Okay…Here’s the Serious Article About Gargoyles and John Scotus Eruigena

I could’t help a bit of fun last time, so here’s the less frivolous version for those who take their gargoyles seriously! No gurning in this one I promise.

John Scotus Eriugena wrote in the 9th century how sometimes the presence of ugly details within a broader setting allows us to recognise all the more the beauty of the whole: “For anything that is considered deformed in itself as part of a whole not only becomes beautiful in the totality, because it is well ordered, but is also a cause of Beauty in general; thus wisdom is illuminated by the relation to foolishness, knowledge by comparison with ignorance, which is merely imperfection and wanting, life by death, light by the opposition of shadows, worthy things by the lack of praise for them, and to be brief, all virtues only win praise by comparison with the opposite vices but without this comparison they would not be worthy of praise…As is the case with a beautiful painting, for example. For all that is ordered according to the design of divine Providence is good, beautiful and just. Indeed what could be better than the fact that the comparison of opposites lets us sing the ineffable praises of both the universe and the Creator?’ (De divisione naturae, V; quoted in The History of Beauty by Umberto Eco).

It seems to me that there are two principles being described here. The first is that our ability to apprehend beauty is heightened when it is contrasted with ugliness. I think that this is a concession, albeit a welcome one, to those of us who are not fully developed in our ability to apprehend beauty. The greater that ability, the more we are able to recognise it as a good in itself and the less we need contrast to do so.

The second point that seems to be coming out here is slightly different, that local deviations from perfect order contribute to the a greater beauty in the whole. It occurs to met that this is similar to the idea that evil is permitted because it allows a greater good to come forth from it. So an evil that is known only in isolation can seem pointless, but were we to know the full truth or, as the expression goes were we able to ‘see the bigger picture’, we could see the greater good is that will come out of it and so the knowledge of this makes the wider horizon even more beautiful to the eye.

There are a number of thoughts of how, at a very practical level, these principles come into play in the composition design of paintings. I was taught that while there should be an overall sense of order and symmetry that runs through the painting, one does not want to impose formulae for  proportions and harmony absolutely rigidly. Rather, one uses them as a first guide in the planning process, then at the end you look the whole and ask yourself the basic question ‘how does it look?’ At that point you should be prepared to modify it subtly so that at an intuitive level it just looks right (without reference to mathematics).  So it is a combination of step by step reason and intuitive judgement that produces the finished article. If one the work of the artist is too rigidly fomulaic, then the finished painting tends to look sterile and dull. I was told that this is just like the human face. While faces are symmetrical, broadly speaking, when one examines closely no face is perfectly symmetrical. And if we draw faces that are perfectly symmetrical they do not look human – they look as though they belong to an android.

David Clayton

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David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at thewayofbeauty.org.

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