top of page

The Tota Pulchra

Updated: Jun 4, 2019

The following is an excerpted chapter from Beauty: What It Is & Why It Matters, by John-Mark L. Miravalle. You may order the book from Sophia Institute Press here:

The Holy Spirit as Artist

A fascinating aspect of trinitarian theology is how, in revealing themselves to the world, the three Divine Persons rely on someone else to reveal them. Thus, the Father is revealed by the Son: “No one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). And the Son relies on the Spirit to reveal Him, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). So, who reveals the Holy Spirit? Is the Holy Spirit the only divine Person to assume His own PR responsibilities?

No. The Catechism explicitly says, “Now God’s Spirit, who reveals God, makes known to us Christ, His Word, his living Utterance, but the Spirit does not speak of Himself. We know Him only in the movement by which He reveals the Word to us and disposes us to welcome Him in faith” (687). The Catechism goes on to say that this “divine self-effacement” (what a description!) explains why the world has such difficulty recognizing and accepting the Holy Spirit.

It is no new observation that the Holy Spirit is the Trinitarian Person most mysterious and unfamiliar to our imaginations. We understand what it means to have a relationship with the Father, whose voice is heard in the Gospel. And we understand what it means to have a relationship with the Son, who became tangible in the Incarnation and whom we receive physically in the Eucharist. But how does one form a relationship with a breath, a dove, a cloud, or a tongue of flame?

The Catechism gives us a hint, stating that we know the Holy Spirit only in His “movements,” that is, in His effects upon the human soul. Consequently, the greater His effects on the human soul, the better we can know Him. This is exactly why we canonize saints — not just to have models for imitation or intercessory sponsors — but, more fundamentally, so that we can perceive the Holy Spirit in His greatest works: “By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness with her” (CCC 828).

So, who reveals the Holy Spirit? The saints do. Just as the artist’s personality flows into his art, so does the Person of the Holy Spirit flow in and through the great achievements of His grace in the lives of His holy ones (1). They are the stained glass through whom the light of God shines, and since they have less of the “dirt” of sin to block the light, the colors come through with greater clarity, revealing not only the genius but also the character of the Divine Artist. But, of course, there’s only one saint with no sin, in which case there’s only one saint who perfectly reveals the Holy Spirit. Only one saint allows the light of the Spirit to shine with absolutely no dilution. That one saint is Mary of Nazareth.

In the section on the Holy Spirit, the Catechism refers to Mary as the “masterwork” of the Son and the Spirit’s mission (721). Now, who would try to understand a great artist while ignoring his greatest masterpiece? Who would try to familiarize himself with a great composer and pay no attention to his greatest composition? Who would celebrate a novelist, and act as though his most brilliantly executed character was irrelevant? The answer is clear. So why would anyone attempt to grow in his understanding of and relationship with the Holy Spirit without simultaneously drawing closer to the Blessed Virgin, who is the Holy Spirit’s supreme self-expression?

It is precisely the notion of beauty that reveals to us who Mary is and who the Holy Spirit is; conversely, “a Spirit-centered Mariology invariably leads to a theology of beauty.” (2) Over forty years ago, Pope Paul VI encouraged a focus on what he called “the way of beauty” in understanding this relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit:

She is the “woman clothed with the sun,” in whom all the purest rays of human beauty converge with those rays of heavenly beauty which are of a higher order but which we can nevertheless perceive. Why is Mary all this? Because she is “full of grace,” because she is, we may say, filled with the Holy Spirit whose supernatural light shines in her with incomparable splendor. (3)

How do we know who the Holy Spirit is? By seeing the divine beauty that radiates most clearly in the beauty of Mary. How do we know who Mary is? By seeing how her human beauty “proclaims the greatness of the Lord.”

The All-Beautiful

Mary is traditionally called the tota pulchra, the wholly fair woman, the all-beautiful, and it should now be clear why.

First of all, if beauty is the manifestation of a spiritual reality in physical form, then Mary expresses not only her own personality but also the Person of the Holy Spirit. We’ve said that the human form is the most beautiful of all physical objects because it expresses a spiritual person. Mary is a perfect, flawless human person. All her faculties are at peace; her being is proportionate to her nature; all her actions are ordered to their proper ends. Therefore, her physical form expresses the perfection of humanity and consequently, as we’ve seen, perfectly expresses the Uncreated Grace, who is responsible for making her who she is. So if beauty is the perfection of nature and the incarnation of spiritual truth and goodness in a physical way — well then, that’s Mary.

But Mary is surprising too. Her existence isn’t just flawless, it’s wondrous. By the time Mary appears in the narrative of salvation, we’re genuinely surprised when someone is perfectly responsive to God’s plan. We’ve gotten used to the sin, the infidelity and doubt, from Adam and Eve to Zechariah. In fact, during that time, not once does a person respond to an angelic message or directive with explicit acceptance. And then, finally, Gabriel comes to Mary, and she says, unequivocally, yes.

This is amazing! Finally, God finds someone He can work with! This is new! “For the first time in the plan of salvation and because his Spirit had prepared her, the Father found the dwelling place where his Son and his Spirit could dwell among men” (CCC 721).

But what’s incomparably more astounding is the way Mary serves as the site for the Incarnation.

Here we come to a theory of the beautiful upon which we haven’t yet touched— namely, the joining or coincidence of extremes. It’s always surprising to see things we habitually consider remote suddenly brought together. We delight in seeing two colors from opposite sides of the color wheel paired together in a single design. We love to hear a duet in which the male and female voices simultaneously blend and contrast with one another. We enjoy reading about a servant girl unexpectedly married to a prince or a poor miller’s son who wins the hand of the princess.

The nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Schelling argued that aesthetic intuition offers a glimpse into the entire structure of reality, and that vision is so comprehensive that it expresses itself as the convergence of what is infinitely separated. (4)

As Christians know, the greatest convergence of opposites, the joining of the most radical extremes, happened when God became man, when the infinite was joined to the finite, when the Creator became a part of creation. And Mary is not only the place where this unequaled convergence occurs; she is, in some sense, the supreme witness to it. The simplest and strangest way of expressing the fact that the Eternal Lord took on human nature is to say, “Mary is the Mother of God.” As the medieval antiphon says, “To the wonderment of nature, you gave birth to your creator.”

From the earliest life of the Church, Marian art manifests the mystery of the Incarnation. As St. John Paul II says,

The traditional iconography, which shows Mary with the child Jesus in her arms and does not picture Joseph beside her, constitutes a silent but firm statement of her virginal motherhood and, for that very reason, of the Son’s divinity.

This image, therefore, could be called the icon of Christ’s divinity. In other words, we see Christ with a human mother, and we are assured that He’s human; we don’t see Him with a human father, and we remember that He’s divine. Chesterton makes the same point in regard to statuary:

You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a new-born child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a new-born child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a new-born child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother; you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother. (6)

The Italian Mariologist Bruno Forte rightly sees our Lady as the synthesis of multiple aesthetic approaches:

The mystery of the Virgin Mother brings together heaven and earth, the Wholly Other and the Wholly Within. Just as in the experience of the beautiful the whole is revealed in the part, or by means of the harmony of forms, or through the eruption and the evocation of otherness and newness, so in Mary the entirety of the Mystery can be perceived as present. (7)

If you want the surprise of a lifetime, the astonishing consummation of all unlooked-for unification, when the Infinite built a bridge to the finite — you’re going to have to look to Mary.

Mary and Christ and the Splendor of Humanity

We’ve seen how Mary makes manifest the beauty of the Holy Spirit, as well as the beauty of the Incarnation. But we should also highlight the way Mary manifests the beauty of human nature.

What a shame it would be if we saw what the perfect man looked like but not the perfect woman. But as it is, when God’s perfect love for us took on human form, it took the form of a man— Jesus Christ. And when our perfect love for God took on human form, it took the form of a woman — the Blessed Virgin. And unless these two figures remain the fixed standard for what humanity should be, for what we are called to be, it will be impossible to preserve our faith in human nature.

Human nature is warped with unfathomable ugliness. It tears itself apart every day, discovers new cruelties, weaknesses, and per- versions. Postmodern man, with no direction, destiny, or purpose, can only follow arbitrary impulses while he passes the time, waiting for death. An aimless, impulsive life isn’t very pretty.

Now, man is the most interesting thing on earth; humanity is the most fascinating subject in art, as in everything else. So what model will artists select in their representations of the human person? Are we bundles of instincts, sparks of pain and pleasure that eventually taper off and dissipate? Or are we all potentially Christ? Are we all potentially Mary? Are we designed to share the destiny they’ve already accomplished?

Interestingly, Pius XII’s answer to postmodernism was to define the dogma of the Assumption:

While the illusory teachings of materialism and the corruption of morals that follows from these teachings threaten to extinguish the light of virtue and to ruin the lives of men by exciting discord among them, in this magnificent way all may see clearly to what a lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined. (8)

In other words, if you want to know what it actually means to be human, look at Mary.

Historically, Mary and Jesus are the most popular subject matter in representational art. They have, moreover, taken on the forms of every culture and place. Every race has been represented by Christ; the clothing of every culture has been worn by Mary.

So, what’s the takeaway for Catholic morality? Morality is nothing other than discerning and following the proper way of fulfilling the human person. Morality is simply how people become the people they were made to be. Depicting Christ and Mary under every admirable aspect, presenting them with every honor that any culture can bestow — this is a way of showing humanity how to be fully human. Such art shows us how to live.

Art dedicated to our Lord and our Lady isn’t simply an exercise in taste or in refined religious sensibility; it can make us delight in being human again and give us the impetus to strive for our own happiness. Anything that helps us appreciate the beauty of Christ and His Mother is a profound service to the Church and the world. That kind of work can save people.


(1) On the beauty of the saints, see Saward, The Beauty of Holiness.

(2) Johann G. Roten, S.M., “Mary and the Way of Beauty,” Marian Studies 49 (1998): 110.

(3) Paul VI, Address to the International Mariological-Marian Congress, Rome, May 16, 1975.

(4) “Every aesthetic production proceeds from an intrinsically infinite separation of the two activities, which in every free act of producing are divided. But now since these two activities are to be depicted in the product as united, what this latter presents is an infinite finitely displayed. But the infinite finitely displayed is beauty.” F. W. J. Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, trans. Peter Heath (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1978), 225.

(5) John Paul II, General Audience, May 23, 1990.

(6) G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Middletown, DE: Rough Draft Printing, 2016), 107.

(7) Bruno Forte, Maria, la donna icona del Mistero: Saggio di mariologia simbolico-narrativa (Milan: Edizioni Paoline, 1989), 16, 18, translation mine.

(8) Pius XII, Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus deus (November 1, 1950), no. 42.

226 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Jan 06, 2020

Our Blessed Mother gave insight into this mystery of the revelation of the Holy Spirit in her Magnificat. She sang, "my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior." Like the moon reflecting the light of the sun that is not its own, so the outer soul magnifies that which the inmost spirit rejoices in...

bottom of page