I think it is particularly difficult to instruct a section on Medieval Aesthetics in the Introduction to Aesthetics course. I have used the online encyclopedia of philosophy article by Michael R. Spicher, which is helpful. He starts with the influence of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus, which are appropriate. I’d only add that Plato’s Symposium was especially important, by way of its impact on Plotinus especially. I also like Spicher’s division between three topics in medieval aesthetics: proportion, light, and color and symbolism. Proportion is relevant to structures especially. I would add Pythagoras to the initial set of influential philosophers since Medieval aesthetics is so strongly influenced by such concepts as harmony, symmetry, and proportion.
In teaching the material I decided to start with Diotima’s explanation of the higher mysteries, i.e. the ladder of love. This ties in well with a description of Chartres cathedral. I could use a video from Kahn Academy which shows the stained-glass home windows of Chartres quite well.
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The only thing I disagree with there is that the writers say that the effect of the home windows has nothing in connection with aesthetics and only with divine symbolism. I would believe divine symbolism is one design of looks and, generally, I subject to using the word “aesthetic” only to refer to superficial appeal. The section on “Light and Color” in Spicher’s article especially relates to Chartres, although one might also have to describe the Neoplatonic theory of emanation. One thing that people see in medieval aesthetics that we do not see in Plato and Aristotle is stress played on both color and radiance.
Plato earns light when working with the allegory of the Sun but doesn’t seem worried about color. I start to see the Medieval desire for color as an anti-dualist second or aspect of Medieval thought: they may be asking that people focus on beauty in sensuously wealthy experience in a manner that Plato wouldn’t normally.
This also relates to the Medieval ideas of radiance and clarity. Plato does speak of beauty as a vast sea, but he does not see that beauty in terms of any special idea of radiance. It isn’t that the Medievals think that God is Light, as Spicher indicates, but that God is symbolized in a deep way by light especially insofar as it seems to emanate from the things themselves.
To continue, I find especially valuable the idea of radiance. Bottom line for me: the Medievals made one important contribution to aesthetics, i.e. the notion of beauty as radiance that is filled with meaning. I’ve spoken of the as an “aura” in my own book The Extraordinary in the normal: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.