Hundreds of millions of neurons in our brains are devoted to visual processing. More space and activity in the brain concerns itself with sight than with any of our other senses. We are highly visual beings, and just as our skin loves the feel of fine fabrics, our eyes yearn to appreciate beauty. Over the course of millennia, our ancestors distilled their appreciation for beauty into works of art and philosophy that form our concept of classical aesthetics.
Over the course of centuries, artists around the world have built schools of technique and philosophy dedicated to the study and creation of beauty. Painting, sculpture, and architecture are the classic pillars of visual expression in the West. In Japan, flower arranging is one of the three classical arts of refinement.
Looking back to the masters of the European Renaissance such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, their skill in creating beauty was not confined to any one format. They mastered the idea of visual beauty at its root, then built, carved, and painted some of the most beautiful works ever created. They managed teams of artisans and apprentices to carry out their grand plans. They designed cathedrals and fountains. They painted frescoes of heaven and revived the conceptualization of divinity using newly discovered techniques from ancient Rome and Greece.
Millions of people flock to Paris and Venice every year, lining up for hours to stare at paintings and buildings that have remained unchanged for centuries. How do these old, static images compete with the allure of smartphones and billion-dollar movie franchises? It’s simple. They’re beautiful.
Our brains have been trained by our genetic and cultural ancestors to recognize beauty when we see it. The way the sense works is similar to how we can recognize danger. We just know it. Classical aesthetics are the inherited understanding of how to create and recognize this natural sense of beauty.
A study in classical aesthetics
To understand the impact of beauty and its importance to humankind, I spoke with Eric Bess, a talented classical oil painter and an art professor at Wittenberg University in the United States. “There is a thinker named Immanuel Kant. One of the things I gather from his statements on our ability to judge beauty is that we don’t need to know about something to judge it as beautiful,” Bess says. “For instance, we don’t need to know anything about sunsets to experience them. We just witness them with our senses, and somehow we’re overwhelmed with a sense of beauty.”
Like a gorgeous sunset, fine art can create a sense of immediate appreciation. Moreover, it also includes other layers of meaning and messages. Some are intentional and communicated through the composition, while others come through more subtly. A painting doesn’t just communicate an artist’s vision to its viewer. The viewer connects with the painting and it becomes a tool for self-engagement. It starts an internal conversation.
“If you lack an understanding of what’s displayed, your perception will be limited. But if you just sit in front of it and really try to ask, ‘What does this mean?’ you can learn a lot about yourself in that process,” Bess says.
Every element in a work of art originates from the artist’s choice: the main subject, the background elements, the use of light and shade, and the positioning of the details. According to Bess, those choices are all guided by moral values.
The character of the artist influences the conversation that takes place inside the viewer’s mind. What questions will the viewer ponder? What mood does the work create? And most importantly, where does the journey of discovery lead?
The story of the European Renaissance isn’t just a story about painters and stone workers discovering better techniques to create art. It’s a story about rediscovering wisdom from the past, and about generations of artists and thinkers guiding the development of culture through ideals of beauty. The resurgence of ancient Greek philosophy was as critical to the Renaissance as Filippo Brunelleschi’s rediscovery of how to build domes in architecture.
Plato and the Divine
“During the Renaissance, Marsilio Ficino was one the first people to translate Plato’s texts into Latin for everyone reading at that time, which is one of the reasons why the rebirth happened. Plato became a big influence on the Renaissance,” Bess says. “One of the texts that he really loved was The Symposium, which is about beauty and how our experiences of beauty on earth remind us of the divine. It’s almost like a path back. If we experience beauty here on earth, step by step we can go back to the ultimate beauty, the divine beauty.”
These Platonic ideals, which would have been called heresy and sacrilege during the Dark Ages, swept through Christianity in the 15th and 16th centuries. They fueled a new interpretation of humanity’s connection to heaven and codified artistic techniques that have come to define classical aesthetics. Even though the two religious traditions differed immensely, the philosophy of how people connect to the divine is something universal and applicable to all cultures.
“Everything leads back to the divine if you’re looking for it,” Bess says.
Classical Chinese painters held a similar belief, and stressed meditation and clearing the mind before picking up their brush pens to paint or write calligraphy. Their theory arises from the Daoist concept of wuwei (having no intention) and the Buddhist concept of karma (the manifestation of negative energy through negative thoughts and actions). The artists didn’t wish to infuse their karma into the paintings, and they focused on cultivating their character to create art that more closely captured the essence of their subjects and connected it to the divine.
“In Phaedrus, Plato describes the gods in the heavens as riding chariots, carrying a host of celestial bodies,” says Bess, referring to a scene that seems straight out of a ceiling fresco. “There are souls following behind, trying to keep up with the gods. If they can’t keep up, they fall back, and at some point, they lose track of the gods and come to earth, while the gods continue on their journey, spiraling all the way up to the top of the heavens. Then when they get to the top, they look at the heaven beyond and nourish themselves with it before descending back to their homes, where they drink the nectar of the gods and begin the same journey the following day.”
Seeing the connection
When we look at Raphael’s painting The School of Athens, we see the gratitude that the Christian Church held for Plato and the Greeks for helping them understand the heaven that Jesus taught them about. The painting isn’t just a portrait of Raphael’s favourite people from history. He modeled the central figure of Plato on his own mentor, Leonardo da Vinci. Plato’s finger points upward towards heaven, indicating to his apprentice Aristotle the source of genuine truth and beauty. The painting connects two eras and two traditions. Raphael painted this depiction of Greek divinity on the wall of a room in the Vatican, literally cementing the connection between Christian and Platonic thought.
This history can be found in the works of Renaissance artists as well as all art created with classical aesthetics by the generations that followed, trying, like Plato’s souls, to keep up with the gods. The entire tradition that led to the creation of a work of art is contained within its details.
Our eyes can translate the beauty of the world for us, as long as we teach them the language of art and the wisdom of tradition.