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Eco’s art & beauty in the middle ages Essay

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1.         Intelligible beauty is vital to the understanding of art in the middle Ages, because it explains the disconnect between pure enjoyment because of the individual reaction of the viewer, and the intelligence possessed by the object itself in the artwork.  Or to make it a little simpler: it is the acting upon the senses by the substance behind the artwork.  The pleasure that man derives from interacting with and enjoying works of art is given to us by our intellect alone – but because man himself is limited in how we process things, we must grasp the beautiful through our sense knowledge, which is our sight and sense of hearing (in the case of musical art).  When we see the beautiful we process it through our senses and it stimulates our intellect through these sense and we then enjoy the fullness of the meaning behind the object of the art.  We participate in the overall intelligence and knowledge.

Transcendental beauty is another thing different from intelligible beauty.  It is most easily understood when it is compared and contrasted to intelligible beauty because it is only against that backdrop that it truly makes sense to a modern critic.  Whereas intelligible beauty speaks about the interaction of human minds and senses with the particular artwork, transcendental beauty exists without any application of human senses to it.  This sort of beauty comes from God himself because as the creator, he naturally imbues all things with his divine beauty.  So intelligible beauty can be experienced differently in different people, intelligible beauty exists because it is a representation of God’s nature.  Through intelligible beauty, one viewer may appreciate the art, while another may not.  With transcendental beauty, the art is beautiful and inspired whether or not it is appreciated through the senses.

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Eco understood that aesthetics demanded separation of humanity and divinity – the same connection the church had to these ideals.  Humanity though fallen, can grasp beauty because God allows us to through the senses he gives us.  However, God himself according to the medieval thinkers remains a mystery to us creatures, and possesses and inspires beauty all around us which we may or may not be allowed to grasp.

2.         Though the term beauty is not directly attached to Plato or Aristotle, the terms behind understanding and knowledge of the world itself is.  This is how we can understand how they would have thought about the concept.  Plato was not the humanist that Aristotle was.  Plato observed through watching nature and beauty that what we are seeing is only a representation of God and his perfect world.  We can perceive it to be such, and we can grasp it through our senses that it is this way.  So the medieval idea of beauty both intelligible and transcendental is seen.  Intelligible beauty is Plato’s way of describing our appreciation of this shadow world and our interaction with it on a sensory level.  The transcendental beauty aspect is our knowing beyond the sensory that the art represents a removed divinity that is based on perfection apart from the object itself

.Aristotle being much more of a humanist would not view art and therefore beauty in that fashion.  Aristotelian though patterns and philosophy would not make much of the inherent beauty of artwork, and so in those terms it almost ensures that there is no form of transcendental beauty.  Aristotle’s terms would understand that the object is beautiful but because the viewer in his mind and intellect and experience would see it that way.  The divinity that transcends all things and makes the term beautiful possible is quite removed from the picture in this sense.  It comes to odds through these nuances and therefore does not really describe the medieval ideas of beauty in such a way that it would represent the thoughts and understanding of the times.

The Medieval idea of beauty then, at least until the ending of the period and the shift to more humanist ideals in the Baroque centered on Platonic ideas.  It refuted the place that humanity had in truth and beauty and concentrated solely on the role that divinity (the Craftsman, according to Plato) had in providing an imitation of perfect in our world.

3.         St. Bernard’s aesthetics did not allow for the influences of human rationalism and human reason when interpreting god’s handiwork.  This applied, naturally, not only to grasping nature, but also to works of art whether they are visual or literary or musical.  This aesthetic brought him directly into the most heated arguments, then, of the 1000s and 1100s A.D. in the medieval period.  Bernard’s ideas of religion forbade him to see much in the way of aesthetic beauty, because he saw our own interpretation through our senses as deprived of perfection.  Any perception of beauty, and of even assigning the name beauty to it, had to be seen through this religion (Catholic) of his.  Beauty existed only because beauty is god and so beauty is god inspired.  We see god when we see beauty.

            Suger’s aesthetics about art and beauty are somewhat different, while yet only subtly.  It is extremely difficult for the modern person to perceive these differences.  Certainly Suger saw an indelible connection between art, beauty and god.  The purpose of art is to honor the beauty and light that comes from the almighty.  But that is the subtle difference.  Though his aesthetics were not exactly humanist, it relies on humanity.  Suger would come to exemplify the fact that humanity can reach out to god, pleasing him and representing his beauty through our artwork.  When rebuilding the Abbey Church of Saint Denis, this ideal was at hand.  His aesthetics show humanity trying to reach to the heavens in order to represent and find God.  The difference then between Suger and Bernard is the role of artwork and beauty.  Bernard would describe beauty in art as being imbued by god, while Suger would describe beauty as man’s attempt to show God and please him.

            In the end, differences in Suger’s approach to religion and Bernard’s approach made up the chief chasm between their aesthetics.  It had to do with the human’s role in creating and appreciating beauty reflective of god.  Suger’s laid much of the responsibility on the human creator, while Bernard’s depended more on the divine creator.

4.         To the Medieval mind and intellect, light was god.  He represented the origin of all lights.  Suger, in fact, would base his personal philosophies of the universe around this principle and so is a great example with which to see this aesthetic.  God is the father of all lights, and Christ would be the first radiant aspect of lights for humanity, and then the people on earth represent the smaller lights of god.  In this way, his aesthetics of light itself are nearing the aesthetic beauty of the period, even though his view of artwork and its place in the universe trended slightly away from this understanding.

Light, nonetheless, in art was purely of the religious aspect.  There is no separation between the two.  Where there is light in art, the viewer must only understand it as a representation or figuring of god and divinity.  Where there is an absence of light, such as darkness in a painting, then the opposite is true.  It represents an absence of god.  In the art that is architecture, then, as in the gothic movement that became popular beginning with the restoration of the Abbey of Saint Denis in France, vast amounts of natural light were included in every design.  In such a way, then, god was always present.  Of particular note is the presence of light at the top of artwork, again especially in architectural art.  The light nearer the heavens reached out to the heavens and god himself.  Such was the aesthetics of light.

Ultimately the religious aspects of light began to influence greatly not only the ‘traditional’ forms of art, such as the use of light within paintings, but also in a great architectural artistic movement.  That is the gothic form.  Light as a representative of the holiness of god began to work itself into all religious buildings and most especially the cathedrals.  This religious aspect regarding the aesthetics or understandings of light is best seen in the abbey designed by Suger, and then of followers of this idea throughout the medieval Christian world of Europe.

5.         Hugh of Saint Victor applied his rules directly to the readings and interpretations of sacred scripture first.  Because of his rules, he is propelled to sainthood and exalted as bringing one closer to god.  These rules are that one is to take the scriptures as being completely literal and historical first.  In other words, these things happened truly.  Then one is to understand the allegories and analogies of the text as showing god’s truth, and finally one is to read the moral reasoning to humans of the text.  Is this possible when ‘reading’ the texts of art and nature?

            I think that given the morality and aesthetics of the medieval period, it is necessary to accept this as possible, or even as inseparable.  The medieval aesthetics of beauty and art whether intelligible or aesthetic both depend on an innate understanding that god is the author of the beauty itself.  So yes, it would have been appropriate for the medieval Christian to utilize these rules in his daily interaction with evaluating art and nature.  It would almost be sacrilegious not to.  It would focus too much on humanity and reason for understanding if this were not the case.  So how would this be done in practicality?

            When perceiving the beauty in art, the medieval viewer under Hugh’s aesthetics would have to see that art is God.  He would have to find that any approach to beauty is naturally a literal function of divinity.  This is a difficult thing.  It is to understand that when an artist puts pen to paper or paint on board, he cannot help but do so with god’s help and with his materials.  His expressions are those of god himself and must be seen from that perspective first.  All interpretation of art and appreciation of beauty in the ‘reading’ of it must start with this ideal.

            The second function of this approach of understanding and ‘reading’ the art text would be to attempt to see what god is saying about reality in the picture, and what we can construe from it.  This would not be god’s literal truth, but the human telling of it, the truth of god in a picture that we can understand as imperfect beings.  It is not about good and evil (as in morals, below) but about truth and falsehood.  Thus the knight on horseback is no longer a knight, but a crusader of god, or perhaps symbolic of Christ himself.  The foreign castle then is the force of evil to be conquered.  These are the allegorical truths of art in the medieval period.

            Finally a ‘reading’ of art rests of the third level of Hugh’s rules.  It is about morals, which is about the goods and evils.  That is where good and evil is seen in the aesthetics of art.  As described earlier, the easiest way to see this in the medieval time is the use of light and darkness.  Light represented the ‘good’ of morality, while darkness or the absence of light represented the ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ of morality.  In these fashions, Hugh’s rules of reading sacred scriptures easily translate to ‘reading’ art and beauty.

6.         Define and explain the importance of:

Phenomenology:  This is a way of experiencing art.  It is a movement in which a religious person perceives the objects of art because of the significance of the objects within the art and the role they play in our own experience.  Because of phenomenology, we are able to see the divine in artwork, by comparing the objects to our understandings and experiences of religious truth.

Pancalism:  This is an idealistic view of truth.  It is the concept or approach based upon the scripture Genesis that all created things are good – all created things are made by god.  There is no separate existence of things called ‘evil’ because they, too, represent truths about god.  This is important because it lays the basis for seeing god in all artwork and beginning the viewer’s interpretation from there.  It makes intelligible beauty possible.

Pseudo-Dionysius:  He was a neo Platonist, and his writings create an interpretation of art as not being individually understood personally.  In other words, it is not the individual that perceives beauty, but it is the beauty itself apart from the individual that is beautiful.  The only thing and artist can do is to remove imperfections which prevents the divine from being seen.  Again, this leads the way to intelligible beauty and detracts from the concept of aesthetic beauty or beauty of experience.

Neo-Platonism:  This is a return to Platonic thought and opposes Aristotelian thought.  It detracts from the power and identity of the individual and sees them only as expressions of the divine which will ultimately return to the divine.  In that way artwork is not to be considered as beautiful in the mind’s eye, so to speak, but only as representations or manifestations of god’s truths.  The beauty is inherent, not open to individual understanding.  This is an important trend to understand when understand the medieval thinkers basic approach to viewing art.

Disinterested aesthetic experience:  This is a view of aesthetics put forward by the teachings of Aquinas.  He explains this in simple and tactile terms that help us contrast pleasure through tactile senses and pleasure in the beauty of something, an inherent beauty that is separate from our human sensory understanding of the object.  In other words, we may experience the beauty of art because of the presence of god in it that appeals to us, which is quite separate from us simply ‘enjoying’ the artwork on a sensory basis.  This concept is obviously important when understanding the basis for seeing beauty and divinity in art that the medieval person had.

Parabolic:  This is an interesting shift toward humanism that began with Aquinas.  This philosophy hypothesizes that symbols in artwork and beauty in artwork have no allegorical meaning beyond the habitual connections that the human makes in his own mind.  There is nothing inherent about art and beauty but what our own mind and experiences tell us.  This is important because it starts to refute the ‘purer’ view of the medieval Christian.

Timaeus:  This is an important work of Plato’s and represents much of medieval Christian thought, and therefore, interpretation of art.  According to Plato, the entire world is the result of a Craftsman (god) who imitates perfection in his creation of the world and all things reflect this ultimate perfection.  There is nothing random about what humans exist in or experience.  All things reach back to the ultimate Craftsman and his perfection.  This is clearly the defining thought of artistic interpretation found in the Medieval period.

Synod of Arras:  This church or ecclesiastical meeting in 1025 made an important recommendation that would influence art and representation of art in the medieval period.  It offered that religious art should always be included because it would help the illiterates to see and understand godly truths where they are limited in their ability to read these truths in the sacred texts.  This is an important way of looking at the purpose of art in the Christian World in the middle Ages.

Hylomorphism:  This is an Aristotelian philosophy that brings about a turn in art from the Gothic to the Baroque by doing away with the separation of soul and body.  This view is that inherent beauty is not an existence by itself, but is only manifested by its connection to an object.  Reality then is the substance of that object, imbued with whatever truth is behind it.  It is an important concept because it appears to refute the idea that beauty exists apart from the art itself, which is a Platonic concept.

Suger, Abbot of St. Denis:  Suger is an important representative of the art movement in the Medieval Christian world.  He sees the importance of human’s efforts in representing and pleasing God.  He is determined, as all Gothic artists and architects would be, that man can achieve beauty in art by using real objects and turning their uses to God.  Thus we have objects like windows and arches as pointing the way to the heavens in such a way as to allow the medieval viewer to participate in the experience of the godly.  This is aesthetic beauty, that which resonates within our human experiences of senses.