Rev. Fidelis A. Olokunboro

The inspiration to write on my idea of beauty, an idea that is still unfolding and yet to mature, started when I was preparing for one of my Cabrini University classes on Aristotle’s concept of beauty and art. As an art connoisseur the late pastor of Mother of Divine Providence Parish in King of Prussia, Father Martin Cioppi, provided some helpful insights on my initial thoughts and goals for that class.

In our conversation on the subject, at the dining table in the rectory kitchen, his delightful mental investment in Renaissance arts, artists ( such as Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo Caravaggio, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Vincent van Gogh), culture, and politics was effulgent. Indeed, his knowledge of all those pales in comparison to his stupendous knowledge of the history and culture of the British royal family. However, there were other outcomes of that conversation, some of which influenced my resurgent interest in African aesthetics and their theology, and the relevance of the idea of beauty in the ancient /medieval Christian tradition to the contemporary description of the beautiful.

So, what is beautiful? To ask what is beautiful is to ignite a conversation where everyone, including myself, has an opinion, even though the concept escapes intellectual pedestrianism to which it has been subjected. Thinking about what is beautiful deserves more mental acuity than it gets since it belongs to the metaphysical and the transcendentals (Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 1933). That it belongs to the transcendentals means: A: it is not bound by corporeality nor opposed to it. B: It is not confined to class, context, or category. As such, it is universal. C: It is good, good as understood as a quality of being. Within the first description of the transcendentality of beauty, art, in its relativity to beauty, becomes that which mediates beauty. Art in this instance is understood within its ancient categorization as poetry, fine art, or theatre. And it mediates beauty within three possibilities: exaggeratedly, underratedly, and proportionally. It is the art that mediates proportionally that is a good art.

A good art is one that accommodates harmony and rhythm, where its parts succeed one another in proper sequence (Aristotle, Poetics). Also, as a “mediator,” it invites the perceiver into a performative immersion in the reality of the artist or the phenomenon intended by the art. So, art, in essence, is mimetic. But it is the mimetic nature of art that unsettled Plato that he argued for its banishment in the “Republic.” For Plato, art is an imitation of imitations (imitations as the inferior human realities as against the superior- world of forms), which encumbers the rational part of the soul from flourishing (Plato, Republic).

Despite the Platonic displeasure with art, a beautiful art enables the perceiver to be transfixed on what is perceived yet transposes them beyond the object perceived. By doing so, it produces the combinations of savor and awe. So, beauty, which a beautiful art intends to illustrate, arrests the other “ecstatically.” By arresting the other and producing ecstasy, it stirs up the mind. While what is beautiful starts from the perceptible, which art enables, the beautiful moves beyond the perceptible. By implication, the narrative that beauty is in the eye of the beholder would only mean that the process of knowing the beautiful starts, not ends, with perception. It does not translate to relativism/subjectivism of beauty.

St. Thomas Aquinas elucidates the above in his description of what is beautiful. He says, “it is that which delights, pleases, when seen” (Summa Theologiae I: II, q 27, a3). Stringing “when seen” with “delight” means that while the appreciation of the beautiful starts with perception (when seen), it moves beyond it to become an object (delight) of reason, intelligence, and the soul. To delight, which is intricately linked with the good and happiness, is a property of the soul, the seat of reason (Summa Theologaie I: II, q 1-5). As such, to be delightful is distinguished from pleasure, which makes it one of those sentiments that escapes the limitations of bodily senses.

To establish that the delightfulness of beauty is objective and beyond corporeal limitations, Aquinas names three constituents of the beautiful.

First, what is beautiful possesses integrity; that is, it is whole, in that the source and the concrete expressivity of the beautiful are inseparable. In other words, the corporeality of the object is in consonant with its essence and source, such that all the parts of the object fit together in a way that there is no dissimilitude between what it evokes and what it should evoke. Whatever is beautiful is whole in perception and essence. It is not separated in their parts and the parts not separated from their source/origin.

Second, the wholeness of what is beautiful means that all the parts that make up the object are proportional to each other, and as such, the object demonstrates harmony and unity. Every part of the object succeeds one another in proper sequence. They are not episodic- that is, successive episodes without sequence.

Third, what is beautiful possesses clarity; meaning that it is a communication or expressivity of its archetype. With its clarity, what is beautiful provides radiance, light, that enables a gaze that in return, enlightens the mind (Summa Theologiae I, q 39, a.8). For Aquinas, the person of Jesus Christ is the perfect and the primal illustration of the beautiful.

These conditions of what is beautiful and the narrative of Jesus as the primal beauty have some implications. First, they challenge our standard of beauty and the popular culture description/gradation of beauty since beauty escapes reduction to corporeality. Second, since Jesus is the primal ideal of what is beautiful, the beautiful person/object  reflects divine beauty. As such, the beautiful, either represented in a person or a non-human object, does not just possess the right magnitude from beginning to end, it possesses a spiritual/moral character.

That a beautiful person/thing reflects that which is beyond them makes them res and signum. Res is a thing, a reality. Signum points to something beyond it. While God is “Res” only, as that which delights for its own sake, the finality of desire outside of which nothing exists, all other things are signum compared to God. The human person, while substantive res, is a signum when compared to God. As such, the beauty of the human person, while it elicits delight, and cannot be reduced to its corporeality, is always incomplete since it remains a signum of that which it mediates. It implies that the human yearning for what is beautiful, for what is good, for what delights cannot be satisfied in other humans, in other signa but in the One outside of which nothing exists (St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, I, Confession, I, IV, Rowan Williams, On Augustine,2016).

So, how do we refer to those whose lives were simultaneously res and signum  regarding the beautiful? Those who were substantive res by the nature of their being and signum by the nature of their lives, simultaneously displaying a subsistent “thing/res” to be loved, beheld, attracted to for its sake, and similarly a res-signum, mediating the beauty that rests in beauty itself, which is beyond their temporality? We call them beautiful. They are beautiful, not in a pedestrian way but in a way that is meditatively conscious of the true meaning, that is, the theological rendering of the word.

Father Martin Cioppi, who passed away on June 26, 2023, was an instantiation of loving beauty – substantiating res and demonstrating signum. As a person, he was an “art” that arrests the spectacle of those who met him with his quality of being, and an impressive demonstration of Thomas Aquinas’ constituents of beauty: integritas (integrity), consonantia (proportionality/harmony), and claritas (clarity). Those constituents of what is beautiful were manifested through his quality of life that obliged the balance, the sequencing of the spiritual, the intellectual, the humane, the human, and the social.

As a priest, he was a fine demonstration of signum that mediated divine agency through his self-dissipation (disposition), and as such, mediated the synchronization/synonymousity of love, good, and beauty in the divine beauty. His last profile picture on his Facebook page before his passing exudes his positionality as the subject and object of divine beauty. As he was in his priestly vestment, elevating the monstrance for blessing,  he appeared to be saying with St. Augustine “I should not exist unless, I existed in you, O Beauty, ever ancient, O Beauty ever new, you shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me, you shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odor. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am inflamed with love of your peace” (Confession I:2, X:27).

May you continue to savor the beauty of your Most Beloved, Father Cioppi!


Rev. Fidelis A. Olokunboro, Ph.D., is a resident priest at Mother of Divine Providence in King of Prussia and Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Cabrini University.