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Aesthetics in Middle Ages, Renaissance and XVII – XVIII centuries

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Middle Ages

Teaching Boethius (Teaching Boethius, manuscript of the Consolation of Philosophy, 1385.)

The aesthetics of the Middle Ages take up the principles of Neoplatonism by relating them to the theological model of Christianity. It is considered then that in artistic creation a creative dignity, comparable to the divine creation, is distilled. Art is a means of transcendence towards the intelligible. To the symbolism of Plotinus is added allegorism, which is no longer regarded as a simple figure of speech (rhetoric), but as a privileged means of correspondence with ideas. Because of its highly symbolic character, medieval aesthetics is difficult to adapt to the modern divide between abstraction and figuration. Indeed, the same symbol can be indifferently represented using a geometric or human figure. For example, we find representations of the Trinity as well in the form of three spheres, three circles, a triangle or three human persons with the same face. In the Romanesque period, sacred art is the object of an opposition between partisans of an aesthetics of stripping in accordance with the contemplative ideals (Saint Bernard and the Cistercians, the Carthusians) and proponents of a more ornamental aesthetic, of which Cluny being the fruit and Suger seems the emulator. Suger is not only the “creator of Gothic art”, he develops an aesthetic of light in close connection with the liturgy. The church is considered a prefiguration of the heavenly Jerusalem, the city promised to the elect. None of the architectural, liturgical, decorative or iconographic elements are free. Everything is there to manifest and celebrate the divine glory whose light is the best symbol.

In music Hildegard von Bingen conceives music as a reminiscence of paradise. Here too, aesthetics is inseparable from metaphysics and spirituality. The music is of Trinitarian essence, its laws derive from the Word as well as their mathematical properties: intervals, modes, rhythms, etc. In general, the Pythagorean speculations on numbers play a big role not only to measure the musical rhythms, but also and especially to define the architectural proportions. Philosophers: Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Augustine of Hippo, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas.

Byzantine theory of image

To questioning and interrogation about the status of religious images (icons), pagan (idols) and commercial (coins, jars) led by Christianity during the quarrel images or iconoclastic crisis of the seventh and eighth century, are added, in answer, to the question of the Beautiful, the status of the icon, the distinction between the image and the painting, the truth of an image (what is a true or false image) , the relation of the Logos (verb, word) to the image, the notion of the imprint, the relation of the image to the presence, finally signs and hieroglyphs. Developed by Greek neoplatonic and aristotelian philosophers and theologians in particular: Jean Damascene and Pseudo-Denys the Areopagite, the Byzantine image theory constructs the image as a language of signs and codes.


The aesthetics of the Renaissance is consistent with the interpretation of the era that relegates the Middle Ages on the side of dark times and turns to Greco-Roman antiquity. Historians and humanists praise the artistic movement that since Giotto has managed to bring art to the resemblance of nature. Alberti attributes to Brunelleschi, Donatello and Ghiberti the renaissance of the visual arts and Vasari divides in three periods the progress that leads from the imitation of the ancients to the imitation of nature. If antiquity has never been totally forgotten, the humanists try to find its authenticity: the Latin translations are abandoned in favor of the original Greek texts, the first archaeological excavations are organized, the first museums appear.

The rediscovery of Plato by Gemiste Plethon and Marsile Ficin is not without consequence on the conception of arts and architecture. In the Compendium in Timaeum, Ficino elaborates the standard of Pythagorism and Platonism aesthetics: the participation of the sensitive in the reign of pure forms is done through geometric figures and proportions. Physical reality being of mathematical essence, the goal of aesthetics is to define the mathematical laws of beauty (speculations on the golden ratio, Pythagorean volumes, musical harmony triangle, etc.). Alberti will be the prime contractor for this program. In the De re aedificatoria, he is inspired by Timaeus to establish the principles of construction. In the De pictura, he approaches the notions of legitimate perspective that makes painting an extension of reality and pictorial beauty in the right composition by the drawing of contours (constituency line) which conditions the order of color and the light (chiaroscuro). Leonardo da Vinci, in his Notebooks, also conceives of painting as the imitation of nature. This mimesis involves a complex conceptual analysis of the ten attributes of sight followed by a pictorial and plastic synthesis of elements as diverse as study of human proportions and attitudes, movement and rest, form and position, matter and colors, linear or atmospheric perspective, distribution of shadow and light whose optics and mathematics laws are the privileged instruments of study. In his architectural treatise inspired by Vitruvius, Serlio defends the ideals of regularity and symmetry that prefigure classical aesthetics.

However, by applying Alberti’s theories and perspective or the mathematics of Manetti and Pacioli to create a rationally constructed illusionist space, Renaissance artists are conscious of innovating and developing artistic techniques that did not exist in ancient times.

The role of the image is challenged by reforming theologians who read a contradiction between aesthetic pleasure and the divine order, the Catholic Jerome Savonarola in Florence who organizes the destruction of mirrors and paintings by the pyre of vanities, Protestant Luther who banned the images in the temples and John Calvin, who added the chromoclasty, the prohibition of colors. In response the role of the image as literature and speech is affirmed by the Council of Trent and the Catholic Church.

XVII – XVIII centuries

(René Descartes.)

Classical aesthetics, inspired by Plato’s Banquet and finding one of his most accomplished expressions in Boileau’s Poetic Art, conceived of only one aesthetic value, the beautiful, and its negative, the ugly. The beautiful was conceived in terms of harmony, symmetry, order and measure. The empiricist aesthetic will add a second positive aesthetic value, the sublime. The sublime is a value characterized by disharmony, dissonance, disproportion, disorder, dissymmetry. Where the beautiful produced the feeling of serenity in the soul, the sublime produces feelings such as terror and violent passion (without pouring into horror). The sublime will find its most absolute artistic application in romanticism, which will exalt passion and excess in the human soul (artistic genius, passionate love, the solitary self or even the political revolution). For classical aesthetics, beauty was a concept. One can speak about it as “intellectual art” or “aesthetic intellectualism”. For example, in ancient times music was among the four quadrivium sciences. It was a science of harmony and measure, as St. Augustine describes it in its treatise on music. For Descartes, the questions which preoccupy Cartesianism are foreign to beauty and art; in this school, some spirits have contented themselves with reproducing the traditions of antiquity, especially the ideas of Plato and St. Augustine (for example the treatises on the Beautiful of Crouzaz or Father Andrew).

On the contrary, the empiricist aesthetic conceives the beautiful and the sublime as inner feelings. These are representations that the soul makes during the aesthetic experience. The beautiful refers to a feeling of pleasure and calm, while the sublime refers to a feeling of pleasure mixed with pain, or a contradictory alternation of feelings. Taste is then no longer an intellectual notion, but concerns the sensible impression and sentiment, defined by the empiricists as the most true and lively ideas of the mind. The book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) of the Irish philosopher Burke (1729-1797) can be considered as the empiricist manifesto of aesthetic philosophy. We can add Hume’s Aesthetic Essays and the writings of Shaftsesbury and Hutcheson. In France, Diderot and the Encyclopedists take similar ideas. Charles Batteux comments on Aristotle and reduces all the arts to the principle of the imitation of the beautiful nature. Father Jean-Baptiste Dubos and Voltaire contribute to the characterization of aesthetics as a literary critic. In Germany, the followers of Wolff and Leibniz founded the new science of aesthetics. Baumgarten is followed by Mendelssohn, Sulzer and Eberhard.

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