The Walls are a Kind of Paradise

The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages

by Mary Carruthers
2013 Oxford University Press, 248 pages, 125

How did medieval audiences experience beauty in a work of art? Mary Carruthers argues that two obstacles have impeded scholarly accounts of this experience. First, Romanticism viewed the aesthetic as a charmed world constructed by the artist’s imagination, playing free of cultural conventions. An audience, by suspending disbelief and submitting to the artwork, would be initiated into the world of the artist’s intention. Second, most scholarship mistakenly constricts this intention by a narrow account of the medieval imagination—and hence of medieval aesthetics—as concerned only with “divine, theological Beauty.” According to this account, medieval artefacts were conceived and experienced entirely in terms of “a pastorally motivated moral teaching.”1 Such an approach (rather rationalist, I would add) makes artefacts fungible with purely informational messages. Early- and high-medieval architecture, visual arts, and worship are thus dissolved into congeries of pictographs, at once obscure (as coded belief systems), over-cluttered (a babble of messages), and banal (edifying or subversive of moral improvement). In Carruthers’s analysis, medieval aesthetics has been wrongfully collapsed into a flat didacticism; scholars are so inclined to leap to divine Beauty that they neglect the medieval experience of beauty in sensory encounter with human artefacts.

Carruthers’s concerns ground her own de-theologized methodology. The medieval imagination indeed ascended from artificial to divine beauty, but Carruthers wishes us to attend to the first stage of this itinerary—medieval reflections on experiencing beauty in encountering the human artefact. “Human arts,” she claims, “were composed and experienced on the model of classical rhetoric,” wherefore “it is to rhetoric and not theology that one should go first to understand [the] character” of this experience.2 A rhetorical approach directs our focus not to some authorial intent to signify but to a triad of intentiones—that of the artist as rhetor, that of the artwork as rhetoric, and that of the audience as juror. Intentio is an intellectually informed bent of the will, more desire and orientation than conceptualization. The artefact’s is the most important intentio: it is less signification than persuasion, presenting not a charmed world but a play on the real world. Beauty is experienced in one’s pleasure-drawn inclination to consent to this artefact as a true statement about the world. Shaped by the artist’s intentio, the intentio of the artefact plays upon its jurors’ dispositions, “bending” their intentiones toward its own and leading them on a ductus, a pleasurable journey that re-gathers the world into some new understanding.3 Beauty (pulchritudo) is etymologically and experientially “skin deep,” she says, known in the persuasive experience of the artefact’s rhetoric of self-presentation.4

In a flow of word studies, Carruthers explores medieval descriptions of this persuasion: the words dulcis, suavis, honestus, decorus, utilis, formosus—and, yes, pulcher—describe one’s experience of an artefact as pleasing and persuasive, one’s consent to its ductus. What, then, did the medievals think made an object beauteously persuasive? Often, it was its mixture of materials, colors, styles, and subjects. Not decadent, such post-Constantinian tastes reflected ideas about rhetorical diversity as medicinal. The varietas of an artefact rebalances the humors, dispositions, and affects of its audience: carved on a choir stall, a privy-squatting monk is neither a subversive marginal gloss nor a moral lesson but a prescription for laughter, restorative of the humoral balance that supports the will in prayer. But varietas also conduces to ductus: the coruscating swirl of materials, colors, and images that adorns the Romanesque or Gothic church is not conspicuous consumption but a means whereby “the audience is fully drawn into the work.” Confronted with “so much beauty” in the “House of God,” wrote one Theophilus in 1120, “the human eye is not able to consider on what work first to fix its gaze.” The walls are a “a kind of paradise,” and at the center is the “representation of the Lord’s Passion,” whereby one is brought to compunction (compungitur).5 Always excessive, the domus Dei escapes domestication or mastery by its audience—and so, failing as a rationalist sign, it succeeds superbly as a rhetorical persuasion.



Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, Missouri, 1914. Photo: Mark Scott Abeln

While upending old modes of evaluation, Carruthers’s book sometimes suffers from a coruscation that, being textual rather than visual, can feel directionless and without thesis. She also brushes against (without discussing) the ascetical bent of medieval rhetorical ductus: for the medievals, a balanced intentio is rooted in Christ, just as Theophilus sets the Cross at the center of a paradisiacal varietas. It is by a ductus echoing Christ that variety can regather the mind in balanced perfection rather than scatter it in dissipation. Yet earthly beauty is not here reduced to a bare sign. For (as Carruthers briefly suggests) the rhetorical triad echoes divine creation: for Augustine, God’s intentio patterns the created order after His Wisdom, so that creatures’ intentiones are partial echoes of His own. The Christian, regathering these intentiones around the sweet rhetoric of Christ, is bent again toward the life of God. This permits human artefacts also to be granted their proper intentio even within a theological interpretation. We can see the varietas of an edifice like the New Cathedral of Saint Louis, Missouri, not as an archaic misstep of liturgical excess, but as a beautiful ductus re-presenting the beauty of earth. It speaks of God, not by becoming a rationalistic sign of distant divine Beauty, but as a persuasive regathering of His own rhetorical glory.