The Art of St. Bernard

by Wim Verbaal

We are pleased to present to our readers some excerpts of an article written by Professor Wim Verbaal for the academic journal Lumen Veritatis.

Wim Verbaal is a Doctor of Classical Philology at Ghent University, Belgium, where he is also professor. “I want to dedicate this short meditation to my students at the Seminary of the Heralds of the Gospel, in
São Paulo. Their brightness has been my silent companion and strength for one year” he wrote.

Lumen Veritatis is a quarterly academic journal published by the St. Thomas Aquinas Institute of Theology (ITTA) and the Aristotelian-Thomistic Institute of Philosophy (IFAT).

Full text of this article can be found in the academic journal Lumen Veritatis – Vol. 5 – Nº 20 – Julho-Setembro – 2012 at


Is not art the science of beauty? Is not the artist then he who “knows” beauty? But what might this mean, “knowing beauty”? Does this knowledge only concern the capacity of contemplating the world at large and recognizing “beauty” in it? Or is it notably focused on the appreciation of beauty in a manmade work, a “work of art”? Does it, then, on the part of the “knower” also include estimation for the craftsmanship by which it came into being? Or, differently posed, does this science of beauty only involve passive knowledge on the part of the beholder? Parallel to which, must the artist as the craftsman, knowing how to give concrete expression to his understanding of beauty, then be considered to embody active knowledge? But is not the former conditional on the latter? Can one create beauty without knowing it? Is not the primary requisite for its creation to have seen and contemplated beauty? And where else can it be contemplated than in creation, in the world at large?

But what does it look like? How can it be recognized? Or is it self-evident? Whoever attempts to explain the beauty of something to one who simply cannot see it and even proves himself incapable of seeing it, knows that the recognition of beauty is all but evident. Then how does it operate? Is it an inner ear or eye that captures a glance of the outside world and is struck by it? Or is it, rather, a force in the outside world that finds in us a sensible receiver? Or is it both? Or neither?

Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. […] You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours. 3

Yet, if recognition of beauty implies the chord of the instrument and the heart of the listener reverberating in unison, as St. Augustine seems to imply, is not, then, the great musician, or the great artist in general, he who knows how to set the chords of the heart vibrating, awakening a love for beauty? Is not wisdom in the work of art the force emanating from it capable of transforming itself into an impulse of love in the beholder? Is not the sage the master-
-artist, the one who opens in our heart the abyss into which love invades our entire being, leaving room for nothing else but the burning desire for living beauty?

St. Bernard’s ideas on poetry and prose

Questions, too many questions, were raised by the one question, when I was asked to write for Lumen Veritatis on St. Bernard and art: was St. Bernard an enemy of the arts? This question alone implies an affirmative answer. But was he truly an enemy of art? And if so, must he then, also, be considered an enemy of beauty? One may take up any text of St. Bernard and start reading a random extract to be convinced of the opposite. Bernard’s prose belongs to the most beautiful ever written in Latin. Not even his most entrenched opponents are insensible to the beauty of his language. It emits a force that compels admiration. One is naturally captivated and, to disapprove of, or, moreover, to fully understand its meaning, one has to make a conscious effort to escape its charm. For beauty can be also distracting. It can veil as well as unveil. The beauty of a sentence can blind the eye to the meaning it contains. The famous fragment by St. Augustine, quoted above, offers a fitting example. It continues to baffle the mind regardless of how often one reads and rereads it, while at the first encounter one is primarily struck by its beauty of expression.

The Latin of St. Bernard also demands quiet and attentive reading, if it is to reveal all of its richness. It requires a continuous return, a prolonged rereading and even meticulous analysis. Only then does it offer vertiginous insight to both the writer’s command over the unconceivable overall constructions of his texts as well as the pure simplicity of the structural elements he uses to express his sublime visionary ideas.

The reader is first delighted by the professional skill of the writer, who gives just cadence to the sentences, which are themselves constructed out of smaller rhythmical units, sometimes reinforced by rhyming words. However, the text never leaves the impression of having to conform to preconceived frames that force the argument into structural limitations. Bernard does not hesitate to disrupt the regularity of phrasing in order to prevent the reader from being carried away by the quiet undulation of the sentence. Only the master knows that too smooth a form of beauty brings on sleep and that true beauty calls for disruption, irregularity and bewilderment.

The reader not only experiences wonder with St. Bernard’s compositional qualities but also with his careful choice of words. Rarely is a phrase devoid of Scriptural allusion. This can be a full quotation, but more often it consists only of a saying or even of a single word. This earned for him the fame of ‘speaking Bible’, but what might remain hidden by this qualification is the effort it took the writer to make his language in such a way conform to the language of Scripture that they practically coincide.

What a tumult rises in the mind of those who dictate! Hosts of words stumble around. Diversity of phrasing, expression, and meaning clash together. The word that comes to mind is rejected and the other that is sought, slips through the fingers. The highest attention must be paid to beauty of form, consistency of sense, clarity of understanding, and to what is most edifying to the conscience. What must be put first, what last, what before, and what after for a particular reader? All these things must be carefully attended to by those who are steeped therein. 4

As regards writing, St. Bernard clearly cannot be considered an enemy of art, for he “knows” the beauty he wants to obtain and he struggles with his material to render it into the most apt form.


The preceding words prove most clearly the fundamentals of St. Bernard’s aesthetics. Central in his view of beauty is the Word and knowledge of beauty, i.e. art, always knows how to leave room for the words that give voice to the Word. As soon as beauty distracts and starts drawing attention for its own sake, it fails in its final task, at least as far as monastic beauty is concerned.

The manuscript leaf shows the word in its soundless potentiality. Architecture offers the space in which the word must resound. Music gives it the resonance that makes the heart of the singer and the listener reverberate in unison with the meaning implied in the words, i.e. with the Word itself.

Veritable beauty, according to St. Bernard’s aesthetics, is not so much what is seen or heard but what lies invisibly concealed. It is the essential, almost abstract harmony that also gives nature its beauty. It is “the beauty of a higher
nature that transcends entirely our perception and eludes our experience.” 9

Thus beauty is twofold, in nature and in grace. The one can be enjoyed by the senses of the body and the heart. The other can only be embraced by the soul when it is aroused in love by words instilling the Word. Only then is truth that learns pulchritudo illius dilectio eius espoused: the beauty of the Groom increases, as the love of the Bride grows. And her love must continuously grow because his beauty always precedes her. 10 Experiencing this eternal, unalterable beauty that lies ever beyond, the soul cannot but admire its multiple manifestations in gratitude and love.9)

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