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Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (English and Italian Edition) Hardcover – July 1, 1986
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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.
"[A] delightful study. . . . His 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
"A model of what a historical survey should be."—Richard J. Morris, Los Angeles Times
"This survey of the aesthetics off medieval Latin civilization . . . reveals the insight and eloquence that would later gain him worldwide fame after the release of his novel, The Name of the Rose."—Alida Beccker, Philadelphia Inquirer
"An original and illuminating synthesis of disciplines usually treated separately."—Sunday Times
"The book lays out so many exciting ideas and interesting facts that readers will find it gripping."—Washington Post Book World
"Fresh and useful in this highly readable translation. . . . A brief but accurate introduction to a vast field."—Library Journal
"For as complex as this book is, it is written lucidly and engagingly and gets its points across in a concise and interesting manner."—Patricia L. Kleeberger, Art Documentation
"This study stands by itself as a monograph on the development of the aesthetic principles and problems that engaged the Schoolmen from the sixth through the 15th century. More than a history of theory, this essay is an absorbing synthesis of theology, science, poetry, and mysticism with artistic theory and practice—providing comprehensive insight into medieval culture."—Choice
"Some original insights into an era that was previously regarded by many as devoid of aesthetic ideals and criteria."—Kirkus Reviews
"A welcome paperback edition of a translation first published in 1986 of the original Sviluppo dell'estetica medievale."—Manuscripta
"Offer[s] as good a general introduction to medieval aesthetics and art theory as one is likely to find in English. . . . The book is filled . . . with quite wonderful material."—Russell Peck, The Baltimore Morning Sun
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Although the rise of Aristotelianism may have done much to encourage the development of what is now called "modern science", there were other forces at work, particularly those of stone and glass: the medieval churches. In France, in the 12th century, a priest named Suger designed and oversaw the building of the greatest church of the medieval era: the cathedral of St. Denis. St. Denis is today known as Pseudo-Dionysius, a 5th or 6th century monk whose writings were written under the name of Dionysius the Aeropagite, the first convert of St. Paul. Denis/Dionysius's mystical writings on the light of God were heavily influential on Abbot Suger and as he designed the cathedral, he saw to it that the stained glass and windows allowed the light to filter into the building such that the very experience of the aesthetics would be like an ecstatic experience of God.
This brought him into conflict with St. Bernard of Clairvaux, "the Difficult Saint", who is best known for his four-volume commentary on the Song of Songs. Bernard was unarguably the greatest and most influential figure of the 12th century, and he thought that the great burst of enthusiasm for aesthetics in Abbot Suger's cathedral was perilously close to idolatry. In a certain sense, neither figure won this dispute for the beauty of cathedrals has been with us ever since, without the highly developed sense of theological aesthetics articulated by Abbot Suger being understood by those who marveled in - and at - the cathedrals as "houses for God".
And yet, the vision of beauty permeated theological and mystical writings that dealt with the vision of God and the resurrection of the dead. The very notion of beauty was found throughout much of medieval thought - which was oftentimes theologically rooted, but not always - and it is to Eco's credit that he can so deftly maneuver between theological and philosophical writings on the one hand, and their embodiment in architecture on the other. The vision of God was the summit of the medieval spiritual journey, and this even resulted in the painting of pictures of Jesus as being physically beautiful - a sign of no small level of devotion.
This book is a fascinating read whose short length is by no means matched for its insight and familiarity with both primary and secondary sources. Students of history (whether sociological or intellectual), theology and mysticism, and art will benefit from the lucid work. Casual readers will benefit from it as well, and likely find themselves looking at light - and all that it brings to sight - just a little differently as a result of reading it.