Thursday, May 23, 2013

Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages

Lately, I've been reading Umberto Eco's Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. It's truly a fascinating book, particularly for someone who loves art history as much as I do.

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What I found particularly intriguing, however, was Eco's point that the Medieval concept of beauty was remarkably three-dimensional. Unlike the modern era - where beauty and goodness are seen as often mutually exclusive -  the Middle Ages fostered the belief that beauty was a natural associate of goodness and vice versa.

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Everything that somehow was beautiful was naturally expected to be good, and everything good was seen as beautiful. Even the deliberately ugly images of gargoyles and demons so common to Medieval art were considered beautiful because their hideousness brought about goodness (encouraging sinners to repent).

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It is a fascinating idea, this natural alliance between the beautiful and the good. To us moderns it is especially so, since in our society beauty and goodness are so rarely linked. If something is beautiful - a person, a work of art, even an idea - no mention is made of its fundamental goodness or value. In the same way, if something is good it is not immediately considered somehow attractive.

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This Medieval ideal of course does not deny the fact that good things are often difficult to accomplish or obtain, that the road of goodness can be hard and long, painful and even ugly. What it does claim, though, is that this difficulty is all part of the greater beauty brought about by decent human actions.

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The mind boggles at the idea of what could be accomplished if we adopted these Medieval ideals of beauty in our world. If we believed that beautiful things must also be good, and that good things have their own inherent beauty, what would happen?

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Certainly the environment would be cleaner. After all, could a building be truly beautiful in this light if it destroyed the goodness of nature? Manufacturing practices would be better, too; could a mass-produced outfit really be called beautiful if it was produced in a sweatshop where the goodness of human dignity is silenced? Even mass society would take a turn for a better, as people increasingly considered if a beautiful person was also a good one, or if a beautiful idea had true value.
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It is yet another way that greater study of the Middle Ages could truly affect our society for the better, encouraging us to more passionately pursue beauty even as we more assiduously study its relationship to goodness.


  1. That was enjoyable to read, thanks for posting it.

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