od is the artist and the universe is his work of art.” — Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274)
If we look closely at those high Middle Ages (roughly 1000-1500), we may discover early feminists, sacred sensualists, songwriters of the spheres and holistic medicine practitioners. Wait: didn’t we moderns invent all this? All these currents were in development long ago, and those times we may describe as “dark ages” and people as “dinosaurs” may be seen as advanced and sensual and holistic as we moderns are today. The “Dark Ages” weren’t so dark, after all.
Those breakthroughs of sense and technology, multiculturalism and globalism are some of the themes of an art exhibit I just saw with our church group at the Walters Art Gallery, “Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe” (through Jan. 8, 2017).
As we celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas — veritable experiences of sense delight, gorging of food, materialism and sensualism, we can learn some lessons from the medievalists, both sacred and profane.
Do you remember, during the presidential campaign, that some Christians were described as “medieval” and stuck to the past? And, as we celebrate our national holiday, “puritanical” is an easy epithet today to use, but weren’t these original Puritans voyagers, sensualists, and multiculturalists as they dined with native American Indians and feasted on rich, organic, varied foods?
We modernists sometimes admit a debt to history and have sayings like “the past is prologue” and “we stand on the shoulders of giants” to pay homage to ancestry.
So, did you know, as we learned from our art tour, one of the most commented books in the Bible, especially during the Middle Ages, never mentions the word God, and expresses a love poem — “the Song of Songs”? Walt Whitman and other sensualist poets can sense seeds here!
Illuminated manuscripts, those darling, small festively decorated tomes, were the seeming iPhones of the day, transmitting knowledge both sacred and profane to the illiterate and cognoscenti alike, information for the masses.
Bells, ringing from monasteries and town halls were the signaling tintinntabulum for many to work or play or pray, the techno-app for the day.
The Frenchman, Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377), was a progenitor of ars nova, or new art, which was a groundbreaking move from plainchant to multi layers of polyphonic music and song, and secular styles too, which celebrated sensual love and everyday themes. Rap and rock music may stand on the shoulders of medieval giants.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204 ) was an international traveler and negotiator; a military leader, builder, decorator and developer of the medieval “court of love,” and queen of two countries. Diplomats today have nothing on her.
St. Hildegard of Bingen, a fashionista of current newagers, wasa "Jardin d’amour; Lady bathing," a late 15th century wool tapestry on loan from the Musée de Cluny in Paris, is on exhibit at the Walters Art Gallery. counselor (and thorn) to popes; groundbreaking musician; herbalist, healer and mystic — a “Renaissance woman” before the Renaissance came. These days, organic food and smoked turkeys are in along with “whole medicine.” Medievalists practiced this in treating the body as a “mini universe” and discerned the dynamic intersection of physical elements like southern breezes and vegetables and spices intermingling positively (or not) with the humors and temperaments of the body.
Spirituality was sensualist, “touchy feely” too, as the wounds of Christ became, in the words and a Walters gallery description, seeming semi-erotic events, interactive portals of divine human union. Touch was central to these medievalists as in embracing rosaries with scents to remind them of God’s “odor of sanctity.” Today’s sometimes sterilized spirituality can learn from these “dinosaurs.”
As we moderns trumpet the latest technology, globalism and materialism, these medievalists had some of it going way back then and, often, seem more connected to one another, their organic-spiritual selves and their world as we are today, sometimes stuck in our little techno-silos.
When I asked our youth what they liked best about our trip that day, which included a visit to the beautiful Basilica of the Assumption and a wondrous festive dinner at a local pizza shop, they immediately said the art exhibit. Maybe they are, at heart, like all of us really, sacred sensualists.
As we celebrate the holiday season we may remember Puritans and medievalists as progenitors who presaged a way for us to feast today, and reach out to others as those troubadours did long ago.
We modernists all need a little blast from the past, to help us engage in a feast for our senses.