Intellectual Influences on Art in the Later Middle Ages

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Intellectual Influences on Art in the Later Middle Ages

Academic Influences on Naturalism.

Already in the twelfth century, formal education had moved from monastic houses to urban cathedral schools, and by the turn of the thirteenth century, the latter had given rise to the first universities, which quickly became the center of later medieval intellectual life throughout Europe. Although the traditional seven "liberal arts" (grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music) remained part of the curriculum, it was the newly translated writings of Aristotle that were most highly valued. Because of the perceived heretical ideas in the more naturalistic of his works, university scholars often dedicated themselves to the integration of this classical inheritance with Christian theology. Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus were two of the most important masters in the project of integrating faith and reason. More important for the visual arts, however, were the teachings of Robert Grosseteste (who wrote a treatise on light) and his admirer, Roger Bacon, who argued for greater attention to what can be seen with the human eye and more intellectual emphasis on empiricism and experimentation. Aristotle had placed the sense of sight at the top of the hierarchy of human senses, but these medieval thinkers formulated new ideas that harmonized with, perhaps justified, and possibly even helped to bring about the greater naturalism of later Gothic art. Artists always reserved a place for copying designs from model-books, but as the Middle Ages progressed, more artistic attention was also devoted to the observable world as inspiration.

A Visual Statement on Learning.

The "Allegory of Learning," an illustration from an early thirteenth-century encyclopedic work known as the Garden of Delights (Hortus Deliciarum), provides a clear visual statement of the interrelationship of faith and reason (and the curricular dominance of theology and philosophy) in the Gothic era. The original manuscript of the Gardenof Delight, preserved in Strasbourg until it was destroyed by fire during the bombardment of the city in 1870 (and after which reproductions of some illustrations were made based on nineteenth-century drawings from the originals), was the ambitious product of Herrad von Landsberg, abbess of the convent of St. Odile in Hohenbourg (near Strasbourg) from 1167 to 1195. The new genre of the Christian encyclopedia or compendium of knowledge was a product of the twelfth century that sought to accommodate biblical, moral, and theological material. The Garden of Delights included nearly 1,200 texts by various authors, as well as some 636 illustrations that were so closely tied to their texts it is thought that Herrad must have supervised their planning, if not their execution (the manuscript illumination was most likely completed after her death). Although she undertook this massive project in "praise of Christ and the Church," Herrad's privileging of intellectual pursuits is obvious. "The Allegory of Learning" illustration in the text represents the seven liberal arts arrayed in niches around the central personification of Philosophy, who is enthroned and holding a scroll that reads, "All knowledge comes from God." Socrates and Plato sit at her feet, emphasizing further the prominence of the Greek intellectual heritage within the now-Christian world of later medieval Europe. That such an undisguised tribute to pagan learning was possible at the time is a testament to the efforts of theologians and scholars who made this material "safe" by enveloping it within a thoroughly Christian worldview. It is notable in the history of medieval visual arts that such innovative compendia as the Garden of Delights relied so heavily upon their visual component. Certainly the compelling visual images helped to define the new construct according to which reason and revelation would continue to be reconciled.

Attention to Human Philosophy.

Two fourteenth-century paintings from Italy demonstrate a similar concern for the intellectual preoccupations of medieval scholastic philosophers, and they present them in a format that offered much greater public access than Herrad's manuscript, which was produced solely for the nuns in her convent. The first, an altarpiece from Santa Caterina in Pisa, created by artists working in the circle of Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi (c. 1340–1345), depicts the glorification of St. Thomas Aquinas (See Philosophy, Challenging the Averroists, for a portrait of this type.) Aquinas had recently been canonized, and such images were meant in part to combat the spread of heretical ideas by reminding Christians that this saint's approach to synthesizing philosophy and theology had become part of church doctrine. Accordingly, the painting shows the saint receiving his inspiration directly from God as he reads from the books presented to him by none other than Aristotle and Plato. This knowledge is transmitted to lay and religious figures alike in the form of golden rays, a motif traditionally used to depict the transmission of divine revelation. The figures of the evangelists above, accompanied by Paul and Moses, represent the enduring authority of God's revelation, newly accommodated (but not subordinated) to the wisdom of human philosophy. At the bottom, the Muslim philosopher Averroës (1126–1198) reclines half-asleep. Another work that visualizes this theme for a Christian public is the fresco painting of the Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas, made by Andrea da Firenze in the vault of a chapel in Santa Maria Novella in Florence (c. 1360–68). Clearly, the church wished for the saint to be viewed as the model of Christian wisdom, for here he is enthroned with the representation of the seven liberal arts as well as leading figures from the various sacred and secular realms of knowledge. Such attention to human philosophy, here and elsewhere, did not pose a threat to the church's authority because according to Aquinas, the physical world (as described by the philosophers) is a metaphor for the divine cosmos. Likewise, the work of art was to be seen as only a mirror image of the physical world. By cultivating the virtues of order, clarity, and harmony in their work, artists approach the ideal of beauty that for Aquinas refers ultimately to the perfection of the divine. Hence there was not only a justification for visual representation, but also an argument for greater realism in art, greater fidelity to the physical world.

Art from Sketchbooks.

Direct evidence for such an approach to art-making is available in the preserved notebooks of an architect from early thirteenth-century France named Villard de Honnecourt. His ink sketches on parchment, dating from the 1220s or 1230s, illustrate Aquinas' Aristotelian belief that "all causes in nature can be given in terms of lines, angles, and figures." Since basic geometry (one of the liberal arts) was thought to assist artists and practitioners of all kinds in the creation of ideal structures in any medium, it was the essential tool in reconciling the observable physical world with the perfect and transcendent divine cosmos. Honnecourt's notebook, used as a teaching manual, shows how such lofty ideas, conceived by great thinkers like Aquinas, translated into the relatively mundane and humble practice of art and architecture during the later Middle Ages.

Art for Moral Instruction.

In addition to the famous naturalism of Gothic art, university teaching also gave rise to new kinds of texts with commentaries used at court for the instruction of princes. From the viewpoint of the visual arts, an especially notable group of such texts are the ones developed in Paris and known as "moralized Bibles" (Bibles moralisées). A sophisticated program of illustrations was developed for this book; copies of this work were among the most ambitious and beautifully decorated illuminated manuscripts of the thirteenth century. The creation of the illustrations, as well as the writing of the commentary texts, was over-seen by clerics and theologians associated with the university in Paris. They were concerned with maintaining influence at court despite the increasing independence of the state from the church. In addition to advising lay rulers on how best to govern, they also wished to combat any heretical ideas associated with pagan learning or with Jewish traditions. One surviving example of a moralized bible was produced in Paris around 1230 under the patronage of Blanche of Castile and her son, the young king Louis IX. Preserved today as a fragment (of what was originally a three-volume work with over 5,000 illustrations) in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, this volume follows the typical format for arranging the illustrations in two columns of four superimposed medallions. The first of each vertical pair illustrates a scriptural verse, which is duly transcribed in a separate column just to the left of the medallion. The second of each pair illustrates the commentary text, also located on the left, which was intended to elucidate the contemporary meaning of the scriptural passage. The illustrations were generally configured according to a system of biblical typology: the first medallion of each pair illustrates an Old Testament scene while the second illustrates a New Testament scene. The former was understood to be a "type" (i.e., prototype) for the latter, the relationship between them helping to describe how the truth of the New Testament was "disguised" in the verses of the Old Testament, which has been superseded but which, through typological connections, continues to bear witness to Christian truth. Sometimes a medallion depicted a biblical scene while its companion illustrated a scene from contemporary life in order to show how real-life events unfold according to scriptural truth. In contrast to this innovative arrangement, the frontispiece of the book shows a conventional set of portraits, including Blanche of Castile, King Louis IX, the author, and a scribe.

Illustrations for Didactic Texts.

Another, more secular kind of morally didactic art appears in a work by Christine de Pizan, a prolific author who supported herself with her writing after the death of her husband, Estienne Castel, in 1389. Because they were responsible for the rearing of children, medieval women were often recognized as ambassadors of lay education, and it was not all that uncommon for women to be tutors or advisors in the employ of kings and queens, as Christine de Pizan was at the courts of Charles V (r. 1364–1380) and Charles VI (r. 1380–1422) of France. Born in Venice, she embraced French aristocratic culture at the court of Charles V where her father was appointed as court doctor and astrologer. She became an important figure at court, advising and tutoring the princes through her didactic texts, which were often preserved in manuscripts with illustrations and lavish decoration meant to amuse the reader and to augment the text. Sometime after 1405 all of her existing works were collected in one manuscript now in Paris. Often her works focused on moral precepts as do two illustrations from Epître d'Othéa (Letter from Othéa), a work that takes the form of a letter to the warrior Hector from the goddess Othéa (See illustration in Literature, Europe's First Professional Female Writer). One illustration depicts the "Wheel of Fortune," a device that demonstrates the ephemeral nature of fame and fortune by sending each figure in turn from the top of the wheel down to the bottom (and then back again). Related in its concern for the vanity of worldly happiness, the second illustration depicts two lovers who are criticized for confusing the happiness of their carnal embrace with a more meaningful and transcendent happiness.


Gérard Cames, Allégories et symbols dans l'hortus deliciarum (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1971).

Gerald B. Guest, Bible Moralisée: Codex Vindobonensis 2554. Vienna, Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek (London: Harvey Miller, 1995).

see also Philosophy: The Schools of the Twelfth Century ; Philosophy: The Rediscovery Of Aristotle ; Philosophy: Oxford Philosophy ; Philosophy: Thomism