Aristotle, the Cross, and Gothic Art

Barcelona Cathedral, August 2015 - photograph by Kevin Anthony Davis
Barcelona Cathedral

The Cathedral of Barcelona, known in Catalan as Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia. Photograph is mine.


What made the Church’s art distinctive in the West during the Middle Ages?

Joseph Ratzinger gives an answer in his The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press). It is not a long answer, covering only a few pages, but I think it is worth sharing. The following quotes and excerpts can be found on pp. 126-128.

The Narrative of the Cross

According to Ratzinger, the West distinguishes itself from the Eastern Church, and its shared patrimony with the East, in the art that we know as the Gothic. It is in the Gothic that “the central image becomes different.” How? The risen and victorious Lord, who brings harmony and rest, is “superseded by the image of the crucified Lord in the agony of his passion and death.” This is the distinctive narrative that dominates the Gothic, and moreover the focus on narrative and history is what is most distinctive. As Ratzinger continues:

The story is told of the historical events of the Passion, but the Resurrection is not made visible. The historical and narrative aspect of art comes to the fore. It has been said that the mysterial image has been replaced by the devotional image.

We will soon see what this means, namely the contrast between “mysterial” and “devotional.”

From Plato to Aristotle

With the help of Paul Evdokimov, Ratzinger explains one important factor that contributes to this change in the West. Evdokimov was a Russian-French Orthodox theologian and professor in Paris. According to Evdokimov, we must look at the shift from Platonism to Aristotelianism. Here is how Ratzinger summarizes it:

Platonism sees sensible things as shadows of the eternal archetypes. In the sensible we can and should know the archetypes and rise up through the former to the latter. Aristotelianism rejects the doctrine of Ideas. The thing, composed of matter and form, exists in its own right. Through abstraction I discern the species to which it belongs. …The relationship of the spiritual and the material has changed and with it man’s attitude to reality as it appears to him. For Plato, the category of the beautiful had been definitive. The beautiful and the good, ultimately the beautiful and God, coincide. Through the appearance of the beautiful we are wounded in our innermost being, and that wound grips us and takes us beyond ourselves; it stirs longing into flight and moves us toward the truly Beautiful, to the Good in itself.

This Platonist understanding is seen in the iconography of the East and the theology that supports it, though Ratzinger highlights the Church’s transformation of Platonism “by the light of Tabor” and ultimately by the Incarnate God — whereby “the material order as such has been given a new dignity and a new value.” But in the medieval West, this Christian Platonism “largely disappears,” according to Evdokimov by way of Ratzinger. That is probably putting it too strongly, but here is how Ratzinger explains it:

…now the art of painting strives first and foremost to depict events that have taken place. Salvation history is seen less as a sacrament than as a narrative unfolded in time. Thus the relationship to the liturgy also changes. It is seen as a kind of symbolic reproduction of the event of the Cross. Piety responds by turning chiefly to meditation on the mysteries of the life of Jesus. Art finds its inspiration less in the liturgy than in popular piety, and popular piety is in turn nourished by the historical images in which it can contemplate the way to Christ, the way of Jesus himself and its continuation in the saints. …A devotion to the Cross of a more historicizing kind replaces orientation to the Oriens, to the risen Lord who has gone ahead of us.

Ratzinger then cautions us not to “exaggerate the differences” that have developed in the West. “True, the depiction of Christ dying in pain on the Cross is something new, but it still depicts him who bore our pains, by whose stripes we are healed.” There is still a mystery into which we must enter.

The Consolation of the Cross

The example of Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, which Ratzinger uses to illustrate, is familiar to every student of Karl Barth. Ratzinger uses it to illustrate his point that the Gothic allowed for a deeper sense of our sharing in the mystery of Christ’s redemption:

Though Grünewald’s altarpiece takes the realism of the Passion to a radical extreme, the fact remains that it was an image of consolation. It enabled the plague victims cared for by the Antonians to recognize that God identified with them in their fate, to see that he had descended into their suffering and that their suffering lay hidden in his. There is a decisive turn to what is human, historical, in Christ, but it is animated by a sense that these human afflictions of his belong to the mystery. The images are consoling, because they make visible the overcoming of our anguish in the incarnate God’s sharing of our suffering, and so they bear within them the message of the Resurrection.

You can see how Ratzinger is bringing together the realism characteristic of the West and the mystery characteristic of the East. As he puts it, “The mystery is unfolded in an extremity of concreteness, and popular piety is enabled thereby to reach the heart of the liturgy in a new way” (emphasis mine). These images “come from prayer, from interior meditation on the way of Christ.” Indeed, the point of Western realism in its Gothic form is not to draw attention to the phenomenal reality alone, in a sort of reductive or positivist way. As Ratzinger explains, the images “do not show just the ‘surface of the skin’, the external sensible world; they, too, are intended to lead us through mere outward appearance and open our eyes to the heart of God.” He continues:

What we are suggesting here about the images of the Cross applies also to all the rest of the “narrative” art of the Gothic style. What power of inward devotion lies in the images of the Mother of God! They manifest the new humanity of the faith. Such images are an invitation to prayer, because they are permeated with prayer from within. They show us the true image of man as planned by the Creator and renewed by Christ.

There is a lot to ponder.

In this brief account of Gothic art, Ratzinger emphasizes the Cross, which was made an emphasis in the West by the Aristotelian turn toward history and narrative. I am sure that specialists can quibble with this account, but that’s why people don’t like specialists.

The striking thing for me is this emphasis on the Cross. If Ratzinger is correct, Gothic art is not “triumphalist” or expressing “a theology of glory” (vs. “a theology of the cross”) as some Protestant polemics would have it. There is grandeur to be sure, and vanity was probably of greater weight than humility for most of the bishops who were patrons of the artists and artisans. But the narrative and devotional aspect of a cruciform piety is striking indeed, and that is evident for anyone who has toured the great medieval works of France, Spain, England, etc., whether the stained glass or the paintings or the architecture.



  1. This seems really contrived.

    Thomas the Aristotelian synthesizer was hotly disputed until the Counter-Reformation vaulted Thomas into ‘the’ theologian of the Church, and this move coincided with the turn in art towards Baroque and Rococo. In fact, some have considered Gothic art as more Platonic, and the above two as more Aristotelian, more focused on particulars and the messiness and crowdedness of real life.

    Who in the East is the Platonist? Psuedo-Denys, one widely hailed by both East and West, including Thomas? There’s plenty of literature describing how much of the context of the Ecumenical battles in the East surrounded the influence of Plato. The Cappadoccians are understood as not only properly utilizing the good in Neo-Platonic philosophy, but also among Stoics and Aristotelians. Plato did not exercise some dominant, overwhelming power over the East. Important, yes, but when in the Euro-Mediterranean world was he not important?

    His explanation about the liturgy seems like a lame excuse to justify why the East still had a more robust congregational liturgy vs. a West that continued to stratify the rite until it exploded in the Hussite movement and the Reformation.

    This is a nice story, but abuses the historicity of the concepts he uses.

    my 2 cents,

    PS. Too bad there were not prominent Nominalists in the East, otherwise the problem with Icons could be pinned on them 😉

    • No, it’s not contrived. There is a difference between Evdokimov’s account and Ratzinger’s, insofar as the latter wants to soften the dichotomy between East and West, mystery and reason, Plato and Aristotle, eternity and history, rest and movement, and so on. These are familiar dichotomies. But someone needs to make an account of how and why the West did develop a distinct art with distinct philosophical-theological underpinnings in contrast — albeit not strict contrast — to the East. Ratzinger sees value in Evdokimov’s account by pointing to Aristotle as one factor (and Ratzinger says that it is just one of many factors), and where is the better alternative account? Even someone like Gilson I think would agree, and Gilson more than anyone pinpointed the continuities between Augustine, Platonism, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Thomas, all the while maintaining a distinct Aristotelian metaphysics in Thomas. There is a difference in how the material world is conceived and appropriated. There is a difference in how piety is conceived as well. The most stimulating part of this section from Ratzinger is how history and narrative are brought into the service of understanding this Aristotelian dimension. Ratzinger explictly says (though I omitted part of it) that this is also found in the way Christians adopted and changed Platonism. Thus, both Platonism and Aristotelianism are changed by the historical contingencies of Christian faith. But they do not yield identical results. It is the Aristotelian, or Platonist-Aristotelian if you prefer, of the Gothic that yields the distinct results of Gothic art. Once again, where is the better alternative account? I am also reading Erwin Panofsky’s ‘Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism’, which is sort of a classic now, and Otto von Simson’s ‘The Gothic Cathedral’, and they both would agree with Ratzinger on this, as far as I can tell. At some point, I will write about Panofsky and Simson.

      • A firm and robust riposte! 🙂

        I don’t know enough to articulate a full alternative account. But I would think numerous features beyond Aristotle would contribute to this. It seems to idealized. I can imagine a lot of reasons that would contribute beyond attributing this to a question of Plato or Aristotle, or how they were brought together.

        There’s the history of iconoclasm and the threat of Islam and the Caliph, which rages much wilder in the East than the West. This is not just the theological debate, but also the politics (the Issaurian replacement of Theotokos with the Emperor himself). The debate in the West was more muted and confused. Hence the presence of statuary.

        There’s also cultural differences that I’m mostly ignorant of. How did the Germano-Frankish nations alter or change the art? How did the presence of the city of Rome, with more traditional art forms literally buried in it, contribute to this development?

        I could list more considerations, but my initial read was that Ratzinger was bleeding the contingent cultures, economics, and politics out of the story and trying to keep it to an interplay of ideas.

        I mean, it’s easy to see, perhaps, why East and West emphasized rest-movement respectively. The East had a firm structure (good or bad) they wanted to protect, the West was insecure, power-wise, and the Pope had to be instrumental in forming an alternative Roman Empire and control it (thus, the Investiture controversy).

        I’m simplifying, but do you see what I mean? I find this story more complicated than a tale of two Greeks. I’m sure there are scholars who agree with Ratzinger. History of ideas is sexy, and I love it too, but it many times overreaches for finding an explanation.

        And to conclude, and to be polemical, I hope Ratzinger includes in that piety passion-play inspired pogroms, the magik-esque ideas that formed eucharistic practice (i.e. peasants keeping the Host as a fettish or a charm) etc. It sounds way too rosy in how he’s telling it. But maybe he says something about this elsewhere (since you’re not quoting the whole book 🙂 ).

        much love,

        PS. After reading, and meditating, on Rowan Williams’ book on Dostoevsky, particularly on Icons, I’m not much of a fan of the Grunewald piece anymore. There’s something inhuman about the art in a kind of pathological way. But I can’t put my finger on it.

      • Those are some interesting considerations. Ratzinger recognizes that there are other factors, and not just ideas, but he does not deal with them. So we can only speculate whether he would agree — for example — that the rest-movement qualities have much to do with social-political rest and movement. I highlight the Aristotle stuff from Evdokimov in how I presented this post, but Ratzinger’s focus is on how piety is expressed in the liturgy and how liturgy both reflects and influences piety — and it is here that Ratzinger finds the most interesting differences between East and West. Whether he’s correct or not, I do not know. But this is the first time that I have ever seen this, and he is going beyond history of ideas and looking at devotion and practice, though expressive of ideas. On that alone, it is a worthwhile contribution. Perhaps his account is still too idealized and does not consider those “magik-esq” folk practices you mention, and that is typical of a dogmatic theologian — especially a German!

        I haven’t read Williams’ book, but I am intrigued. I have actually not given a whole lot of consideration to the Grunewald piece, beyond of course what Barth liked about it. For what it’s worth, my favorite artist is Fra Angelico, though I couldn’t give you a technical explanation of why. I’ve just found myself repeatedly coming back to his works, and I often use him in my Sunday school classes.

      • On the development of piety:

        Here’s an interesting question/idea: why was anti-semitism much stronger and developed in the West than it was in the East? Or is that a story less told? I recall Chrysostom’s invectives against Jews, but, contextualized, it was the affinity many Greeks and Syrians for more Judaized forms of worship. That’s not an issue that the West ever dealt with. As far as I can tell, perhaps the cosmopolitan, pluralistic nature of the Eastern Mediterranean maintained a sense of equilibrium.

        And it’s also interesting to frame that question with the somewhat philo-semitism of some Reformers, namely Oecolampadius and Calvin, in contrast with Luther’s froth.

        Perhaps a book that ought to be written, if it hasn’t been written, is how anti-semitism reflects a defective, anxious, or insecure theology? I don’t know.

        I can’t read theology right now, so it’s up to you! 🙂


      • I have to say that’s not an area that I have much knowledge. I actually never considered the East as having less of an anti-Semitic track record, probably because of the example of Chrysostom that you mention and which I was taught by my church history professors. So, naturally, I just assumed that both East and West had a history of anti-Semitism. Maybe it’s there and, as you say, a story less told. But I think you might be right that “perhaps the cosmopolitan, pluralistic nature of the Eastern Mediterranean maintained a sense of equilibrium.” That would make sense.

        As for contemporary scholarship on those questions, I would guess that some Girardian folks have tackled it. I don’t know if you are fond of the scapegoat approach (and I have no opinion because I have never studied Girard), but that’s a guess.

        You may be interested in Katherine Sonderegger’s That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew: Karl Barth’s “Doctrine of Israel”. It probably won’t help you with your historical questions, but I have heard the highest of praise for this book.

      • Was the East less anti-semitic? Russia has a really ugly history of anti-semitism, maybe the worst in Europe pre-20th century. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (the grandfather of “international Jewish conspiracy” talk) was forged under a tsar, after all.

        But I know less about the Byzantine Empire than Russia, so maybe Greek Orthodoxy was different.

      • I was thinking of Byzantium and the Syriac-Greek East particularly, pre-1453. I wasn’t counting Russia, though I’m curious when/where its anti-semitism began. I wonder if it began with Russia’s anxiety as a not-quite European nation, or if it has roots deeper.

    • And one more point. I think a better way to present the material is to see Aristotelian themes as a part of the Roman and Latin culture that abided in the West, preceding the arrival of Aristotle’s works in Paris and which eventually intensified these themes in the intellectual culture of the West. The distinct cultures of the Roman West and Byzantine East had been developing, increasingly separate, for centuries. So, it would be wrong to place too much weight on Aristotle. We could maybe flip the causal relation and say that the Latin West was fertile ground for Aristotle even if he wasn’t widely accepted at first.

      • That’s an actually more interesting account. I wonder how that mixed and/or adapted to other cultural forms.

    • The ecumenical side is indeed worth reflecting upon. Ratzinger wants to value the distinctive qualities of the West without diminishing the East or pitting one against the other. I think he would hope that the Eastern reader would recognize in his account of narrative and history, the Cross and piety, something that is of value to the Eastern churches — not least because it is of course not absent in the East, albeit given a different liturgical setting and focus.

  2. I learned about the Not Gottes through Ratzinger’s most recent interview. I love that it depicts the Father in solidarity with the suffering Son, not merely observing the Son or worse showering His anger on his Son. Many crucifixes today show Christ resurrecting off the cross. I appreciate that these crucifixes bring together Eastern and Western perspectives on the cross. This is also a movement away from a satisfaction theory of atonement. Ratzinger’s ginormous book on the liturgy has not been read yet. I keep putting it off for some reason-maybe because I’m a bit liturgically challenged. After a three-hour training session I still can’t carry a candle for Holy Thursday. I am lost and the MC has to whisper everything to me. Ratzinger is very specific about what he wants in the liturgy.

    If you are interested in learning more about the relationship between religious art and atonement theories I recommend Richard Vilardesau’s The Beauty of the Cross. This is the first of a two or three volume work on the significance of the cross. Vol. 1 ends at the eve of the Renaissance. It is one of the best academic works I have ever read.

    • Thanks for the Viladesau recommendation. I see that our seminary library has his Theology and the Arts, so I’ll take a look at that.

      I’ve seen the resurrected Christ on the cross too. I’m not sure what I think about it. The advantage of the traditional crucifix is, of course, that it depicts the horror and humiliation of Christ’s sacrifice. We are perhaps overexposed to the image of the crucifix, so it may not always have the power that it should have. Nonetheless, I think it is important. The one church in which I have seen a resurrected Christ on the cross (or “resurrecting off the cross,” as you nicely put it) was a very modernist Catholic church in Iowa that I visited once. The whole church interior was white and bright, with clear perpendicular lines and every inch well-lit with the overhead lighting, akin to a conference room. It was entirely sanitized and without even a hint of mystery. For me, it felt nothing like a worship space but, rather, like a generic community event hall, which is probably how most of the congregants think about it. So, I am probably biased against that sort of depiction of the cross. I now associate it with whitewashed, sanitized, urbane, bourgeois Christianity.

      As for satisfaction theory of the atonement, there are good and bad presentations of this theory. We need to avoid any hint of “cosmic child abuse,” obviously, which implies a division in the will of the Father and of the Son. But it is hard for me to articulate the incredible depth and beauty of the atonement without using satisfaction and substitution. The victory model is simply not enough. We have to grasp, as best we can grasp, “the Judge judged in our place,” as Barth wrote in the magisterial IV.1 of his CD, which I believe remains the finest account of justification and satisfaction ever written.

      • I’ve read once (Christopher JH Wright maybe?) that while there’s a risk of substitution turning into “cosmic child abuse”, there’s also a risk of Christus Victor turning into a “cosmic sympathy card.”

      • I like that. I recently taught a Sunday school class on the “models of the atonement,” and I emphasized how both the victory model and the satisfaction/substitution model are inadequate without the other. As such, I am wary when someone like N. T. Wright repeats the caricatures of the satisfaction/substitution side in favor of his narrative-driven model. That’s not helpful.

      • Well, NT Wright actually does believe in a form of substitution/satisfaction. He just arrives at in his own narrative-theology way, where Jesus undergoes the final exile at the hands of the gentile empire as the summation of Israel basically. To say the least, he is not a fan of systematic methods on most anything! So he sometimes picks fights when he doesn’t need to, even with people who he shares a lot in common.

        I love NT Wright (Anglicans have to! ;)) and have learned immensely from him. But one of his blind spots is that he’s too much in love with his own methodology – one could even say system! 😉

      • You’re right, that’s a fair account of Wright. I still find it a bit limiting, at least I did when I read Justification. He does indeed pick fights when he doesn’t need to. He works with an evangelical caricature as a straw man — the crude, sawdust revivalist winning souls by getting heaven tickets punched. His straw man does exist, and I’ve experienced it — but it’s not helpful when you’re trying to engage and dialog with fellow evangelicals. At his best, Wright fills-out some areas in evangelical theology that need filling, usually because of an evangelical overemphasis on the subjective. If he framed his project in this way, he could have avoided all (or most) of the animosity that has been directed at him.

      • Also, my sense with Wright is that he was over-anxious to present his project as a great revolution and even savior of evangelicalism. Of course, he never said it that explicitly, but it is hard not to get that impression. As if, thank God he came along to right all of our wrongs. It was that impression that has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

        On the whole, I think Wright has been fantastic for both evangelicalism and for the church at large. I certainly do not agree with the New Calvinist fanboys who dismiss him outright.

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