Sr. Mc Bride Section

Mary, Mother of God Section 


Sr. Thomas Mary Mc Bride, O.P.

Our Lady of Grace Monastery

            St. Thomas, in his exposition of Dionysius, holds that both God and creatures are beautiful.  Since God, the supreme Beauty, is his own existence, ipsum esse subsistens,  and all things have being by participating in his existence, beauty can be found in all existing beings. [2]

He [Dionysius] shows how God is the Cause of brilliance, when he adds that God with a flash sends down to all creatures a share of His luminous ray, and it is the source of all light.  These glittering communications of the divine ray should be understood according to the participation of likeness.  And these communications are "pulchrifying," that is, producing beauty in things. [3]

            St. Thomas continues his exposition:

Brilliance pertains to the consideration of beauty....  Every form, by which a thing has being [esse], is a participation in the divine brilliance.  This is why he [Dionysius] adds that 'individual things' are 'beautiful according to a character of their own,' that is, in accord with a proper form.  Hence it is clear that the being [esse] of all things is derived from the divine Beauty. [4]

            In his Summa Theologiae St. Thomas gives three distinguishing characteristics of beauty: wholeness or integrity, proportion or harmony, and claritas which can be translated splendor, radiance, light, brilliance.  The chief characteristic is claritas, 'radiance' ... beautiful things shine. [5]

            The beautiful illuminates our intellectus with the intuition of understanding.  The eyes and ears of our soul enable our vision to see the transcendent beauty present ontologically in all being. [6]

            Hans Urs von Balthasar expresses it succinctly:

The beautiful is above all a Form, and the light does not fall on this Form from above and from outside, rather it breaks forth from the Form's interior. [7]

            This paper will endeavor to highlight beauty of spirit, the inner splendor which radiates from the form and bears witness to what beauty really is. [8]

            St. Thomas, in his Quaestiones Disputatae De veritate, distinguishes between the true and the good, and presesents the insight that a spiritual substance relates to reality in two different ways.  A human being directs himself at things by knowing them and desiring them.  The object of knowl­edge is truth, while the object of desire is the good.  "Cognitio et voluntas radicantur in substantia spirituali super diversas habitudines eius ad res" (De verit. 23.1). [ 9]  This writer would suggest a third way of relating to reality in which knowledge and desire are united in breathtaking vision. The splendor of truth and goodness radiating from the form captivates the one who sees with love, [10]drawing him or her into a third way of ecstatic con­templation and intuitive wisdom.  Beauty, therefore, is essentially a gift, a radiant vision presented to the eyes or ears of the beholder, a seeing or hearing of being clearly, that is, in the radiance of its inner splendor, claritas.

            This third way of ecstatic contemplation partakes of cognition as a gift of wondrous seeing with the eyes of the spirit.  It is more than a knowing by which the known is in the knower, although it is that, but rather a being taken out of oneself by which the knower is in the known.  Beauty is therefore not so much an assimilation as a being assimilated. [11]  St. Thomas in speaking of contemplation says: "To suffer ecstacy means to be placed outside oneself." [12]  This happens not by a movement toward the beautiful but rather by a dispositive attitude of receptivity in which one is inundated with love, peace and joy in the splendor of truth and goodness being revealed.  Commenting on Dionysius, (In Dion. de div. nom. 4.10), St.Thomas says that it belongs to the notion of the beautiful that apprehension finds its rest in its sight, or cognition. [13]  Beauty is the gifted perfection of seeing. It unites the intellect and will in the innermost sanctuary of the soul. 

            In the light of the above this writer would suggest that the proper place of beauty is in the spirit.  The vision of beauty radiates and bears witness to the spiritual reality of esse shining in the res, awakening the most intimate depths of the human person.  It captivates the mind and will in contem­plative wonder and ecstatic contemplation.  Beauty integrates the splendor of light with ecstatic joy.  Ultimately, the vision of beauty bears witness to the divine beauty "which shines with dazzling light....  While remaining completely intangible and invisible, it fills minds that know how to close their eyes with the most beautiful splendours." [14]  Beauty is "intimior intimo meo" (St. Augus­tine, Conf., 1,3,6,11); it is a sign of the presence of God in all creation

            The divine beauty, shining through creaturely being, can perhaps be more easily contemplated in the figure of the Virgin Mary.  Mary, by reason of her fullness of grace and immaculate conception, is the most perfect example of beauty in created being.  Johann Roten, S.M., in a philosophically based article, "Mary, the Way of Beauty," [15] reiterates Thomistic teaching by saying that what makes Mary truly beautiful is the splendor of form.  For St. Albert the Great as well as for St. Thomas Aquinas, the identifying concept of beauty is splendor of form (3 Sent., d.23, q.3.al, sol.1,ad 2; ST Ia 5,4, ad1).  Although there may be a certain beauty in sensible appearance, the greater beauty comes from the inward metaphysical form, since it is the essence that enlightens the mind and constitutes the esse of the res.  According to St. Albert, where the shining light of essence is able to overcome the opacity of its material density and manifest itself in outward appearance, there is beauty (St. Albert, De pulchro et bono, qI, a.2.). [16]

            Therefore what makes Mary truly beautiful is the splendor of form.  Only the splendor of the metaphysical form outshines the actual form in Mary. 

Mary's "form" is graced with the surplus of the divine.  Mary's form is the work of the Holy Spirit, modeling cause of all that is. 

What our eyes and ears perceive in Mary is the humble servant of the Lord.  This is the outward form of her personality.

[But] her outward form is bathed in and literally drowning in the splendor of the inward form – her immaculate conception and fullness of grace.  In Mary there is far more than what meets the eye.  The overwhelming splendor of her figure reveals the trinitarian groundedness of her being. [17]

            Paul IV, in an address to the 1975 Mariological Congress held in Rome, linked Mary, "the woman clothed with the Sun" (Rev 12:1) with the divine beauty of the Holy Spirit, the one "in whom the pure radiance of human beauty meets the tremendous but accessible beauty of divinity." [18]  The human beauty of her being shines like the sun because of the divine beauty in which she participates unimpeded.

            The Virgin Mary stands as an icon at the pinnacle of creation revealing the beauty hidden in created being.  In all being there is more than meets the eye. [19]  The beauty of Mary reveals the beauty hidden in each being, as Cause present in effect, according to its place in the hierarchy of being. 

            The reality of beauty as a transcendental quality of being invites one to enter the world of contemplation wherein beauty gives herself freely and without personal regard.

Beauty introduces one to the inexhaustible riches of being and makes one realize the gratuitous character of all being.  True beauty is the privilege of love, because love alone is able to detect beauty as gift freely given. Beauty contains meaning, amazement, joyful and grateful understanding. [20]

Mary, the bearer of Him who is Beauty, invites the contemplative to participate in her own wondrous gaze, a gifted perfection of seeing that is sustained and directed by the Holy Spirit of divine love.




1. This article holds the position that St. Thomas Aquinas regards beauty as a transcendental property of being.

2. Expositio in Dion. De div. Nom. 4.5-6 as quoted in The Pocket Aquinas, trans. Vernon J. Bourke (New York: Washington Square Press, 4th ed., 1965), p. 269.

3. Ibid., pp. 269-270.

4. Ibid., p. 272.

5. ST, 1a, 39, 8.

6. See John Saward, The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), pp. 40-47.

7. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone, trans. and ed. by Alexander Dru (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), p. 157.

8.  St. Thomas, in explaining Dionysius’ statement that God “gives beauty to all created being in accord with the limitations of each,” says: “For there is one kind of beauty of the spirit and another of the body, and another of this and that body,” The Pocket Aquinas, p. 269.

9.      Quaestiones Disputatae De veritate 21.3.

10.      Love is still primary in some way.  One person sees God more perfectly than another because of the degree of charity. See St. Thomas Aquinas, ST, Ia. 12, 6, co.

11.      "The light ... stems from the object which, while revealing itself to the subject, it draws the subject into the sphere of the object." Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone, p. 157.

12.      ST, 1a2ae, 28.3.

13.      Ibid., 1a2ae, 27.1, ad. 3: “The beautiful adds, over and above the good, a certain relation to the power of knowing; so that we call good that which simply pleases the appetite, but, we call beautiful that whose very apprehension pleases,” as quoted in Etienne Gilson, Elements of a Christian Philosophy (NewYork: Doubleday, 1963), p. 176.

14.      Dionysius the Areopagite, Theologia mystica, from an address by John Paul II and quoted here according to “L'osservatore Romano,“ 26 January 2000, p. 11.

15.      Johann G. Roten, S.M., "Mary and the Way of Beauty," Marian Studies (Annual Publi­cation of the Mariological Society of America, Marian Library, Dayton University), XLIX (1998), 109-127.

16.      Ibid., p. 116.

17.      Ibid., pp. 116-117.  There is no intention here to suggest a plurality of forms.  Rather “form” is being used here according to the Theological Aesthetics of Hans Urs von Balthasar and is not in opposition to the metaphysics of St. Thomas.  See Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1: Seeing the Form, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikskis; ed. Joseph Fessio and John Riches (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983).  For a consideration of form in relation to beauty see pp. 117-121.

18.      Paul VI, Allocutio: “In auditorio Pontificii Athenaei a Sancto Antonio in Urbe ob coactos Conventus, VII Mariologicum atque XIV Marianum, 16 maii 1975," in AAS 67 (1975): 334-449, quoted here according to "Mary and the Way of Beauty," Marian Studies, p. 109.

19.      "In pre-modern times ... beauty was still synonymous with being.  With the Enlightenment, the concept of beauty changed.  The world was no longer considered the many-splendored form of God's creative genius but human artifact, that is, the sum total of human experimentation and productivity," ibid., p. 125.

20.      Ibid., p. 119.

21.      Sirach 24:18 (NAB).

This Version: 27th July 2002

Copyright ©; Sr. Thomas Mary McBride, O.P. 2002


Sr. Mc Bride Section

Mary, Mother of God Section