Catholicism and the Gothic Psyche, (3/3): The Aesthetics of Horror and the Splendor of God

In this final exposition of Catholicism and the Gothic, we shall turn to the obvious in Gothic aesthetics and the quintessential characteristic of the traditional post-Carolingian aesthetic of Catholicism: The aesthetic of horror.

“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom is an integral aspect to Christianity and Catholicism in general. The atmosphere, aesthetic, of Catholicism is mean to inculcate fear and dread for precisely that reason—fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and fear of the Lord crushes the hubris of man thinking he is on equal footing with God and forces him to recognize the radical asymmetry between God and man leading him but to bow his head in shame and humiliation, or pious reverence, at the sight of God.

While it was Edmund Burke’s attempt to defend the notion of the beautiful instead of the sublime in his famous aesthetic essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke’s reflections on the sublime became a catalyst for Gothic aesthetics and romantic literature and consciousness in the decades after his writing. Burke defined the sublime as “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime, that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which on the part of pleasure.” Burke’s definition of the sublime is a great entry point into understand the aesthetic of Gothic sublimity and Catholicism because of the emphasis on totalizing asymmetry which bears down on the individual and makes him feel uncomfortable and insignificance in the presence of the sublime.

Fall of the Damned

A detail from Peter Paul Rubens, “The Descent of the Damned into Hell,” ca. 1620.

Moses is reminded by God that, “Thou canst not see my face: for man shall not see me and live” (Ex. 33:20) which reaffirms the asymmetrical relationship man has with God. Job, too, informs his friends, “As soon as he shall move himself, he shall trouble you: and his dread shall fall upon you. Your remembrance shall be compared to ashes, and your necks shall be brought to clay” (Jb. 13:11-12). Even with Christ as the Mediator, the return of Christ will be a spectacular image which will blind man in a wicked splendor upon His return, “Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword” (Mt. 10:34). Isaiah gives the most sublime imagery concerning Christ’s victorious return in fiery judgement:

“For thus saith the Lord: Behold I will bring upon her as it were a river of peace, and as an overflowing torrent the glory of the Gentiles, which you shall suck; you shall be carried at the breasts, and upon the knees they shall caress you. As one whom the mother caresseth, so will I comfort you, and you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see and your heart shall rejoice, and your bones shall flourish like an herb, and the hand of the Lord shall be known to his servants, and he shall be angry with his enemies. For behold the Lord will come with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind, to render his wrath in indignation, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For the Lord shall judge by fire, and by his sword unto all flesh, and the slain of the Lord shall be many” (Is. 66:12-16).

Who can stand before the sight of the conquering and victorious Lord of fire and not be filled with fear and trembling? After all, that is what St. Paul reminds Christians, “Wherefore, my dearly beloved, (as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but much more now in my absence,) with fear and trembling work out your salvation” (Pp. 2:12). The sight of God, even Christ, is one of an awesome and blinding splendor! Far different is this Christ of the Scriptures than the Christ who holds toddlers pointing at flowers under the sun…

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A detail (no. 6) from Peter Paul Rubens, “The Descent of the Damned into Hell,” ca. 1620. “There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out.”

The Gothic aesthetic, ambiance, and feel is one of asymmetrical dependence. In the great halls, chapels, cobwebbed cellars, etc., there is no mistaking that man is not the center of the universe but an insignificant piece of dust and for dust we are and to dust we shall return. The victory of the Cross is not a victory of sunshine, for as St. Luke informs, “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land” (Lk. 23:44). Like Catholicism, Gothic aesthetics understands that it is not the sunshine on the other side which is the consummation of salvation but the darkness of death that was. In Catholicism, it was Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the Cross that wrought salvation to the world—the resurrection, though important, and integral to the Christian message, is not what achieved salvation. The Prophets prophesy a Christ who will be bruised, pierced, and rejected; that is the messianic achievement.

Salvation came from Christ’s atoning sacrifice. It is Christ’s humiliating sacrifice that revealed the asymmetrical and radical love of God—that Christ would be humbled and humiliated and killed in such way, “even to the death on the cross,” is what Christians preach. “For I judged not myself to know anything among you, but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:2-3). In Catholic churches, unlike Protestant churches, the message is, indeed, Christ and Him crucified not Christ and His resurrection. The Christ on the Cross is not the empty cross of burial or resurrection but the Christ of Crucifixion who “humbled himself…even to death on the cross.” The sight of Christ and Him crucified should send a shiver down the spine of any God-fearing individual to see the lengths of God’s self-emptying for man. When one looks at Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Elevation of the Cross” or Matthew Grunewald’s “The Crucifixion,” one should be horrified with piety and drop to his knees and bow his head in shame and humiliation knowing that he is not capable of going to those lengths to show his love of others.

The Gothic aesthetic of horror, like the Catholic aesthetic of horror, understands that fear and trembling is the truest embodiment of the sacred. It is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. By taking away the mystery, by stripping away the tremendous, we are just left with a banal aesthetic fascination which is, according to Nietzsche, the reality of the nihilistic man who is empty of everything and merely visits the world for aesthetic experience before moving to the next place like a museum shop of aesthetic experiences and that’s it. By stripping away the gravity of dread, of terror, and of horror, the tremendous mysterious dread that is essential to religion is replaced by the empty, grandmotherly, and undemanding god of chocolate pleasantries.

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A detail from “The Last Judgement,” by Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1504.

The aesthetic of horror captures the reality of man’s radical dependence, belittling, and even humiliation, on and from The Other. That totalizing Other which man cannot look at and live is, of course, the God of Christianity who is “an all-consuming fire” instead of the pleasing and “ambrosial fragrance” of the Platonists, the god locked in eternal self-contemplation of Aristotle and the Stoics, or the non-existent empty space matter of atheism where man is god. Aaron’s sons were swallowed up in fire for the impiety and irreverence; Sodom and Gomorrah burned to ash for their iniquity; Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt for looking back with regret of the sinful life being given up for the better life in the free city that is above; and the reprobate will be smitten by Christ’s flaming sword upon His return with His army of chariots. That is the God of scripture, of revelation, and of Catholic tradition—not this rosy, effeminate, and grandmotherly Christ who kisses boo-boos and hugs you like you’ve never been hugged before. One can only approach the God of revelation, the True God of scripture, with fear and trembling, bowing and genuflecting at the awesome totality of God’s power, lest one be consumed by the fire.

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