The Medieval Sensibility

“He [Christ] shall hath no form nor comeliness. When we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.” Isa. 53:2

To the Medieval eye beauty was less an aesthetic experience than one that spoke to a moral dimension. Vast justifications of nature’s delights were constructed to counter those who claimed its charms lured many to a neglect of its spiritual source. Indeed, Alcuin admitted it was easier to adore beautiful creatures, scents and sounds (species pulchras, dulces sapores, sonos suaves) than love God. Life’s little blisses could only be relished if viewed as loving steps to the Lord. This tension formed a backdrop to the ascetic world where novices opposed earthbound pleasure to divine gratification. Discipline heralded a peace that ensured one’s gaze gained the necessary serenity to take the correct perspectives on God’s creation, in other words to see the true value of things. Beauty became suspect only if it was used for purposes (profit, pride or other distractions) foreign to this project. Among non-tonsured souls a gentle melancholy saturated the world like dew. Boethius, for instance, wrote “The beauty of things is fleeting and swift, more fugitive than the passing of flowers in Spring.” A variation on the moralistic theme of ubi sunt, a constant refrain on Medieval tongues whose folkish wisdom centred on questions along the lines of Villon’s refrain: “mais ou son les neiges d’antan?”

Yet the response to such pensiveness was not to reject beauty but to take delight in its transient and revelatory character. St Bernard explained that “Beauty’s brightness replenishes to overflowing the recesses of the heart.” Often this became downright playful, as when Baldwin of Canterbury praised female plaits, or Gilbert of Hoyt envisioned his favourite pair of breasts. This feeling climaxed with ecclesiastics like Suger, Abbot of St. Denis, who thought the House of God should showcase beauty, an idea that could appeal to King Solomon’s exuberance as a model. Aesthetics would be a misplaced term, however, because taste had not yet aspired to autonomy. Beauty was of a piece with goodness, which could not be cleaved from utility. This was not due to a defect in the critical faculties of Medieval people but rather a sense of unity, which thinkers such as Dionysius the Areopagite referred to when he scribbled “Beauty summons all things… it draws all things together in a state of mutual interpenetration.”

Much of this attitude became standardised when the Church was confronted by the Cathar menace. Against their Manichean project it insisted beauty and goodness were part of the created world. They were not realised sporadically or accidentally but formed extensions of metaphysical properties. It was a sensibility that hardly stood far from the Hellenic spirit of kalokagathia. The devil, however, lurked in the detail. Whereas Cicero had argued beauty could be defined by people’s conception of it, Albertus Magnus claimed it had an objective nature. Virtues possessed claritas (a brilliance that inheres to each, perhaps best described as form’s radioactivity) which made them beautiful even if they were not known by anyone. In short, beauty operated independently of Man.

As did proportion, which boasted a conceptual lineage that harked back to the pre-Socratic period. The Rule of fifth-century BC Polyclitus had concerned itself with practical issues but was soon absorbed by Pythagorean ideology to buttress propositions like “The beautiful comes about, bit by bit, through numbers.” The Roman Vitruvius later wrote on proportion and symmetry, and his ideas were applied to Man’s anatomy by thinkers such as Vincent of Beauvais, who noted that “the face should be one tenth of the body.” With mathematics and aesthetics seemingly tied by the same knot, concepts such as the homo quadratus (squared man) became popular. Based on the theory of Macrobius who’d written that “The world is Man writ large and Man is the world writ small,” it connected the poetry of the imagination with mathematics with predictably febrile results. Numbers could have any significances pinned to them. Four was particularly fecund. It stood for cardinal points, phases of the moon, four letters to Adam, the “number of Man” (because the distance between the extended arms was the same as height), moral perfection, and the winds. Men engaged in moral perfection were even called “tetragonal” by the learned. The world was filled with references, reminders and overtones of divinity: the Lord was continually manifesting. Nature spoke (sometimes literally as in the case of Balaam’s ass [Num. 22:30] whose way was obstructed by an angel) and its language was God. Early Christianity used symbols out of necessity – mainly to avoid persecution – but once taken up such habits were hard to abandon: an analogy of essences spoke to most. The ostrich, for example, became a symbol of justice because the equality of its feathers suggested unity. The pelican, believed to nourish its brood on its own heart, became a symbol of Christ. This worldview is best summarised by John Scotus Eriugena who described the natural world as one great theophany.

This vision reached its climax in the cathedral, the highest artistic achievement of Medieval civilisation. Cathedrals were in many ways a surrogate for nature; nature organised in ways that were more true to the Christian vision; a world purged of distractions; a place where existence’s meaning could be distilled into encyclopaedias of stone. Symbols and stories might satisfy some but philosophers wanted to understand why and how beauty executed its effects. Vitello’s De Perspectiva distinguished between two kinds of perception. One “grasped visible forms,” the other required “not just sight but other acts of the soul.” In short, the Polish theologian evoked aesthetic appreciation i.e. a quick and complex interaction between the subject, object and the unstable sea of values attached to both.

St Augustine had set the ball rolling when he’d asked whether things were beautiful because they gave delight or vice versa. He personally argued they gave delight because they were beautiful. But it opened up a can of worms whether pleasure was something that could be willed (Dun Scotus) i.e. not necessitated by the object, and or the properties of an object determined the apprehension of it (Aquinas). Either way, to the Medieval mind separating beauty from other virtues was analogous to mutilating the body. Aquinas articulated it best when he claimed “If an appetite desires the good, peace and the beautiful is not to say it desires different things.” Peace brings order, which allows the act of discursive understanding, which comprehends beauty and goodness; these things are not intuited without effort, it is precisely because they are achieved through effort that they are enjoyed. Duns Scotus attacked the problem from a different angle, reminding readers that “Beauty is not the absolute quality in the object but an aggregate of all the properties of such objects (magnitude, shape, colour), the sum of all the connections between themselves and between themselves and the object.” This was connected to his theory of haecceitas or “thisness,” the individuating property. While Aquinas saw an object as an instance of an essence, Scotus – upturning all Platonic convention – reckoned the individual object transcended its essence: it possessed more perfection not only because it partook in existence but because it boasted a particular form and was therefore unique.

William of Ockham assumed a similar position when he argued created things were contingent. There was no regulation by “Eternal Ideas” in the mind of God. There was no need for a conceptual chain to bridge the epistemic distance between God’s mind and our own. The order and unity of this world existed in our imaginations. Goldfish might imagine we idolised the desert as a symbol of our existence outside water but such conjecture had no purchase on mankind’s reality. Man seeks patterns such as order and they are valid insomuch as they relate to concrete examples but as soon as they are elevated into hierarchical essences then this amounted to a supposition. Nicholas of Autrecour took it a step further by claiming a cause could not be known from its effects; there were no hierarchical degrees of being; perfection was not a valid knowledge claim. Given such premises, the old structures of beauty – often Neoplatonic in origin – came tumbling down. In a universe of particulars science was more useful than vague speculation. Renaissance aesthetics used Plato to justify its stance but essentially played a proto-mannerist card that had less to do with the Greek philosopher than with dissecting beauty from other values (as well as its metaphysical web) and toying with its coordinates. This development led to the idea of the artist as a creative genius. When he was no longer simply the catalyst of a grand system, he could be elevated to God’s role: a creator with freedom.

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