Medieval aesthetics

The title of this article comes from a book by Umberto Ecco, an Italian philosopher, essayist, professor of literature and writer, best known for the medieval detective novel The Name of the Rose according to which a film starring Sean Connery was made.

In this book, Eco introduces us to a culture that is very different from ours. Yet the principles contained in his study can shed light on the overall notion of beauty, so crucial to the art world – but also to human life as a whole. The first thing we must keep in mind is that much of the philosophy of the Middle Ages comes from the classical world, especially Neoplatonism. It is the basis of Platonic and Neoplatonic aesthetics in the idea that the beauty of the world is an image and a reflection of the ideal beauty, that which exists in the spiritual dimension beyond the material world.

However, the medieval world was not the classical world of Greece and Rome, but was strongly imbued with Christianity, more religious in its approach, while at the same time spontaneously loving colors and light and having a strong sense of the sensual. Colors are simple and basic in medieval art and literature, probably a reflection of a simpler and less sophisticated historical period. Apart from individual colors, however, philosophers and mystics were equally fascinated by light, especially sunlight. The best example of this is the effect of light in Gothic cathedrals.

However, no distinction was made between this spontaneous love of sensual beauty and that mystical sense of beauty as a reflection of the divine, because people in the Middle Ages recognized in a concrete object an ontological reflection and participation in the existence and power of God… Life seemed to them completely whole . John Scotus Eriugena, Irish philosopher, Neoplatonist from IX. century, he understood the universe as a revelation of God in all his ineffable beauty.

So what was the beauty for these medieval philosophers, mystics, poets and artists? We have many definitions, from the relatively simple St. Augustine who was extremely important in the Middle Ages – What is the beauty of the body? Harmony of body parts with a certain pleasant color – to that much more complex definition given by Robert Grosseteste, an English Neoplatonist from the XIII. century: Beauty is the harmony and harmony of one thing to itself, all its individual parts to themselves and to each other as well as to the whole as a whole, and such a whole to all things.

Understanding their mystical view of the world can help us understand the importance they attached to heraldry and symbolism in the Middle Ages because all things and beings in nature are reminders and representations of the Deity, or God’s manifestation in things. Eriugena said: In my judgment, there is nothing in visible and corporeal things that does not signify to us something incorporeal and intelligible. And as Umberto Eco says: We just have to look at the visible beauty of the earth to remind ourselves of the immeasurable beauty of God-given harmony… The face of eternity radiates through earthly things and therefore we can consider them some kind of metaphor. Or, according to another medieval philosopher, Hugo of Sts. Victor, the earth is like a book written by the finger of God.

In XIII. and XIV. century with personalities such as Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon, the worldview began to change, the mentality became more scientific, and the world ceased to be a “forest of symbols”. Something has been lost and something gained, but now we can look back and realize that, according to the German literary scholar ER Curtius: Modern man exaggerates art because he has lost the sense of intelligible beauty1 that Neoplatonists and people of the Middle Ages had… Here it is about a beauty of which aesthetics has no idea.

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