Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part XII

Medieval Aesthetics…

Earthly Beauty as the Reflection of an Otherworldly Archetype…

Plato’s Timaeus…

Earthly Music as a Reflection of the Music of the Spheres…

Temporal and Spatial Order and Harmony as Reflections of Heavenly…

Aesthetics and Morality in St. Augustine…

Architectural Proportion…

     In Consolation book III, metre 9 (quoted in the previous installment of this series), the temporal order and harmony of the created world are merely the reflection and image of the order and harmony of the Divine Mind, the “eternal examplar”, as Boethius calls it (using the language of Christian Platonism), of whatever beauty or decorum the world derivatively possesses.

In the pre-modern imagination, it is for this reason that all human arts (including music) are conceived–insofar as they are capable of producing beauty–as reflecting some otherworldly paradigm or archetype. Thus in his summary of the narrative of Cicero’s Somnium at the beginning of the Parliament of Fowls, Chaucer describes the “melodye”

That cometh of thilke spere thryes thre


That welle…of music and melodye
In this world here, and cause of harmonye

All harmonious earthly music echoes the divine music of the spheres, insofar as all earthly beauty and order are images and reflections of the beauty and order of Boethius’ “eternal exemplar”.


The idea that the beauty of the world is a reflection or copy of an otherworldly paradigm or exemplar of beauty was also, of course, originally Platonic, its locus classicus Plato’s Timaeus, in which Socrates explains that for the world to be “the fairest possible of creations”, it must have been made in the image of a perfect, unitary, eternal, and immutable pattern or archetype.  Every rational and orderly process in nature is thus but a reflection of that paradigmatic ideal of order resident in the Divine Mind; the process of time itself, and the circular revolutions of the heavens by which it is marked, are but, as Socrates calls them, the “mobile images of eternity”:

When the father and creator saw the creature [i.e., the world] which he had made moving and living, the created image of the eternal God, he rejoiced, and in his joy determined to make the copy still more like the original; and as this [the original] was an eternal living being, he sought to make the universe eternal, so far as might be…Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity, and when he set in order and harmony the heaven, he made this image eternal but moving according to number, while eternity itself rests in unity; and this image we call time.  For there were no days and nights and months and years before the heaven was created, but when he constructed the heaven he created them also….

Both the original creation and the subsequent processes of nature are thus envisaged by Plato, and thereafter by the Christian Fathers, as harmonious developments governed by and reflective of a pre-existent divine principle of order and harmony.  As St. Augustine expresses what was to become a fundamental principle of pre-modern aesthetics in his De Musica:

What then are the things above [i.e., in God’s eternal heaven], except those in which resides the supreme, unshaken, immutable, eternal equality?  With them there is no time, no mutability; and from them proceed times constructed and ordered and modified in such a way as to imitate eternity, so that the revolution of the heavens returns to the same point and calls back the celestial bodies to the same point, and obeys in days and in months and in years and in lustres and in other sidereal cycles the laws of equality and unity and order.  Since earthly things are joined to celestial things, the cycles of their times join together in an harmonious succession as if in universal song [my italics].

The idea that the temporal cycles are by their very nature reflections of an eternal archetype of harmonious succession and circularity occurs throughout Patristic literature, and in its later development it was responsible for the habitual use of cyclical and seasonal images such as the signs of the Zodiac or the procession of the months in architectural ornament and painting.

But creation is not only beautiful insofar as its temporal intervals reflect the beauty of eternity; there is also a “frozen music” in its spatial relationships.  As Augustine relates elsewhere in his De Musica, it is not the mere magnitude of the cosmos that confers upon it its beauty, but the proportions amongst its parts:

If all its parts are diminished in proportion, it remains magnificent.  If the parts are augmented, it remains equally so.  For in the intervals of time and space, nothing is beautiful in itself, but only as it is compared to something else.

Our ability to perceive the beauty of this proportionate whole is limited, says Augustine, not only by the inability of our sensory faculties to embrace its vastness, but above all by our tendency to see it only through our outer eyes, to see it “literalistically”, that is, rather than “spiritually”, with our inner intellectual faculties.  (For proportion is a mathematical concept that only our incorporeal intelligence can comprehend.)  When the world is perceived only by the outer senses, as Augustine goes on to explain, it may appear “inordinata et perturbata”—disordered and chaotic—but this is a misperception caused by the failure of the rational intelligence to assert its sovereignty over the senses.

Of course, Augustine is making both an aesthetic and a theological statement here.  It is not only that through the exercise of reason we may penetrate beneath the apparent chaos of the sensible surface of the universe to the hidden, underlying divine principle of order of which it is a symbol; but also that moral or theodical disorder is ultimately superficial.  The misery that accompanies sin, for example, is in itself ugly and indecorous, as Augustine explains in his De Doctrina Christiana; but it is also necessary for the soul’s contrition, just as sin itself is necessary for the whole Christian economy of redemption.  (Adam’s fall, to recall another paradoxical Christian topos, is “felix”—happy—because it occasioned the outpouring of God’s loving grace in the Incarnation.)  Misfortune, too, is hardly pleasant, but, as Lady Philosophy argues in Boethius’ Consolation, it is necessary to teach its sufferer the truth about the transience and mutability of earthly goods and pleasures.


It follows, then, as a general principle of aesthetics, that beauty arises from the rational perception of an ordered and proportionate whole, and that the pattern of such beautiful intervals and proportions is first, that of the Divine Mind itself, and second, the universe which is its reflected image.  It is in fact such theoretical considerations, rooted in the conception of a universe disposed in mathematical number and musical harmony, that are the foundation for the characteristic insistence on symmetry and proportion in pre-modern architecture and the visual arts.

In his De Ordine, for example, Augustine illustrates the universal principle of proportionality by explaining that a door placed slightly off-centre in a building offends the eye, as does a series of three windows in which the second is not precisely equidistant from those that flank it.  In his De vera religione, Augustine gives another architectural example:  in a grouping of three unequal windows, the largest should exceed the next largest by the same measure as that one exceeds the smallest.

Ultimately, says Augustine, the ratio (i.e. “proportion” and also “reason”) in architecture, like the technique of the musician, is based on the artist’s intuition–Plato would have used the term “recollection”–of the “divine numbers” that govern the operations of the heavens.

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