The Most Neglected Artist of Our Time
“Nature is the art of God.”—Sir Thomas Browne, 17th-century physician.
LEONARDO DA VINCI, Rembrandt, van Gogh—these are names known to millions. Even though you may never have seen one of their original paintings, you know these men as great artists. Their art has, in a sense, immortalized them.
They captured on canvas an enigmatic smile, a penetrating portrait, a glimpse of the beauty in creation, which still touches the imagination of the onlooker. We are captivated by what captivated them—even though centuries may separate us.
We may be neither artists nor art critics, but we can still discern artistic excellence. Like the artist whose work we admire, we also possess a sense of beauty. Our sensitivity to color, form, patterns, and light may be something we take for granted, but it is part of our lives. No doubt we like to decorate our homes with objects or paintings that please the eye. Although tastes vary, this sensitivity to beauty is a gift shared by most of humankind. And it is a gift that can draw us closer to our Creator.
The Gift of Beauty
A sense of beauty is one of the many attributes that distinguish mankind from the animals. The work Summa Artis—Historia General del Arte (Comprehensive Treatise of Art—A General History of Art) points out that “man could be defined as the animal that has an aesthetic capacity.” Because we are different from the animals, we see creation in a different light. Does a dog appreciate a beautiful sunset?
Who made us that way? The Bible explains that “God proceeded to create the man in his image, in God’s image he created him.” (Genesis 1:27) Not that our first parents looked like God. Rather, God endowed them with attributes he himself possesses. One of these is an ability to appreciate beauty.
By some unfathomable process, the human brain perceives beauty. First of all, our senses convey to the brain information regarding the sounds, smells, colors, and shapes of objects that attract our attention. But beauty is much more than the sum of those electrochemical impulses, which merely tell us what is going on around us. We do not see a tree, a flower, or a bird in the same way an animal does. Although these objects may offer us no immediate practical benefit, they give us pleasure just the same. Our brain enables us to discern their aesthetic value.
This capacity touches our emotions and enriches our lives. Mary, who lives in Spain, vividly recalls one November evening several years ago when she stood beside a remote lake and watched the sunset. “Flying toward me came wave after wave of cranes calling to each another,” she says. “Thousands of birds were strung out across the crimson sky in spidery patterns. Their annual migratory journey from Russia and Scandinavia had brought them to this Spanish resting-place. The experience was so beautiful that it made me cry.”
Why the Gift of Beauty?
For many people the sense of beauty clearly points to the existence of a loving Creator, who wants his intelligent creation to enjoy his artistry. How logical and satisfying it is to attribute our sense of beauty to a loving Creator. The Bible explains that “God is love,” and the essence of love is sharing. (1 John 4:8; Acts 20:35) Jehovah has taken delight in sharing his creative art with us. If a musical masterpiece were never heard or a magnificent painting never seen, their beauty would be lost. Art is created to be shared and enjoyed—it is sterile without an audience.
Yes, Jehovah created beautiful things for a purpose—to be shared and enjoyed. In fact, our first parents’ home was an extensive paradise park called Eden—which means “Pleasure.” God has not only filled the earth with his artistry but he has also given mankind the ability to notice and appreciate it. And what a wealth of beauty there is to behold! As Paul Davies observed, “sometimes it seems as if nature were ‘going out of its way’ to produce an interesting and fruitful universe.” We find the universe interesting and fruitful precisely because Jehovah has ‘gone out of his way’ to create us with the capacity to study and enjoy it.
Not surprisingly, the recognition of natural beauty—and the desire to emulate it—is common to all cultures, from cave artists to Impressionists. Thousands of years ago, inhabitants of northern Spain painted graphic animal portraits in the caves of Altamira, Santander. Over a century ago, Impressionist painters got out of their studios and tried to capture the flashes of color in a field of flowers or the changing patterns of light on the water. Even young children are keenly aware of pretty things. In fact, most of them when given crayons and paper love to draw whatever they see that captures their imagination.
Nowadays, many adults prefer to take a photo in order to recall a beautiful sight that impressed them. But even without a camera, our minds are capable of recalling images of beauty we may have seen decades ago. Clearly, God has made us with the capacity to enjoy our earthly home, which he has decorated exquisitely. (Psalm 115:16) There is another reason, however, why God gave us our sense of beauty.
‘His Qualities Are Clearly Seen’
Deepening our appreciation for the artistry in nature can help us get to know our Creator, whose handiwork surrounds us. On one occasion Jesus told his disciples to take a close look at the wildflowers growing around Galilee. “Take a lesson from the lilies of the field,” he said, “how they are growing; they do not toil, nor do they spin; but I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these.” (Matthew 6:28, 29) The beauty of an insignificant wildflower can serve to remind us that God is not indifferent to the needs of the human family.
Jesus also said that you can judge a person by his “fruits,” or works. (Matthew 7:16-20) Thus, it is only to be expected that God’s artwork would offer us an insight into his personality. What are some of ‘his qualities that can be clearly seen from the world’s creation onward’?—Romans 1:20.
“How many your works are, O Jehovah!” exclaimed the psalmist. “All of them in wisdom you have made.” (Psalm 104:24) God’s wisdom can even be discerned in the colors he has used to “paint” earth’s flora and fauna. “Color gives much pleasure to the spirit and the eyes,” point out Fabris and Germani in their book Colore, Disegno ed estetica nell’arte grafica (Color—Design and Aesthetics in Graphic Art). Harmonious and contrasting colors, which delight the eye and uplift the spirit, are everywhere. But perhaps the most eye-catching are those color effects produced by iridescence—lustrous rainbowlike colors—a striking testimony to wise design.
Iridescent colors are especially common in hummingbirds.* What makes their plumage so dazzling? The top third of their unique feathers breaks up the sunlight into distinct rainbowlike colors—somewhat like a prism does. Common names of hummingbirds, such as ruby, sapphire, and emerald, aptly testify to the glittering reds, blues, and greens that adorn these jewellike birds. “What is the purpose of the magnificent loveliness of these exquisite creatures?” asks Sara Godwin in her book Hummingbirds. “As far as science can determine, it has no purpose on earth except to dazzle the beholder,” she replies. Certainly, no human artist ever wielded such a palette!
We can perceive God’s power in a thundering waterfall, the turning tides, the pounding surf, or the towering trees of a forest swaying in a gale-force wind. This dynamic artistry can be just as impressive as a tranquil scene. Famous American naturalist John Muir once described the effect of a storm on a group of Douglas firs in the Sierra Nevada of California:
“Though comparatively young, they were about 100 feet high, and their lithe, brushy tops were rocking and swirling in wild ecstasy. . . . The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves.” As the psalmist wrote thousands of years ago, ‘the tempestuous wind praises Jehovah’—it gives us a sample of his extraordinary power.—Psalm 148:7, 8.
A bird has long been the symbol of love for the Japanese. It is the beautiful Japanese crane, whose elaborate courtship dances are as graceful as any ballet. These avian performers are so prized that they have been classified in Japan as a “special natural monument.” Since cranes pair up for life and may live for 50 years or more, the Japanese consider them the epitome of marital fidelity.
What of God’s love? Interestingly, the Bible compares Jehovah’s loving protection of his loyal ones to that of a parent bird using its wings to shelter its young from the elements. Deuteronomy 32:11 speaks of the eagle that “stirs up its nest, hovers over its fledglings, spreads out its wings, takes them, carries them on its pinions.” The parent eagle does these things to encourage the young to leave the nest and fly. Though seldom seen, there are reported cases of eagles helping their young by carrying them on their wings.—Psalm 17:8.
As we take a closer look at the natural world around us, we notice certain principles at work that also reveal aspects of God’s personality.
Variety Is the Spice of Life
Diversity in God’s handiwork is something immediately apparent. The variety of plants, birds, animals, and insects is astounding. Just two and a half acres of tropical forest may contain 300 different species of trees and 41,000 species of insects; one square mile may harbor 1,500 kinds of butterflies; and a single tree can be home to 150 species of beetles! And just as there are no two people exactly alike, the same could be said of oak trees or tigers. Originality, a quality esteemed among human artists, is an intrinsic part of nature.
Of course, we have just touched briefly on a few aspects of nature’s art. By observing it more closely, we can discern many other facets of God’s personality. But to do so, we need to put to work our God-given artistic sensitivity. How can we learn to appreciate better the art of the greatest Artist?
Many butterflies, such as the brilliant blue morphos of tropical America, have iridescent scales on their wings.
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We Need to Know Who Put Us Here
Bible translator Ronald Knox was once engaged in a theological discussion with scientist John Scott Haldane. “In a universe containing millions of planets,” reasoned Haldane, “is it not inevitable that life should appear on at least one of them?”
“Sir,” replied Knox, “if Scotland Yard found a body in your cabin trunk, would you tell them: ‘There are millions of trunks in the world—surely one of them must contain a body?’ I think they would still want to know who put it there.”—The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes.
Apart from satisfying our curiosity, there is another reason why we ought to know who put us here—so we can give Him the due credit. How would a talented artist react if an arrogant critic described his work as nothing better than an accident in a paint shop? Likewise, what greater snub could we give the Creator of the universe than to ascribe his artistry to blind chance?
Courtesy of ROE/Anglo-Australian Observatory, photograph by David Malin
[Pictures on page 8]
Cranes in flight
Cave paintings in Altamira, Spain
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Dolphins, hummingbirds, and waterfalls all reveal aspects of the Great Artist’s personality
G. C. Kelley, Tucson, AZ