Did This Catholic Monk Already Know How to Make Beautiful Pictures?

It’s crazy how ideas develop over time and how far we can track our today’s understanding of the world. Find out, what an influential Italian monk from the 13th century already knew about creating good pictures.

We Learn What Others Found Out

When we learn science, we start with simple rules. We learn basic formula to define speed, power, or performance. Some of us might continue studying science (which I haven’t done) and leave the basics to proceed with more complex equations of our physical world. One day, these brilliant people might even be ready to set up their own research and get profound results. Others will learn on this basis in the future.

An example: In the past, people would not talk about gravity like we talk about it today. It needed an apple from a tree hitting the head of a brilliant mind in the 17th century, to develop such a theory. Until today, this theory has been revised and developed until it became as complex as one could imagine.

Sir Isaac Newton didn't invent gravity, but he built a proper theory on it. Painting by Godfrey Kneller [Public domain]

Teachers of Photography

Even in social science, philosophy, and art, we learn rules and theory. They help us to understand the subject matter. Scientists in every area of interest try to decipher the rules of the mind, society, or arts. Do you know the rule of thirds, color theory, or the difference between different angles? All of these ideas had to be developed. Just remember where you learned them. Then think about where your teacher got them from. And what about their teachers?

At one point, someone invented these rules or worked on concepts of the past. Most of our rules for photography are inspired by the painters of the past. In photography, we try to copy the rules. Just think about the famous Rembrandt lighting, which was inspired by the Dutch painter. The reason why we find some works of art appealing and don’t like others, has been explored by philosophers, however. In this article, I want to take a look at one of them.

Rembrandt portrait in Rembrandt lighting. Painting by Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680) [Public domain]

Thomas Aquinas: A Philosopher of Beauty and Divine

Just like gravity has always been there, beauty was also found on earth before we knew how to define it. Actually, we still don’t know how to define it properly. One person, who tried to find a theory of beauty was Thomas Aquinas. Never heard of him? He was an important philosopher and one of the most influential catholic theologians.

Thomas Aquinas lived in the 13th century as a catholic monk in Italy. Obviously, he wrote a lot of work on god and religion. But he’s also famous for his political philosophy. Actually, we know about so many of his texts, that there are rumors claiming that Quinas was able to dictate different thoughts to four different writers at the same time.

Thomas Aquinas was a productive and religious monk. Image from Carlo Crivelli [Public domain]

He also wrote about beauty, which isn’t really surprising. Beauty is seen as something divine since the old Greek philosophers. We still find this concept in today’s thought.

Three Conditions for Beautiful Artwork

What fascinated me about Thomas Aquinas is that his ideas about beauty are all reflected in our common understanding about good photography. Just like we use his basic ideas, he was also drawing on basic concepts of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle said, that the world has natural beauty in it, and we are eligible to perceive it with our senses. That’s great, because it also allows us to recreate beauty in our art.

While the old Greeks have found out that beauty is possible, Thomas Aquinas described three conditions for beauty. The division in three is understandable when we think about Aquinas as a religious person who believed in Holy Trinity:

“Beauty includes three conditions, integrity or perfection, since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due proportion or harmony; and lastly clarity, whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color.”

– Thomas Aquinas, translation drawn from Christopher Scott Sevier

Proportio: Balance and Order

Proportio, the Latin origin of the word “proportion” has long been known as an important aspect of beauty. Pythagoras has worked on that topic already (some might remember his famous theorem to calculate the area of a triangle) and artists have included it into their art.

Leaving the 6th grade trigonometry class and its formulas behind, Proportio basically includes balance and order. Looking at photography, it reminds us that we need to tidy up our scene to make a good image. We have to check the background and make sure that our image is visually balanced. Foreground, background, and whatever is in between should be in the right proportions. The rule of thirds, symmetry or the Golden Ratio are possible tools to fulfill the condition of proportion.

Some compositions like symmetry or the rule of thirds are appealing to the human eye.

Claritas: Make It Shine

With Claritas or, as we might say today, “clarity,” Thomas Aquinas didn’t mean the mid-contrast of an image. To him, clarity is the shine of an artwork; it’s light. Clarity is the light in which the artwork shines, it’s how we convey its message, and how it touches the viewer.

Instead of pulling that slider in Lightroom to the right, photographers can reach this form of clarity by learning how to use light properly. Photography means drawing with light and we should use the right quality, direction, and intensity of light to make our photographs shine.

Great light can even make simple compositions shine.

Integritas: Perfection of an Image

An image should not only be composed well, it should also be of a good quality. For Aquinas, materials, the use of colors, and the artist’s skill to represent what should be shown, probably fell under this condition.

For us, as photographers this totally makes sense. Nobody wants an (accidentally) blurry image. Whatever we want to represent should be represented in the best possible way in best quality. That doesn’t mean we have to make it as close to reality as possible. If you want to do abstract photography, it still should be done consciously abstract. A skew horizon in a landscape image does only fulfill the condition of Integritas, if it is consciously created to convey a message.

If your pictures are blurry, there needs to be a reason.

What’s Wrong With His Theory?

Of course, even centuries before Thomas Aquinas, painters have created artwork. What his philosophy added, was a basic understanding of beauty. Thomas Aquinas did not invent art, just as Isaac Newton did not invent gravity. He simply thought about it and put his ideas into words. Yet, he also left some questions unanswered. One of the things that Thomas Aquinas said was that:

Beauty is what pleases when it’s seen.

– Thomas Aquinas

By closely looking at this statement, we can see that beauty is not just objective, but depends on the viewer who has to be pleased. With his three conditions of beauty, Aquinas describes what’s necessary on the side of the object to be beautiful. He didn’t however describe the necessary conditions of the viewer to perceive beauty.

Lead image drawn from Wikimedia Commons. The image has been altered and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

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Brent Daniel's picture

Awesome article, Nils! Love the photographs too!

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dot dat's picture

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