Along with the acoustic environment that we explored in our last post, the classical tradition was concerned with the sanctification of the visual as well. For Aristotle, art or techne was defined as the “trained ability of making something under the guidance of rational thought” (Nichomachean Ethics 1140a9-10). It was the 4th century BC painter Pamphilus who introduced panel-painting as a school subject, and who foreshadowed the rise of the classical quadrivium by his insistence on a knowledge of arithmetic and geometry among his art students. Paintings ranged from small-scale works of art for domestic decorative purposes through to heroic portraits of civic leaders and famous battles climaxing into cultic images. Rome used art as a visual display of power: captured sculptures and paintings from their military conquests were used to adorn triumphal processions, and sculpture was employed as part of rituals of power in the Augustan age.

In early Christianity, artistic symbolism took on significance at least in part due to the multi-ethnic nature of the growing Church, in that this multi-ethnicity encouraged the use of easily recognized symbols that transcended language barriers.[1] An emerging iconography in the East sought to sanctify the visual, shaping the optical sense with earthly materials transformed into heavenly visions of new creation.[2] It was within the Byzantine empire that a cosmology of icons was forged, such that their social world transfigured into images of heaven revealed through the earthly life of Christ. Moreover, it was thought that through iconography our creative artistic endeavors could be incorporated into, and thereby transformed in, the transfiguring life of Christ, while the human person participated in that life through its visual representations.

Crossing over into the medieval West, the developing Augustinian theology ascribed a primacy to the sense of sight in relation to the doctrine of divine illumination. The 13th century bishop Robert Grossetest (c. 1245) wrote: “Light is truly the principle of all beauty; light, as the principle of color, is the beauty and ornament of all that is visible.” Most notably developed by Bonaventure (1221-1274) in his Reduction of the Arts to Theology, light became the key motif for understanding, so that just as the physical sight was dependent on physical light, so spiritual sight was dependent on a divine luminosity. Hence for Bonaventure, the illumination of the Holy Spirit upon the mind enables us to imaginatively reinterpret the natural world around us as a theater of divine glory, a reinterpretation made explicit in the idealized work of the artisan. Divine illumination entails the overlapping of the natural world with a sanctified imagination thus transforming the world around us into visions of new creation.

Moreover, Keith Lilley’s study on medieval urban planning has highlighted the myriad of ways in which the city functioned as a ‘map’ of Christian belief and meaning.[3] For example, the walls that encircled the medieval city represented the cosmos, while the four gates to the city represented the four gospels as well as the form of a cross. The orthogonal or straight layout of the city streets not only themselves created crosses, but were said to represent the call of Isaiah 40: ‘make crooked places straight’ and ‘make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ The architectural design of the cathedral at the center of the city sought to explicitly transform the world into a vision of new creation, and provided the center for the various festivals and public processions that affirmed Christianity as the foundation of the life of the city.
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By encountering the art and architecture of the church, the human person was transfigured through the practice of gazing: the visual arts provided the opportunity to sanctify sight by uniting our eyes with our intellect, such that the depiction of divine images is experienced by both sight and soul. Within the context of the Christian city or village, the human person learned to think of him or herself as part of a cosmos redeemed in Christ, that is even now being prepared for its future transfiguration when Christ returns, when God will be all in all.

[1] Patrick Reyntiens, “Art, Visual,” in Adrian Hastings, et al, (eds.), The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 41.

[2] On the Byzantine iconic tradition, see, for example, Andreas Andreopoulos, Metamorphosis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology and Iconography (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005).

[3] Keith D. Lilley, “Cities of God? Medieval Urban Forms and Their Christian Symbolism,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Sep., 2004): 296-313.

Featured image credit: © 2014 Saint-Petersburg orthodox theological academy, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

This post is part of a series on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty promoting the release of my new book, Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, available here.