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Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages Paperback – April 1, 2002

4.3 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Eco's slim volume, though 20 years old, remains fresh and useful in this highly readable translation. Eco moves swiftly and surely from Boethius to Meister Eckhart, from subtle conceptual distinctions to broad historical and sociological syntheses. The book reflects the moment of its composition, the heyday of phenomenology, in its search for the intuitive dimensions in aesthetic experience. Eco's study will serve students of aesthetics in general and medieval aesthetics in particular who need a brief but accurate introduction to a vast field, while students of Eco's own thinking will profit from a glance at the scholastic background to Eco's work on semiotics. Ronald L. Martinez, French and Italian Dept., Univ. of Minnesota, Minneapolis
Copyright 1986 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"A delightful study... Eco's remarkably lucid and readable essay is full of contemporary relevance and informed by the energies of a man in love with his subject." Robert Taylor, Boston Globe "The book lays out so many exciting ideas and interesting facts that readers will find it gripping." Washington Post Book World "A lively introduction to the subject." Michael Camille, The Burlington Magazine "If you want to become acquainted with medieval aesthetics, you will not find a more scrupulously researched, better written (or better translated), intelligent and illuminating introduction than Eco's short volume." D. C. Barrett, Art Monthly

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Product Details

  • Series: Yale Nota Bene
  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 2nd edition (April 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300093047
  • ISBN-13: 978-2912282675
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.4 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #191,384 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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This is a fascinating and enjoyable survey of the approaches to and embodiments of beauty in the Middle Ages through the 13th century, which is when the Middle Ages gave way to the High Middle Ages (which culminated - or bottomed out, depending on how you look at it - in the Protestant Reformations). Great theologians and mystics such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bernard of Clairvaux are dealt with, as well as lesser figures such as Hugh of St. Victor and Abbot Suger. Theology and mysticism, architecture and music, science, philosophy and even love poetry are brought together as Eco paints (no pun intended) a highly detailed exposition of the ways in which beauty shaped the lives of those in the medieval era.

It is, in many ways, a tour through a land that is as strange as it is wonderful. The entire world - every created thing - was, early on, *seen* as a symbol that was to be read just as the Bible was read: with a sense that it existed not just as it was, but as something beyond itself too, pointing ultimately to God, for God had created it. Nature is understood to be what sociologists and philosophers would now call "enchanted": filled with mystery, depth, existential and metaphysical meaning. The rise of Aristotelian metaphysics (re: science and philosophy as a single entity - they weren't separated back then) is what eventually quashed this such that the world was no longer see as a cosmic spiritual thing so much as a created thing that could be studied as having its own laws. St. Thomas Aquinas, "the Angelic Doctor", did much to push this view and it eventually one out. The medieval era looks curiously modern in this regard.
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Format: Paperback
An extremely important book that answers marvellously our prejudices against the Middle Ages. It explores in great details their literature and philosophy to show how people understood beauty then. He sees three phases. First the aesthetics of proportion in direct connection with the greek mathematical heritage and the biblical teachings about the wisdom of the creation by God who projected his own balanced vision and essence in every single creature. Second the asthetics of light which reveals a more sensorial and even sensual approach to beauty in the fact that light and colors are beautiful at first contact and felt as such without any reflection.

Finally the aesthetics of the organism that sees beauty in the fact that a complex composition is the creation of perfect balance among all the elements that are themselves balanced in the same way at a lower level. The second great approach is that of allegorical and symbolical beauty. For philosophers and theologians beauty was to be found in the meaning of things and meaning was to be found in the allegorical and symbolical value of every element considered because for them nothing existed that did not represent the higher level of divine nature, divine perfection. Even a representation of the devil can be beautiful if it shows perfectly the ugliness of the beast in him.

Yet Thomas Aquinas reveals his deeper sense of beauty in the fact that he provides this concept with a certain amount of autonomy. This autonomy had been in the air for many centuries but he is the first theologian to accept it as an important element in his evaluation of beauty. We find the same dilemma with art. At first art is nothing but what is produced by the manual work of people.
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Format: Paperback
Quite often the middle ages are the forgotten link between the Classical period and the Renaissance. Moderns assume that Renaissance thinkers and artists rediscovered the works of ancient Greece and Rome and had this amazing and original break with medieval tradition. Umberto Eco (author of The Name of the Rose among other works) dispels this myth with this overview of aesthetic and artistic theory in the years from AD 500 to 1400.

Eco shows the classical roots of medieval theory and theology. Platonic thought was dominant early on, where his ideal world of forms was the standard by which beauty and artistic craft were measured. Aristotle was rediscovered during the middle ages; his systematic approach was assimilated and imitated by the Scholastics. The centrality of symmetry and proportionality for beauty began with Pythagoras's focus on numbers. That focus was re-enforced and enhanced by the biblical notions that creation is good (cf. Genesis's account of creation) and that the world was made according to number, weight, and measure (cf. Wisdom 11). The world is both good and knowable in a mathematical way. It conforms naturally to the transcendental notion of beauty--that which is seen as good gives delight.

The medievals had much more to say about beauty than art. Beauty is a property all things have, both things in the natural world and things made by man. Often, artistic objects were judged beautiful by their symmetry to the world of ideals or of nature. Innovations in artistic theory were rare but not unprecedented. The theoretical trend followed the cultural trend--the great artistic achievements of the age were the cathedrals. They were built by many and varied artists whose anonymity was assumed. The work was done for God, not personal glory.
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