Gerardus van der Leeuw

Whoever writes about religion and art comes into contact with two sorts of people: Christians of the most varied stamp, and connoisseurs of art. Both are rather difficult to get along with.

—Gerardus van der Leeuw

Stay awhile with Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890-1950). His lyrical and provocative analysis of consonance—and distance—between beauty and holiness is indispensable for any lover of the subject. There was no one better prepared than he—poet, theologian, philosopher, historian of religion—to write a theology of art or discuss the problems of a theological aesthetics.

Anonymous woodcut. Dancing Peasants (16th C.). Staatsbibliotek, Berlin
Anonymous woodcut. Dancing Peasants (16th C.). Staatsbibliotek, Berlin

Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art, first published in Germany in 1932, was widely known in Europe decades before being published in English. Writing the preface to the 1963 translation, Mircea Eliade called it “the masterpiece of his maturity.” Van der Leeuw surveys all the arts with the eye of a lover—dance, drama, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, and music. He locates the origins of each in man’s religious sense, and goes on to describe their historical growth away from those beginnings.

At the end of each chapter, he outlines the theological burden of the particular art under discussion. Chapter headings read: “The Theological Aesthetics of Music,” “The Theological Aesthetics of the Image,” et alia. The significance he finds in each testifies to the harmonic character of his own religious sensibility:

The dance reflects the movement of God, which also moves us upon the earth. The drama presupposes the holy play between God and man. Verbal art is the hymn of praise in which the Eternal and his works are represented. Architecture reveals to us the lines of the well-built city of God’s creation. Music is the echo of the eternal Gloria.

Anonymous painting. The May Tree (16th C.). Musée Carnavalet, Paris.
Anonymous painting. The May Tree (16th C.). Musée Carnavalet, Paris.

As he well understood, the effort to define a theological aesthetics is a hazardous undertaking, as delicate as it is dangerous. He does not presume to map where those two paths, beauty and holiness, cross. Nor does he desire to. Each is complete in itself, an absolute: “Religion and art are parallel lines, which intersect only at infinity and meet in God.”

How can we make art itself religious? At what point or in what way does art become religious? Van der Leeuw rejects the questions as empty:

This would be too external, as though holiness and beauty were two ingredients which can be mixed together according to certain principles. . . . There is no particular art that can be designated religious. Still less is there a religion which we could call aesthetic. There is only a single art and it is first of all art. There is only a single religion, and it is always and everywhere religion.

His chapters on dance are the most exhilarating for me. Not sure why. It is the art I give the least thought to. Perhaps because of that separation, I am grateful for van der Leeuw’s bridge over the gap. He opens with a quote from Johan Huizinga’s study of man at play, the delightful Homo Ludens: “Dance is one of the purest and most perfect forms of play.” His insistence on the original unity of dance and religion begins in the Stone Age. In prehistory resides both the wellspring and the summit of creative dance:

The art of beautiful motion is far and away the oldest. Before man learned how to use any instruments at all, he moved the most perfect instrument of all, his body. He did this with such abandon that the cultural history of prehistoric and ancient man is, for the most part, nothing but the history of the dance.

We must understand this literally. Not only is prehistory mostly dance history, but dance history is mostly prehistory. Like a giant monolith, the dance stands in the midst of the changing forms of human expression. Not only as an art, but also as a form of life and culture, the dance has been grievously wounded by the general disappearance of culture.

Costume design for the ballet Narcissus. Leon Bakst (1911).
Costume design for the ballet Narcissus. Leon Bakst (1911).

It is no stretch to believe that Hans Urs von Balthasar owes much to van der Leeuw. (With equal debt to Clive Bell’s 1914 theory of Significant Form.) For that reason, Catholics have a particular interest in this Dutch scholar. But there is a better, more gracious reason: his breadth of scholarship, intellectual daring, profundity of insight, and grace of style.
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Van der Leeuw represents one of the earliest attempts to distinguish between theology and the study of religion as a cultural practice grounded in history. A minister of the Dutch Reformed confession for a time, his own immersion in the thought and language of Christianity tends to blur the intended distinction.
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Yet it is just that cloud of reciprocation that makes reading him so compelling, particularly to a Christian audience. This, despite possible disagreement with his conclusions or challenges to his approach.

Listen to the timbre of his commentary on architecture:

The City of God, the New Jerusalem, needs no temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” (Rev. 21:22). But in the old Jerusalem, building must go on; God’s house as well as ours.

His prose remains, to this day, more limber and comely than any that has followed its lead. Only the lover sings, we are told. Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art is that rare thing: scholarship that rises to song.