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  • Icons, Deities, and the Three Transcendentals:Deification and Post-Kantian Holiness in Byzantium and Tibet
  • Thomas Cattoi

The goal of my essay is to explore the notion of holiness in the Christian tradition and in the Vajrayāna school of Buddhism, using the theology of the three transcendentals developed by Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) as a bridge between the theology of the icon developed in the Byzantine East and the practice of deity visualization in the Kagyud school of Vajrayāna Buddhism. In the first part of the paper, I will argue that the traditional Christian understanding of visual hagiography as developed by the Byzantine theologian Theodore the Studite (759–826) is grounded in the ontological unity of what the scholastic tradition later called the three transcendentals (verum, bonum, and pulchrum).1 In the second part, I will endeavor to show that the Vajrayāna notion of beauty that undergirds the tantric practice of deity visualization in Tibetan masters such as Bokar Rinpoche (1940–2004) or Jamgön Kongtrul (1813–1899) effectively resists and indeed subverts the unity of the transcendentals, coming to embrace a vision that is remarkably closer to a contemporary—post-Kantian—aesthetics.2 The implication of this conceptual divergence is that Christian depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints point toward the eschatological horizon of redemption where all members of Christ’s body are ontologically transfigured and affirmed in their own identity, whereas Tibetan mandalas and thangkas uncover an already existing nirvanic reality that is obfuscated by ignorance and attachment. Veneration of sacred images in Christianity is thus a gesture of hope grounded in the salvific work of Christ, whereas Tibetan images serve as visual aides-mémoires, helping practitioners move beyond samsaric reality toward the realization of their own enlightened condition.

Aquinas’s reflections on aesthetics brought an unprecedented level of philosophical sophistication to Christian theological reflection on beauty, weaving together different strands of the early Christian tradition as well as a variety of conceptual tools drawn from the speculative legacy of Aristotle. In his Commentary on the Sentences, as well as in his Commentary on the Divine Names of the Pseudo-Dionysius, Aquinas notes [End Page 149] that beauty has two distinct prerequisites: one is claritas, which could be translated as clarity, or radiance, and the other is consonantia, or harmony, which is also termed debita proportio, or inner equilibrium.3 In the Summa Theologiae, the prerequisite of integritas—integrity, or wholeness—is added, since whatever is broken, or ruptured, cannot adequately reflect the mystery of divine beauty: the bodies of cripples, for instance, conceal the divine image from our sight, which Christ’s powers can instead restore and heal.4

In an extended theological reflection on the legacy of the Tuscan painter Giovanni da Fiesole, British theologian John Saward invites his readers to reflect on the achievements of Italian medieval art through the lenses of Aquinas’s theology of beauty.5 Saward underscores how for Aquinas there is a fundamental congruence between pulchritudo and intelligibilitas, and argues that the relationship between these distinct and yet interrelated categories constitute the core of Aquinas’s reflection on beauty. The cipher, or visible mark, of their mutual complementarity is formositas, which shines from the outward appearance of a material object but at the same time adumbrates its inner intelligible form. Within God, who is pure spirit and as such is not characterized by composition, there is no distinction between nature and inner intelligible form; in the case of human beings, however, or indeed, of every created reality, the inner intelligible form has to shine through a material husk, which sometimes dims or conceals its beauty.

Pulchritudo is then present when the inner intelligible form—and it is the form that determines what being is—shines through the matter that the form indwells and shapes.6 If the essence of some aspect of creation shines through its outward appearance, the beauty of a created object, as well as the beauty of a created individual, is an objective feature, which is all the greater the more it corresponds to the intrinsic intelligible structure of this particular reality. Cued by Aristotle, Aquinas conceded that all knowledge started...


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pp. 149-163
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