Central to Winckelmann's historical view of ancient art is his theory of absolute beauty. This notion for Winckelmann, despite a strong sensual coloration, is ideal in that he argues that a work of sculpture in antiquity was not based on a single model but on the piecing together of the most perfect features from several models. It is also ideal in the sense that rules for it cannot be ascertained. Like the purest water drawn from a spring, its taste is determined as much from the absence of any foreign parts and in the way in which its recognition arises within the human soul without any intermediary concepts. The harmonic quality of its notes is never slurred; instead, its tone is ''simple and long sustained.'' Architecturally this conception of beauty is similar to the Renaissance concept of harmony or concinnity, but without the specific mathematical basis.
Beauty, as the highest aim and focus of art, requires some preliminary and general remarks through which I should wish to please myself and the reader, but this is a difficult thing to accomplish in a few pages. Beauty is one of the great mysteries of nature, whose effect we all see and feel, but for which a universal and clear concept of its essence belongs among the undiscovered truths. Were this concept purely geometrical, human judgments on it would not differ and it would be easy to form a consensus on true beauty. Still less would there be men of either unfortunate sensibility or inimical vanity, such that the former would form a false notion of beauty while the latter would refuse a proper conception of it. [... ]
The wise who have pondered the causes of universal beauty - explored its presence in created things and sought to reach the source of highest beauty - have located it in the perfect harmony of the being with its purpose, and of the parts with each other and with the whole. But as this is synonymous with perfection, of which the human vessel is incapable, our idea of universal beauty remains indefinite. It is formed in us through individual bits of knowledge, which, when correct, are collected and brought together, giving us the highest idea of human beauty. We elevate this the more we raise ourselves above the material. Moreover, as this perfection was given by the Creator to all creatures in the degree suitable to them, and as every concept resides in a cause that must be sought not in the concept but in something else, the cause of beauty cannot be found outside itself, as it exists in all created things. Thus arises the difficulty - because our conceptual knowledge is comparative and beauty cannot be compared with anything higher - of achieving a universal and clear explanation of beauty.
The highest beauty is in God, and the idea of human beauty approaches perfection the more it can be conceived in conformity and harmony with the highest Existence, which we distinguish from matter in our concept of unity and indivisibility. This concept of beauty is like a spirit extracted from matter by fire; it seeks to create a being conforming to the image of the first rational creature sketched in the mind of God. The forms of such an image are simple and uninterrupted, manifold in their unity; thus they are harmonious, like a sweet and pleasing tone produced from the body whose parts are uniform. All beauty is enhanced by unity and simplicity, just as everything we say and do. For what is great in itself is enhanced when expressed and done with simplicity; it will not be narrowly constrained or lose any of its greatness if our mind can survey and measure it with a glance, surround and grasp it with a single concept. Its full greatness is represented just by this conceivability, and the mind is expanded and at the same time elevated by its comprehension. For everything divided that we consider, or everything that we cannot survey at a glance because of the number of assembled parts, loses its greatness, just as the long road is shortened by many objects presented along it, or by many inns in which stops can be made. The harmony that delights the soul resides not in broken, stitched, or slurred notes, but in simple and long-sustained tones. This is why a large palace appears small when overlaid with decoration, and a house seems large when it is simply and elegantly executed. From this unity proceeds another attribute of high beauty - its indeterminateness, that is, its forms are described only by the points and lines that shape beauty, and thus produce a figure that is unique to neither this or that particular person, nor that expresses any one state of mind or sensation of passion, because these would mix foreign tendencies into beauty and disturb the unity. According to this conception, beauty should be like the purest water drawn from the source of the spring; the less taste it has the healthier it is seen to be, because it is cleansed of all foreign parts. Just as the state of happiness - the removal of pain and the pleasure of contentment - is the easiest condition of nature, and the path to it is the straightest and can be maintained without trouble or cost, so also does the idea of the highest beauty appear in the simplest and easiest things, and requires no philosophical knowledge of man, no investigation of the soul and its expression. Yet as - according to Epicurus - there is in human nature no middle point between pain and pleasure, and as the passions are the winds that propel our ship into the sea of life, by which the poet sets sail and the artist elevates himself, so pure beauty alone cannot be the only object of our consideration. We must also place it within the condition of action and emotion, which in art we understand by the word expression. We shall therefore treat first the conformation of beauty, and second its expression.
The conformation of beauty is either individual, that is, directed to the individual, or it is a selection and combination of beautiful parts from many individuals, which we call ideal. Initially the conformation of beauty had to do with individual beauty, that is, with the imitation of a beautiful subject or with the representation of gods. Still in the period of art's flourishing goddesses were modeled on beautiful women, even on those whose favors were common and venal. The gymnasia and other places where naked youths practiced wrestling and other sports, and to which one went to see a beautiful youth - they were the schools where the artists examined the beauty of the human body. The daily opportunity to view the most beautiful naked youths heated the imagination and the beauty of forms became particular and ingrained as mental images. In Sparta even young girls exercised undressed, or nearly so. Also known to Greek artists, as they began to consider the beauty of the two sexes, was a mixed kind of manly youth. It was produced by the removal of the seminal vessels, a licentious practice that Asiatic peoples used on handsome boys in order to inhibit the rapid course of fleeting youth. Among the Ionian Greeks in Asia Minor, the creation of these equivocal beauties was consecrated as a religious practice in the eunuch priests of Cybele.
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