on The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas

Here are some notes from an early summer endeavor (Eco, Umberto. The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas. Boston: Harvard College, 1988.)

1. "When we talk about the medievals' taste and spontaneity, their immediate sensuous pleasure in the beauty of the world, we at once raise another problem. Did they always think of art as didactic, or were they capable of disinterested aesthetic experience?" (Eco 13)

2. Suger describes beauty in a way completely contrasting Saint Bernard:
" Another element in medieval aesthetic pleasure appears in a passage in which Suger relates what it is like to contemplate the beauty of his church. It is an experience which unites the sensuousness of beautiful materials with an awareness of the supernatural, in a manner which he describes as 'anagogical.' In the medieval Weltanschauung there was a direct connection linking the earth with heaven, and this must be taken into account when one considers their aesthetic perceptions.
'Thus, when--out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God--the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, sa it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner' (Panofsky, Abbot Suger, pp. 63-65)." (Eco 15)
(Note: this is the self-same medieval Weltanschauung that denounces this world in praise of 'the next,' which Nietzsche would eat right up)

3. Aquinas's knowledge of material beauty through poetry
"We might observe, for instance, that Aquinas was compelled to make his poetic creations follow existing melodies, with each syllable corresponding to a change in existing melodies, with each syllable corresponding to a change in pitch, in the classical maner of the plainchant sequence. In fact this put him in vital contact with a creative process in which music leads to the birth of poetry and imposes on it the imperatives of consonance and proportion. However, all of these considerations are by way of introduction. They show that when Aquinas wrote about beauty and artistic form he was not dealing with mere abstractions, cut off from experience. He was referring, implicitly, to a world which he knew well" (Eco 17).

4. "...in humans alone there exists the possibility of a pleasure quite extraneous to tactile pleasure. And this is aesthetic pleasure" (Eco 18).

5. Medieval collections
"Collections were made with a lack of discrimination which today would earn a museum curator dismissal or contempt. But then it earned fame for notable treasuries such as that of the duc de Berry, which contained the horns of unicorns, St. Joseph's engagement ring, whales' teeth, coconuts, and shells from the seven seas. Other collections might list as many as 3,000 items, including 700 paintings, a stuffed elephant, a hydra, a basilisk, an egg found by an abbot inside another egg, and manna fallen in the desert" (Eco 14). (See Jules Guiffrey, Inventaire de Jean, duc de Berry, 2 vols. (Paris, 1894-96))
Written on August 16, 2007