Defining the Sublime

June 2, 2014

Details of vaults in front of main chapel in Seville Cathedral, Spain. Photo by Pom²

Details of vaults in front of main chapel in Seville Cathedral, Spain. Photo by Pom²

The sublime consists of those things of transcendent excellence that cause souls to be overawed by their magnificence. It provokes what Edmund Burke rightly calls “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”*

Landscape with a Church, painted by Domenico Quaglio the Younger.

Landscape with a Church, painted by Domenico Quaglio the Younger.

Throughout history, man has been drawn to extraordinary panoramas, works of art, music, ideas, or heroic feats that have rightly been called sublime. It is not the mere physical aspects of these things that inspire us. Rather, it is a rational appreciation of the spiritual qualities of incomparable magnificence, vastness, or grandeur that captivates the soul and speeds it on its quest towards plenitude.

Stained glass windows

Thus, it is an appreciation of things sublime that has served to inspire Christian civilization and which must now inspire us. A culture turned towards the sublime uplifts those who would otherwise detain themselves with the purely ordinary and common. It draws us outside ourselves in wonder, and so opposes the inward egoistic vices that drive us to disgrace.

Harp lesson given by Madame de Genlis to Mademoiselle d'Orleans with Mademoiselle Pamela. Painting by Jean Baptiste Mauzaisse

Harp lesson given by Madame de Genlis to Mademoiselle d’Orleans with Mademoiselle Pamela. Painting by Jean Baptiste Mauzaisse

Like musicians who dedicate themselves to sublime music, those who habitually and logically seek and love the sublime are capable of great abnegation and sacrifice in its service. From such dedication come the masterpieces and epic feats of history.

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* Edmund Burke, “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful,” in The Works of Edmund Burke, With a Memoir (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1846), 1:48. Burke was one of the first modern authors to dwell upon the sublime. We would definitely disagree with him and others of his period who interpreted the overwhelming aspect of the sublime as that of a terrifying grandeur. We would argue that the sublime inspires admiration, wonder, and reverent love proper to Catholic devotion and not terror as reflected in Burke’s severe perspective. Cf. Encyclopædia Britannica 2009 Deluxe Edition, s.v. “aesthetics.”

 

 

John Horvat, Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society—Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here, and Where We Need to Go (York, Penn.: York Press, 2013), 315-6.

 

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