Friday, June 28, 2013

Bonaventure on Beautiful Representations of Devils, Distortion and Ugliness

As mentioned in the last posting, here is St Bonaventure on how the representation of ugly things can be beautiful: 'The Beauty of the image of the painting refers to its model in a manner that is not worthy of veneration in itself, as when the image of the Blessed Nicholas is vernarated; but Beauty refers to the model in such a way that it is to be found in the image too, and not solely in the subject it represents. Thus two modes of Beauty may be found in the image, although it is obvious that there is only one subject of the image. For it is clear that the image is called beautiful when it is well painted, and it is also called beautiful when it is a good representation of the person whose image it is, and that this is another cause of Beauty emerges from the fact that one can be present in the absence of another; which is precisely why we may say that the image of the devil is beautiful when it well represents the turpitude of the devil and as a consequence of this aspect  it is also repugnant.'

Here is Matthias Grunewald's painting of temptation.


This is a detail from his Visit of St Anthony and St Jerome and the Temptation of St Anthony, some details of the latter follow.


More details follow




It always strikes me that every picture of Christ on the cross, which demonstrates the work of the devil, can fall into this category as well. Contributing to the our sense of its beauty is our knowledge of what such a picture is communicating - Christian hope that transcends all our own suffering. This is particularly striking for me in the famous Grunewald crucifixion. As many will know, this was painted for people in a hospital suffering from a fungal infection that people in this part of France incurred by eating rye bread (we now know). The Christ in the painting is bearing the wounds of the passion and the mutilations and sores of the fungal infection. The message is very clear. Take heart, Christ bears all your suffering too.


(Once, again, just to change the focus slightly, notice how the artist has not painted a portrait. The whole person of Christ is emphasises but the facial features are in shadow.)

The quotation from Bonaventure by the way, is from his Commentary on the Four Books of Sentences, I, 31, 2. I found it in Umberto Eco's History of Beauty, Rizzoli, New York. Umberto Eco is an interesting character in that the last I heard he is not a believer, and he does not hold to the view that beauty is an objective quality. Yet his works on aesthetics explain the medieval understanding of beauty and especially the idea of its objectivity as well as any that I know of. The book I refer to is jam packed with quotes from great figures of the Church, which makes it a great resource from lazy and vain bloggers, especially those who have pretensions to scholarship and want to give the impression they are well read without actually doing the reading...like me.