on a crucifixion dispassionately. It is literally our salvation that we contemplate. For this reason, we cannot help finding beauty and meaning, even in the violence that deforms Jesus but only makes his work the more beautiful. Like all beauty, it calls us: to care, to justice, to solidarity, and to love.

Again and again, we should seek to gaze on the one who said: “I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.”

Canon Alison Grant Milbank is Associate Professor of Literature and Theology at the University of Nottingham and a trustee of ACE (Art and Christian Enquiry).



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