John Mason Hodges lays out the medieval understanding of beauty which gave rise to, among other things, the Gothic cathedral.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Wise men have said that if one rejects beauty, he also rejects truth, and vice versa, and perhaps they are right. Beauty has to do with the correspondence of various disparate elements that make a whole: diversity combined with unity. If that is the case, then to dismiss the truth claim that there is a God, and therefore no super-natural realm, does a great disservice to beauty by rejecting the notion that material things can correspond to the invisible supernatural world. The medieval mind had no such difficulties (they could not imagine a strictly naturalist world). They looked for correspondences in numbers, proportions, symbols, and the relation of spiritual and natural worlds, then dedicated themselves to reflect their findings in their arts. Beauty was to be found in the Creator and in His creation. For several centuries, philosophers and mathematicians pondered the relations of material and spiritual things by way of what has come to be called the “Medieval Synthesis,” an approach that sought to bring harmony to the material and spiritual, the vertical and horizontal, the light and dark, the quantitative and the qualitative…without dismissing either element. The rejection of the supernatural part of the cosmos is a relatively recent event in the history of Western Civilization. What effect would that rejection have on our definition of beauty?

In the Middle Ages, there were three key ways to approach the notion of beauty, all of which found their sources in both Greek and Jewish thought. Think of them as number, light, and symbol.

Number: Quantity

“Congruentia” is the word used by many of the classical and medieval philosophers to describe beauty found in the congruence of proportion and number. The study of numerical proportion was essential to 12th and 13th century aesthetics. Umberto Eco, in his book, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, quotes both Augustine and Cicero as sources for the medieval understanding of congruence as beauty. The notion is that beautiful objects (human beings included) have a certain symmetry, proportion, order of elements that create unity from variety.

The medieval mind was thoroughly steeped in an understanding of the world by way of number. The Quadrivium (as taught in the cathedral schools of the 12th century, and the University of Paris formed in the beginning of the 13th century), was a study of number and its applications. Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music made up the Quadrivium, and the subject of Music was first and foremost a study in proportion and harmony. But the severity of number alone did not fully describe the notion of the beautiful in music, or in other arts. The medieval mind called on a combination of numerical purity and practical experience. Harmony was more than the perfect ratio of numbers, including the pleasure of the ear, but it did require the numbers to work. In this way, the medieval approach protected the people of their day from the tyranny of personal preference that results from a purely introspective definition of beauty.

Another example of the medieval understanding of proportion was the ‘Golden Mean’ (the approximate proportion of any two consecutive numbers in the Fibonacci Series, represented by the Greek letter Phi), a proportion found in nature (sunflowers, nautilus shells, some say human beings), and in the application of other mathematical and geometric patterns in the architecture of the time. The designers of cathedrals such as Chartres, which helped usher in the great period of the Gothic in the 12th and 13th centuries, made brilliant use of the circle, square, equilateral triangle, and the assorted shapes that can be taken from their combination to build stone edifices without the use of steel. The symmetry, order, regularity, repetition, and carefully balanced weight ratios in the Gothic cathedral were all the result of the medieval love of the beauty of proportion.

Of course, this definition of beauty as proportion is nearly entirely based on quantity rather than quality, and even the philosophers of the time insisted that there was also a qualitative aspect to beauty, so more consideration was needed to fully define beauty.

Light: Quality

There is a quality to beauty. The medievals reveled in the color of things: flowers, birds, gemstones… they delighted in the purely sensual aspect of color. This second approach to beauty in the Middle Ages was light. Light is not just the opposite of dark; light is a presence and dark is its absence. White light can be broken into all the colors the eye can perceive. Light has always been held to symbolize perception and sight so it is easily connected by way of the imagination to truth and reason. In the early Middle Ages large buildings had to have strong walls to hold up their heavy roofs, so these stone walls needed to be thick and have few windows. This meant that the interiors of these buildings were usually very dark, requiring candles even in the daytime. But medieval geniuses such as Abbot Suger worked to find ways to get light into cathedrals expressly to represent the beauty of light indoors. This desire for light led to the invention of the Gothic arch, the flying buttress, and the ribbed vault that together allowed the walls to be thinner and roofs higher making it possible to have larger windows which of course illumined the cathedral.

The beauty of light is also connected to the beauty of numerical proportion, since white light contains a combination of all colors. So light is a kind of unity in diversity. This makes light the perfect symbol for beauty and the presence of God, which leads to the third kind of medieval beauty.

Symbol and allegory: metaphor

Light can represent truth, or God’s presence. This metaphoric relationship is a symbolic relation of a natural phenomenon to a spiritual reality. There was a difference in the medieval mind between a sign and a symbol. A sign points the way to the signified, while a symbol participates in the signified. A sign might read, “Memphis 12 miles” but could never be mistaken for either Memphis or 12 miles. On the other hand, a symbol resembles what it points to. A cross that one wears on a necklace, for example, resembles the object it refers to. Both the necklace and the cross are in the same shape. Light, in the case of the Gothic cathedral, doesn’t just signify but symbolizes the presence of God. Light literally illuminates. Light makes it possible to see. Light is a real presence that dispels darkness (which is only light’s absence). Light can be broken into all colors, and so can represent unity and diversity. God brings wisdom, God helps us see in the dark of our sin, He dispels evil (which, like darkness, is not a real thing, according to Augustine). Light is beautiful; God is beautiful. So the medievals looked for things in this world that could symbolize eternal spiritual realities that they often took as more real than the material world.

Other symbols are found in Communion, where the sacrament of bread and wine symbolizes body and blood. Jesus would tell His disciples in the parable of the Sower that the seed the farmer sows is the Word of God. All the organic development of seeds into plants becomes an allegory for the healthy spiritual life of the good soil. This metaphoric relation of seed to Word goes quite deep, extending to the deepest mysteries of how seed becomes grain, grain becomes bread, and then, in the deepest mystery of all, bread becomes Body — Body of the Word — in the Sacrament, proving that the seed is the Word of God.

In the cathedrals, the combination of the first two kinds of beauty, proportion and light, are joined with the third, allegory and symbol, in the magnificent art of the stained glass window. In it, a Bible story might be presented and even wordlessly interpreted while simultaneously providing light, an example of unity and proportion as well as the qualitative color that delights the eye. These great windows are far more than pretty; they are profound.

Conclusion: truth and beauty

The question asked at the beginning was, what might happen to beauty if we dismiss God and the supernatural from our view of the world? Without a supernatural realm to refer to, we can no longer relate natural phenomena to the Trinity, the beauty of God’s wisdom and His presence. We can still manipulate materials, such as paint, stone, glass, and light, into shapes we encounter in the material world, but we can no longer shape them to reflect something symbolic of the spiritual realities. This does not end our human creativity, but it limits and cripples it greatly, and eliminates a key aspect of the definition of beauty. Without the truth, we lose a great deal of beauty. Great artists will be reduced to using their various crafts to speak of the tragedy of human existence, and will be well rewarded for doing so. Without God, we eventually lose our ability to craft as well, and the combination of those lost abilities with debased tastes over time inevitably leads to art that is little more than grunts and gestures. Without God we lose both beauty and our humanity.

It is all the more important that we exercise the imaginations of our students. The medieval approach to reason included reference to the imagination, knowing that the imagination is a gift from God to mankind; an organ given for the appreciation of harmony, proportion, light, symbol, and the connections between the material and the spiritual worlds.