Philosophically, the Middle Ages were a time of intellectual justification of Church Doctrine. Their model of Aristotle was ideal for their purposes in that Aristotle accepted as true premises of common knowledge of his day, including primitive notions of biology. As Aristotle’s premise began with the examination of respected authorities on the subject, so scholasticism applied Aristotelian logic to premises established by Church authority and therefore accepted as true. Church authority was established through various councils after considering competing doctrines. While authority has its benefits, the conclusion, such as “how many angels can fit on the head of a pin,” has no significance to life in the flesh, as we know it.
Aristotle is regarded as the father of science, but his was a rudimentary scientific method built upon perceived authority rather than direct observation. Medieval Scholasticism was likewise premised upon recited authority not unlike the admonition I repeatedly heard as an undergraduate: “What is your authority for that?” Islamic culture supplemented Aristotle’s principles with observations, much as a present day Masters program would encourage students to examine and evaluate competing notions that have been perceived as authoritative. As Islamic culture waned and receded from Spain, its scientific principles were taken up by Europeans, Roger Bacon, among them. Roger Bacon subjected the premise to examination, from which a hypothesis could be formed, tested by experimentation, and either confirmed or disaffirmance. Only a hypothesis that could be repeated with experimentation was acceptable as a premise. Perhaps Roger Bacon could be seen as a doctoral candidate who not only evaluates premises previously accepted as authoritative, but does research on the subject and, in the scientific arena, tests the premise by experimentation.
Duns Scotus, a theologian and philosopher of the 13th century, inspired by this new scientific method of examining the premises of a logical progressions, began to question the value of logic to support church doctrine. He taught that church doctrines ought to be examined in the light of practical-moral necessity. Indeed, if God were omnipotent, he taught,then God is responsible for all that is in the world, including evil. We cannot “know” God, but we can experience the love of God and return that love. “If God is not a philosophical conclusion of the living present; it is better to feel Him than to define Him. Will Durant, Age of Faith at 959. As Will Durant describes it at 982, “[Duns’] followers carried the matter further, and removed one after another of the articles of faith from the sphere of reason, and so multiplied his distinctions and subtleties. In England a ‘Dunsman’ came to mean a hairsplitting fool, a dull sophist, a dunse.”
Bonaventure, although well schooled in Scholasticism, Platonized it. While he acknowledged that logic is a valuable tool, it can lead us astray. Whereas the intellect has its place, matters of the heart are more important and are accessible through mysticism. He vigorously resisted the Aristotelian notion that the world is eternal. Moreover, he attacked the Church’s use of Aristotelian logic to justify its doctrine, the source of that, Aristotle, being a pagan. Better, he held, that one be good than that one be right. But he accepted Platonic Idealism’s premise that ideas have a separate existence from the physical world, of which the physical world is but a poor reflection. Bonaventure ascribes such otherworldly ideal as emanating from God, the Father, not accessed by the human senses nor by logic, but rather, by divine illumination through the soul.
One can see the influence of scholasticism in Medieval art, in which the ideological premise dictated the artistic form and representation. I recall, for example, a medieval painting at Joslyn Museum, Omaha which was on the subject of the Eucharist. Jesus appears, elevated, perhaps standing on a table, with nail marked hands raised and blood spurting out in a stream from his hand into the chalice or goblet. The artist was not trying to replicate an actual event, but rather a theological notion of the church. Church doctrine held that the Eucharist wine became the blood of the crucified Christ. The painting was not
Intended to be a representation of an actual human event, but a symbol of faith content.
In medieval art, children were viewed as little adults. Perhaps there are social customs of the time that treated them as such, giving rise to the representation. Certainly, as a practical matter, children of a surf were frequently part of the landowner’s labor force. Whatever the source of that notion, in art children were commonly depicted as diminutive adults. While much Medieval art includes objects in nature, the purpose of Church art was not to accurately depict nature, but rather to serve a particular doctrinal or religious purpose.
Creation of the Animals MASTER Bertram
See http://www.flickr.com/photos/32357038@N08/4314988398/ for the source of the photograph of the above painting.
It is perfectly logical for Master Bertramin to have the Creator portrayed in a manner that Church doctrine held: as one personage of the Triune God: Christ participated in creation. Although the painting incorporates a number of animals that were represented as objects of that creation, the forms are rather stylize and their suspensiion in air is certainly less than realistic: fish swimming in the air, and some birds flapping their wings as others simply stand in flight. The painting’s purpose might be interpreted as expressing the notion that God, with Jesus, not only created the animals, but when finished, blessed them as good.
Scenes from the Life of Christ Massacre of the Innocents GIOTTO (c. 1310)
See http://www.wga.hu/support/viewer_m/z.html for a source of the photograph of the above painting. See http://www.wga.hu/html_m/g/giotto/assisi/lower/ceiling/index.html for the entire series of Giotto’s frescos Scenes from the Life of Christ.
l note in the above photograph of Giotto’s artistic rendering of the story of the massacre of innocents by Herod that it contains several elements that, to the modern eye, appears unnatural: the most obvious, at least to me, is that the rendition of the buildings lack perspective. Moreover, the faces and bodies of the children appear as diminutive adults. The figures seem to be flat as the surface on which they are painted, have little modeling or shading to suggest round figures.
Giotto is known in art history for parting ways with the flat, symmbolical, iconoclastic style of the Medieval period, which was itself patterned after Byzantine models, and moving toward a more natural and humanistic style that was to culminate in the Renaissance. That can be seen in the painting, below.
Giotto was later credited for breaking with the Byzantine style of church art, and developing more naural forms, suggesting individual emotions of his subjects, and taking the initial steps toward artistic rendition of perspective. See http://hoocher.com/Giotto/Giotto.htm for an excellent survey of Giotto’s life work and change in style and technique over that time.
In the Renaissance, not only did Church art often have a specific didactic or emotive purpose, but it’s manner of presentation required its natural depiction of real-life subjects in pursuit of that purpose so as not to distract from that purpose. As we will see later with Dante, although the manner of expression required some believable portrayals, some suspension of judgment, reflective of humanistic values that reigned during the Renaissance, once the observer or the reader bought into the representation, the allegorical intention would be reinforced as being naturally associated with a real-life experience.
The transition from the above unrealistic characteristics of Medieval art to a more natural appeal to the human experience can be seen in the art produced in as little as 200 years later. In the examples that follow, you will see the use of artistic techniques that are better associated with our perceptions of physicality of a subject and our eyes’ perception of a third dimension, depth, as produced on a two dimensional drawing surface. For contrast, observe the naturalistic art of 200 years later:
Nativity BELLINI, Jacopo (b. ca. 1400, Venezia, d. 1470)
See http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/jacopo-bellini/nativity for a source of the photograph of the above painting.
Creation of Adam MICHELANGELO (painted circa1511)
for the source of the photograph of the above painting.
When I presented Creation of Adam to my Sunday school class, one of the members who is a counselor reacted immediately, “Why, that’s the brain and the brain stem!” I was surprised, not because I was not aware of that connection, but because the reason I was aware of it was that I had read such an interpretation as you will find at http://www.wellcorps.com/files/TheCreation.pdf .
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