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Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Text by: Amy Carpenter

A few years ago, I ventured into Brigham Young University's Museum of Art. Though not an artist myself, I love art museums. My mother was an artist and taught me a little about art appreciation. When I go to an art museum, I think of her. I also love the unique spirit of an art museum — the quiet solitude of standing in front of a work and beholding it, not only with my eyes, but with my soul.

As I wandered through the galleries, I came across a large painting by Carl Bloch, Healing at the Pool of Bethesda. Based on the story in St. John, Chapter 5, the painting depicts Christ lifting the tent-like covering of a cripple. Just a couple of feet away lays the pool, barely out of arm's reach. The cripple's legs lay lifeless beneath him, and his clothes, which turned to rags long ago, barely cover him. The painting catches the cripple in the moment that he raises his eyes. His hands lift upward, and his face is timelessly frozen in puzzled surprise and wonder as he sees Christ standing there. Behind Christ, men stand in the dark, observing and debating. Another man crouches under them in the darkest depths, barely noticeable. To the right of the cripple, another petitioner sits, waiting for an angel to come "stir the waters," so he can be the first to reach the pool and be healed. His head turns slightly as he overhears Christ's words to the cripple. More petitioners sit and stand in the background, eating and talking, while a woman stands at the brink of the pool holding her enormous, burdensome urn and hugging her small son to her side.

I caught my breath and stood dumbfounded as I beheld this painting. The first thing to strike my soul was the light emanating from the painting. The beauty and the mysterious spirit of it almost brought me to my knees. I had seen this painting in magazines before, but never in person. There was something special about it, though I could not define nor describe it.

I know now what that visceral, gut-reaction was. It was a response to the beauty of Carl Bloch's masterful painting, a beauty and spirit that seemed to come from the paint itself. When we see something beautiful, it brings forth a positive, pleasant response in us. Explaining why something creates this reaction sometimes seems impossible. When something is beautiful, it just IS. That is the nature of beauty. It is not logical or prone to explanation. Beauty is in our perception, in our inner beings. And as with any of our perceptions, what we see as beautiful is influenced by our experience and the society and culture in which we live.

The Human Body

From the dawn of humanity, artists have sought to capture the beauty of the human form through many mediums, including sculpture and paint. One of the oldest statues ever to be found is the Venus of Willendorf. It is a small statue of a woman with enormous breasts, a pregnant belly, large thighs, with her head circled about with braided hair. Her hands rest over her large bust, and she has no feet and no face, though her genitals are clearly etched in the stone. She is covered in a red pigment, possibly symbolic of menstrual blood. There are several theories as to what purpose this statue served, but one thing is evident: the culture that produced this statue valued fertility and fatness. In many cultures, the ability to produce children has influenced men's perceptions of the beauty of women's bodies. Large breasts, ample fat, and a regular menstrual cycle indicate the woman's body as a ready and able vessel for childbirth. Researchers have also found that, throughout history, what people find to be beautiful is the exotic, the departure from the norm. For example, if people in general were thin, fatness and bounty was the standard of beauty.

Later in history's timeline, Greek artists sought to capture the perfection of human form. Greek philosophers theorized that everything in nature had perfect symmetry and proportion, including the human body. This perfect harmony of proportions was one of their ideals of beauty. The Roman architect Vitruvius, who lived in the first century B.C., based a passage in his book, De Architectura, on the Greek philosophy of perfect proportions and symmetry in the human body. Centuries later, Leonardo da Vinci put these proportions to paper in his drawing, Vitruvian Man (also known as the Canon of Proportions). The Greeks were the first artists to use proportion to create their sculptures of the human form. Polyclitus' Doryphoros (Spear-bearer) is one example of this method of sculpture. In this sculpture, a young man stands in contrapposto, one foot slightly in front of the other, as if he was just coming to a stop from a walk. In one hand, he holds what was probably a spear (which broke off sometime in the past). The calm facial expression of Doryphoros also reflects the inner beauty of thought and nobility that the Greeks valued most in a man.

Michelangelo perfected this method of proportions later with his Statue of David. Commissioned for a cathedral in Florence, Italy, the statue depicts a young, nude David standing in contrapposto, waiting to go slay Goliath. His slingshot hangs over his shoulder, and his head is turned towards his left. His posture seems casual and unconcerned, in contrast to his facial expression. His brows are furrowed, his eyes are alertly open (though not overly wide), and his mouth is set in a serious line. People have interpreted his expression to mean many different things. It is a mixture of fierceness, resoluteness, worry, and even fear. Michelangelo masterfully and purposefully captured all of these emotions, which are the emotions of the warrior going into battle. There is a readiness to fight, a willingness to sacrifice even one's life for the greater good, a tickling of uncertainty, and confidence in one's training and, in David's case, a higher power. Admittedly, a man would never want to be called beautiful, but we can find beauty in the form of a man's sculpture — the beauty of sinewy legs and arms, a strong chest, and noble character as shown in his face.

Most women, on the other hand, would love to be called beautiful. While the ancient Greeks gloried in man's mind, character and physical strength, when it came to women, they focused more on woman's outward appearance. Artists throughout history have used the goddess of love, Aphrodite (who the Romans called Venus) to symbolize feminine beauty and charm. One of the most famous sculptures of all time is the Venus de Milo, or Aphrodite of Melos. The goddess' arms are now missing (making it even more famous), but the rest of her body has been preserved in near perfection. Her torso is nude, while her robe drapes over her lower half precariously (and seductively), ready to slide down to her feet. She stands, again, in contrapposto, although this stance affects her entire body more than it does in the male sculptures. Her knee is raised higher, making her hip jut out more, and her upper body leans more to her right. Unlike the Venus of Willendorf, Aphrodite's breasts are on the small side, and her stomach is flat. Rather than focusing on the productive value of a woman, the Greeks saw beauty in the seductive power of a woman.

During the Renaissance, Sandro Botticelli painted Aphrodite in his famous Birth of Venus. Based on a poem about Venus, the painting shows the just-born, yet fully-grown goddess arriving on the shore in a seashell. Two entwined zephyrs blow her to the shore with delicate, pink flowers, while a woman (who symbolizes the Horae, or Hours — goddesses of time and the seasons) awaits with a robe to clothe the newly born Venus. In this depiction, Venus is not the seductive enchantress, but instead the embodiment of virginal beauty, a stark contrast to the ancient Greek portrayal of the goddess. Though naked, she holds her right hand over her chest to hide her breast, and her left hand modestly brings her long, orange hair down to hide her other womanly parts. Her eyes look out toward her right, and slightly downwards, indicating a hint of submissiveness, with a strange mixture of wistfulness and inner strength. This Venus is symbolic of the Renaissance woman — increasingly independent but still valued for chastity, virtue, fidelity, and fertility.

Perceptions of feminine beauty continued to change throughout the Baroque period. Earlier during this period, Peter Paul Rubens painted Garden of Love, in which robust, fully-dressed women frolic in a garden with courtly men. Putti (winged babies often called "cupids" or "cherubs") fly around with arrows ready, and some even look as if they are pushing couples together. Others appear to be whispering love hints in women's ears. A fountain of Venus stands to the right, overlooking the scene. Venus holds her breasts, which squirt water into the fountain's pool (perhaps a bit disturbing to modern viewers of this painting). In this painting, woman's beauty is to be found in the well-endowed, mature form. Though fully clothed, their dresses serve to emphasize their bosoms, a sort of hide-and-seek seduction. Even the fountain of Venus is better endowed than earlier versions.

Less than a century later, another Baroque artist, Francois Boucher, painted another version of Venus in his Toilet of Venus. This depiction of Venus is more sedate and elegant. The goddess is again naked, but a cloth covers her womanly parts, and her girlishly small breasts are mostly hidden by her arms, which hold a dove. Again, putti join the scene, this time playing with her jewelry and dismantling her hairdo. Venus reminds us of a woman home from a date, answering her roommates' curious, insistent questions with a mysterious, coy, slight smile. Or perhaps, she is the woman awaiting and preparing for a rendezvous with her lover. Whatever interpretation we choose, this Venus is beautiful in her own way. She is more quiet and composed, perhaps more representative of upper-class, womanly beauty.

Religious Art

In the past, artwork was commissioned either by rich benefactors or by religious institutions. Because artists depended on these commissions for their livelihoods, many great masterpieces reflect the religious values and aesthetics of their creators' era. As Greek and Roman influence waned, Christianity spread, and a new figure came to the forefront as a symbol of a different kind of feminine beauty: Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus Christ.

One of the most beautiful paintings of Mary is The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonard da Vinci. In most paintings, Mary sits on a chair or throne, holding her babe and looking down in motherly love. In The Virgin of the Rocks, Mary is instead kneeling down on the ground. Her arm rests around the toddler, John the Baptist, as he assumes a praying position in front of the infant Jesus. Mary's other hand hovers over her son's head in protection and blessing. An angel sits next to Jesus pointing to John. Towering rocks fill the background like a cathedral of nature. Mary's eyes look down toward her son, and her face is filled with tenderness and quiet, motherly love.

Mary is a symbol not only of religious piety and virtue, but of motherhood and queenly royalty. She is the ideal of womanhood many women have patterned themselves after. She is the angel of mercy men seek after in their times of need. As Venus has been held up as a model of amorous love, Mary has been held up as the light of the ultimate form of love — charity. Artists such as da Vinci have sought to capture this love in all its beautiful form through their depictions of the Virgin Mary.

Another beautiful work of art featuring Mary is Pietà by Michelangelo. The word "pieta" is Italian for compassion, pity, and mercy. "Pietà" is also a religious phrase referring to Mary and the dying (or dead) Christ. True to its name, Pietà depicts Mary sitting and holding her dead son, who lies across her lap. The proportions are purposefully off, perhaps to ensure the stability of the sculpture, but possibly also to show a mother holding her son, whom she will always see as her little boy. Her face is calm, showing a deeper, inward sorrow, more knowing and accepting than the sometimes twisted, anguished expression of a person grieving. Pietà shows us the merciful side of Mary, the side that forgives as her son forgives, who gives her son to the world to save the world, and who knows that, despite her grief, his death is necessary. This is the dark beauty of humanity's sorrow and willingness to give and forgive.

Artists have found outlets for religious beauty in other forms as well. Michelangelo's famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is breathtaking, both in its scope and its detail. Gothic architecture is art in monolithic form, with its multitude of ornate towers reaching toward the heavens and halls of pointy arches, mirroring each other in a splendorous echo of eternity. Religious art is beautiful because it shows man's lowly attempts to reach upward toward deity and touch the hand of God.


Besides the beauty of human form and emotion, nature also calls forth a response in the soul to its magnificence and grace. For thousands of years, artists have sought to capture and immortalize beautiful moments in nature.

The Navajo Indians, Native Americans who live in the Four Corners region of the Southwestern United States, are master artists themselves, albeit not in the traditional, Western sense of the word. To the Navajo, beauty is an integral part of life. They even have a song about beauty:

In beauty all day long may I walk.
Through the returning seasons, may I walk.
On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.
With dew about my feet, may I walk.

With beauty before me may I walk.
With beauty behind me may I walk.
With beauty below me may I walk.
With beauty above me may I walk.
With beauty all around me may I walk.

In old age wandering on a trail of beauty,
lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty,
living again, may I walk.
My words will be beautiful.
(Excerpt from "Navajo Prayer Song," Anasazi Museum)

The Navajo, as well as many other Native American people, are highly dependent on the earth. Nature is central to their spiritual perception. Before modernization, they lived by the change of the seasons. They spent their winters on the warmer rim of Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "shay"). During the hot summers, they encamped at the bottom of the canyon, sheltered from the blistering sun and close to the life-giving waters of the canyon's river. They were shepherds and used their sheep's wool to make thread for their beautiful weavings. They used natural dyes to color their wool until the time came when they could import a more colorful array of thread. They used their woolen thread to make gorgeous weavings, which were popular both among other Indian tribes and among the white man. To this day, they still produce fine, beautiful weavings.

The Navajo also use their native, precious stone turquoise to make jewelry. In the late 1800s, they learned silversmithing and began to set turquoise in silver. Silversmithing has been passed down through generations. In fact, my own parents were taught silversmithing by a man who was trained by the Navajo. Navajo jewelry is intricate and bright. Their turquoise, as well as their colorful weavings, stands out in contrast to the seemingly desolate desert landscape surrounding them.

Westerners have a different, but just as powerful, love of nature. The Romantic period artist Casper David Fredrich painted a masterpiece of natural wonder, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. In this painting, a man with a walking stick (the Wanderer) stands atop a mountain, looking down over an endless vista of mountaintops and fog. The painting can be interpreted in a myriad of ways — man conquering nature, as the Wanderer has risen above the mundane, hilltop heights; man lost in nature, pausing a moment to get his bearings; and man absorbing nature's beauty and majesty, contemplating deeper things hidden in the fogs of life. The Wanderer is considered the symbol of Romantic thought, with its focus on man's relationship with nature. People of the Romantic period placed great value in nature as industry muscled its polluting way into their lives. They also found priceless wisdom as they communed with nature.

Impressionist artists put a new spin on portrayals of nature in painting. One leading Impressionist, Claude Monet, was famous for his garden paintings. In these paintings, his subject was the same — a pond filled with lily pads with a bridge in the background and weeping willows hanging their laden branches over the still water. Every painting is unique, however, because Monet painted each one during a different time of day and season, when the light hit the garden with various colors and shadows. This was a revolutionary, new way to treat light, and it continues to amaze the eye with its beautiful simplicity. The Impressionists' focus on light in painting coincided with scientific breakthroughs on the nature of light. Although the public was initially repulsed by these seemingly unfinished paintings, Impressionist art caught on, and public perceptions of beauty were changed forever.

The Beholder

Both the light and the darkness of the artist's eye find their way into paintings such as Monet's and Bloch's. That light then reflects its beauty into the eye of the beholder. It is the beholder who then interprets that play of light and dark with his mind and his heart. Some paintings have stories, which add to the beauty of the painter's vision. Others are just solitary moments captured by a perceptive, artistic creator. The beauty of art is that it can be understood in so many ways, and that understanding touches our souls and changes us. Beauty gives the beholder both pleasure and something even deeper—a connection with the universe and its glorious, magnificent architect. Indeed, beauty lives in the eye of the beholder.