14.02.07, Carruthers, The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages

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Rachel Fulton Brown

The Medieval Review 14.02.07

Carruthers, Mary. The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages. Oxford-Warburg Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xii, 233. ISBN: 978-0-19-959032-2.

Reviewed by:
Rachel Fulton Brown
The University of Chicago

Mary Carruthers is well-known to medievalists across the disciplines for her pioneering work on the art of memory, which has transformed the way in which we think about medieval processes of learning. Her Craft of Thought taught us about the way in which medieval authors and artists used these memory techniques in the process of composition. The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages takes us into the realm of reception, with a focus on the medieval audience's experience of beauty as derived from the felt experience of the senses and emotions. In good rhetorical fashion, its six chapters plus introduction are cast as a series of essays intended to provoke discussion, rather than as an encyclopedic accounting of every possible example of medieval aesthetic response. Nevertheless, brief though it is, this is not a book to be read in a single sitting. Readers will want to savor the essays, chew them over in order to release their flavor. For despite Carruthers' own insistence that her subject is not theology but human knowledge derived from sensory experience, this is not a book simply about the aesthetic experiences "distinctively occasioned by works of human art...for its own distinctive sake" (11, 13). Rather, following its own intentions as opposed to those of its (human) author, this deceptively slim book suggests a revision of everything we think about the medieval understanding and experience of faith (fides).

Although Carruthers' overarching argument is clearly an exercise in polemic against those who would insist on seeing religious significance (reductively construed as "ethical sobriety" [11]) in the medieval arts, there is much hidden beneath the surface. Her principal adversary is Edgar De Bruyne's magisterial work on medieval aesthetics with its purportedly exclusive emphasis on the medieval understanding of beauty as a property of the divine (8, 196). This emphasis, according to Carruthers, has created a problem for scholars involved in criticism of the medieval arts, for whom "every flourish, every joke, every colour and ornament is said to conceal a lesson for the improvement of the viewer or listener." The result (in Carruthers' view) is a scholarship made unreadable for modern audiences who, while enjoying the medieval arts, are "put off by [the] religiosity" of medievalist criticism (8-9). Carruthers contends that medieval aesthetics were grounded not in Neoplatonic and mathematical ideas about the divine, but in sensory perception, feelings, and emotions. Her purpose, therefore, is to delineate an "identifiably aesthetic vocabulary not simply transcribed from ethical and theological discourses" (13), as illustrated through lexical analyses of certain key terms: suavis, honestas, varietas, and pulcher.

As with her previous studies of memory and composition, Carruthers' principal concern is with the art of rhetoric, and here (appropriately) she is at her most persuasive. As Carruthers argues, in the Middle Ages, all human arts--verbal, musical, architectural, sculptural, graphic, liturgical--"were composed and experienced on the model of classical rhetoric" (18). Likewise, according to Carruthers, the aesthetic vocabulary of the Middle Ages was taken not from theology, but from the discourse of rhetoric, "its terms...less assessments of states of being or ethical worth than of sensory affect" (45). Within this understanding of human response, affects (affectus) themselves were not strictly speaking emotions or passions, but sensory states evoked through rhetoric (45), while artifacts were conceived as possessing intentio, acting as agents on their audiences independent of the purposes of their human, historical authors (53). In Carruthers' view, such artifacts were intended first and foremost not to instruct, but to induce pleasurable sensations. The principle source of such pleasure was style, understood in sensory terms as the direct cause of delight, for just as pleasant sensations were understood to be evoked through antithetical tensions of the physical elements (cold, hot, dry, wet), so the varieties of style were understood to evoke pleasing emotions and feelings.

Against the Romantic insistence that medieval people had no sense of "play, laughter, or creative pleasure" (20), Carruthers argues that medieval art was meant to be playful, above all, to delight. While (in her view) modern criticism has tended to read such instances of play as intended either to subvert the moralism of sermons and ethical treatises or "(more crudely) to be teaching avoidance behaviours through negative examples" (17), she would argue rather that medieval artists thought of human making "as a witty game and generative playing" (20), thus their delight in the "tensive struggle" of oppositions at the heart of rhetorical argumentation (22). Theirs was an aesthetic not of abstract ideal forms, but of contrasts--of maximums and minimums, magnificence and minificence, expansion and abbreviation--contrasts confected out of complexions of stimuli and contrary qualities, working on both the body and the soul.

But, as Carruthers herself acknowledges, there was more to medieval works of art than simply the desire to delight. Such artifacts were designed--that is, intended by their authors--to provoke and evoke particular responses. They were, in other words, exercises in persuasion. In Carruthers' words: "Persuasion is a process of bringing someone to consent to believe something with confidence in its truth. Instead of the Romantic maxim that art requires 'a willing suspension of disbelief', medieval art instead seeks to effect in its audience...'a confident consent to believe'" (14). Accordingly, Carruthers would contend, our first job as scholars should be not to ask what medieval artifacts represent or mean, but rather to ask what they are doing and what they ask their audience to do. Persuasion, from this perspective, "is an action, a process not a state" (14). She explains: "For belief is not just a matter of accepting particular content but also of confidence, fides.... As Bene of Florence observed, particularly through the delivery of speech a listener is won over and led by persuasive means to confident belief... Confidence is produced not by dogma alone or only by necessary proofs.... It comes about, Bene says, as a listener 'warms up' to the truth of the doctrines through his experienced emotions and feelings" (38; cf. 85). According to Carruthers, as critics our problem comes when we ignore this persuasive intent: "As readers [of such works as The Dream of the Rood] we are not required to import commentaries in order to make sense of [the Dream's 'wondrous tree']: the experience is sensible in its own terms, and indeed if we insist on glossing it from the start with external doctrines, we will compromise its artistic power" (37).

It is at this point, as I read it, where things get really interesting. Rhetoric, Carruthers explains, persuades ((per)suadet)--that is, "makes sweet" (suavis)--because it is healing (warming) as well as productive of wisdom (sapientia) and knowledge (scientia), even knowledge of God (81). But how could this be, given that (as Carruthers herself would seem to want to insist) aesthetically speaking theology has little or nothing to do with medieval art? Carruthers adverts to a lexical analysis: "Sapientia--which I would translate as 'intelligent belief based upon experience of the world'--can truly know God's sapor or flavour" (98-99) but only through "persuasion," for "in Latin, successful oratory is always suavis. By definition it must be, for it persuades" (102). More to the point: "Being persuaded is all about consenting to believe that something is true, not necessarily, but probably, reasonably, and likely so. And since rhetoric is concerned with social and ethical truths, not mathematical certainties (which need no persuasion), the confidence (fides) of the audience in what you are saying is crucial to their finding it credible enough to act on their belief (fides again) and in your favour" (119, my emphasis). In other words, rhetoric (as opposed to logic) is about persuading an audience to have faith so as to encourage them to act socially and ethically. Far from being concerned only with the "tensive struggle" of oppositions so as to delight, rhetoric delights (makes sweet) in order to change the way in which its audience thinks and behaves. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is an ethical, indeed moral project by definition.

It is likewise, I would argue given Carruthers' own definitions, a theological project, as indeed in medieval Christian understanding were all the human arts of sensible and sensory making. As William of Auxerre insisted, human knowledge of God is dependent upon sensation because all human knowledge begins with sensation, particularly chewing (ruminatio) (126-127). In Ecclesiasticus 24:26-27, Wisdom (Sapientia) invites her lovers to experience her in just this way: "Come over to me, all ye that desire me, and be filled with my fruits. For my spirit is sweet above honey, and my inheritance above honey and the honeycomb" (129-130). "Successful medieval art" was "tasty" as well as playful, appropriate (honestas) as well as useful (utilis) not in opposition to its theology, but thanks to it (125). As Carruthers herself notes, Thomas Aquinas "emphasizes sapientia as experienced, embodied human science, for the Son is Wisdom compounded with humanity, and so best knowable through human sensory experience (sapida) because only in the medium of sensory experience is knowing also persuasive... [In Aquinas' view] Jesus joined dulcis with utilis and honestus for our ultimate delight and profit. Like a good orator, God speaks to his audience in ways they can warm to and confidently credit" (134). Medieval art rejoiced in and made use of the sensory because Wisdom incarnate did.

Similar conclusions follow from Carruthers' analyses of the terms varietas and pulcher. While nineteenth-century historians found the medieval propensity for decorating its artifacts with a variety of rhetorical colors and styles "to be confusing, 'Dionysian,' even a little barbaric" (155), for medieval artists such varietas was considered healthful, arousing at once laughter and tears so as to refresh both body and soul (148). Far from being a classical ideal, such diversity and mixing of aesthetic effects would have struck rhetoricians like Quintilian as perverse (156-157), but for Christians it pointed rather to the Incarnation (161). Again, as with Wisdom's sweetness, there is a scriptural basis for the aesthetic lexicon, where the queen of Psalm 44 is described as clothed "in vestitu deaurato circumdata varietate" (v. 10) while the bride of the king is "circumamicta varietatibus" (v. 15) (cited 155-156, albeit conflating the two women).

Likewise, beauty (pulchritudo). While for Romantic critics, the "intention" of a work rested wholly in the purposes of its author, and Modernist "New Critics" in their turn would insist that such concern with authorial intention was a fallacy (171), medieval audiences expected the works themselves to act as agents, not just simulating or representing human feelings but producing them (168). Aesthetic beauty, accordingly, was understood not as something abstractly "out there in nature," but rather (in Augustine's words) as something generated in individual human beings through bodily sensations, particularly the visual play of surfaces and colors in human art (167). The medieval aesthetic was one of delighting in puzzles, being drawn into an artifact so as to admire its craftsmanship and the skill of the human artisans (187-188). There was, insists Carruthers, no allegory intended in such variegated surfaces as, for example, the marbles of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), only the delight of their sensory effect (190). And yet, in a passage that Carruthers does not cite but which was well-known to artists like "Theophilus," the author of the treatise De diversis artibus, it was God who gave Bezalel the wisdom and skill to craft the tabernacle and all its furnishings (Exodus 31:1-5), including its colorfully-variegated veil, according to the pattern God showed Moses on the mountain (Exodus 25:40), and of which Hagia Sophia was itself intended as a copy.

Carruthers' hope in publishing these essays is to give her readers a way to experience medieval art as pleasurable "for its own distinctive sake" (13) and for the experience produced by medieval artifacts to be "sensible on its own terms" (37), without the intervention (in her view, unnecessary) of any particular content or dogma "at [the] first stage of sensory perception" (48). But, I would argue, that very experience itself nevertheless was (and is) grounded in certain theological assumptions--if not Neoplatonic (invoked and dismissed by Carruthers throughout as the basis of medieval theological aesthetics), then Incarnational. (As Carruthers herself notes, echoing William James: "Without our willingness to pay attention, we do not construct an experience, even though our ears and eyes are receiving data" [52]). The problem as I see it lies not in the persistent perception of religiosity in medieval art which Carruthers would have us bracket while we experience medieval artifacts sensorially, but rather in the definition of the divine upon which most modern scholarship depends, ironically focused as it has been since the nineteenth century on the quest for the historical Jesus and the devotion to the humanity of Christ, rather than upon the divinity to whom Wisdom incarnate would lead.

So what is the intentio of this book as opposed to that of its human author? We need to reexamine our theories of Christianity, not just of medieval aesthetics. Carruthers herself points to this need in her opening discussion of Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, playfully made out of elephant dung and pictures of human genitalia cut from pornographic magazines (1-3). Like Ofili's Virgin, the Incarnation was meant to be scandalous (1 Cor. 1:22-23), but it was also meant to engage the senses so as to persuade. Faith, from this perspective, is a product not of logical proofs, but of persuasion, of confidence in an experience, not an abstraction. The "aesthetic" as an experience of human pleasure is itself a moral and theological lesson: human beings are made in the image of a Maker who delights in his work. As Wisdom exults in Proverbs 8:30-31: "I was before him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him [ludens coram eo] at all times; Playing [ludens] in the world: and my delights [deliciae] were to be with the children of men" (21; cf. 77).

"Theology speaks of God, and of His creation in so far as it reflects God" (8): this is true of sensory experience as well as of mathematical abstractions. The Spirit of the Lord taught Bezalel how to make the tabernacle out of beautiful surfaces: the beauty of the created world reflects the beauty of its pattern. It is a misunderstanding of medieval art to describe it as "sugar coating on the pill" of morality--as if morality were something bitter to be avoided (10): here Carruthers is undoubtedly right. But she is wrong (if such was her intent) to suggest that in seeing the religious in medieval art, we are importing an ethics or theology that it did not intend (11). As medieval artists clearly understood, great joy is to be had in experiencing oneself as a maker made in the image of a Maker who delights in the works of his (or her) creatures as much as in her (or his) own creation. The real question is why Christianity and its critics have lost sight of this delight.

Erratum: Fulton (2006) (cited 95, 218) should be "'Taste and See That the Lord is Sweet' (Ps. 33:9): The Flavor of God in the Monastic West," The Journal of Religion 86, no. 2: 169-204.

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Author Biography

Rachel Fulton Brown

The University of Chicago