Saturday, March 14, 2009

Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages

Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, transl. Hugh Bredin, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1986

But I do not deal expressly either with Augustine or with Dante for a very simple reason: in the first volume of that handbook Quintino Cataudella covered early Christian thought, Antonio Viscardi wrote on the literary theories of the Middle Ages and Giorgio Barberi Squarotti devoted a chapter to the theories of profane literature in the Italian fourteenth century (namely, Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio). Thus, my contribution concerned the aesthetics of the Schoolmen, even though I paid due attention to their cultural environment. viii

My text was written when I was 26 years old…Maybe in this small book I tell my story with the clumsiness of a young scholar, but I tell a story in which I believe. ix

…aesthetic problems and aesthetic theories which engaged the energies of medieval Latin civilization, in the period that stretched from the sixth to the fifteenth centuries. 1

Instead we must look for the ways in which a given epoch solved for itself aesthetic problems as they presented themselves at the time to the sensibilites and the culture of its people. Then our historical inquiries will be a contribution, not to whatever we conceive ‘aesthetics’ to be, but rather to the history of a specific civilisation, from the standpoint of its own sensibility and its own aesthetic consciousness. And if we set aside all ideological affinities with the theories examined, we may also discover which of them still possess some validity. In addition, we may be able to see more clearly which of our contemporary problems are rooted in medieval doctrines, doctrines too often dismissed as being far removed from our present interests. 2

Medieval aesthetics began with a heritage received more or less uncritically from the Classical age—a heritage infused, all the same, by a spirit altogether new. Gradually there developed a metaphysics and epistemology of the beautiful, and eventually an idea of beauty as an organic value. This was the period of its greatest maturity. As we shall see, this conception subsequently declined. Traditional meta[2]physical concepts began to crumble, and the concept of art and the poetic act became less and less systematic, a centre of disquiet. The Aristotelian tradition no longer provided adequate solutions. The foundations were laid for Mannerist doctrines of genius and imagination. 2-3

To be sure, [Medievals] tended to look upon nature as a reflection of the transcendent world, even as a barrier in front of it. But along with this they possessed a sensibility capable of fresh and vivid responses to the natural world, including its aesthetic qualities…beauty for the Medievals did not refer first to something abstract and conceptual. It referred also to everyday feelings, to lived experience. / [4] The Medievals did in fact conceive of a beauty that was purely intelligible, the beauty of moral harmony and of metaphysical splendour. (I. The Medieval Aesthetic Sensibility, 4-5)

In the first place, intelligible beauty was in medieval experience a moral and psychological reality; if it is not treated in this light we fail to do justice to their culture. Secondly, medieval discussions of non-sensible beauty gave rise to theories of sensible beauty as well…alongside all the theories there existed also the everyday sensuous tastes of the ordinary man, of artists, and of lovers of art. There is overwhelming evidence of this love of the sensible world. In fact, the doctrinal systems were concerned to become its justification and guide, fearful lest such a love might lead to a neglect of the spiritual realm. [Alcuin admitted that it was easier to love beautiful creatures, sweet scents, and lovely sounds (species pulchras, dulces sapores, sonos suaves) than to love God. (C. Halm, Rhetores Latini Minores (Leipzig, 1863). But he added that if we admire these things in their proper place—that is, using them as an aid to the greater love of God—then such admiration, amor ornamenti, is quite licit.] (I, 5)

In the twelfth century there was a noteworthy campaign, conducted by both the Cistercians and the Carthusians, against superfluous and overluxuriant art in church decoration. …distracted the faithful from their prayers and devotions. But no one suggested that ornamentation was not beautiful or did not give pleasure. It was attacked just because of its powerful attraction, which was felt to be out of keeping with the sacred nature of its environment. (I, 6)

We who have turned aside from society, relinquishing for Christ’s sake all the precious and beautiful things in the world, its wondrous light and colour, its sweet sounds and odours, the pleasures of taste and touch, for us all bodily delights are nothing but dung… [St. Bernard, Apologia ad Guillelmum, chap. 12 (PL, 182, cols. 914-16)] (I, 7)

Bernard…churches: ‘Not to sepak of their enormous height, their immoderate length, their vacant immensity, their sumptuous finish, the astonishing paintings that confuse the eye during prayer and are an obstacle to devotion’… ‘Everything else is covered with gold, gorging the eyes and opening the purse-strings. Some saint or other is depicted as a figure of beauty, as if in the belief that the more highly coloured something is, the holier it is…’ It is clear enough what he is denouncing here, and on the whole one is disposed to agree with him. It is not aesthetic qualities that are under question, but the use of the aesthetic for a purpose foreign to the nature of religion, for monetary profit. (I, 7)

St. Thomas Aquinas…advised against the use of instrumental music in the Liturgy. It should be avoided, he said, precisely because it stimulates a pleasure so acute that it diverts the faithful from the path appropriate to [8] sacred music. The end of religious music is best achieved by song. Song provokes the soul to greater devotion, but instrumental music, he wrote, ‘moves the soul rather to delight than to a good interior disposition.’ [S.T., II-II, 91.2] (I, 8-9)

St. Bernard… ‘The body is an image of the mind, which, like an effulgent light scattering forth its rays, is diffused through its members and senses, shining through in action, discourse, appearance, movement—even in laughter, if it is completely sincere and tinged with gravity. [Sermones in Cantica, LXXV, 11 (PL, 183, col. 1193)] (I, 10)

For Hugh of St. Victor, contemplation requires the use of intelligence; and it is not confined to specifically mystical experience but can arise also when attending to the sensible world. Contemplation, he writes, is ‘an easy and clearsighted penetration of the soul into that which is seen’ [Hugh of St. Victor (Hugh of Paris), De Modo Dicendi et Meditandi, 8 (PL, 176. col. 879)] … An aesthetic pleasure arises when the soul finds its own inner harmony duplicated in its object… ‘Look upon the world and all that is in it: you will find much that is beautiful and desirable…Gold…has its brilliance, the flesh its comeliness, clothes and ornaments their colour…’ [Hugh of St. Victor, Soliloquium de Arrha Animae (PL, 176, col. 951)] /We see, therefore, that the aesthetic writings of the period do not [10] consist merely of theoretical discussions of the beautiful, but are full of expressions of spontaneous critical pleasure. (I, 10-11)

…we also find Ecclesiastics, writing on the Canticle of Canticles, discoursing on the beauty of the Spouse. Even though their aim was to discover allegorical meanings in the text, supernatural analogues of the physical attributes of the dark but shapely maid—still, every so often we find them pontificating on the proper ideal of female beauty…there is the singular passage in Gilbert of Hoyt where he defines the correct dimensions of the female breasts, if they are to be truly pleasing. Only nowadays, perhaps, can we see that his gravity is suffused with a certain malice. His ideal reminds us of the ladies of medieval miniaturists, their tight corsets biding and raising the bosom. ‘The breasts are most pleasing when they are of moderate size and eminence…They should be bound but not flattened, restrained with gentleness but not given too much licence.’ [Sermones in Canticum Salomonis, XXI, 4 (PL, 184, col. 163)] (I, 11)

Some authorities claim that the Medievals never discovered how to connect their metaphysical concepts of beauty with their knowledge of artistic techniques, that these were two distinct and unrelated worlds. I hope to cast doubt on this view. To begin with, there was at least one area of language and sensibility where art and beauty were connected, with no apparent difficulty. It is an area well documented in Victor Mortet’s Recueil de texts relatifs a l’histoire de l’architecture [2 vols., Paris, 1911, 1929]. In these records of cathedral construction, correspondence on questions of art, and commissions to artists, metaphysical aesthetics concepts mingle constantly with artistic judgments. It is quite clear that the intermingling was an everyday affair. Whether it was recognized also on the philosophical level I shall discuss below. (I, 12)

The twelfth century provides a prototype of the medieval man of [12] taste and the art lover, in the person of Suger, Abbot of St. Denis. A statesman and a humanist, Suger was responsible for the principal artistic and architectural enterprises of the Ile de France. He was a complete contrast, both psychologically and morally, to an ascetic like St. Bernard. For the Abbot of St. Denis, the House of God should be a respository of everything beautiful. King Solomon was his model, and his guiding rule dilectio decoris domus Dei. The Treasury at St. Denis was crammed with jewelry and objects d’art which Suger described with loving exactitude… ‘Often we contemplate, out of sheer affection for the church our mother, these different ornaments both old and new; and when we behold how that wonderful cross of St. Eloy—together with the smaller ones—and that incomparable ornament commonly called ‘the Crest’ are placed upon the golden altar, then I say, sighing deeply in my heart: ‘Every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, the topaz, and the jasper, the chrysolite, and the onyx, and the beryl, the sapphire, and the carbuncle, and the emerald.’ ’ [Erwin Panofsky, (1946), pp. 77, 79.] / …Suger is impressed chiefly by the precious metals, the gems and the gold. The predominant sentiment is one of amazement, a sense of the colossal, rather than of beauty. (I, 12-13)

Suger… ‘Thus, when—out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God—the loveliness of the many-coloured gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation had induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth not entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner. [Erwin Panofsky (1946), pp. 63, 65.] (I, 14)

…distinction between beauty (pulchrum, decorum) and utility or goodness (aptum, honestum). These terms are sprinkled throughout Scholastic literature and medieval treatises on poetic technique. Often enough the two categories were distinguished on the theoretical level. Isidore of Seville, for instance, said that pulchrum refers to what is beautiful in itself, and aptum to what is beautiful relative to something else [St. Isidore of Seville, Sententiarum Libri, I, 8, 18 (PL, 83, cols. 551-2)] —a formulation inherited from Classical Antiquity, passing from Cicero through St. Augustine to Scholasticism in general. But the medieval view of art in practice, as opposed to theory, tended to mingle rather than to distinguish the two values. The very author who celebrated the beauty of art insisted also upon its didactic function. Suger himself adopted the positions sanctioned at the Synod of Arras in 1025, that whatever the common people could not grasp from the Scriptures [15] should be taught to them through the medium of pictures. Honorius of Autun wrote that the end of painting was threefold: one was ‘that the House of God should be thus beautified’; a second was that it should recall to mind the lives of the Saints; and finally, ‘Painting…is the literature of the laity’. The accepted opinion as far as literature was concerned was that it should ‘instruct and delight’, that it should exhibit both the nobility of intellect and beauty of eloquence. This was a basic principle in the aesthetics of the Carolingian literati. (I, 15-16)

Genesis taught, ‘God saw all that he had made, and found it very good…Thus heaven and earth and all the furniture of them were completed.’ And the Book of Wisdom taught also that God created the world according to number, weight, and measure. [Wisdom, XI, 21]. As we shall see, these concepts were taken to be aesthetic…But it was confirmed also by the Classical heritage. The theory that the beauty of the world is an image and reflection of Ideal Beauty is Platonic in origin. (II. Transcendental Beauty, 17)

There was not a single medieval writer who did not turn to this theme of the polyphony of the universe; and we find often enough that along with the calm and control of philosophical language there sounded a cry of ecstatic joy: ‘When you consider the order and magnificence of the universe [18]…you will find it to be like a most beautiful canticle…and the wondrous variety of its creatures to be a symphony of joy and harmony to very excess.’ [William of Auvergne, De Anime, V, 18, quoted in LB.] (II, 18-19)

In the early Middle Ages there were many references to beauty, but also a marked reluctance to develop any specific concepts connected with it. (II, 21)

At the beginning of the eleventh century, for instance, Otloh of St. Emmeran attributed a fundamental feature of beauty, consonance (consonantia), to every creature. And there gradually came into being various theories of the cosmic order and musical structure of the universe, theories which I shall look at later. Finally, equipped with the terminological weapons furnished by enquiries such as that of Philip the Chancellor, the thirteenth century began diligent and precise investigation of the concepts in question and their interrelations. (II, 22)

This equivalence of moral beauty and the good was a conception inherited from the Stoics, from Cicero and from Augustine, very likely from Aristotle’s Rhetoric as well. [‘The beautiful is that which is desirable for its own sake, and pleasant, or that which being good, is pleasurable because it is good’, Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1366a 33.] (II, 22)

A work of fundamental importance appeared in 1245, although Grosseteste seems to have read it prior to this. Known as the Summa of Alexander of Hales, it had in fact three authors: John of la Rochelle, Alexander himself, and a third tentatively identified as ‘Brother Considerans’ [Alexander of Hales, Summa Theologica (Florence, 1924, 1928, 1930, 1948)]. It decisively solved the problem of the transcendental character of beauty, and its distinction from other values. (II, 23)

Truth and beauty were then both defined in terms of form: truth was the disposition of form in relation to the internal [23] character of a thing; beauty was the disposition of form in relation to its external character. In this way, beauty was given a new foundation, for the true, the good, and the beautiful were convertible. They differed only ratione—conceptually, logically. (II, 23-24)

St. Bonaventure…1250…Bonaventure defines beauty as ‘the splendour of all the transcendentals together.’ [J. Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, transl. by J. F. Scanlan, London 1930, p. 132, n. 63b.] (II, 24)

…Albertus Magnus. In his Commentary on the fourth chapter of the De Divinis Nominibus (long attributed to Aquinas under the title De Pulchro et Bono)…his famous definition of beauty: ‘The nature of the beautiful consists in general in a resplendence of form, whether in the duly-ordered parts of material objects, or in men, or in actions.’ It is clear that beauty is attributed here to all things. But more than this, beauty is guaranteed by metaphysics, not by mere lyrical excitement… ‘Beauty’, he writes, ‘does not subsist in material parts, but in resplendence of form’. [Albertus Magnus, De Pulchro et Bono, in St. Thomas Aquinas, Opera Omnia, edited by Roberto Busa, 7 vols. (Stuttgart, 1980), VII, pp. 43-7.] (II, 25)

But what Albertus did not concede was that the relation of an object to the knowing subject might be a constitutive element in its beauty. His aesthetics, unlike that of the Summa of Alexander, was rigorously objectivist. In once place he rebutted Cicero’s view that beauty should be defined with reference to people’s conception of it. [Albertus is presumably referring here to Cicero’s De Officiis, I, 27, 95] Virtue, he said, possessed a clarity (claritas) which made it beautiful even if it was not known to anyone…The distinction involved here is far from trivial. Yet behind this kind of objectivism there is another kind. For Albertus, beauty is objectively present in things without the help or hindrance of men. The other kind of objectivism considers beauty to be a transcendental property also, but a property which is disclosed in relation to a knowing subject. This is St. Thomas Aquinas’s kind of objectivism. It represents a substantial move in the direction of humanism. (II, 26)

In Boethius we find also a very typical feature of the medieval mentality: when he speaks of ‘music’ he means the mathematical science of musical laws. He considered that a true musician was a theorist, a student of the mathematical laws of sound. Instrumentalists were unwitting servants. The composer dwelt in the sphere of instinct, ignorant of the ineffable beauty which theory alone can reveal…The name of musician belonged primarily to people who judged music in the light of reason. Boethius seemed almost to congratulate Pythagoras for undertaking to study music ‘setting aside the judgment of the ears.’ [De Institutione Musica, I, 33. However in the same place he writes, about certain musical theories, ‘I have proved all of these both by mathematics and by the judgment of the ears.’] His approach to musical experience, and likewise the general approach of the early Middle Ages, was that of a scientist. (III. The Aesthetics of Proportion, 30)

…musica mundana—that is, the Pythagorean theory of a music of the spheres, a harmony produces by the seven planets orbiting around a motionless earth. According to Pythagoras, each planet generated a note of the scale, the pitch heightening according to the distance from the earth—according, that is, to the planet’s velocity. Together they produced a most exquisite music, which human beings, due to the inadequacy of their senses, were unable to hear…We can see here some of the limitation of the medieval weakness for pure theory. For of course, if each planet produced one note of the scale, together, together they would sound very discordant indeed. (III, 32)

…twelfth century…the embellishing of the world [33] (exornatio mundi)—the process of completing and perfecting which Nature, in all its organic complexity, actuates in the world after its creation. (III, 33-34)

Four was the number of moral perfection, and men experienced in the struggle for moral perfection were called ‘tetragonal’. However, homo quadratus was also pentagonal, for five was another number of arcane significance which symbolized mystical and aesthetic perfection. Five was a circular member…Five was the number of Divinity, and was scattered throughout the Scriptures (the Pentaeuch, the five wounds)…Hugh of St. Victor said that body and soul reflected the perfection of the divine beauty, the body being founded on even numbers, imperfect and unstable, and the soul on odd numbers, stable and perfect. (III, 36)

In musical theory, the concept of proportion began to assume technical overtones; even as early as the ninth century we find the first philosophical discussion of counterpoint. However, historian of music have begun to realize that what was employed here was not the general concept of proportion, but certain specific proportions. Round about the year 850, hymns of rejoicing based upon the alleluia refrain began to feature the use of trope: each syllable was made to correspond with a new phrase of the melody. Inevitably, this led people to think about music in terms of proportion. Diastema was invented in the tenth century—that is, indicating the [37] pitch of notes (or neumes) by vertical placing on the page. In the eleventh century we find that the two voices in diaphony, no longer in unison, each follows its own melodic line. Diaphony led to descant, and this in turn to the great twelfth century inventions in polyphony. In an organum by Perotin there might be a complex movement built upon a single generating base note, like the soaring spires of a Gothic cathedral. (III, 37-38)

We find the same kind of thing in the geometrical marks used by artisans as their ‘signatures’. Studies of the Baldhutte, the secret society [39] of master masons, stonecutters and carpenters in the Holy Roman Empire, show that their signa lapidaria—that is, the personal signs with which they marked important parts of their works, such as cornerstones—were geometrical marks based upon common master keys or ‘grids’. The underlying belief was that locating the centre of symmetry meant locating the way, the truth, and the light. Aesthetic custom and theological doctrine went hand in hand. The aesthetics of proportion was the medieval aesthetic par excellence. (III, 39-40)

The beauty of colour was everywhere felt to be beauty pure and simple, something immediately perceptible and indivisible, and with no element of the relational as was the case with proportion…The figurative art of the period shows quite a different colour consciousness from that of succeeding centuries. It confined itself to simple primary colours. It had a kind of chromatic decisiveness quite opposed to sfumatura. It depended on a reciprocal coupling of hues that generated its own brilliance, and not on the devices of chiaroscuro, where the hue is determined by light and can even spread beyond the edges of the design. In poetry, too, colours were always decisive, unequivocal: grass was green, blood red, milk snowy white. There were superlatives for every colour—for example, praerubicunda for roses—and while a colour might have many shades, it was never allowed to fade and blur into shadows. (IV. The Aesthetics of Light, 44)

Also, it was the Middle Ages which developed an art form in which, to an unsurpassed degree, the brilliance of simple colours is married to the brilliance of light: the stained glasswork in Gothic cathedrals. But the love of colours was widely evident also in everyday life, in clothing, ornament, and weapons. (IV, 45)

A basic structural principle of Gothic cathedrals was that they should give the effect of light erupting through an open fretwork. (IV, 46)

The image of God as light had an ancient pedigree…passed on to neo-Platonism, Proclus in particular, and entered the Christian tradition through Augustine, and then through the Pseudo-Dionysius who constantly praised God as lumen, fire, or the fount of light. (IV, 47)

The medieval…well aware, however, that this qualitative conception of beauty was not wholly reconcilable with the notion that beauty was grounded in proportion. The difference had already manifested itself in St. Augustine, and he had undoubtedly noticed the same thing in Plotinus. Conflict could be avoided so long as the pleasure caused by colour remained uncritical… (IV, 47)

…medieval tendency to understand the world in terms of symbol and allegory. / Huizinga… ‘Of no great truth was the medieval mind more conscious than of Saint Paul’s phrase: videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate, tunc autem facie ad faciem. The Middle Ages never forgot that all things would be absurd, if their meaning were exhausted in their function and their place in the phenomenal world, if by their essence they did not reach into a world beyond this. This idea of a deeper significance in ordinary things is familiar to us as well, independently of religious convictions: as an indefinite feeling which may be called up at any moment, by the sound of raindrops on the leaves or by the lamplight on a table. Such sensations may take the form of a morbid oppression, so that all things seems to be charged with a menace or a riddle which we must solve at any cost. Or they may be experienced as a source of tranquility and assurance, by filling us with the sense that our own life, too, is involved in this hidden meaning of the world. [J. Huizinga, p. 194] (IV, 53)

In themselves, things might inspire distrust because of their disorder, their frailty, their seeming hostility. But things were more than they seemed. Things were signs. Hope was restored to the world because the world was God’s discourse to man…unsophisticated persons found it easy to convert their beliefs into images; and on the other, theologians and teachers themselves constructed images for those ideas which ordinary people could not grasp in their theoretical form. There was a great campaign to educated the people by appealing to their delight in image and allegory. Suger was one of its leading advocates. And as Honorius of Autun put it, following the Synod of Arras in 1025, pictures were the literature of the laity (laicorum literature) [Gemma Animae, chap. 132 (PL, 172, col. 586). (V. Symbol and Allegory, 54)

According to the Pseudo-Dionysius, it was appropriate that the things of God should be symbolized by very dissimilar entities—lions, bears, panthers—because it was precisely the incongruity of a symbol that made it palpable and stimulating [Celestial Hierarchy, II.]…Allegory, according to Bede, excites the spirit, animates the expression, and ornaments the style. (V, 55)

Medieval symbolism, thus, expressed an aesthetic conception of the world. There were, however, two forms of it. Firstly there was metaphysical symbolism, related to the philosophical habit of discerning the hand of God in the beauty of the world. Secondly there was universal allegory; that is, perceiving the world as a divine work of art, of such a kind that everything in it possesses moral, allegorical, and anagogical meanings in addition to its literal meaning. (V, 56)

The Victorine aesthetic gave a symbolic value even to ugliness—here there is perhaps a kind of analogy with the Romantic sense of irony—through its dynamic conception of contemplation. For when the soul in confronted with ugliness it is unable to achieve contentment, and is freed also from the kind of illusion created by beauty. Thus it is led naturally to desire the true and immutable Beauty. (V, 58)

The passage from metaphysical symbolism to universal allegory cannot be set forth in either logical or historical terms. The crystallizing symbol into allegory can be seen to happen in some literary traditions, but in the Middle Ages the two things were contemporaneous. Symbol was more philosophical and presupposed a certain originality [58] of outlook, as well as a less distinct and definite sense of the object. Allegory was more popular, more conventional and institutionalized. It was to be found in Bestiaries, in Lapidaries [Books dealing with the medicinal and magical properties of precious stones], in the Hellenistic Physiologos [A collection of Christian allegories based upon the marvels and peculiarities of the animal world. In first appeared in Alexandria towards the end of the 2nd century, and was widely translated and read in the Middle Ages], in the Speculum Ecclesiae and De Imagine Mundi of Honorius of Autun, in William Durandus’s Rationale Divinorum Officiorum. (V, 58-59)

Outside the realm of theory, however, the allegorical content of the works of man gradually came to be felt more keenly than that of nature, and common opinion ended up very differently from Richard. The allegory of nature became weaker, more ambiguous and conventional; while art, even the figurative arts, came to be thought of as quite intentionally endowed with several meanings. The allegorical interpretation of the world lost ground, but poetic allegory remained familiar and deep-rooted. Progressive opinion in the thirteenth century firmly renounced the allegory of nature, but gave birth to the very prototype of allegorical poems, the Roman de la rose. (V, 60)

…it is undeniable, of course, that art for the Medievals was above all didactic. As Aquinas wrote, ‘It is the mark of the poetic arts to indicate the truth of things by means of invented similitudes.’ [Qeaustiones Quodlibetales, VII, 6, 3.] (V, 60)

The twelfth century illustrator of the Psalter of St. Alban of Hildesheim depicted the siege of a fortified city. If one is tempted to feel that the depiction lacks grace or correctness, one should remember that it is a spiritual, not just a material, representation. The siege is both physical and also a siege of those who are assailed by evil. The illustrator clearly believed that this type of interpretation was more complete and satisfying than a purely visual experience would be. (V, 61)

Artistic allegory reached its apotheosis with the maturity of Gothic art, helped along by the encouragement of Suger. The cathedrals, the highest artistic achievement of medieval civilization…There was significance in their architectonic structure, even in their geographical orientation. But even more in the figures above the portals, the designs on their windows, the monsters and gargoyles on the cornices [61]…The legibility of the signs which they employed was guaranteed by a solid sociological fact, namely, the medieval habit of grasping certain analogies, of interpreting signs and emblems in the way that tradition had determined, of translating images into their spiritual equivalents. (V, 61-62)

The most rigorous theory of allegory was that of St. Thomas Aquinas. Rigorous and also novel, because it marked the end of cosmic allegory and led to a more rational view of phenomena. Aquinas asked these questions: do the Scriptures gain any advantage from their use of metaphors? And, do the Scriptures yield more than one meaning? He answered the first question in the affirmative’ it is indeed advantageous ‘to transmit the things of God and the spirit by means of corporeal similitudes [Summa T, I, 1. 9] …In answer to the second question, Aquinas said that the first level of meaning in the Bible is historical or literal, and that this is the foundation of its spiritual meaning, which compromises the other three kinds: allegorical, moral, and anagogical. But the spiritual meaning emerges not so much from the literal meaning itself as from the events to which the literal meaning refers. This view, that the events narrated in the Bible foretell events in the future, was in fact quite a traditional one; ‘God disposed the course of affairs so as to signify certain things.’ [Quaestiones Quodlibetales, VII, 6, 3] But Aquinas broke with tradition in holding that natural objects have an allegorical significance only in the context of Scripture. Natural objects in themselves had no allegorical meaning; at least, Aquinas nowhere said that they do. And the arts also, had only a literal meaning. To be precise, they had a kind of meaning which Aquinas called ‘parabolic’, a meaning which ‘does not go beyond the literal sense.’ [QQ, VII, 6, 3] By this he meant that a poetic image and its customary meaning—what is normally called its allegorical meaning—are connected up only in the mind of the reader or listener. They are grasped in a single mental act, with no special hermeneutic effort. This is because the association of an image with a certain meaning is a matter of habit, as when a lamb is conventionally used to represent Christ. (V, 63)

With this argument, nature lost its semantic and surrealistic qualities. It was no longer a ‘forest of symbols’. The cosmos of the early Middle Ages gave way to a universe which we could call scientific. Earlier, things had possessed a value not because of what they were but because of what they meant; but at a certain point it was realized that God’s creative activity was not an organizing of signs but a reifying of forms. Even Gothic figurative art, which was the highest point of the allegorical sensibility, reflected the new climate. For alongside its vast symbolical ideations there were some pleasant little figures which reveal a freshness of feeling for nature and a close attentiveness to objects. Hitherto, no one had really observed a bunch of grapes, because grapes had first and foremost a mystical significance. But now one could see stems and shoots, leaves and flowers, decorating the capitals. The doorways blossomed with precise depictions of everyday gestures, of crafts, of farmwork. The allegorical figures were also realistic, full of life of their own, even if they were closer to a type or ideal of man than to his psychological individuality. (V, 64)

…in his De Ordine, Augustine attributed an aesthetic character only to visual perception and moral judgment; hearing, and the lower senses, had to do with suavitas rather than pulchritude. This in turn gave rise to the theory that certain sense were especially well adapted for knowledge (maxime cognoscitivi), a theory taken up in Aquinas’s system, where the senses in question are those of sight and hearing. (VI. Aesthetic Perception, 66)

Aquinas…The beauty and the goodness of a thing are the same, because they are both grounded in form; this was in fact a [70] common view. But a form possesses goodness in so far as it is the object of an appetite, that is, the object of a desire for the realization or the possession of the form, in so far as the form is positive. (VI, 70-71)

…St. Augustine. He had asked whether things are beautiful because they give delight, or give delight because they are beautiful; and it was the latter view which he adopted. [De Vera Religione, 32] (VI, 71)

The expression ‘aesthetics of the organism’ fits Aquinas better than ‘aesthetics of form’, for the following reason. When Albertus Magnus referred to beauty as a resplendence of substantial form he was clearly thinking of form as an entelechy, which actualizes the potentialities of matter, uniting with matter to compose a substance. Beauty was the irradiation of this organizing principle in the matter which it unifies. In Aquinas, however, if we interpret the concepts of clarity, integrity and proportion in the light of his whole philosophical system, we must conclude that ‘form’ in his theory of beauty has to do with a whole substance rather than with substantial form. What he had in mind was a concrete synthesis of matter and form, therefore a whole organism. / The use of the term ‘form’ to mean ‘substance’ is fairly common in Aquinas. (VII. The Aesthetics of Organism, 74)

…three criteria of beauty in Aquinas: integrity, proportion, and clarity. It seems reasonable to argue that they acquire their full meaning only when thought of as characteristics of a concrete substance, rather than of substantial form. And indeed, there are several illustrations of this view in the various meanings of the term ‘proportion’. / One type of proportion is the appropriateness of matter to form…And in his Commentary on the De Anima he emphasizes that proportion is…the very relation itself between matter and form—to such a degree, in fact, that if matter is not disposed to receive the form, the form disappears. [Comm. De Anima, I. 9, 144][76]…Aquinas refers also to a psychological type of proportion, the suitability of a thing for being experienced by a subject. This conception, which derived from Augustine and Boethius [77]…integrity. Integritas means the presence in an organic whole of all the parts which concur in defining it as that which it is. The human body, for instance, is deformed if a limb is missing…However, Aquinas’s concept of first perfection is rather limited when he refers it to art: a work of art, he says, is complete if it is adequate to the idea in the mind of its maker. [Summa, I, 16, 1]…If an artist made a saw out of glass it would be ugly despite the beauty of its appearance, because it could not fulfill its cutting function. (VII, 76-78)

Aquinas’s functionalist theory of beauty gave systematic expression to a sentiment which was very characteristic of the Middle Ages as a whole. This was its tendency to identify the beautiful and the useful, an identification which itself originated in the equation of the beautiful and the good. (VII, 79)

Confident in the soundness of his philosophy, Aquinas could even grant a certain autonomy to art: ‘for a craftsman, as such, is commendable not because of his intentions, but because of the work he [80] produces. [Summa, I-II, 57, 3] The moral intention is discounted here. What matters is that the object should be well made, and it is well made if it is positive in all its aspects. An artist might construct a building with perverse intentions, but there is no reason why it should not be aesthetically perfect and good so long as it fulfills its function. A sculptor might, with the best intention in the world, create an immodest work liable to disturb someone’s moral balance. (VII, 80-81)

…the concept of clarity, or splendour, or light, has quite a different meaning in Aquinas from what it meant for the neo-Platonists for instance. In neo-Platonism, light descended from above and diffused itself creatively in the world; it gathered and solidified in things. But Aquinas held that clarity rises from below, from the heart of things. It is the organizing form manifesting itself. Physical light is ‘a consequence of the substantial form of the sun’; [Summa, I, 67, 3] the clarity of glorified bodies is the luminosity of the soul in its blessedness, overflowing throughout the physical body; and the clarity of Christ’s transfigured body ‘overflows from His soul.’ [Summa, III, 45, 2] Thus, the colour and luminosity of bodies are produced by bodies when they are correctly structured according to their natural needs. (VII, 81)

…mystics…Since God was ineffable, calling Him beautiful was like saying that He was good, or infinite: beauty was just a word used to describe the indescribable, so describing it by what it was not. Their experiences left them with the feeling that they had enjoyed the most intense delight, but a delight without feature or character [90]…In union with God, all distinctions vanish. There are neither doings nor imaginings nor distinctions nor relations nor knowledge. The last of the medieval mystics had nothing to say about beauty, nothing whatsoever. / This was a period of transition, between the aesthetic theories of the thirteenth century and the Renaissance. During this time it was the artists, ranging all the way from Dante to the troubadours, filled with a sense of their power and displaying a new and proud individuality, who added to the history of aesthetic feeling and theory. (VIII. Development and Decline of the Aesthetics of the Organism, 90-91)

The medieval conception of art was rooted in, and indeed was more or less the same as, the Classical and intellectualist theory of human ‘making’…they took their conception of art from Aristotle and from the whole Greek tradition: from Cicero, from the Stoics, from Marius Victorinus, from Isidore or Seville, from Cassiodorus. (IX. Theories of Art, 92)

…the two principal features of the medieval theory of art were intellectualism and objectivism: art was the science (ars sine scientia nihil est) of constructing objects according to their own laws. Art was not expression, but construction, an operating aiming at a certain result. / It meant construction, whether it was of a ship or of a building, a painting or a hammer. The word artifex applied alike to blacksmiths, orators, poets, painters, and sheep-shearers. This was another and a well-known feature of the medieval theory of art: ars was a concept with a broad extension, applying to what we think of nowadays as technology and artisanry. In fact, its theory of art was first and foremost a theory of craftsmanship. The artificer (artifex) constructed something that completed, integrated, or prolonged nature. Man was an artist because he possessed so little: he was born naked, without tusks or claws, unable to run fast, with no shell or natural armour…But if art imitates nature, this does not mean a servile copying of natural objects. It is inventive, and requires ingenuity. (IX. Theories of Art, 93)

Ars imitatur naturam, it is true, but precisely ‘in its manner of operation’ (in sua operatione). This second phrase is an important element in a formula which is often thought to be more banal than it really is. The medieval theory of art is interesting precisely for this reason, that it was a theory of the formative energies of human technology, and of the relation between this and the formative energies of nature. (IX, 94)

This argument shows how far the Medievals were from any conception of art as a creative force. At best, art could produce beautiful images, arrangements of the material which were superficial only. But it had to preserve a kind of ontological humility before the primacy of nature. The objects produced by art did not introduce a new order, but remained within the limits of their substance…They existed by virtue of the material which sustained them, whereas natural objects existed by virtue of divine participation. / For St. Bonaventure also, ‘The soul can make new compositions, but it cannot make new things.’ [St. Bonaventure, In III Sent., 37, 1, dub. 1.] [95]…These ideas were taken up in popular Scholasticism and in popular opinion, and became part of general knowledge of the time. In the Roman de la rose Jean de Meun (who wrote his part of the poem shortly after Aquinas’s Summa) wrote a passage dealing with Nature’s concern for the preservation of the species, and in the middle of this passage he made a long digression on the nature of art. Art, he said, does not produce true forms like Nature. Rather, it must go on its knees before Nature (like a beggar, poor in learning but desirous to imitate her), and ask her to teach him how to capture reality in his images. But even when imitating the works of Nature, art cannot create living things [96]…Aquinas suggested that we find artistic forms congenial, and thus easily compassed in aesthetic experience, because they do not require us to comprehend and penetrate to the heart of the complexities of substance. Artistic forms are empirical, superficial [Summa, I, 77, 1 ad 7] (IX, 95-97)

This kind of theory expressed an aristocratic viewpoint. The distinction between servile and liberal arts typified a mentality for which the highest goods were knowledge and contemplation, goods of the intellect. It reflected the values of a feudal and aristocratic society, just as in Greece it had reflected an oligarchial society, in which manual work, usually for wages, inevitably seemed inferior. Social factors made this theory so tenacious that even then its premises were no longer true it still remained, a stubborn prejudice, giving rise in Renaissance times to furious arguments about the status of the sculptor. (IX, 98)

The idea of an art designed simply to give pleasure is mentioned only casually. St. Thomas Aquinas expressed approval of women’s hairstyles and of games and diversions, also of verbal play and dramatic representations. Yet even here there were practical reasons. It is good, he said, that women should adorn themselves in order to [98] cultivate the love of their husbands; and games give delight ‘in that they lighten the fatigue of our labours’. [Summa, I-II, 32, 1 ad 3] (IX, 98-99)

St. Bonaventure was more explicit still. He distinguished two reasons for the beauty of an image, even when the object imitated was not beautiful in itself. An image, he said, was beautiful if it was well constructed, and if it faithfully represented its object. ‘An image of the devil can be called “beautiful” if it is a good representation of his foulness and thus foul itself.’ [St. Bonaventure, In I Sent., 31 (pars 2), 1, 3, ad 2.] The image of something ugly is beautiful when it is ‘ugly’ in a persuasive manner: here was the justification of all the figures of devils in cathedrals, and the critical foundation of that unconscious pleasure which St. Bernard’s condemnations revealed. (IX, 102)

Little by little a new consciousness of the dignity of art, and of the value of poetic creativity, entered into medieval culture. Scholastic theory, however, was too rigid to assimilate conceptions such as these…Aquinas referred to poetry as ‘inferior learning’ (infima doctrina), and said that ‘poetic matters cannot be grasped by the human reason because they are deficient in truth. [Summa, I-II, 101, 2 ad 2.] …it was a form of ‘making’ and so inferior to pure intellectual thought… ‘The poet’, Aquinas wrote, ‘represents things by means of metaphors…for representation is by nature something delightful to man.’ [Summa, I, 1, 9 ad 1] It followed that the object of poetic representation could not be an object of knowledge in a strict sense. For the rest, Aquinas was aware of the aesthetic and the hedonistic value of poetry. His remarks were not a condemnation, but reflected a theorist’s lack of interest in the pleasures of poetry, especially if it does not have a didactic function. (X. Inspiration and the Status of Art, 105)

Eventually, though, a new theory of poetry emerged, devised by proto-humanists like Alberto Mussato. Mussato said that poetry was a science, and a divine gift: ‘it was a science sent down from heaven, just as law comes from God.’ [Albertino Mussato, Epistola IV. Quoted in E. R. Curtius, p. 215] The ancient poets, he added, were heralds of God, and in this sense poetry could be regarded as a kind of secondary theology. (X, 106)

This new feeling was implicit in secular poetry, and was explicit in a few of the early humanists. But Scholastic theory was closed to it. As for the poetry of the Scriptures, this was regarded as different, not meant as ornament, exact in its allegorical references, and in the end more than human. The visions of the mystics, their aesthetic ecstasies infused with faith and grace, were not perceived to have any similarity to poetic feelings. (X, 107)

As the ideal of chivalry waxed, the basic medieval value of kalokgathia acquired more aesthetic force. Le Roman de la rose is one example. Courtly love is another. Aesthetic values had been expressed in stylized formulae, applicable to human life interpreted in the light of the divine. Now they became social values. Woman stood at the centre of this social and artistic life. She had been ignored during Feudalism, but now acquired an inalienable place in literature. So the value attached to the emotions increased, and a poetry of events was superseded by a poetry of subjective statement…In the face of these ferments, the Scholastic theory of art was more or less at a loss. Even as it was it could only partly explain the fine arts, for it was confined to didactic art in which clear, pre-existing knowledge provided the exemplary idea and was expressed in accordance with rules. But when Dante says that he is expressing what Love has commanded him from within, we are faced with something quite different, even if Love is defined philosophically. We have quite a new conception of creativity, unambiguously tied to a world of passions and emotions. It heralds the modern aesthetic sensibility, with all its problems. (X, 111)

…the notion of the divine madness of poets. This pervaded the whole medieval tradition, although it was never taken up on the theoretical level. (X, 112)

While theorists were struggling with these problems, the artists themselves were already quite conscious of their own importance. Indeed, this awareness was never absent in the Middle Ages, although [113] there were social, religious, and psychological factors which encouraged artists to cultivate attitudes of humility and a seeming desire for anonymity…Yet the ways in which this was manifested were often bizarre. The monks of Saint-Ruf, for instance, abducted at dead of night a young painter whom the Canons of Notre Dame-des-Doms in Avignon had been guarding jealousy. This kind of thing indicates, in fact, a certain undervaluing of art, a tendency to think of artists as object to be used and exchanged. It fosters an image of the medieval artist as someone dedicated to humble service of faith and the community, someone very different from the Renaissance artist, who was boastfully convinced of his uniqueness. / Scholastic theory of art supported this humble image, for its wholly objectivist conception of art ignored the personal imprint of the artist upon his work…Poets, however, were rather different, and won a full appreciation of their importance early on. The ‘mechanical’ arts have bequeathed [114] to us the names of only the most famous architects, but every poem has a definite author, who is aware of his own originality in style and in thought…Though the illustrators were always monks, and master masons were artisans tied to their Guild, but the new generation of poets were always court poets, immersed in the life of the Aristocracy and honoured in the households where they lived. The poet did not work for God, nor for a community; but did not work at projects which would be completed by others after him; he did not try for the approval of the erudite. What he wanted was the glory of quick success and personal fame. The illustrators, even when like the brothers of Limbourg they worked for a princely household, remained anonymous. It was only when painters began to labour in workshops amidst everyday life, as happened in Italy from the thirteenth century onwards, that people began to gossip about them as individuals. (X, 113-115)


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