Transcript: 255. Andreas Speer on Medieval Aesthetics

Does medieval art tell us anything about medieval theories of aesthetics? Peter finds out from Andreas Speer.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.


Peter Adamson: We're going to be talking about medieval aesthetics and that immediately raises a problem because the medievals don't actually recognize aesthetics as a branch of philosophy alongside physics, ethics, metaphysics, etc. And that raises the question of where we should be looking for their ideas about aesthetics, if anywhere.

Andreas Speer: Yeah. In general, this is not such an exception because there are other branches like, let's say, anthropology, or if we talk about philosophy of mind, where we have also this kind of modern division of philosophy into branches and what we find in the divisiones philosophie at this time. But there's a special case with aesthetics because maybe this field is much more designed from a 19th-century perspective. And even in the treatment of medieval aesthetics, if you go to some classics like Eco's book or Assunto's book on medieval aesthetics, they seem to take over uncritically the definition of Hegel's Vorlesung Über that the aesthetic that the subject of aesthetics is nothing but fine art. So we are really bound to it. But what shall we do? So my suggestion is and what I did is that we take a hermeneutical point of view. And that means that we start with the way how people experience this, what we call medieval art, because the perception is also the creation of the object, as we know. And let's start, for example, with our contemporary point of view and the reflections about it. But take the very same view and look how people at the time we call the Middle Ages are reflecting upon those works, the very same maybe we consider as art objects. So I call this the reconstructive hermeneutics of the experience of medieval art.

Peter Adamson: So your idea is if we put it in an art museum today and it was produced in the Middle Ages, then medieval aesthetics could be the study of what the medievals said about those things, maybe statues, architecture, stuff like that. 

Andreas Speer: Indeed. We will find very, very interesting context. They are totally different from the theoretical context we take into consideration when we talk about those objects. For example, we are in Cologne: if you go into the Museum Schnittgen, which is one of the most famous museums of medieval art, and if we ask where we find them in the medieval period, we find them, for example, in the theoretical context in churches. So they are situated in a very different context. And this context also has its interpretation, its interpretive tools. And we can find then also reflections upon those objects in relation to the context where we can find them. 

Peter Adamson: I guess the same thing would be true for ancient art, actually, because the statues that we put up in our museums, they stood in temples and they were religious objects. And does that mean that if we're looking for remarks about aesthetics in the medieval period, we actually have to turn to liturgical literature or theology?

Andreas Speer: For example, this is one of the most prominent fields where we can find those reflections. And this is even confirmed by the text you find usually in compendia on medieval aesthetic writings. And there they are mostly presented outside the context, just as quotes and you don't know where the quotes are from and what is the context, what is even the genus of the text. Let’s start with one prominent example, and that is the writings of Abbé Suger and the Abbey of Saint-Denis, which is often taken as the model, the first model of a Gothic cathedral. Those writings, and this is what we discovered when we started the research and even doing then the critical edition on those texts: the most important text is structured according to the consecration rites of a church. So this is very interesting because first you see how the reflection on this art took place. Then also you get an idea of what medieval art in such a context is. This is much more performative than just located in a museum where you can go and watch it. You have to use it. You have to be part of it. This is also when we think from a contemporary theory of aesthetics, a very interesting starting point and point of comparison instead of taking it in a kind of objective schema of what we call the history of the fine arts. 

Peter Adamson: Right, because they're not thinking of it primarily as an art object, thinking of it as a ritual object. But I suppose actually in a way we might think there's something right about that. So that we could even think about something like a painting that hangs in a museum as something that exists within a context that we interact with in a certain way. 

Andreas Speer: Yes, and we can see it in those writings that what's taking place is that indeed we find ways that people at this time, they consider special objects, special parts of art, examples of artwork separate from the day-to-day things they were doing. So there is this kind of difference we can also see. But those differences are conceptualized in a different way than just the definition of oh, that's fine arts. Because you don't find – it is interesting – you don't find a notion like ars pulchra. The idea we get from the 19th century and especially from this very powerful Hegelian tradition that we find the specific object of aesthetics at the intersection of art and beauty. This is not this overall idea which pulls together our understanding on what we find when we are considering what the understanding of aesthetics or an aesthetic object is in a specific time. It's even not the case nowadays. So to a certain extent, this hermeneutical point of view on medieval art opens also a new – or is connected, deeply connected with contemporary reflections upon what art is, which is not always fine art. So this is opening the understanding with respect to object and theory, what we find in contemporary aesthetic theory. I think we have to take this point of view if we would like to understand what in the medieval period is considered an aesthetic object, for example. 

Peter Adamson: Actually, I guess that a lot of the previous literature, as you mentioned, Umberto Eco's book on medieval aesthetics, for example, a lot of this literature does focus on the concept of beauty. So what would you say if he or someone else came and said to you, well, hang on a second, we can think about medieval aesthetics as a kind of unified topic. And the topic is the philosophical reflection on beauty. Isn't that a legitimate undertaking? 

Andreas Speer: It has some difficulties as well, because you have to consider where you find even the reflections on beauty. If we, for example, take Thomas Aquinas, who was always seen as one of the heroes in this business as an example. 

Peter Adamson: As in so many other businesses. 

Andreas Speer: Yes, as in many others. There is in particular one place which is very prominent in this Trinitarian theology. So if you really look, locate, relocate the places, the reflections on beauty, one very prominent place is in Trinitarian theology: beauty as one of those appropriated names by which the relation between the father and the son is expressed. We have then, in connection with this, another place that is the tradition of the divine names in the Dionysian tradition, where the beauty shows up as one of the co-expressions of the good. Bonum et Pulchrum. Beauty is one of the expressions of how to understand the efficacy of goodness, like the light, like love, and so on. So this is one very prominent place. Maybe those are the two most prominent places and even what we call the transcendental beauty is located in the divine name discourse in connection with what we call the transcendental thought. But there the beauty hardly appears as a transcendental of its own. So this is a much weaker place, the reflections on beauty, and it is not connected with reflecting, for example, a specific expression of doing art. If we are interested in this, then we have really to go into the different subject of writings where the reflections on how to produce certain kinds of artworks and make them perfect. So for example, the Schedula Diversarum Artium of the so-called Theophilus Presbyter, who as an author is not really well known and present. Maybe this is an author fiction, but we don't know it. But then we are talking about art, maybe in addition to when we talk about beauty. Indeed there is maybe another tradition which we can relate to the Viktor Rheims and maybe to Bonaventure. But this is then a follow-up on what I said about the context of beauty, because it's this new Platonic idea that you have the well-ordered cosmos. This is more a cosmological than an aesthetic approach. Now we have this well-ordered cosmos, and all the stages of the cosmos, expressions of this well-orderedness, which is then in the Platonic tradition expressed in this very famous notion of the kalokagatia. That means that the goodness and the beauty go together and form this kind of harmonious cosmic order. But this is a very speculative notion and is hardly addressed to a concrete theory of an art object or an artwork. 

Peter Adamson: In fact, it almost seems diametrically opposed to that, because according to this theory of the transcendentals, everything that is, is good, beautiful, true and whatever. So you have all these transcendental features, and in that sense, a stone lying in a field is as much an example of beauty as a statue or cathedral.

Andreas Speer: Indeed. And this is a good point because in this respect, the beauty is not discreative like in Hegel, because this is the first time maybe in the early Renaissance where even the name fine arts is coming up, and where this is taken to single out a certain group of artwork from the very general understanding of art. Because until the 12th century, everything was art, which was produced by man, this Techne and Physis opposition, what is natural and what is technical and artwork in the very wide sense, this distinction coming up from Plato. And in this respect, art is not a very specific notion. It even until the appearance of Aristotle covered all doctrinal and scientific approaches as well as the more technical and day-to-day labor and crafts work.

Peter Adamson: Do they even then have the notion in the medieval period of an artist in our sense? I mean, so what you were just saying is that there's this idea of art as Techne, but of course that covers carpenters and shoemakers, and so on. In fact, those are the classic examples. So would they have a distinct concept that they would apply, for example, to a sculptor or painter? 

Andreas Speer: I think we have to make a distinction until Aristotle appears on the scene. Until the 12th century, the concept of an artist is very wide, even philosophy is taken as art of arts, as ars artium. So when we take the famous division of the arts in Hugo of St. Victor's Dicascalicon, one of the most prominent scholarly texts and even didactical texts in the 12th century, ars covers everything and then, which is interesting in Hugo of St. Victor is that he even incorporates the mechanical arts among the philosophical arts. So we have then the traditional division to the theoretical and the practical arts and to logic, but also then he talks about the mechanical arts as part of this. This is interesting. But the concept of the artist is a very general one. This is opposed to the creator and is also in discourse on creativity, but a very general discourse on creativity. What is it? What is the divine artifacts and what the human artifacts? So the divine artifacts, which is infinite creativity, not depending on any context and conditions, material conditions whatsoever. And what is the human artist doing? So this famous dictum of ars imitatur naturam, that the arts imitates nature, also defines the constraints of human creativity, which has to respect the given conditions. So this is very prominent and this concerns the entire human creativity. With Aristotle, we get this clear distinction between ars and scientia, art and science. And here, this is the starting point in the early Renaissance, where you start to think about the specific value even of different arts. This is then when architecture, painting, sculpturing were singled out and you find it for the first time in the Campanile of the Duomo in Firenze, represented in a visual iconic form and you can find it in the famous museum, I think by Giotto. Giotto made these three plates where he singled out and added to because they didn't have a very prominent place in former times. For example, in this famous Didascalicon, architecture is just summarized under the armatura. So architecture is seen as part of armory. It's not even so prominent that it has a place of its own. It's part of armory in the very broad sense. 

Peter Adamson: It's as if he didn't know where else to put it or something. 

Andreas Speer: But here you can see that the reflection on art and craft are then starting to focus a kind of a canon of its own. I think the Aristotelian context helped a lot to find the proper theoretical place of what art does.

Peter Adamson: I guess also in Bonaventure, in the reduction of the arts to theology, he, drawing on the Hugo of St. Victor, he also describes the mechanical arts as a kind of reflection of divine creativity. And I think that's interesting because in a way it suggests a very kind of exalted role for even the humble artist, even the shoemaker, is in a way doing something that's a reflection or image of God's creative activity. But on the other hand, it seems that one difference between Renaissance art and medieval art is that with Renaissance art, it really makes a big difference who the individual artist is. So if you think about maybe like Giotto, there's the sort of hand of the artist. And at least nowadays, we think it's very important that it's Giotto who painted this painting and that it's an expression of his individuality. And I guess that that's not so true in medieval art. Is that right? 

Andreas Speer: The first is the lack of sources we have, but we also find sources and reflections on individuality, mainly that, for example, the craftsmen who did the stonework, so they had the individual signs on the stone they made, for example, there are signs of individuality.

Peter Adamson: So they would literally put an insignia on like, I made this. 

Andreas Speer: Yes. At this point, we have also expressions where in fact, we have to make at least starting from the Latin, the difference between the architectus and the magister operis. The architectus is mainly a speculative figure, just the one who was in charge, like the bishop, the abbot and so on. And the true architect, the one who is really leading the staff, this is the magister operis. And some of those you find, at least then in the 12th, 13th century, you find also plates where they have some inscriptions, where you find some signs of this individuality in general, indeed, the idea of a workspace, maybe take a cathedral workspace. And most times they were working in the very same way and self understanding until today. So they are just part of this over century going building campaign, which is to a certain extent not bound to the individual, but to the group and to this tradition you are inscribing yourself. A little bit in the habit a commentator has, whose originality is only showing up in connection with the tradition he is entering. 

Peter Adamson: Actually, something I've talked about in a lot of episodes is the fact that there are these anonymous commentaries on Aristotle and other texts. And the anonymous artists who work on the cathedrals are almost like the same thing. 

Andreas Speer: And indeed, there is a sign of a change of perception because cutting off this tradition, I think is something that belongs very much to the self definition of the Renaissance, the Renaissance as a conceptual framework. So think of Petrarch and those who initiated this and invented the Middle Ages, because the Middle Ages are an invention. And nobody in the Middle Ages thought ever to think to live in the Middle Ages. They were just living in the continuity with the old ancient tradition and commanding on this and sticking together. 

Peter Adamson: Just imagining them saying to each other, boy, I can't wait for the Middle Ages to be over. 

Andreas Speer: Yeah, it's impossible because it is an invention which has maybe its strongest realization because institutionally speaking, the universities gained much stronger during the period we normally considered the Renaissance period. So institutionally speaking, the academies were a kind of an institutional alternative of learning. But the strong tradition was the continuation of the medieval tradition at the universities until the 18th century. Even the commanding of Aristotle and following the usual traps and traces of dispute and comment. The break is much harder and maybe, since this is culturally more visual, it is much stronger in the art world because here indeed we find the going back to the ancient models to late antiquity and open break with the way how, for example, liturgical places were treated. The medieval cathedrals are not done on the plain grounds. They were always incorporating the predecessor parts. So there are built continuity, liturgical continuity often with the pre-Christian period. And when we take, for example, places like Chartres and Saint-Denis, they were all built on pre-Christian grounds. And they were incorporating even those sources, those starting points, even the cathedral in Cologne. We find if you go to the excavations, a Roman house from the first century, a very, very, very early, very early place. 

Peter Adamson: Almost like medieval philosophy being built on Aristotle. 

Andreas Speer: Yes. Now think of San Clemente where you find an old Roman house and you find a Mithras, a ritual place, and then the early Christian churches and so on. But when it comes to the renovation of St. Peter, that is the most famous counterexample, the old Basilica was turned down. It was totally erased. Nothing was left. And even Michelangelo wanted to switch the burial place of St. Peter on aesthetic grounds because it was not due to the original plan of an ideal church. So normally I'm not so in favor of all those epoch and split narratives because they are, for example with respect to philosophy, the power to exclude things. So the Middle Ages were invented a little bit to tell people … read Hegel. He tells you can forget about it. Don't read that stuff. It's boring. Yeah. Stupid sophistications of scholastic idiots. Yeah. But if you're talking about the art world, we can see that something happens in the period we call the Renaissance and that the way the approach to art and to the self-understanding of art and what art represents changed pretty much in comparison with the medieval time. 

Peter Adamson: If I can take you back to something you were talking about earlier, which is this contrast between the idea of beauty as being represented in all of creation and the much more specific idea of producing handmade artwork, something we would consider to be an artwork: Is there still not a connection in terms of the actual features of the artworks that were produced? Because I think a lot of people look at, for example, Saint-Denis and they see Neoplatonic metaphysics turned into stone, right? Because there's this light, there's symmetry and is there truth to that?

Andreas Speer: I think this is the wrong way to see it. It's the same, for example, there are articles, they try to connect the theories, the speculations of the school of Chartres to the building of the cathedral of Chartres. I think there is nothing you can connect to this. I think this is the Hegelian approach that you need an idea in the beginning, maybe that the very same person who is in charge of the building campaign must have this idea and that the concrete art is then the objectification of this idea in concrete materiality and cultural contextualization. I think this is simply historically not true because if you do the archaeological groundwork, you see that it goes the way around. It starts from the conditions and for example, if you consider the text which were used in the working labs and the work surrounding the cathedrals, those are not the speculative text, it's not speculative mathematics. Even now an architect uses very concrete and practical things, applied geometry, applied arithmetics. In connection with this, if we find, and I like very much the Hermeneutics of Arthur Danto, who asked what makes an artwork special, that is what he calls the transfiguration of the commonplace, of the daily things. Indeed, you can find this. Even the medieval people, they consider differences. They think about those configurations taking place. For example, let's take Saint-Denis. We can see it in the writings of this famous Abbé Suger. In so far, they are really telling. They tell us the ideas of a Benedictine monk, for example, attending day to day the preaching hours in the cathedral, watching then the sunlight passing through. Even if I talked about this already, that for example, his writing on the consecration of the Abbey church, so again the name is telling what he is doing, he’s describing the consecration of the Abbey according to the structure of the liturgy you can find in the Rituale. You see where light appears and what he tries to do – he tries to assemble. If you know that at this time the church was not finished, it was just laid out and parts of them were finished. So he tries to give an imagination of what the church would look like if we follow the paths of the liturgy and follow him through this place, as it is so to say, in performative art. This is one example in which context we find even then also the theoretical ideas. They are much more, I call it applied theology, taking up reflections. They have to nail down, to break down, to poetry. There is a much closer connection between poetry, for example, and art, than to speculative philosophy or speculative theology. This is our ideas from the 19th, 20th century that we need such a kind of speculative underpinning, but this is not the most proper way where you find the context for what I call the transfiguration of the commonplace in the Middle Ages. 

Peter Adamson: Right, well that seems to me to summarize something that is true of medieval philosophy or the medieval world in general, which is that although it doesn't always give us what we're looking for, it gives us things that are very interesting. 

Andreas Speer: Yeah, I think this is a typical hermeneutical problem. I'm fine with this. Then I came to meet and to cooperate with a fantastic art historian from America, Jan van der Molen, with whom I did the first research on this, we even went to Saint-Denis and did the measurements for the first time, concrete measurements. You see then that it's not all ideal and planned. It's simply grown. It's grown, yeah, one upon the other. And then it is like in nature, so there are then asymmetries and disruptions and problems which we can never explain if this was done on a ground zero ideal plan or map. But he told me to start and we will look. At the end, it was a great discovery for me if you then follow the object and follow the context, just I think those two things. But I think for me to understand that it was also theoretically a kind of a door opener, a gate opener for me to look for more contemporary ideas of art. For example, in the way of the objet trouvé art, the art which, for example, Joseph Beuys, that you take again the point of view of this very wide concept of art, not this limited one which is defined as fine arts by being part of a canon. But to break with those canonical interpretations, the understanding of art. This helped a lot to widen the horizon where you have to look for, if you're looking for reflections on medieval aesthetics, you have just to go to the objects and keep the classifications open. You can later try to do this. But for the first time, just broaden your perspective and also your understanding of what you are looking for. Stay and be surprised. This is, I think, quite a different approach than starting with a very clear concept, just looking for what you're looking for. You always find then what you're looking for. Like when you are doing an excavation, if you have a clear understanding, you will always interpret everything that you find in connection with your given, already given and fixed scheme. 


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