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Science as Beauty: The Medieval Synthesis (Part III)

Posted by Steve Turley ● Oct 19, 2015 8:02:31 PM

These qualitative (i.e. light) and quantitative (i.e. form) conceptions of Beauty that we looked at in our last post extended into the observable world of medieval science. For example, luminosity was itself the outgrowth of scientific developments in the field of optics. The thirteenth-century was the time of English philosopher Roger Bacon, following Grosseteste at Oxford, who proclaimed that the new science of optics was destined to solve all problems. Medieval theologians, philosophers, scientists, poets, and architects were fascinated by optics, colors, rainbows, mirrors, and prisms. Indeed, the Latin term for beauty, pulcher, seems to be etymologically derived from the Greek poly-chroia or ‘many-colored.’

But more generally, metaphysical and practical Beauty involved seeing the world in terms of what medieval scholar Friedrich Ohly calls an ‘economy of significance.’[1] For the medieval apperception, the world was divinely authored and thus required an appropriate hermeneutic to interpret things which do not simply exist but which communicate divine meaning, purpose, and presence. Ohly notes that there were generally agreed upon protocols governing this hermeneutic project of interpreting the world as an arena of divine authorship. He quotes the twelfth-century French scholastic Peter of Poiteirs (c. 1130-1205), who wrote that the standard procedure was to begin by observing the properties of a thing -- the visual, material, tactile, even gustatory, properties -- which in turn served as a thesaurus for contemplating the significance of a thing in relation to a divine economy of significance. For example, the attributes of flowers -- their fragrance and fruit-bearing properties, their gentleness, their growing upward toward heaven -- were often interpreted as symbols of the Virgin Mary and the Incarnation.

Lillys from Flickr via Wylio © 2006 Katy, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Similar observations have been made by Jame Schaefer in her article, “Appreciating the Beauty of Earth,” where she identifies five broad themes in the contemplation of nature in the writings of the Patristics and Medievals:

  • Affective appreciation, which involves simply delighting in what is seen. Schaefer offers a lovely passage from Augustine in his City of God:

The manifold diversity of beauty is sky and earth and sea; the abundance of light, and its miraculous loveliness, in sun and moon and stars; the dark shades of woods, the colour and fragrance of flowers; the multitudinous varieties of birds, with their songs and their bright plumage; the countless different species of living creatures of all shapes and sizes, amongst whom is the smallest in bulk that moves our greatest wonder .. (22.24)

  • Affective-cognitive appreciation: Which involves a deeper, more scientific study of creation.
  • Cognitive appreciation: which involves seeing the particulars as parts of a harmonious whole, a symphonic cosmos. Schaefer cites an anonymous Cisterian monk from the Clairvaux Abbey who describes the interrelationship between the monks, the streams of the Aube River, the fruitfulness of the land, and the abundance of natural beings surrounding the Abbey.
  • Incomprehensibility: Being overwhelmed by the magnitude and complexity of the universe; what anthropologist Victor Turner would call the inexhaustible ‘multivocality’ or ‘polysignificance’ of particulars in relation to the universe.
  • And finally, Schaefer focuses on the theme of the sacramental quality of the physical world: the physical, material world mediates something of God’s presence and character to us.

The figure that really sets the precedent here with the sacramental nature of creation is the fourth-century theologian par excellence, Athanasius of Alexandria, who argued that we simply cannot understand the Incarnation without first understanding creation. And this is because when we were first created in Paradise, we were created to discern and delight in creation as a reflection of the divine Logos through whom all things were made, and hence we were able to understand ourselves as creatures created in that Image. But in the fall, this vision is frustrated; it is marred, by the tyranny of sin, death, and the devil. And so, the created order, the Paradise, that was to serve as the habitat that shaped and sanctified the human person has now been restored in a second Incarnation of the Logos, namely in the person of Christ. Indeed, this is the classical significance of the Eucharistic meal, where the grain and fruit of the third day of creation are transformed into the bread and wine identified with the body and blood of Christ, such that creation and Incarnation come together to restore our communion with God and one another.

And what appears to draw all of this together is what Stratford Caldecott called in his study on the Quadrivium a “Liturgical Cosmology.” The liturgies of the medieval world reconstitute space and time in such a way that makes explicit the sacramental nature of the medieval cosmos, which enables the worshipper to commune with the beauty of the cosmic order while at the same time realizing that order in their liturgical embodiment. For example, worship took place in churches that were constructed facing east, such that the ascent of human words and song parallel the rising of the sun, with both cathedral and creation praising God together in anticipation of the new creation. Hence, liturgy is cosmology in its fullest expression.

And this liturgical cosmos is very important to understanding the synthesis of Beauty and Science in what I would call a “sacramental epistemology.” Here I have in mind the ritual theory of the ecological anthropologist Roy Rappaport, who taught at the University of Michigan before his death in 1997, who argues that all cosmologies are at least in part cultural. Rappaport observes how the performance of rituals and liturgies imposes an order upon the world such that cosmic orders are interpreted in correspondence to the liturgical orders. Rituals by their nature blend together the natural and the culture, such that certain acts, utterances, beliefs and practices become as natural as the natural world around us, and thus the culture that flows out of ritualized processes is taken for granted as natural and normal.

At the heart of the medieval Liturgical Cosmos is what we might call a “sacramental epistemology.” The purpose of the priest’s mediation between man and God in the liturgy was to awaken the imagination and the senses of the liturgical participants to the restoration of Paradise in the transformative life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is through this priestly liturgical mediation that the congregant is invited to see the world as a distinctively sacramental vision. And Beauty was indispensable to this awakening, for it was in the liturgical revelation of Beauty that the dispositions, inclinations, and desires of the human person were directed toward the Kingdom of God in Christ. In this sense, the Beauty revealed through the liturgy and sacraments awakened the participant to the trajectory of the whole cosmos, a dynamic leading up into the inner life of God revealed in Christ.

And the important point here is that without this liturgical mediation, without this sacramental epistemology, there would have been no such apperception on the part of the liturgist; the world would have been seen through very different eyes.

It is here, in the Liturgical Cosmos, that we find the medieval synthesis of Beauty and Science. It is here where the imagination, the desires, the dispositions of the human person are shaped and guided towards the Kingdom of God revealed in the Incarnation and extended out into the world through the sacramental life of the church. And, as Thomas Aquinas so wonderfully and invitingly envisioned, the gravitational force, the Beauty, that is drawing our desires towards heaven is the same gravitational force that is drawing the totality of the cosmos up into inner Trinitarian life, into a divine communion, in which all things are eternally perfected in God.


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[1] “The Spiritual Sense of Words in the Middle Ages”; see also “The Material Sense of Things in the Middle Ages” by Aden Kumler and Christopher R. Lakey.

Featured image credit: © 2008 Scazon, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Topics: blog, truth goodness and beauty, cosmic piety, Patristic theology, Patristics

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