True knowledge is being struck by the arrow of beauty that wounds man: being touched by reality, “by the personal presence of Christ himself,” as Nicholas Cabasilas puts it. Being overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underestimate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and careful theological thought; it is still absolutely necessary. But to despise, on that account, the impact produced by the heart’s encounter with beauty, or to reject it as a true form of knowledge, would impoverish us and dry up both faith and theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge—it is an urgent demand of the present hour. …
The encounter with beauty can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the soul and thus makes it see clearly, so that henceforth it has criteria, based on what it has experienced, and can now weigh the arguments correctly. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. After the last note of one of the great Thomas Kantor cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and just as spontaneously said: “Anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true.” Such an extraordinary force of present reality had become audible in the music that the audience knew, no longer through deduction, but by the impact that it could not have come nothing; it could only have been born through the power of the truth that makes itself present in the composer’s inspiration. Is the same thing not evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity by Rublev. In the art of the icons, as well as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic periods, the experience described by Cabasilas has gone from an interior event to being an external form and thus has become communicable.
Pavel Evdokimov has demonstrated incisively the interior path that an icon presupposes. An icon does not simply reproduce what can be perceived by the senses, but rather it presupposes, as he says, “a fasting of sight.” Interior perception must free itself from merely sensible impressions and learn through prayer and ascetical practices a new and more profound kind of seeing; it must manage to make the transition from what is merely external to the depth of reality, so that the artist sees what the senses as such do not see—even though it does appear in the objects of the senses: the splendor of God’s glory, the “glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).
Looking at icons, and in general at the great masterpieces of Christian art, leads us on an interior way, a way of transcendence, and thus brings us, in this purification of sight that is a purification of the heart, face to face with beauty, or at least with a ray of it. In this way it brings us into contact with the power of the truth. I have often said that I am convinced that the true apologetics for the Christian message, the most persuasive proof of its truth, offsetting everything that may appear negative, are the saints, on the one hand, and the beauty that the faith has generated, on the other. For faith to grow today, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to come in contact with the beautiful.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger