The Art of the Grotesque

“Is the cross beautiful?” This question was posed in the beginning of this past Lenten season to the Campion Society, a small group led by Fr. Meconi, S.J.To begin formulating an answer to this question, we took a look at Eleonore Stump’s Beauty as a Road to God to provide us with some insight as to what constitutes beauty in this way.

Here are a few points Eleonore has to contribute toward beauty:

·         An analogy she suggests for Beauty is to relate beauty to a road. Just as a road is used as a means to get to some place, beauty can be used as a road toward someone. Beauty, likewise, has one objective end point or destination. Just as any destination has many roads to get there, beauty also offers many roads toward a singular destination (herein is how Eleonore attempts to understand the objective and subjective natures of beauty).

·         The destination for beauty, as hinted above, is not a place but a person. The only way to travel closer to a person is within a relationship, so beauty can be seen as the road toward a personal relationship with someone.

·         Beauty can bring about pleasure in two ways:  in the person who takes pleasure in his or her ability to perceive the beautiful (e.g. the musician who has trained him/herself to assess the beauty of music and takes delight in that fact) or in the person who takes pleasure in the beautiful because it is beautiful (e.g. the musician who takes pleasure in the music because the music was made beautiful). The former is self-centered while the latter is derived from being self-less.

·         Lastly, one can be trained to perceive the aesthetics of beauty, but beauty can only act as a road toward others if it is void of self and focused on that individual.

Using this analogy of beauty as a road toward relationship, how can it help us understand the cross as a road toward Christ?

To help us better understand how beauty can be found within death, let me bring in the story of Belden Lane found in her book The Solace of Fierce Landscape. Her story is of her mother’s drawn-out death after her diagnosis with bone cancer. Lane was told by doctors that her mother had 6 months to live after that point. However, Lane ended up spending the next 8 years caring for her mother as she slowly died in a nursing home.

Belden Lane writes Flannery O’Connor-esque in that she focuses on the disgust and grotesque found in the helpless suffering of the people within the nursing home, like her mother. Ironically, her mother’s first day at the nursing home coincided with Wednesday of Holy Week. “Through that Holy Week I (Belden Lane) was shown pierced hands and feet as I’d never seen them before.”

The discovery that Lane makes during her many years caring for her mother was that we can only understand humanity as a whole once we see and embrace the grotesque- the ugly, broken, and helpless side of us all that is all so present among those who are dying. “The grotesque reminds of us who we are, but even more so it discloses the mystery of God’s presence.”

Christ’s own experience with death through the cross was similar in that it was a degrading and grotesque one- arguably to an extreme (just watch The Passion of the Christ). It was only through this type of death could He fully embrace humanity and all of our failings, and, as a result, became present within the grotesque portions of humanity. I think this is at least partially why we uphold the saints who have reached out to the grotesqueness found in the lowest places- why Mother Teresa cared for the dying in Calcutta and why St. Francis kissed the leper. “It’s a concern to touch- and to be touched by- the hidden Christ, the one found nowhere else so clearly.”

So in answer to why the cross is considered beautiful, I think it lies in the realization of Christ being present in the grotesqueness of humanity. He came down to become fully human and did so by embracing even the helplessness of those like Lane’s mother as she endured an un-romantic death. So in following of this path of Christ, we too can embrace the wholeness of humanity- both the extraordinary and the sublime. But throughout all of this, do not forget the final destination of the road, that is the glory of Easter morning!


Picture taken from
Lane, B. (2007). The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stump, E. (2007). Beauty as a Road to God. Sacred Music, 134(Winter 2007), 13-26.