Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Henrik Lagerlund


  • John MarenbonEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-024-1151-5_13-2


According to a “Traditional” view, there was a medieval aesthetics, which centered around the theories of beauty developed by theologians like Albert the Great, Ulrich of Strasbourg, and Thomas Aquinas. They argued that beauty lies in the relation between the form and matter of a hylomorphic concrete whole. Although they were writing in the context of beauty as a property of all things that exist, some of them allowed for different degrees of beauty in different things. Traditionalist theorists put these ideas together with material from technical treatises on individual arts (such as poetry, music, and architecture) and ideas implied by medieval artifacts in order to construct a medieval aesthetic theory. Recently, however, strong arguments have been brought to suggest that there was no such thing as medieval aesthetics, given that the connection between beauty and human-made artifacts, central to many modern aesthetic theories, was not made.

Encyclopedia entries are not, usually, a suitable place for discussions of methodology, and least of all survey articles, to which readers look for a clear and balanced introduction to a field. Yet, a survey of what is called medieval aesthetics cannot avoid questions of method, because it is a matter of dispute whether medieval aesthetics is a subject at all. While there are a number of modern studies of medieval aesthetics, written by expert historians and philosophers, there are other recent historians and philosophers who put forward powerful reasons for thinking that there was no aesthetics in the Middle Ages. Given that encyclopedias are designed to celebrate the quarter-truth that there exists a stock of methodologically uncontroversial, fixed knowledge, which gives answers rather than poses fresh questions, most of this entry is devoted to explaining the “Traditional View,” according to which there is medieval aesthetics. At the end of my discussion, however, I briefly explain the powerful arguments put by the Revisionists that medieval aesthetics is as much a nonsubject as medieval molecular biology or medieval nanotechnology. I do not discuss a recent revision of the Revisionist view (Marenbon 2009). Despite that difference, for some of my discussion here I draw on this earlier piece of mine.

Traditional View

The traditional view is based on a certain conception of the subject matter of aesthetics (in general), which lies behind most aesthetic philosophy from the later eighteenth to the later twentieth century. Aesthetics, they consider, is about beauty, but beauty especially (though not exclusively) as manifested in works of art (by which are meant literary, pictorial, sculptural, architectural, and musical artifacts). The traditionalists acknowledge that there was no single branch of study in the Middle Ages devoted to this subject matter. But they believe that there was an underlying medieval aesthetics that can be extracted from a variety sources: theoretical discussions (often theological), technical manuals of the different arts, and medieval artifacts themselves. Many of them make use of the thirteenth-century discussions of beauty. Since these theories are quite intricate and seem prima facie to be the medieval material nearest to the concerns of aesthetic philosophy, I shall look at the most important of these, before considering more briefly the medieval treatises on individual arts – separately. Then, I shall consider how the traditionalists put together their views of a medieval aesthetics.

Theories of Beauty

Explicit and developed medieval discussions of beauty are not found until the early thirteenth century. In the background lie two different types of theory, which they could read in the ancient sources. On the one hand, there was the conception of beauty as a special sort of composite quality, which they read in Cicero and Augustine. For these authors, an object is beautiful in virtue of the arrangement of its parts in a congruent way, and the delightfulness of its color (a formula that would leave it open for a thing’s beauty not to be a quality it has in itself, but in virtue of its effect on human observers). Some things, therefore, are (more or less) beautiful, and many things not at all beautiful. On the other hand, medieval authors read about beauty in Chap. 4 of On the Divine Names, written in the fifth century by Pseudo-Dionysius and available in Latin from the ninth century. He presents beauty as a transcendental attribute, along with goodness (with which, he says, it is identical): all things have it by virtue of existing, since God is beautiful and he transmits beauty to all things.

It was in the early thirteenth century that the theory of the transcendentals was first carefully developed, and there are discussions of beauty in this context by writers such as William of Auvergne and the followers of Alexander of Hales who compiled the Summa Alexandri (cf. Pouillon 1946). At the same period, Robert Grosseteste was able, as a result of his general cosmological theory, to reconcile the idea that everything is beautiful with the Ciceronian–Augustinian definition in terms of color and proportion. Grosseteste conceived the entire universe as an irradiation of light from its ultimate source, God, and, on the medieval view, color is an effect of light. He also thought that the universe is constructed in accord with the laws of geometry, and so everything is proportioned as well as colored.

The three most important discussions of beauty by medieval theologians are those by Albert the Great and two of his pupils, Ulrich of Strasbourg and Thomas Aquinas. The theories are, on examination, very different from one another, but they are alike in attempting to bring together the Ciceronian–Augustinian view of beauty as a composite quality with Pseudo-Dionysius’ transcendental conception of it. Albert treats the subject most fully in his commentary on On the Divine Names (Aquinas 1927: 417–443 – it is wrongly attributed to Aquinas in this edition), and so it is not surprising that he identifies beauty with goodness, though he allows that it differs from it “by reason” in certain ways. The identification is deeper than extensional equivalence ((x) (x is good) <-> (x is beautiful)), since all the transcendental attributes have by definition a universal extension and so are extensionally equivalent, and yet neither Albert nor anyone thinks that, for instance, truth (another transcendental) is identical to goodness. It is a moot point, therefore, whether Albert is thinking of beauty as anything more than a way of being good. He helps us to understand what is involved in being beautiful through an analogy with more tangible beauty of the Ciceronian–Augustinian sort. Just as a body is said to be beautiful “from the resplendence of color over proportioned limbs,” so all things are beautiful by the “resplendence of the substantial or accidental form over proportioned and bounded parts of matter.” What does Albert mean by this comparison? According to the Aristotelian metaphysics that Albert and his contemporaries accepted, all natural things (except, in the view of some, angels and separated souls) besides God are composites of matter and their substantial form, which makes them the sort of thing they are – a human, or a dog, or a flower. They also are the subjects for accidental forms, such as having certain quantities and qualities and relations. For most thinkers of this period, it is matter which individuates forms, and so it makes sense to think of it as being “proportioned and bounded.” And so Albert’s comparison is not far-fetched. But there is the important difference that, whereas a person’s limbs may fail to be proportioned and, in the dark, may not have color resplendent over them, any matter-form composite will, on Albert’s theory, have the beauty of form resplendent over proportioned matter. Moreover, while in principle, a thing may have more or less even of a transcendental attribute, it is hard to see how any one matter-form composite is more or less beautiful than another in Albert’s sense. For this reason, Albert’s conception of metaphysical beauty is rather distant from what “beauty” normally means.

By contrast, Ulrich of Strasbourg (De summo bono (On the Highest Good) 1987–1989, II.4) does manage to find a way of admitting degrees of beauty into a theory which, like Albert’s, is based on the way in which forms inform matter. Not every bodily individual perfectly exemplifies the species of which it is a member. In order to be perfectly beautiful, the thing must satisfy the four criteria of quantity, number of parts, relation between the size of the parts and the whole, and disposition. The first two of these requirements are fairly straightforward and rule out certain sorts of abnormalities: for its quantity to be correct, something must be of the appropriate size for its species; neither a dwarf, nor a giant, for instance; a human fails to have the correct number of parts if he or she is one-legged or one-eyed. The third requirement is stricter, since a dog with an unusually long tail or a person with too large a bottom would fail it (in line with a certain widespread intuitive notion of beauty). For the fourth requirement, disposition, Ulrich gives the example of the balance of humors in a human. Many people, according to the medieval theory of humors, do not have their humors in balance, but have, for instance, a choleric temperament or a melancholic one: they would therefore fail to be perfectly beautiful according to Ulrich. These criteria, therefore, would permit quite a fine ranking of beauty, based not just on the external characteristics of things, but on their internal bodily constitutions.

This sort of beauty is, however, just one of four general types distinguished by Ulrich. It is essential corporeal beauty. There is also accidental corporeal beauty. Ulrich separates the relationships between substantial form and its matter, and the matter-form composite and its accidents, which Albert considers together when analysing beauty. Essential beauty is the result of the correct relationship between the former pair, so that the bodily thing is a perfect example of its species, and accidental beauty results from the characteristics of symmetry and color that it has from accidents of quantity and quality. Rather than, like Albert, allude to the Ciceronian–Augustinian definition of beauty as an analogy, Ulrich thus incorporates it into his theory, as a different sort of non-species-based beauty. Ulrich also considers that noncorporeal things, such as angels and separated souls, can be beautiful, essentially or accidentally; for instance, a soul is accidentally beautiful through having knowledge. He does not, however, go into much detail over this side of this theory.

Despite the number of books that have been written on Thomas Aquinas’ theory of beauty (or even more ambitiously, his “aesthetics”), he writes about beauty only very rarely and always in passing, in his commentary on Pseudo-Dionysius’ On Divine Names and in the Summa theologiae. There are four passages that are frequently quoted. In Chap. 4, Lectio 5 of the Commentary, Aquinas identifies brightness (claritas) and consonance (consonantia) as characteristics of beauty, and he remarks that “although the beautiful and the good are the same in subject, because both brightness and consonance are contained in the definition of the good, yet they differ by reason, because the beautiful adds beyond the good an ordering to the cognitive power that it is thus.” In the Summa theologiae (I, q. 5, a. 4 ad 1), Aquinas remarks that “in the subject the good and the beautiful are the same, because they are both based on the same thing, that is, on the form.” But the good is in respect of the appetite: good is what all things seek after. The beautiful, however, is in respect of the “cognitive power” (vis cognoscitiva), he says, “for things are called beautiful which please when they are seen.” And so, he argues, the beautiful consists in due proportion, because sense is “a certain ratio” and it delights in things that are similar to it. The idea of sense as a ratio is taken from Aristotle’s De anima 424a, where he sees the senses as means or ratios, which can be destroyed by sensations so strong that they lose their balance. In a later quaestio in the Summa theologiae (I, q. 39, a. 8), he explains – while talking about the beauty of the Son of God – that beauty consists, not just in due proportion, but also in wholeness or perfection (a thing must not be missing a part) and brightness (claritas), as exemplified by having a shining color. And in IaIIe, q. 27, a. 1, ad 3, Aquinas says again that the beautiful is the same as the good, but differs “by reason alone.” Then he goes on to explain that, whereas the good is that in which the appetite comes to rest, “it pertains to the definition of the beautiful that the appetite comes to rest in the sight or knowledge of it.” He adds that, for this reason, those senses are chiefly concerned with beauty which are most cognitive – sight and hearing (on which see McQueen 1993). Finally, he summarizes his point by saying that “the beautiful adds to the good a certain ordering to the cognitive power, so that the good may be said to be that which without qualification pleases the appetite, but the beautiful may be said to be that the apprehension of which pleases.”

Interpretations of these remarks center on two problems. The first is how to reconcile the side of the theory which identifies proportion/consonance, brightness, and wholeness as features in a thing which make it beautiful, with the side of the theory which emphasizes the role of the cognizer with regard to the beauty of a thing (by contrast with its goodness, for instance). Most interpreters insist that Aquinas has an objective conception of beauty – that is to say, things are beautiful in virtue of attributes that they really have, but that we have to make a special use of our intellectual faculties in order to grasp this beauty. Writing originally in 1920, Jacques Maritain (1965) identified a special power of intellectual intuition by which we grasp the beauty of things. More recent analysts (especially Eco 1970: 60–63, 2007: 281–317) have shown clearly that Aquinas does not suggest or have room for a notion of intellectual intuition, and they have elaborated their own accounts of how we cognize beauty (cf. Mothersill 1984: 323–366; Eco 1970; Jordan 1989; Marenbon 2017).

The second problem of interpretation is whether beauty is in fact a transcendental for Aquinas. Most interpreters believe that it is: their strongest argument for this view is that Aquinas identifies the beautiful with the good, and good is certainly a transcendental for him. But Aquinas never explicitly lists beauty as a transcendental, and in his presentation of the transcendentals in De veritate 1.1 beauty is not included. Kovach (1961) – the most thorough collection and analysis of texts on Aquinas and beauty – suggests that Aquinas came to include beauty among the transcendentals only after he had written De veritate. He proposes that for Aquinas beauty was a sort of super-transcendental, which brings the other transcendental attributes together. But Aertsen (1991) has argued powerfully that beauty is not an independent transcendental in Aquinas (nor in general in the thirteenth-century tradition). In his view, Aquinas thought that being beautiful is just a way of being good.

An even more radically minimalist interpretation of Aquinas’ remarks on beauty is possible. All things are good in respect of their forms, Aquinas believes (and he explains why – to be good is to be sought as an end; things are sought as ends because they are perfect, and by being in act, they are in some way perfect; and it is the form which makes a thing be in act (Summa theologiae, I, q. 5, a.3)). Things are beautiful, too, in respect of their forms and the fact that – as perfections – these forms are objectively ends to be sought. There is nothing else in the nature of things on which beauty is based and so, in subject, beauty and goodness are identical. But a thing is called “beautiful” only when simply seeing or knowing its form is pleasing, and that happens when the object has, by virtue of its form, certain qualities (proportion, brightness, wholeness) that delight the cognizer. There is no reason at all to think that all things have these qualities. In the case of proportion, Aquinas says that it delights cognizers because the cognizing senses are themselves proportions. This would suggest that finding something beautiful depends on its having attributes that accord with those of the cognitive powers – not those of this or that cognizer, however, but rather those which cognitive powers must have if they are to cognize. And so on this interpretation, judgments of beauty are for Aquinas, just as they would be for Kant, subjectively universal.

However he is interpreted, Aquinas, like Albert, Ulrich, and the earlier thirteenth-century theologians, developed his ideas about beauty within the context set by Pseudo-Dionysius’ view that beauty is an attribute of God transmitted to all creation, and the Ciceronian–Augustinian view of beauty as a complex quality in the background. One contemporary author, who is not a theologian, had an entirely different source and so a completely different approach. Witelo’s treatise on perspective is an adapted translation from an eleventh-century Arabic author, al-Haytham. For al-Haytham (II.3), an object is beautiful just in case it has properties which affect viewers (he is concerned just with visual beauty, given that he is writing about optics) in such a way that they describe them as beautiful. What are these properties? They include color, but, in the main, they are grouped in antithetical pairs. For example, al-Haytham gives the pair discrete/continuous: separate stars, he believes, are more beautiful than nebulae, but a meadow is more beautiful when its vegetation is continuous than when it is broken up into discrete patches and so is sparse. Clearly, al-Haytham does not believe that his paired characteristics provide a formula for showing what is or is not beautiful. Rather, things are beautiful because they affect us in a certain sort of way, and his antitheses provide a framework for recording some of the different characteristics of different things which have this effect. Witelo makes one important change to al-Hazen’s theory of beauty. Al-Hazen shows no awareness that what is considered beautiful may vary from culture to culture. Witelo (Baeumker 1908: IV.148) recognizes that many types of beauty are based on custom, and that each race will consider that the characteristics of its own members are beautiful. An Arab like al-Hazen will, therefore, judge different colors and proportions beautiful in a human being than a Dane, Witelo explains, perhaps with it in mind that al-Hazen condemns blond hair and blue eyes as ugly.

Treatises on the Arts

Many treatises in the various areas now classified as art or the fine arts were written in the Middle Ages. They are, with a few exceptions, technical treatises and handbooks for practitioners, rather than second-order discussions of the issues considered by aestheticians today in connection with these arts – for instance, the nature of musical expression, or pictorial representation, or the relationship between authorial intention and the meaning of a text. In music, there was a highly theoretical approach, based upon Augustine’s and Boethius’ musical treatises, which made music into a branch of mathematics; and then there were a host of more practical handbooks. The De diversis artibus (On Different Arts) by Theophilus, probably from the twelfth century, is a treatise on how to use various types of materials (pigments, glues, varnishes) and how to work on various sorts of objects – walls, books, panels, glass, metal. Even the series of Arts of Poetry, such as Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s Poetria nova, written in Latin at the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth century and based partly on Horace and partly on rhetorical manuals, are mainly devoted to giving practical advice to the would-be poet. Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia (On Eloquence in the Vernacular) is an innovative and reflective discussion about language, but contains little in the way of philosophical reflection about poetry itself.

A Medieval Aesthetic: The Traditional Approach

Recent proponents of the traditional approach have included Edgar de Bruyne (author of a three-volume History of medieval aesthetics), the wide-ranging historian of aesthetics Władysław Tatarkiewickz, the renowned art historians Erwin Panofsky, Rosario Assunto, and Umberto Eco, as well as Neoscholastics such as Czapiewski and Kovach. The best of these studies are those by Panofsky and Eco: looking at them brings out the methodology shared by all these writers.

Although Panofsky concentrates on architecture and looks to general features of medieval thought rather than the more detailed theories of beauty and technical manuals discussed above, his way of constructing a medieval aesthetics shows very clearly the underlying methodology of the traditional approach. Panofsky was very impressed by the treatise written in the 1140s by Abbot Suger of St Denis, De rebus in sua administratione gestis (On the Things Done Under His Direction). Panofsky (Introduction to Suger 1946) argues that the treatise expresses ideas about aesthetics, inspired by Neoplatonism and the metaphysics of light, and that Suger was inspired by these theories in the way in which he had the cathedral built. Later, Panofsky generalized this way of seeing philosophical tendencies reflected in architectural design in his Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1957). The development of church architecture which led to the Gothic cathedral, unified in its space, and with its elements clearly differentiated, is seen as parallel to the path of scholastic thought towards the highly articulated clarity and the comprehensiveness of the synthesis of philosophy and religion which attributes to Aquinas.

There are two elements of soft Hegelianism underlying Panofsky’s approach. The first is the assumption that there is a certain spirit of a period, which can be found in works so different as a cathedral and a theological treatise. The second is the idea that discerning this spirit in its different manifestations and variations is the main task for the historian of philosophy. Medieval aesthetics will therefore be, not a collection of different and often opposed arguments, but a rather a unified (if varying and developing) outlook. These two soft Hegelian tendencies permeate the monumental work of de Bruyne, and they provide the unstated rationale for Eco’s studies of medieval aesthetics. Eco, however, is much more self-conscious than de Bruyne about his enterprise and the difficulties which it faces. He accepts that aesthetics did not exist as a recognized branch of philosophy, in the manner of, for instance, metaphysics or ethics, until Baumgarten’s Aesthetica (1750–1758). Moreover, if aesthetics is to be centered, in the eighteenth-century manner, on beauty as something perceived by the senses, then, he admits, there was little aesthetic reflection in the Middle Ages. But “if we mean by ‘Aesthetics’ a field of interests around the value ‘beauty,’ its definition, its function, and the ways of producing and enjoying it – then the Middle Ages spoke of aesthetics.” Particularly in his work on Aquinas’ aesthetics, Eco shows great ingenuity in extending various hints found in his writings into a complete theory about beauty. He recognizes that Aquinas does not have a philosophy of art, in today’s sense of the word, but, like de Bruyne and most of the other theorists, he makes the link between art and medieval theories of beauty by looking at technical treatises on individual arts.

Revisionist’s Objections: Arguments Against the Idea of Medieval Aesthetics

In the period from c. 1980 to present, various Revisionist arguments against the traditional approach have been made, especially by Paul Oskar Kristeller, Jan Aertsen, Andreas Speer, and Olivier Boulnois (2008). Putting together the various critics, the following counter-argument can be constructed.

There were indeed some scholastic discussions about beauty, but (Aertsen 1991) it is misleading to think that beauty was considered a transcendental attribute in its own right, like unity or truth. Rather, it is just envisaged as an aspect of goodness. Aquinas, who has been regarded as the central medieval aesthetic philosopher, had very little indeed to say about beauty (Speer 1990). Moreover, most of the theories of beauty were proposed in a theological context. Even where they concern a notion like that of beauty in its normal sense – an attribute that different things possess to different degrees, their subject is the beauty of natural things, not that of artifacts. The link between beauty and art, which characterizes modern aesthetics, is missing – and so, given medieval assumptions it must be. Human-made things were judged as being lower than natural – that is, created – ones. And there was no system of fine arts, distinguishing the subject matter of what is now aesthetics (centrally: literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, music) from other pursuits (Kristeller 1980). The “arts” were the liberal arts of language (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and mathematics (arithmetic, geometry, music – studied theoretically – and astronomy). Even when, in his Didascalicon, Hugh of St Victor (1961: II.21–28) takes the unusual step of listing seven mechanical arts along with the seven liberal ones, he just shows how distant medieval thinking was from the concept of the fine arts or art, as it is now understood. The mechanical arts are mostly practical crafts, such as agriculture, sailing, and weaving; “theatrical knowledge” turns out to include gymnastics and athletics, and painting and sculpture are included merely as subdivisions of arms-making.

Investigations by revisionist critics into individual works that had been used as sources for medieval aesthetics support this powerful line of counterargument. For example, a recent study of Suger’s De consecratione (Suger 1995) makes the case that, contrary to Panofsky’s reading, Suger’s treatise puts forward his views on the liturgy, ecclesiology, and history, in line with his political aims, and does not present St Denis as a work of art.

There is, besides, another type of criticism that can be made of the traditional approach, related to the second element of soft Hegelianism mentioned above. Even if the traditionalists’ conclusions are accepted, they merely establish that there was a certain, characteristically medieval way of thinking about aesthetics, but not that there was the rational debate about aesthetic positions that would make the period one in which the subject flourished as a field of philosophy. It is true that Eco (1970, 1956) presents a philosophically interesting theory as Aquinas’ aesthetics. But, as he makes clear, this theory is his own construction; Eco is informed by Aquinas’ overall thinking informs, but it is he who is responsible for this supposedly thirteenth-century aesthetic theory (see Marenbon 2017).

Addendum (2017). This article does not attempt to look at medieval aesthetics in Arabic, Hebrew or Greek. Some of the most important scholarly work recently has been done in connection with literature and literary criticism: see Allen 1982, Carruthers 2013, Minnis and Johnson 2005, Robertson 2017, Rosenfeld 2011.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Trinity CollegeUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK