Pericles (c. 495-429 BC) was a gifted orator and politician who helped Athens become a great city of ancient Greece. His persuasive powers, combined with a glowing reputation and character, gave him tremendous clout with the people. As one of his accomplishments, he used public money (left over from funding the recent war against Persia) to construct beautiful buildings in the city. While the Athenian citizens were at first happy to comply, some of Pericles’ political rivals criticized his seemingly superfluous use of public money on mere beauty. Pericles stood his ground, however, and even offered to pay from his own pocket in order to complete his projects, if the public thought the cost was too high. Upon hearing this, the Athenians were greatly moved and wholeheartedly agreed to keep paying for the buildings with public funds.
The value which Pericles and the Athenians placed on beauty is worth our reflection. Was it right for them to pour so much time and expense into beautiful buildings? Or what about for us: is it wasteful to invest in fine artwork, quality craftsmanship, expensive materials, or grand buildings? To answer this question, we should first consider the purpose of beauty. Then we can best see when beautiful things are worth the cost.
First, beauty shows honor. It declares that something is worthy of expense and effort. The Athenians honored the goddess Athena by constructing the Parthenon with skill and care. Medieval Christians honored Christ by raising up cathedrals and chapels that are no less than breathtaking. A homemaker honors her family by choosing beautiful, pleasing artwork for rooms where people gather. Some things are too important for simply “making do.”
Second, beyond this general honor, beauty makes a confession. It praises a specific object with a specific message. A beautiful portrait says something about the man, perhaps that he is strong, kind, or wise. A beautiful landscape might laud the grandeur of the mountains or the peace of a green countryside. The woman who anointed Jesus with costly nard made a confession in doing this “beautiful thing,” as Jesus said: “In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial” (Matt. 26:12). Our beautiful liturgy in the Divine Service is perhaps the finest example of beauty as confession.
Finally, beauty reflects Christ. He is Beauty itself. He orders the world and holds it together; He fulfills every word of the Scriptures; He reconciles God and man by the blood of His cross. When we make things beautiful, whether that be a towering spire or a carefully tended garden, we are in a way imitators of redemption, bringing the object of our craft nearer to its intended, perfect state. We create little pictures of what Christ has done, and of what He will bring at last to our sight when He comes again.
So is it worth it to make something beautiful? Well, we can ask: Do we have something to honor? Do we have something to confess? Is this object redeemed by Christ and therefore worthy of great care? Pericles and the Athenians were not far off when they valued beauty in their work. But we have the Wellspring of beauty Himself: Christ, who gives us beauty to refresh us here on earth and to continually direct us back to Him.