Performing Beauty: Liturgy, Theology, and Aesthetics

Greg Miller
3 min readMay 3, 2021

Unit 8: A Liturgical Theology of Beholding

St Dominic with the Crucifix

Choose one of the images (or series images) that we have looked at in this section of the course. How would you form someone to look at this image in an iconic way, as an act of beholding?

I have chosen the image, Plate 34, Fra Angelico, St Dominic with the Crucifix, Convent of San Marco. For my eye this image resists being viewed in an idolatrous way because of the darkness and emptiness that surrounds and pervades this iconic image. The ability to view the image with veneration comes effortlessly because of the simplicity of the message conveyed.

In this image (Marion, 64–65) Christ speaks to us, showing himself forsaken by man, and self-emptying for our salvation. I would encourage viewers of this work to focus beauty of the weight of the moment on the saint praying at the foot of the cross. It is impossible not to feel the anguish and veneration he holds for Christ. There is no dissemblance here. The image is fully uncircumscribed (Reddaway, 120).

I would point to the negative of the image and what is being shown here. Behind Christ’s corpus we gaze up and into the heaven’s absolute darkness, emptiness and Christ himself is emptied. In this moment there is no salvation of man: surely that will come; but here, there is only loss and emptiness as a result of our sin against the Father’s son. Yet, as your eyes gaze downward towards the praying saint there is light. This is in stark contrast to the darkness which surrounds the lifeless Christ. I would imagine this light color was used to illuminate the coming redemption of man. The saint clearly reflects anguish, knowing the consequences of what has just taken place. Despite this, Christ has come to be sacrificed and forgive us our sins.

It is also interesting to note that the corpus is not beaten or disfigured, or bloodied, despite the wounds on Christ’s hands, rib cage, and feet and yet the suffering and weight of the moment is so clear. I imagine Fra Angelico did not want this to distract from the dyadic nature of the painting.

Another important feature of this fresco is the cloth that covers Christ appears to be blowing, which suggests wind, perhaps alluding to the wrath of the Father for having sacrificed his only son. It is easy to imagine that in the darkness there are high winds and turbulent storms that may follow. The absolute striking imagery of Christ and the praying saint feel to me to be a backdrop for what is happening on earth and in heaven as this venerated moment unfolds.

Finally, I would inform a viewer to look beyond the images; especially the image of Christ on the cross that perhaps we expect to see and which can be mistaken as idol (Marion 53). Instead focus on the movement and negative space surrounding the images. Place yourself there, at the feet of Christ. Move beyond viewing from a distance. Allow yourself to feel the wind and fear the darkness. The images themselves are speaking very clearly, but the ambient environment sets the tone that drives the heaviness that forces such reflection.