contributor.author: Fritz Kemmler

title.none: Astell, Eating Beauty (Fritz Kemmler )

identifier.other: baj9928.0906.008 09.06.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Fritz Kemmler , Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen, fritz.kemmler@uni-tuebingen.de

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2009

identifier.citation: Astell, Ann W. Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2006. Pp. xiii, 296. $39.95 978-0-8014-4466-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 09.06.08

Astell, Ann W. Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2006. Pp. xiii, 296. $39.95 978-0-8014-4466-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Fritz Kemmler
Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen
fritz.kemmler@uni-tuebingen.de

This book sets out to explore a theological aesthetics--whatever that may be--with special reference to the Eucharist and its manifold and highly complex aspects, far surpassing that of beauty as indicated in the title. Astell's central thesis is that "every genuine spirituality, medieval or modern, is oriented toward a restoration...of the paradise originally created by God through the Word. That Christological paradise was lost through the first sin. Every spirituality therefore finds its way back to an original beauty through a pronounced virtue, which is eucharistically infused and nourished through ascetical practice, and which is fitting to a particular, diagnostic interpretation of the primal offense against God" (257-258).

This central thesis is, to my understanding, problematic in several respects. First, what is the difference between "paradise" and "that christological paradise"? "Christological" does not add anything of importance. This variation is, in my opinion, to a certain extent indicative of the entire book: concatenated phrases, asides (the passage omitted from the quotation above is just such an instance) and quotes which are not infrequently conducive to blurring some of the issues of the book rather than clarifying these. To give but one illustration: On p. 28 we can read in a brief discussion of the sin of avarice: "Adam and Eve did not covet money, to be sure, but they greedily desired other things: the knowledge of good and evil and a divine status for themselves that would allow them to rival God. Their unbridled curiosity about a knowledge withheld from them was, some argued, a form of concupiscence, as was their avaricious lust for preeminence." The reference to "money" in this context is highly inappropriate--as seems to be suggested by the tag "to be sure"; the adverb "greedily" is simply superfluous, especially in combination with the "unbridled" in the next sentence. Also, I (at least) would really like to know who (and what) is meant by "some argued," especially since in other parts of her book Astell devotes considerable space to lists enumerating the authorities on which she will build her argument (see p. 61). Here, however, she simply uses the rhetorical device "authority", but fails to name her authorities.

Second, what is meant by "an original beauty" and what by "eucharistically infused"? Instead of "beauty" I certainly prefer "harmony." And why should a "pronounced virtue" be "eucharistically infused"? Adopting a particular virtue can also have a very real rational basis. And, by inference, are "pronounced" virtues only possible when they are "eucharistically infused"?

In the main sections of her book, Astell investigates various ways of this spirituality "eucharistically infused." The Cistercian approach is examined first, with special reference to the virtue humility and exemplified by Bernard of Clairvaux and Gertrude of Helfta. The Franciscan ideal of poverty is the central virtue which is then investigated with reference to Saint Bonaventure's Legenda maior which celebrates the founder of the Franciscan Order. The third approach concentrates on the Dominican vocation of preaching and centres on three women--St. Catherine of Siena, active in the fourteenth century, St. Catherine of Genoa (late fifteenth century), and Rose of Lima (1586-1617). The fourth virtue, obedience and spiritual exercise, is exemplified with reference to the Society of Jesus, in particular its founder Ignatius of Loyola, and the great artist Michelangelo.

It is well-known that the sacrament of the eucharist had a profound influence on the saints, quasi-saints and artists examined in these four chapters. However, an examination and appraisal of their life and achievement on the basis of a theological aesthetic is a new approach. Their endeavour to restore the original harmony (state of beauty) between God and man is the guiding principle and therefore an act with a pronounced aesthetic dimension. On the whole, Astell succeeds well in pointing out these aesthetic qualities. What she does not address, however, is the social and historical context of her exemplary and exceptionally pious and devout "heroes." Astell never mentions that in the course of the fourteenth century the Eucharist came under heavy attack by John Wycliff and his followers, the Lollards. One could therefore ask to what extent the emphasis on the Eucharist by the saints examined in this book could and should be seen as a re-affirmation of the traditional doctrine in the wider and highly political--not aesthetic--context of both reformation and counter-reformation.

In the last section of her book, Astell addresses her main topic with reference to modern theories of art and aesthetics, Hegel's in particular, on the one hand and modern mystic philosophy on the other, the latter exemplified by Simone Weil and with occasional reference to the aesthetic theory of Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno. It is this part of the book which I find not at all satisfactory. The discussion of Hegel's aesthetics, to me, seems superimposed and somehow inorganic since it departs from the main path of enquiry: the impact of the eucharist as a guiding principle in the life of the faithful. This impact may certainly have aesthetic dimensions in so far as it may result in artistic inspiration as well as in the imitation of a saintly way of life. However, it may also result in the institution of power structures, their affirmation and re-affirmation in the face of opposition. It may lead to carnivalistic excess (for example in the late medieval context of the feast of Corpus Christi), to persecution and even execution. And this is no longer the area of a positive theological aesthetics, but a rather dark and negative aspect of the central sacrament as the visible expression of divine love.

Perhaps Ann Astell will address these aspects in a further book. And maybe she will find additional inspiration for this book by meditating on the highly provocative title of Charles Baudelaire's famous collection of poems, Les Fleurs du mal.

This book sets out to explore a theological aesthetics--whatever that may be--with special reference to the Eucharist and its manifold and highly complex aspects, far surpassing that of beauty as indicated in the title. Astell's central thesis is that "every genuine spirituality, medieval or modern, is oriented toward a restoration...of the paradise originally created by God through the Word. That Christological paradise was lost through the first sin. Every spirituality therefore finds its way back to an original beauty through a pronounced virtue, which is eucharistically infused and nourished through ascetical practice, and which is fitting to a particular, diagnostic interpretation of the primal offense against God" (257-258).

This central thesis is, to my understanding, problematic in several respects. First, what is the difference between "paradise" and "that christological paradise"? "Christological" does not add anything of importance. This variation is, in my opinion, to a certain extent indicative of the entire book: concatenated phrases, asides (the passage omitted from the quotation above is just such an instance) and quotes which are not infrequently conducive to blurring some of the issues of the book rather than clarifying these. To give but one illustration: On p. 28 we can read in a brief discussion of the sin of avarice: "Adam and Eve did not covet money, to be sure, but they greedily desired other things: the knowledge of good and evil and a divine status for themselves that would allow them to rival God. Their unbridled curiosity about a knowledge withheld from them was, some argued, a form of concupiscence, as was their avaricious lust for preeminence." The reference to "money" in this context is highly inappropriate--as seems to be suggested by the tag "to be sure"; the adverb "greedily" is simply superfluous, especially in combination with the "unbridled" in the next sentence. Also, I (at least) would really like to know who (and what) is meant by "some argued," especially since in other parts of her book Astell devotes considerable space to lists enumerating the authorities on which she will build her argument (see p. 61). Here, however, she simply uses the rhetorical device "authority", but fails to name her authorities.

Second, what is meant by "an original beauty" and what by "eucharistically infused"? Instead of "beauty" I certainly prefer "harmony." And why should a "pronounced virtue" be "eucharistically infused"? Adopting a particular virtue can also have a very real rational basis. And, by inference, are "pronounced" virtues only possible when they are "eucharistically infused"?

In the main sections of her book, Astell investigates various ways of this spirituality "eucharistically infused." The Cistercian approach is examined first, with special reference to the virtue humility and exemplified by Bernard of Clairvaux and Gertrude of Helfta. The Franciscan ideal of poverty is the central virtue which is then investigated with reference to Saint Bonaventure's Legenda maior which celebrates the founder of the Franciscan Order. The third approach concentrates on the Dominican vocation of preaching and centres on three women--St. Catherine of Siena, active in the fourteenth century, St. Catherine of Genoa (late fifteenth century), and Rose of Lima (1586-1617). The fourth virtue, obedience and spiritual exercise, is exemplified with reference to the Society of Jesus, in particular its founder Ignatius of Loyola, and the great artist Michelangelo.

It is well-known that the sacrament of the eucharist had a profound influence on the saints, quasi-saints and artists examined in these four chapters. However, an examination and appraisal of their life and achievement on the basis of a theological aesthetic is a new approach. Their endeavour to restore the original harmony (state of beauty) between God and man is the guiding principle and therefore an act with a pronounced aesthetic dimension. On the whole, Astell succeeds well in pointing out these aesthetic qualities. What she does not address, however, is the social and historical context of her exemplary and exceptionally pious and devout "heroes." Astell never mentions that in the course of the fourteenth century the Eucharist came under heavy attack by John Wycliff and his followers, the Lollards. One could therefore ask to what extent the emphasis on the Eucharist by the saints examined in this book could and should be seen as a re-affirmation of the traditional doctrine in the wider and highly political--not aesthetic--context of both reformation and counter-reformation.

In the last section of her book, Astell addresses her main topic with reference to modern theories of art and aesthetics, Hegel's in particular, on the one hand and modern mystic philosophy on the other, the latter exemplified by Simone Weil and with occasional reference to the aesthetic theory of Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno. It is this part of the book which I find not at all satisfactory. The discussion of Hegel's aesthetics, to me, seems superimposed and somehow inorganic since it departs from the main path of enquiry: the impact of the eucharist as a guiding principle in the life of the faithful. This impact may certainly have aesthetic dimensions in so far as it may result in artistic inspiration as well as in the imitation of a saintly way of life. However, it may also result in the institution of power structures, their affirmation and re-affirmation in the face of opposition. It may lead to carnivalistic excess (for example in the late medieval context of the feast of Corpus Christi), to persecution and even execution. And this is no longer the area of a positive theological aesthetics, but a rather dark and negative aspect of the central sacrament as the visible expression of divine love.

Perhaps Ann Astell will address these aspects in a further book. And maybe she will find additional inspiration for this book by meditating on the highly provocative title of Charles Baudelaire's famous collection of poems, Les Fleurs du mal.