Benedict on Judgment and Beauty

Pope Benedict XVI‘s encyclical, Spe Salvi, makes a curious point, a point marginally related, perhaps, to the thrust of the encyclical, but a point that made me pause.  It is found in the passage below.

“In the arrangement of Christian sacred buildings, which were intended to make visible the historic and cosmic breadth of faith in Christ, it became customary to depict the Lord returning as a king—the symbol of hope—at the east end; while the west wall normally portrayed the Last Judgement as a symbol of our responsibility for our lives—a scene which followed and accompanied the faithful as they went out to resume their daily routine. As the iconography of the Last Judgement developed, however, more and more prominence was given to its ominous and frightening aspects, which obviously held more fascination for artists than the splendour of hope, often all too well concealed beneath the horrors.”

The phrase “which obviously held more fascination for artists” is worth contemplating.

I think it is obvious what he means here: the images of damnation lend themselves to more imaginative manifestation on the canvas or fresco wall. We tend to think there are many more interesting things to portray in the realm of evil than in the realm of good.

But why should this be the case? Why should our imagination be stimulated more by the images of hell and judgement rather than that of grace and peace? Is it that our imagination is not too large, but too small to be able to imagine artistically “the splendour of hope”? Hell seems so much more visually interesting; we stereotype Heaven as so visually dull. Why?

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