A Problem of Aesthetics: But It Doesn’t Look Pretty!

One problem I come across regularly as a teacher of unusual medieval arts is the clash between modern aesthetics and medieval ones. It affects us especially in the SCA because we’re trying to recreate medieval arts the way they really were done, but we come to these arts with modern upbringing, and that upbringing tells us that certain things, styles, and combinations are prettier than other things, styles, and combinations. My students often grumble about their lack of masterful skill at an art they are just beginning to try, not knowing that the piece they just left on the table in disgust is easily the equal of one I’ve seen in a museum catalog, set in gold and worn to the grave.

I’d like to try to help alleviate this problem, using examples from several medieval arts. For those who may doubt the typicality of my examples, I’d like to suggest a Google image search of the key terms with the word ‘museum’ added in. Eliminate from your results anything out of period, replica, or not actually in a museum and I think you’ll see that they really are pretty typical.

Christ Enthroned from the Book of Kells, an early medieval manuscript
Take this dude, for example. Look at those eyes.

Here is an early medieval illumination from a rather famous manuscript. The paints are made from valuable mineral compounds, the ‘paper’ is fine vellum, and the work of making this single page must have taken weeks. To the modern eye, there are some obvious places where we’d like to improve. The central figure looks like a coloring book: flat, no shading, vacant expression, feet splayed unnaturally etc. But to even think like that misses the point. This was high art for its time. The style, much like the style of ancient Egyptian temple walls, is part of what makes it distinctly early medieval. If we start trying to shade and make things look three dimensional and give the guy a living expression, it will suddenly become late medieval if not Renaissance, and the magic of pretending our copy was made in eighth century Ireland will be lost completely. Fortunately for the patience of our wonderful scribal artisans, most of us ‘get’ this part of how arts have changed, and nobody is regularly given loads of crap for making appropriately vacant-eyed, Flat Stanley figures in early period style illumination.

An actual Viking glass bead festoon set.
An actual Viking glass bead festoon set.

Get away from the arts-on-paper, though, and the aesthetics problem becomes more noticeably pervasive. Here’s an easy start: Viking bling. Look past the dullness of the surface of the glass beads (that’s largely from age). Note how there’s no color theme? No symmetrical even placement of special beads? See how boring the beads mostly look? This isn’t an especially boring set. The owner was wealthy, and had five strands to show, in many colors and quite a few with patterning. They even seem to have made an effort to match them (roughly) for size. But they’re not pretty enough in our modern eyes, and I promise, if an exact replica of this set were given as a prize, the recipient would feel awkward in their efforts to act thankful (unless, of course, they’d seen the original). Once again, in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, symmetry and limited color schemes start to become more common in jewelry, but that doesn’t really start to happen until the tail end of our period.

The incredibly bejeweled crown of the Holy Roman Empire
‘That crown is too fancy,’ said no medieval Royal ever.

How about crowns? Surely our gaudy fantastic crowns are super period, right? Actually, I have yet to see an SCA crown that looks even half as bedazzled as the lovely 10th-11th century example here. Royalty didn’t wear their crowns all day every day, even back then, but our modern royals wear so few gems, they might be mistaken for mere lower nobility if seen in period. However, in our modern eyes, this many gems is ‘trying too hard’, it’s gauche, and looks too much like costume jewelry. What we need to remember is that costume jewelry started out with copying real jewelry, actually made of gems and precious metals. Who wore the originals? Actual royalty and nobles. Who wore the copies? People in costumes: actors and actresses portraying the highborn and incredibly wealthy, but on a theatrical company’s budget, which back in the day, wasn’t all that much. This is again a fairly typical example of its medieval art. To the medieval mind, the idea that there could be too many stones is like the idea that you could wear too many colors: absurd. More stones and more colors meant more wealth, and that was the very thing the wealthy and powerful sought to display.

I’d like to challenge you to pursue this issue in an art of your choosing. Search for images of actual medieval artifacts, or, failing that, medieval images of the things you want to see (understanding that the painters, too, had ideas about what was pretty, and that it may not match what was true). Immerse yourself in all of the ones you can prove to be authentic, whether you think they’re pretty or not. Try to see what they have in common, how they are similar, and you will begin to understand the aesthetic of the time. Remember, too that museums put out the pretty stuff on display, but they own a good deal of authentic stuff that they don’t choose to display. It’s not always because it is partial, or faded, or in need of restoration. It is very frequently because someone, somewhere, with modern eyes, took one look, and said, “Eeew.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s