Posted by: chuckbumgardner | September 25, 2007

A Perspective on Cosmetics from the Early Church

The different perspective one gains from reading early church theologians is sometimes startling, which is an excellent reason to read them. When in our own time, everyone unquestionably accepts a particular teaching or practice, an objector may seem to be little more than a rabblerouser, to be mocked for his noncomformity or perhaps pitied for his ignorance.

It is my suspicion, however, that if we listen to godly men from (so to speak) another world, we may gain great profit. It may be that the pendulum has swung too far in their position on a particular teaching or practice — but their expression of that position may provide a needed corrective of our own. For who among us will aver that his own position never needs moderation, never swings pendulum-like to an extreme, never requires correction?

That having been said, I give here comments by Cyprian (3rd century) and Ambrose (4th century). They are included in Augustine’s “On Christian Doctrine” (IV.21). Both address the practice of “women who color, or rather discolor, their faces with paint.”

A person who denounced the use of cosmetics in this way today would be considered quite out of touch, and not to be taken seriously. Before we dismiss these comments with a chuckle, however, we might consider that they were not meant to be a joke, and that the writers — no imbeciles — had serious reasons for writing the things they did.

Cyprian:

“Suppose a painter should depict in colors that rival nature’s the features and form and complexion of some man, and that, when the portrait had been finished with consummate art, another painter should put his hand over it, as if to improve by his superior skill the painting already completed; surely the first artist would feed deeply insulted, and his indignation would be justly roused. Dost thou, then, think that thou wilt carry off with impunity so audacious an act of wickedness, such an insult to God the great artificer? For, granting that thou art not immodest in thy behaviour towards men, and that thou art not polluted in mind by these meretricious deceits, yet, in corrupting and violating what is God’s, thou provest thyself worse than an adulteress.  The fact that thou considerest thyself adorned and beautified by such arts is an impeachment of God’s handiwork, and a violation of truth.  Listen to the warning voice of the apostle: ‘Purge out the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened.  For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.’ [1 Cor 5.7-8]  Now can sincerity and truth continue to exist when what is sincere is polluted, and what is true is changed by meretricious coloring and the deceptions of quackery into a lie? The Lord says, ‘Thou canst not make one hair white or black’ [Matt 5.36]; and dost thou wish to have greater power so as to bring to nought the words of thy Lord? With rash and sacrilegious hand thou wouldst fain change the color of thy hair: I would that, with a prophetic look to the future, thou shouldst dye it the color of flame [!].”

Ambrose:

“Hence arise these incentives to vice, that women, in their fear that they may not prove attractive to men, paint their faces with carefully chosen colors, and then from stains on their features go on to stains on their chastity.  What folly it is to change the features of nature into those of a painting, and from fear of incurring their husband’s disapproval, to proclaim openly that they have incurred their own! For the woman who desires to alter her natural appearance pronounces condemnation on herself; and her eager endeavors to please another prove that she has first been displeasing to herself.  And what testimony to thine ugliness can we find, O woman, that is more unquestionable than thine own, when thou art afraid to show thyself?  If thou art comely why dost thou hide thy comeliness?  If thou art plain, why dost thou lyingly pretend to be beautiful, when thou canst not enjoy the pleasure of the lie either in thine own consciousness or in that of another? For he loves another woman, thou desirest to please another man; and thou art angry if he love another, though he is taught adultery in thee.  Thou art the evil promptress of thine own injury.”

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Responses

  1. “And what testimony to thine ugliness can we find, O woman, that is more unquestionable than thine own, when thou art afraid to show thyself?”

    I like the arguments. Whatever else cosmetics do, they still look artificial.

    “meretricious coloring and the deceptions of quackery” and “why dost thou lyingly pretend to be beautiful” are my other favorite parts.


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