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Grzegorz Sztabiński

An important question which appears when art becomes associated with spiritual functions is the relation between the aesthetic and the transcendental. The domain of the aesthetic is related to what is perceived by senses. Acknowledging spiritual functions in art requires transcending the domain of the senses and turning to the invisible, which is connected with the sacrum and refers to the hidden, universal rule of existence or exclusively to the sublime form of the human psyche.[1] These questions have been reflected upon since the antiquity. The ancient Greeks associated beauty with good (kalós kagathós). They believed that these two constitute one value. They also did not distinguish between different kinds and shapes of beauty. The only exception was Plato, who introduced a division into two kinds of beauty: sensual and ideal, grasped only by the soul. In the Middle Ages beauty and good became conceptually separated and the question of their relation became of interest to numerous thinkers.

These ideas have exerted a significant influence on art. In the antiquity, people referred the value of works of art was mainly to nature and thought that they imitated it. That is why the sources of beauty were sought in nature. Christianity began to regard nature as a revelation of the reason of the one who had created it. It was believed that the world was not beautiful in its own sake but as a work of God. Purposefulness, order, harmony which we discover in it point to its creator, being “the cause of all that is beautiful”,[2] according to Clement of Alexandria. Soon afterwards there appeared a view that God is the highest beauty and that the visible things which are ascribed this value give us an idea of him.

Taking into consideration, apart from material beauty, also spiritual beauty led to the question of their hierarchy. The beauty of bodies and objects was regarded as transient. What was considered to be truly valuable was spiritual beauty, which according to the above-mentioned author appears when “the soul is adorned by the Holy Spirit and inspired by its lustre, justness, reason, courage, moderation, love of good and shyness, which is matched by nothing in pleasant colour”.[3] It is the moral factors then that allowed for grasping spiritual beauty.

The adoption of this hierarchy did not conclude the issue but, to the contrary, it actually initiated the debate by provoking questions about the character of the relation between spiritual and physical beauty. The issue was expressed both in philosophical tracts and in artistic practice of the times. Max Dvořák, a prominent art historian, writes that in early Christian and medieval art one can discover two ways of expressing the relation between matter and spirit. In early Christian basilicas “the material core of the building was to be invisible for the viewer in its artistic aspect and that is why it had to disappear in the antimaterial play of such elements as: movement, spatial effects, light and shadow, colour change”.[4] On the other hand, Gothic architecture “did not aim at all at eliminating matter”.[5] It was to produce the “saturation of all real substances and connections with a new concept of spiritual, universal values that would be worthy of immortalizing”.[6] Therefore, while in antiquity impulses concerning beauty went from matter to ideas and in early Christianity focused on spiritualization, in the Middle Ages they were directed from “from ideas, and the heavenly idea, to matter”.[7] This resulted in “magnifying the importance of the material world, and – through formal beauty and artistic abstraction – elevating transient, limited matter to the kingdom of ideal goods of the mankind”.[8]


[1] In this regard, one can distinguish between the religious, the philosophical and the psychological understanding of the concept of “spirituality”; cf. R. Grzegorczykowa, “Co o fenomenie duchowości mówi język?”, in: Fenomen duchowości, A. Grzegorczyk, J. Sójka, R. Koschany eds., Poznań, 2006, pp. 22–24.

[2] Quoted in: W. Tatarkiewicz, Estetyka średniowieczna, Wrocław, 1962, p. 24.

[3] Ibidem, p. 32.

[4] M. Dvořák, “Idealizm i naturalizm w rzeźbie i malarstwie gotyckim”, transl. into Polish A. Sąpoliński, in: Max Dvořák i jego teoria dziejów sztuki, L. Kalinowski ed., Warszawa, 1974, p. 57. Translation of all quotations from Polish by A.G.

[5] Ibidem.

[6] Ibidem, p. 61

[7] Ibidem.

[8] Ibidem, pp. 61–62.

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