The Mediecal Millennium: Objects of Desire

Lecture 17. Aesthetic Response

Suggested Reading:

Belting, H., Likeness and Presence, Chicago, 1994

Camille, M., The Gothic Idol, Chicago,

Eco. U., Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, New Haven, 1986

Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis

  The central problem that we will consider here involves our response to the work of art -- particularly the question as to whether our own response has anything to do with the response of the people who made and used the medieval object or building. Why were medieval people so relatively reticent about recording responses to specific objects or buildings? We respond in a direct somatic fashion to the encounter with the work of art; how can such a response be translated into words?

Each age has invented its own Middle Ages -- yet it has been hard to escape the judgments of the Humanists -- that this was an age dominated by the rigid doctrines of the Church -- that rejected the pleasures of the senses. The discovery that this was not the case is documented in the work of Meyer Schapiro ("On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art") and Umberto Eco (Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages ).

Eco used a text-based approach to demonstrate the power of visual beauty in the eyes and minds of medieval people. Thus, the very strictures against lavish art made by the Cistercian leader, Bernard of Clairvaux, indicate the extent to which the saint was, in fact, seduced by the beauty of artifacts like sculpted capitals. Note the text from the Apologia ad Guillelmum that defines monastic renunciation of beauty (p. 7).

There is a sense of melancholy over the transience of beautiful things -- translating as a search for the security of inner beauty that does not perish. This led to the belief that aesthetic pleasure is to be had when the soul finds its own inner harmony duplicated in the object. For example, the idea of an upright soul in a column figure of an upright body.

I have given you two rather literal illustrations. But there is a more abstract realm of things that glitter and convey light. Here the key reading is obviously in Abbot Suger. The power of shining light-reflective surfaces projects the possibility of a substance that can resist the corrosion of time.

A key principle in medieval response, according to Eco (p.15) was the integration of the concepts of the beautiful and good. Thus, a beautiful object was one that was well suited to its use. Yet the concept of "use" was not limited to everyday utilitarian functions. Natural objects are useful (beautiful) in that they open a door of understanding to a world that exists beyond the physical world. The Platonic idea incorporates our world as an imperfect reflection of a splendid transcendent realm. For the Middle Ages, the key source was Dionysius the Areopagite, especially The Divine Names. It was thought that absolute beauty was the result of three things: number, weight and measure. That a concordance could be established between artifacts and the transcendent.

There were two aspects to the idea of intrinsic beauty in the Middle Ages: proportions and light.

A. Proportions: The idea of certain proportional relationships having intrinsic beauty comes from the study of music. Pythagorus had observed that different sounds resulted when a blacksmith struck his anvil with hammers of different weight. The same applies to the sound made from plucking strings of different lengths. Thus, sound results from number and the fact that certain combinations of sound are inherently pleasing can be explored in numerical terms. The same is true of the shapes made when we form squares, rectangles and circles. Certain forms have inherent beauty because they resonate with the cosmos. Particularly the square which applied to the shape of human beings as well as to heaven. The number four -- there were four cardinal points, four winds, four seasons, etc. Homo quadratus was conceived by Vitruvius who related the outstretched hands of a human being to their height. Four linked with five since humans have two arms, two legs and a head. The pentagon was a particularly important figure in medieval design. Proportion was a means of linking things together and making sense of them.

"For beauty is a concordance and fittingness of a thing to itself and of all its individual parts to themselves and to each other and to the whole and of that to all of things" (Bishop Grosseteste). But Grosseteste stressed the difference between the quantitative definition of beauty and the qualitative conception where light was understood as the greatest and best of all proportions: "Light is beautiful in itself, for its nature is simple and all things are like to it. Wherefore it is integrated in the highest degree and most harmoniously proportioned and equal to itself: for beauty is a harmony of proportions."

B. Light: It was when they came to the experience of color (gems, dyed textiles, flowers, light) that medieval people revealed the most lively feeling for the purely sensuous properties of things. Medieval art tended to favor primary colors and brilliant juxtapositions (red and blue, for example). Aside from single colors, philosophers and mystics were enthralled by luminosity in general -- particularly the sun's light. God was conceived in terms of light. Desire for union with God was expressed in images of light.

Physical things as signs: Medieval people lived in a world filled with references -- reminders and overtones of divine creativity. Natural forms were more than they seemed. Artifacts were beautiful in as much as they were in harmony with the cosmic. The world itself was a divine work of art.

All this implies meaning rooted in the object. Yet we can also find an awareness of the extent to which meaning was created by the beholder. Albertus Magnus was aware of the extent to which we project ourselves on to the object through our own anticipation, vision and cognition.