The Problem of Beauty in Medieval Mystical Literature
What does it mean to be beautiful? On the one hand, we often associate beauty with sexual attraction, but on the other hand, we tend to see beautiful people as possessing inherent goodness. How do we reconcile these two conceptions of beauty, especially in the context of religion, where the pursuit of one is frowned upon while the other is promoted?
This contradiction has not been much discussed in scholarly literature on medieval mysticism. Some scholars address beauty only as it relates to sexual pleasure. Ulricke Wiethaus, for instance, writes about how the “stark juxtaposition of youthful beauty and its enjoyment and the brutality of physical persecution reinforces the theological meaning of Christ’s crucifixion” when discussing the “fusion of erotic and traditional Christian imagery” in Mechthild. Other scholars mention beauty simply as part of the idealization of God and Heaven. David O. Neville equates beauty with “prelapsarian perfection,” thus associating it with virtue, goodness, and purity. Paul Martin talks about beauty as a representation of the love of God, and about “the beauty of heavenly things” that far surpasses the “beauty in earthly things.”