Medieval Symbolism, Beauty, and Art

…For us the symbol is an image that invests physical reality with poetical meaning. For medieval man, the physical world as we understand it has no reality except as a symbol. But even the term “symbol” is misleading. For us the symbol is the subjective creation of poetic fancy; for medieval man what we would call symbol is the only objectively valid definition of reality. We find it necessary to suppress the symbolic instinct if we seek to understand the world as it is rather than as it seems. Medieval man conceived the symbolic instinct as the only reliable guide to such an understanding…

Each world view will obviously ascribe widely differing functions to artistic activity and experience. The modern mind has severed the symbol, the image, from all metaphysical moorings; for Nietzsche art is a lie, the consequence of the artist’s heroic will to “flee from ‘truth’” and to create the “illusion” that alone makes life livable. The Middle Ages perceived beauty as the “splendor veritatis,” the radiance of truth; they perceived the image not as illusion but as revelation. The modern artist is free to create; we demand of him only that he be true to himself. The medieval artist was committed to a truth that transcended human existence. Those who looked at his work judged it as an image of that truth, hence the medieval tendency to praise or condemn a work of art in terms of the ultimates of religious experience.

This standard was valid above all for sacred architecture. Within its walls God himself was mysteriously present. The medieval sanctuary was the image of heaven…[The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order, second edition, revised with additions, reprint (Pantheon Books, 1965)], pp. xix-xx

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