Monday, June 30, 2014

Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages
Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages by Umberto Eco, 119 pages

Before he became known as the author of novels such as The Name of the Rose and The Island of the Day Before, Umberto Eco wrote this little book about medieval aesthetics, an extension of his career as a semiotician.

The subject of the book is the attempt of medieval philosophers to discover a mathematical approach to visual beauty corresponding to the Pythagorean explication of musical harmony.  Above all, the medieval mind desired clarity.  Beauty was not to be found in surface impressions, but in contemplation.  At a time when the world was seen as an allegory, the "book of nature" a symbolic text speaking to the human senses the thousand names of God, art was considered an intellectual, and inevitably spiritual, endeavor.  Light and color, not usually associated with the Middle Ages in the popular mind, were seen as key components of art, representing the truth shining through appearances into the understanding.

In this work, Eco leans heavily on Huizinga's Waning of the Middle AgesThe heavy doses of scholastic philosophy, with its characteristic insistence on precise distinctions, will not be to the taste of some readers, nor will Eco's facility with technical terms such as "hylomorphism" and "entelechy".  For those willing to shoulder the burden, however, it will prove enlightening.

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