Nature as the locus of theological cognition

Renata Rogozińska

University of Arts in Pozanań


The text attempts to answer the question of whether, and to what extent, sacralisation of landscape is justified on Christian grounds, and whether religious and landscape art can be equated in status, as Jerzy Nowosielski proposed. The idea of sacralisation of nature is closer to the Eastern Orthodox Church, with its tendency to divinize man, or even (considering some comments) the whole of created reality. However, the author’s attention is focused on Catholic thought, based on Thomism and Scholasticism. The questions discussed are: to what degree, according to St Thomas Aquinas’ teaching, nature participates in God’s sanctity; what indeed nature’s sacrality is; and, hence, in what sense, from the point of view of the Church, landscape art can claim to transcend the limits of physicality and to visualize the supernatural character of being. Thomas Aquinas’ views on the mutual relation between God and the world, art and nature, are confronted with the Neo-Platonic philosophy, in order to highlight their specificity and uniqueness.

Currently, the Church’s teaching on the relation between God and the world in fact conforms to the long tradition of treating the created reality as a sign, indicating its Creator, imbued with the power, good, and beauty of the spiritual world. The Church, while emphasizing a strong connection between God and nature, still accentuates God’s transcendence, being aware of the lasting tension between the sacred and the profane. On the other hand, nowadays, in the teaching of the Church, the long tradition of stressing the aspect of God’s transcendence is counterbalanced by the emphasis on God’s immanence. Opposing cosmic pessimism, which proclaims lack of any general sense to the universe, the Church has begun to underline the sacramental nature of the world. According to certain theologians, we could even speak of an ontological co-dependence of both realities; however, this claim does not contribute to the “Pantheization” or “Neo-Platonization” of Christianity.

Keywords: Christianity, Catholic Church, God, the sacred, St Thomas Aquinas, Neo-Platonism


You make the going out of the morning

and the evening to shout for joy…

Psalm 65


“When I slip into great tiredness and discouragement for some time, when I am temporarily disgusted with this whole icon painting (and it happens quite often), I escape into my ‘lay’ paintings, my landscapes, my nudes, but most often landscapes – and I take a rest with them. Then I think that, after all, this is my true sacred art, and icon painting is just unearthing some old stuff that cannot be unearthed… A couple of times I happened to light a candle in front of a landscape” – this is what Jerzy Nowosielski admitted in 1989.[1]

These words give us an opportunity to inquire about Christianity’s attitude towards nature: on the grounds of Christian religion, is it justified to sacralise landscape? Or even, as Nowosielski would have it, to equate sacred and landscape art in status? Is that sacralisation justified only within the Eastern Church (as in the case of Nowosielski), which is inclined to deify man, or – considering some commentaries – perhaps even the whole of creation?[2] Or perhaps it may also be considered (but to what extent?) within the Roman Church, which has been urging the faithful terrena despicere et amare caelestia – to despise the earthly and love the heavenly?[3] It is known that the attitude of the Roman Church towards nature has wavered over the ages, swaying under the influence of Manicheism, which argued against all matter, or, to the opposite, shifting by Neoplatonic inspiration, identifying nature with God. Then, in the context of Christian traditional resentment of the world (“Do not love the world or the things in the world”, says 1 John 2:15), how should we treat the oft-quoted statement by Caspar David Friedrich: “I need nature to communicate with God?”[4] Is it to be seen as an expression of his profound religiousness, or rather as a manifestation of a Pantheist understanding of nature, which goes against the teaching of the Church? If the second option is chosen, then what should be done with the teaching of John Paul II, who frequently discussed the connection with God through nature: “the marvellous ‘book of nature’, […] when read with the proper tools of human reason, can lead to knowledge of the Creator”, the personal God, infinitely good, wise, and eternal, transcendent to the world, but at the same time present in the hearts of His creatures.[5] Is such teaching in accord with the doctrine, or is it rather inconvenient from the point of view of the Church orthodoxy?

In the Western tradition, regarding the metaphysical image of the world and its relation to God, the most reliable opinion is that of Thomas Aquinas. It is not without reason that he is considered the creator of the most comprehensive synthesis of Catholic theological thought. “The clarity, order and conclusiveness of Thomas’s reasoning made his writings the most important point of reference of Catholic theology – for centuries”.[6] Many of his texts continue to be valid in the present day. Following Aquinas’ teaching, let us consider to what extent nature participates in God’s holiness, what indeed is its sacredness, and thus, in what sense, from the position of the teaching of the Church, landscape art may claim to transcend the limits of physicality, and to visualize the transcendent character of being. St Thomas Aquinas’ conclusions on the mutual relation of God and the world shall be confronted with Neoplatonic philosophy, in order to highlight their phenomena even more clearly. Considering the fact that Neoplatonism has made its mark on the Eastern Orthodox ideas and dogmas more significantly than in the Roman Church, it shall be treated more briefly and, to some extent, instrumentally. Our attention will be focused on Catholic thought; although not completely free from Neoplatonic influence; it is by definition based on Thomism and Scholasticism. The considerations of the Patristic theology of divinization – a crucial thread in Orthodox theology, especially in Hesychasm – shall be discussed on another occasion.[7]

It should be added that in the present text, terms such as landscape, natural scenery, nature, or environment will be used interchangeably. Although they have different semantic scopes, they are related to one another in many aspects. What is more, none of them can be classified unequivocally, nor defined without raising doubts. After all, these terms are used in many areas of sciences and humanities, and receive from each field varying interpretations and explanations. In art history, they are linked to painting and artistic interpretation of a motif. From this perspective they seem synonymous, related by shared origin and background. The word “landscape” refers us to nature, that is the exterior, specifically natural, environment, including its phenomena and processes, perception of which is not limited to the visual experience.

The Christian insight into nature and its relation to God was shaped by two great traditions: Jewish and Greek. As for the former, in the religion of Israel, sacredness in its most appropriate meaning is restricted to God. God is different, inaccessible, separated from all other things, surpassing everything, transcendent. However, there exist human beings (such as priests, Levites, prophets, or Nazarenes) and objects, places, and moments excluded from everyday use and reserved for God. They receive their sanctity from God, in a way participating in the sacred nature of the Holy one, although they are separated from the sacredness of God by an infinite distance. This participation also extends to other forms of being, including nature. Although these entities cannot claim to be of divine nature, they do have their share of the sacredness of their Creator.[8] God, who is sacred, in the act of creation bestows his sacredness upon all things that He creates, for all beings owe their existence to God, the cause, model, and purpose of all creation. As we read in the Book of Genesis, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). “Created” means brought into existence something that had not existed previously; what is more, it was not created from another thing, but from nothing – ex nihilo. This concept is a significant novelty in comparison to the Greek-Roman tradition. “In the Greek, Hellenic and Roman tradition it was inconceivable for something to emerge ‘from nothing’. It was seen as an inherent contradiction, since ex nihilo nihil fit – ‘from nothing, nothing is produced’. Creation must always emerge ‘from something’”.[9]

Thus, in the Biblical understanding of sacredness, the division into the sacred and the profane becomes less sharp than in some other religions of the ancient East, to which the religion of Israel clearly stood in contrast: in fact, the only area that is not sacred, which equals the profane, is the sphere of sin.[10] Having inherited the Biblical concept of sacredness that covers the whole created world and all spheres of human life, Christianity imbued the whole of creation with sacredness even more pervasively. This was possible due to the mystery of Incarnation. The sacred and separated God assumed a material, human form, became Man, and through this sanctified human nature and the whole universe. Except for sin, there is nothing that is not divine.[11] “Incarnation means that physical matter is not only capable of being a carrier of the divine, but it can also be, in a broader sense, a realization of God’s idea, plan, and will”.[12] With appropriate proportion kept and differences considered, it may be stated that God manifests Himself to us in two ways: through His word, and through the book of nature, in which He left His trace, thus allowing us to perceive nature as a sanctuary. The world becomes a grace to a human being, and evokes gratitude, to which we are encouraged, among others, in the Book of Daniel, which calls upon all creatures of God, plants, planets, stars, elements, winter colds, frosts, snows, mountains, clouds, days, and nights…, in sum, all God’s works, to bless the Lord (Daniel 3: 57–81, The Song of the Three Jews).[13]

Also, Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225–1274) admired the beauty of nature; in his reflections on the relation between God and nature he followed the Biblical thought, although he is also known to have drawn on Aristotle. Moreover, some of his postulates – especially those concerning beauty and art – could be traced back to Pseudo-Dionysius and St Augustine, and further back in the past to Plato and Plotinus.

Aquinas argues that beings created by God are hierarchical and analogical. They are hierarchical in the sense that they imitate God to a greater or lesser degree; they are analogical since each being is a separate one. The beings that imitate God to a greater extent, like entities endowed with reason and free will, are named “the image and likeness of God”. Those which are inanimate or merely vegetate, or live a life driven by senses but deprived of free will and reason are not an image of God; yet they point to their cause, being therefore called a “trace” of God (vestigium Dei). Indeed, all beings, as created by God, bear a mark of such origin. All perfection of things, though limited, participates in the infinite perfection. Thus, all beings originating with God must have God as their model, and God’s infinite perfection allows an infinite number of possibilities of imitation.[14] Though following the religion of Israel and later Christian tradition, St Thomas believed that the Creator, the cause and end of all, is yet transcendent to being. Therefore, a being is by no means a part of God, as Pantheism has it. The cause and the effect are not the same, but remain separate. “Therefore God is neither substance nor essential form of the things that exist apart from Him; yet He is their external form, their model and ideal after which they have been shaped; at the same time, He is their purpose, that is the highest good, for which everything exists and at which everything aims. Thus to creatures, God is the force that creates them, the norm, and the highest thought that governs them – the ultimate end to which they are attracted”.[15]

Hence, the concepts that have God permeate the world or even be absorbed by it, or those that have the world emerge from God or be located in God, as if in His interior, are in discord with the Biblical dogma of Creation and its Thomist interpretation. Again, this interpretation states that there is complete transcendence between God and the world. Creation ex nihilo does not only mean “not from existing matter”, but also “not from God”.[16]

Translated by Anna Ścibior-Gajewska

[1] J. Nowosielski, a statement made in: Sacrum i sztuka, ed. N. Cieślińska, Kraków 1989, p. 208.

[2] Cf. J. Tofiluk, Hezychazm i jego wpływ na rozwój duchowości, “Elpis” 6, 2002, vol. 4, pp. 87–106; Prawosławie, Światło prawdy i zdrój doświadczenia, eds. K. Leśniewski, J. Leśniewska, Lublin 1999.

[3] For more on the subject of the “collective madness” that was the monastic movement, which desacralized matter, stripping it of all supernatural sense, cf. R. Przybylski, Pustelnicy i demony, Kraków 1994.

[4] After: Klasycy sztuki, vol. XIII: Friedrich, ed. M. Pietkiewicz, Warszawa 2006, p. 22.

[5] After: J. Pociask-Karteczka, Przyroda w nauczaniu Jana Pawła II, in: Przyroda, geografia, turystyka w nauczaniu Jana Pawła II. XV Seminarium “Sacrum i przyroda”, eds. Rev. M. Ostrowski, I. Sołjan, Kraków 2007, p. 79.

[6] T. Bartoś, Metafizyczny pejzaż. Świat według Tomasza z Akwinu, Kraków 2006, p. 13.

[7] On divinization, especially in the teaching of St Gregory Palamas, cf. Georgios I. Mantzaridis, Przebóstwienie człowieka. Nauka św. Grzegorza Palamasa w świetle tradycji prawosławnej, Lublin 1997.

[8] T. Jelonek, Biblijne pojęcie sacrum, Kraków 2008, pp. 23ff.

[9] P. Jaroszyński, Metafizyka i sztuka, Radom 2002, p. 59.

[10] Jelonek 2008, as in fn. 9, p. 74.

[11] Ibidem, p. 63.

[12] A. Dańczak, Locutio mundi – znaczenie i zakres określenia „sakramentalność świata”, “Studia Gdańskie” 25, 2009, p. 15.

[13] Cf. Bishop K. Romaniuk, Biblijna teologia przyrody, Warszawa 1999, pp. 5–7.

[14] Cf. Jaroszyński 2002, as in fn. 10, pp. 72–73.

[15] O. M. Dietz SI, Dogmat stworzenia wedle św. Tomasza z A  kwinu, “Przegląd Teologiczny” 5, 1924, pp. 125–142, [accessed: 25 June 2015].

[16] Cf. Jaroszyński 2002, as in fn. 10, p. 69.

[17] Dietz 1924, as in fn. 16.

[18] Ibidem.

[19] The word “art” (ars) was used by St Thomas in a broad sense, to denote the ability to create valuable things: useful, pleasant, or beautiful. This scope covers diverse crafts and arts, including culinary, military, cavalry, banking, and legislation skills. Literature, painting and sculpture constituted a separate group of arts, being representative (re-creational); cf. W. Tatarkiewicz, Historia estetyki, vol. 2: Estetyka średniowieczna, Warszawa 1962, pp. 293–294.

[20] Ibidem, p. 295.

[21] Jaroszyński 2002, as in fn. 10, p. 86.

[22] St Thomas neither wrote a separate treatise on art and beauty, nor dedicated to them a separate chapter in any of his works. He wrote briefly and only incidentally on the subject. Hence, it is difficult to compile a complete aesthetic theory of Aquinas on the basis of fragments of his texts. In many cases, the researcher is confined to guesses and later interpretations. More on the subject in Jaroszyński 2002, as in fn. 10, pp. 61ff.; Tatarkiewicz 1962, as in fn. 20.

[23] J.A. Kłoczowski, Sacrum – fascynacje i wątpliwości, in: Sacrum w sztuce współczesnej, ed. B. Major, Częstochowa 2003, p. 53.

[24] After: P. Porro, Thomas Aquinas. A historical and philosophical profile, transl. by J.G. Trabbic, R.W. Nutt, Washington 2016, p. 203.

[25] Bartoś 2006, as in fn. 7, pp. 200–201.

[26] Ibidem, p. 202. Aquinas’ attitude towards beauty is similar to Pseudo-Dionysius’ opinion, and thus also to Neo-Platonism. It is not a unique example of such affiliations. Contrary to the earlier tradition, which saw only Aristotelian influence in St Thomas’ thought, modern studies also note its Neo-Platonic roots.

[27] Ibidem, p. 202.

[28] Pantheism, and more precisely Neo-Platonism, which propagates it, has a rich tradition in Christian thought, both in the Russian and Greek Orthodox Church and in the Catholic Church. It inspired e.g. the Cappadocian Fathers, especially St Gregory of Nyssa, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Pantheism left its mark in the thought of St Augustine, Boethius, and John Scotus Eriugena, who called God “Omnium Essentia”. In the Middle Ages, also Alaric of Bena and his disciple David of Dinant, who identified God with nature, were accused of Pantheism. Similar references to God can be found in texts of Meister Eckhart and Nicolas of Cusa, who were under the influence of Neo-Platonism. It is also noticed in the works of St Thomas Aquinas, especially in his Commentary on “The Divine Names” by Dionysius Areopagite. In modern times, Catholic thought relied on Thomism and Scholasticism, while Neo-Platonism evolved in a different, either scientific or spiritual, context. It was visible in the philosophy of: M. Ficino and the Occasionalists, B. Spinosa, G.E. Lessing, F.D.E. Schleiermacher, F.W.J. Schelling, J.G. Fichte, G.W.F. Hegel, R. Steiner, and many others, as well as in Polish Messianism.

[29] Plotinus, Enneads, I, 6.

[30] W. Stróżewski, Wokół piękna, Kraków 2002, p. 170; cf. also D. Dembińska-Siury, Rozprawa o pięknie, in: Wielkość i piękno filozofii, ed. J. Lipiec, Kraków 2003, pp. 415–433.

[31] According to Plotinus, the principle of being, what truly exists, is the One – the perfect and simple substance which is incognoscible, as any attempt to know it would lead to identifying its property and creating a distinction. The One emanates subsequent stages of being – hypostases. The first hypostasis is Intellect, from which Soul emanates. Soul is the last, lowest stage in the chain of emanations.

[32] Cf. W. Prusik, Sztuka i mistyka. Ekspresja jako artystyczne doświadczenie absolutu, “Analiza i Egzystencja” 21, 2013, p. 140.

[33] Ibidem, p. 143.

[34] Tadeusz Gustaw Wiktor. Ikony – Bramy Światła, exhibition catalogue, ed. T.G. Wiktor, Art Gallery Artemis, April 1996, Kraków 1996, pp. 5–6.

[35] Bartoś 2006, as in. fn. 7, p. 13.

[36] Quoted after: E. Chat, Człowiek a słowo Boga, “Kieleckie Studia Teologiczne” 10, 2011, p. 15. English version available at; the tension between the imaginability and non-imaginability of God was retained in theological history in the tension between positive and negative theology. While the former attempts at approaching God through positive statements and definitions, the latter aims at the same goal by rejecting all symbols, images, and abstract concepts as contraposed to the names and definitions of God.

[37] Dańczak 2009, as in fn. 13, p. 21. The quoted text offers broad reflection on the sacramental dimension of the world; the author ponders how the world refers to and informs about the existence of its Creator, His power, and His other features; extensive selection of subject literature is referred to, among others: works by J. Polkhingorne, J. Haught, and P. Tillich. The category of sacramentality is inherently diverse and layered with various degrees of “intensity”.

[38] Ibidem, p. 17.

[39] Ibidem, p. 15.

[40] More on the subject in: J.Y. Leloup, Hezychazm. Zapomniana tradycja modlitewna, transl. by H. Sobieraj, Kraków 1996, p. 79.

[41] Dańczak 2009, as in fn. 13, p. 17.

[42] W. Juszczak, Sztuka jako poznanie “progu poznania”. Z Wiesławem Juszczakiem rozmawia Janusz Marciniak, in: Między figuracją a abstrakcją, eds. M. Kitowska-Łysiak, P. Kmieć, A. Ślusarczyk, Lublin 2003, p. 81.

[43] Ibidem, p. 85.

The full text of the article was published in the pages of "Sacrum et Decorum" . Please send your orders to the University of Rzeszów Publishers or activate an electronic subscription.