yes, both need an apology - the (allegedly) sour & severe ascetic (1) as well as the (allegedly) effete aesthete (2).
Though ostensibly opposites, the ascetic and the aesthetic attitude are often looked upon with similar suspicion. Perhaps because at times, however different, they do seem equally to disregard basic human urges. Thus both came to be seen as an elitist insult to our common, instinctive sense of pleasure.
But, looking closer, it’s not only as victims of a certain public contempt that these apparent opposites meet. In fact, the aesthetic and the ascetic might very well not be mutually exclusive categories at all. Nay, it’s precisely where the ascetic and aesthetic attitudes intersect that it gets really exciting …. because that’s where springs joy.
Yes, joy! - pure, gentle, disinterested joy (4) .
Call it joy , or call it an aesthetic shock. Its habitual symptoms are: tears (almost) welling up, a surprised shudder, a slight trembling - awe followed by feelings of silent euphoria & humble gratitude - speechless wonder followed by an avid urge to take it all in, every single minute detail - the desire to stay there forever, contemplating, basking indefinitely in that state of grace.
It’s the kind of shock also felt in the great Gothic cathedrals, which however, in all their upwardly soaring grandeur, in all their complexity of decoration & iconography seem so far removed from the sober Fontenay abbey, with its bare, uncluttered architecture.
And indeed, habitually, the ascetic Saint Bernard (sponsor of simple & serene architecture) is pitched against the undauntedly & lavishly aesthetic Abbot Suger of St Denis (spiritual father of sumptuously decorated & illuminated Gothic churches).
Art historical lore has it that St Bernard was “simply blind to the visible world and its beauty”. He was in pursuit of an austere ideal of monastic life (5) and is still famous for his (suspiciously eloquent … ) diatribes against the profusion of decorations & grotesque sculptures in Romanesque churches .
Erwin Panofsky (6) does nuance this image of the sour & stern St Bernard – but still sees him as bitterly opposed to aesthetic delights. Panofsky speculates that St Bernard’s articulate tirades against art were not so much a sign of his insensitivity to its charms but rather show that he was keenly aware of art’s temptations which would distract humans (& monks in particular) from their higher, spiritual calling (7).
And then we have Abbott Suger, credited with both an ardent aesthetic sense and a shrewd understanding of how ecclesiastical authorities’ fear of art’s sensuality could be assuaged: by persuading them that “the dull mind rises to truth through that which is material”.
In several memorable poems he launches into ecstatic odes of splendor & light, which reunite material sensuality and spiritual elation (8).
Now, taking as proof only my own senses’ humble impressions (9) – impressions gathered in the bare Fontenay-abbey, in the sumptuous Reims & Chartres cathedrals , I’d say that the ascetic and the aesthetic do meet in the transcendence (10) of lines and light .
And that austerity can very well acquire its own profusion of aesthetical delights. Those pure lines of arcades & pillars & vaults & arches ... that pure light streaming in through many windows ....
Thus sheltered by rhythmed space, enveloped in ravishing light – who would worry still about the world, who would not feel elevated and certain in his joy?
So perhaps one should envy those monks … with their regime of simple productive manual work and prayer, their walks around the cloister-garden, their holy masses in that sheltering abbey-space (maybe also with soaring chants? ), undisturbed by any rousing or disquieting images (neither hell nor heaven are depicted in Fontenay).
Watched over only by a single graceful Madonna-statue, basking in her unconditionally loving & welcoming gaze.
a flourishing abundance of ornamental notes of which St Bernard surely would have disapproved.
(1) "ascetic 1 : practicing strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline 2 : austere in appearance, manner, or attitude"
& “self-denial” : in this case I suppose it concerns denying to the self any indulgence in facile sensuous & bodily pleasures
= “one having or affecting sensitivity to the beautiful especially in art". That “or affecting” captures of course the negative connotations of the fussy, effete artificiality associated with the term “aesthete”
(3) makes one wonder what “aesthetic ascetic” might mean: an attractive, good-looking ascetic person?
(4) I had first written “ecstasy” – but that would not do at all, no, no, a simple & pure word is needed here – not a heavily loaded term as ecstasy
(5) “a life of utter self-denial with respect to personal comfort, food and sleep”. “Silence and a perpetual remoteness from all secular turmoil compel the mind to meditate on celestial things” . (quotes pertaining to St Bernard found in Panofsky’s essay “Abbot Suger of St.-Denis”)
(6) Erwin Panofsky: the most insightful, sensitive and erudite art historian ever
(7) “St Bernard disapproved of art, not because he did not feel its charms but because he felt them too keenly not to consider them dangerous. He banished art, like Plato[…], because it belonged on the wrong side of a world that he could see only as an unending revolt of the temporal against the eternal, of human reason against faith, of the senses against the spirit.”
(8) “For bright is that which is brightly coupled with the bright,
And bright is the noble edifice which is pervaded by the new light, Which stands enlarged in our time”,
“Marvel not at the gold and the expense but at the craftsmanship of the work. Bright is the noble work, but, being nobly bright, the work should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights, to the True Light […]. In what manner it be inherent in this world the golden door defines, the dull mind rises to truth through that which is material. And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.”
(9) And if you won’t take my word for it, dear reader, maybe (well, just maybe) this post’s pictures ( taken at Fontenay) may convince you of my thesis that this supposedly austere abbey does appeal to our most sensual & exalted sense of light.
(10)Transcendent! Suspicious word isn’t it, not quite tangible at all & with an equally doubtful list of semi-synonyms: inspiring, inspirational, uplifting, awe-inspiring, moving, magnificent