Representing Invisible Truths

The Medieval world did not leave consistent criticism on art: most of the works we now possess are manuals for artists, full of practical indications which, indeed, are not particularly useful to understand the cultural perception of imagery at the time. The most banal reason for this is certaintly that the Medieval artist was a craftsman, rather than an intellectual, and in fact the few records of art theory were produced by members of the clergy, highly educated men of culture with prestigious roles in the society of the time. Among them it is worth mentioning Gregory the Great, Bernard of Clairvaux, Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis.

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Gentile da Fabriano’s Presentation in the Temple

In all of them, whetever they support with more or less emphasis the role art, a feeling of uneasiness toward representation can be spotted. For example, on of the most famous comments of pope Gregory regarding images is contained in a letter toward Serenus, bishop of Marseilles, who destroyed some images of Saints; art could be seen as dangerous and thus needed a defense, this pointing out a controversial relation with it. It is not surprising, I believe, since the European society of the time was deeply influenced by a certain interpretation of Plato’s doctrine, which is represented by St Augustine’s writings:

“Nothing hinders the perception of truth more than a life devoted to lusts, and the false images of sensible things, derived from the sensible world and impressed on us by the agency of the body, which beget various opinions and errors” (from De Veritate Religione, c. 390 AC)

Augustine’s ethics was based on a system of priorities: one should take care of the most useful things first, living in a long term perspective that strongly penalises ephemeral pleasures. God being the Almighty, the Creator, it is thus natural that men should think of serving Him first, so as to gain eternal life in Paradise. In such a system, art does not have a specific place on its own, as it would be a distraction from the only proper priority. Rather, art should serve the Lord, giving Him honour and spreading the faith to those who cannot approach the Gospels directly. As Gregory the Great wrote:

“The picture is for simple men what writing is for those who can read, for those who cannot read see and learn from the picture the model which they should follow. Thus pictures are, above all, for the instruction of the people.” (from Letter to Serenus, Bishop of Marseilles, c. 600)

Moreover, as Dante Alighieri evidences in his Paradiso, sensual evidence is necessary so as to understand divine, hidden mysteries. In the fourth canto, Beatrice tells him that Paradise as he is seeing it (a series of concentric sphere inhabited by blessed souls) is not real, but rather a representation intended to help him understand what the bodily limits hide to his mind. Sacred art can thus serve for contemplation, showing truth: God made himself visible by Christ to show His invisible nature and so art continues the tradition of Revelation by depicting its story as told by the Gospels.

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Nativity from the predella of Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Maestà

Indeed, this is the reason why the Christian culture did not follow the Islamic and Jewish world in their iconoclastic tendencies: Christianity, as Jesus Himself puts in the Gospels, has an evangelical nature; hence, art can be used as a powerful instrument of communication. Moreover, as illiterate people were the vast majority of the population, art was a suitable device to draw their bodily interests to a spiritual level. In fact, as St Thomas Aquinas say, Beauty is among the trascendentals given by God; the trascendentals are substantial features which are emanted by God and each being shows affinity to those according to its proximity to Him. Interestingly, such beliefs could easily justify even the richest and lavish examples of Medieval art: as far as they honour the Lord, as far as they reflect His beauty throughout the creation, they perform a proper and decent duty.

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Chalice commissioned by Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis (12th century).
The sardonyx core of the object was produced between the 1st and 2nd century BC; the gems and silver covering was added later by Suger’s craftsmen.

Credits:

Images from artstor.org and nga.gov

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge student of art history. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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