Medieval Mind & Theology

Mural in Slavonic Abbey cloister, Prague. c.1360

‘Theology’ may sound daunting. A purpose of this forum is to make accessible some of the sharp thinking of medieval theology. In Europe in the Middle Ages theology was integrated with philosophy and natural science (as also with architecture and visual arts). There has always been debate over how far, or how properly, Classical Greek thought was infused into Christian theology. This is probably one of a number of reasons why Protestant theology has eschewed much Medieval theology. Another reason is the mode of thought and apprehension of knowledge (epistemology), which may seem convoluted or irrelevant to us. But the concern for logic and truth was huge, and bore fruit which the modern world has reaped but has perhaps not sufficiently given credit for—or preserved. An over-riding central concern was for love as the ultimate catalyst and glue—love for God first, and everything in due order.

In the GAPS FORUM we need not be inhibited in relating matters to God, or thinking through our notions of God. I believe we don’t get the real value of medieval art and architecture if isolated from the theology.


Miniature in Gospels of St-Medard of Soissons. c.810-15.
Church of St-Saveur, St-Macaire, France. Detail of apse vault fresco. Probably 13th C.
Basilica of St Godehard, Hildesheim, Germany. The polycandelon in the crossing bears the inscription, ‘FOR THOU HAST CREATED ALL THINGS, AND BY THY WILL THEY EXISTED AND WERE CREATED’ (Rev. 4.11). Late 12th C.

The early period, after Christ, from the 2nd to the 5th centuries is the time of the patristic writers, Greek and Latin, around the Mediterranean. The Middle Ages can refer to the broad period from the 5th to the 15th C. and is commonly treated as the Early Middle Ages (up to the mid-12th C), the High Middle Ages (mid-12th C. to the end of the 13th C.), and the Late Middle Ages (14th C. and 15 th C.) Western Europe has inherited mostly the Latin theological writings of the Roman Catholic west, and in a much smaller degree an influence of the Greek writings of the Eastern Orthodox.

The term ‘medieval’ may have a number of overtones, but the commonest perception is probably that things medieval are irrelevant to us. The world-views of that period, the patterns of thought, the topics of learning, the structures of society, and the culture’s artifacts, may all appear outmoded—but in terms of underlying truth and reality they represent integrations we may have lost, and kinds of communication we don’t now have immediate access to. What does shine through is a richness of content, complexity yet clarity of imagination, and confident statement of meaning.

In the theology (and secondarily in the philosophy and metaphysics) we have key insights into truth and reality treated by very acute minds. These not only make medieval learning and culture intelligible, they also await proper discovery by modern humanism and post-modern searches for a spiritual dimension.

Minds well-centred

An obvious characteristic of medieval theology is that it was not divorced from philosophy, metaphysics, natural science, and political and social concerns—rather, theology was the umbrella for them all. The pre-scientific and pre-humanistic concepts did make sense in terms of objectives which were, at bottom, theocentric. This forum follows through what it means for anything to be theocentric, and Christocentric.

G. K. Chesterton’s book Chaucer (see POETRY & LITERATURE), is also an excellent outline of medieval perceptions. In this passage (pp.158–59) he shows how essentially different all the Middle Ages were from all that has followed:

A certain break or sharp change in history can hardly be sketched more sharply, than by saying that up to a certain time life was conceived as a Dance, and after that time life was conceived as a Race. Medieval morality was full of the idea that one thing must balance another, that each stood on one side or the other of something that was in the middle, and that something remained in the middle. There might be any amount of movement, but it was movement around this central thing; perpetually altering the attitudes, but perpetually preserving the balance. […] Now since that break in history, whatever we call it or whatever we think of it, the Dance has turned into a Race. That is, the dancers lose their balance and only recover it by running towards some object, or alleged object; not an object within their circle or their possession, but an object which they do not yet possess. It is a flying object; a disappearing object. But I am not concerned with condemning or commending either the religion of the Race or the religion of the Dance. I am only pointing out that this is the fundamental difference between them. One is rhythmic and recurrent movement, because there is a known centre; while the other is precipitate or progressive movement, because there is an unknown goal. The latter has produced all that we call Progress; the former produced what the medievals meant by Order; but it was the lively order of a dance.

The scope of medieval learning was broad, to include all contemporary knowledge, which was all joined up. There were systems devised, often complex, but the main disciplines were ordered in seven Metaphysical Arts (of Theology and Law), and seven Liberal Arts (the Trivium and Quadrivium).

These are depicted personified in the fresco of the former Chapter House of Santa Maria Novella, Florence. They form the lower register, and while their precursors and philosophers are shown below, the spiritual authorities are in the register above – Old Testament seers, and Gospel witnesses. All are under the great moral (‘cardinal’) virtues, and the spiritual (‘theological’) virtues.

Fresco by Andrea di Bonaiuto in the former Chapter House of Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

The detail of the lower section shows in the right hand half seven female allegorical figures of the quadrivium arts of learning, each with their ancient or classical representative below. Likewise, in the left hand half the seven allegorical figures are the metaphysical arts of theology and law. The central figure above is St Thomas Aquinas. The four angels on the next level represent the Cardinal Virtues (from left to right: Temperance, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude). The two higher angels are Faith and Hope; and the topmost angel is Love.

Everything fitted into a scheme—a big picture—and was seen as connected to, and informed by, God. This fresco is now called ‘The Glorification of St Thomas Aquinas’, but the really central thing is the book St Thomas holds open, displaying the text ‘I desired Wisdom and it was granted me; I called on the Spirit of Wisdom and it came to me, and I have preferred it to kindgoms and thrones.’ (Apocrypha, Wisdom of Solomon 7. 7–8.) It is the glorification of the Spirit of Wisdom.

From the late 20th century there has been a revival of expression of everything on a personal level, or communal, or natural, having a spiritual dimension or connection. The same is to be found in Western experience most completely perceived and explained in medieval theology, where it was a matter to be explored with keen intellectual concern for truth and reality. The more one grasps its main points the more impressive is its present-day value.

  • The following chart may provide a handy reference framework to a number of Medieval Theologians, Philosophers and Writers.
GAPS ARTS Lectures


John Lewis  •  7.00 pm, Sunday, 27 June, 2010

Hugh of St Victor (1096–1141) wrote a set of three short theological treatises on Noah’s Ark which are beautiful examples of medieval writing. They are a good introduction to such works, in a congenial English translation. The figure of the Ark is presented by Hugh in several ways which appeal to a visual imagination. He refers to a drawing he had made, but that no longer exists.

We see that the composite picture is quite architectural—even as the great church building was often described as the spiritual Ark. Hugh’s purpose is to present a cogent world-view, and to make the story an object lesson in the moral progress of every soul. Thus this spans aspects of theology, architecture, and ethics. A prominent motif is

three-dimensional integration: place, time, deity

The talk is illustrated by images of early and medieval art and architecture. The theology suggests some of the thinking and symbolism in the architecture—for instance, the emphasis on verticality.

A commentator on Hugh’s treatises, Denys Turner, writes:

Nor is this way of seeing the world as representation a necessity merely for theology, as if there were other points of view from which one might see the world differently. The constraint is quite general epistemologically: nothing invisible is capable of being described or known otherwise than in and through the representations of the visible, not even the soul. And the constraint is quite general ontologically: it is because of the way the world is that theological method is constrained to work by means of the symbolic.
      —The Darkness of God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.104.

  • This talk is based on a paper I gave at the International Medieval Conference in Leeds, U.K., in 2000. It was published as an essay in Time and Eternity: The Medieval Discourse—see ACADEMIC & WRITINGS.



Dr John Lewis  •  7.00 pm. Sunday, 6 October, 2013

St-Martin aux Bois, Ile de France
St-Martin aux Bois, Ile de France

The 17–18th-century Enlightenment supposedly freed the mind from ignorance of the nature of the world and from superstition of blind faith in the supernatural. Rationalism reinforced humanism, science trumped theology, and arts and culture became increasingly secularised.

Earlier, the theocentric mind and contemplative eye of the Middle Ages had a different perspective, not necessarily untrue—nor was it lacking in intellectual sharpness and even scientific subtlety. The metaphysics of light held a significant place in perception of nature and of truth. For example, the unity and numinous meaning of light is shown throughout Dante’s Commedia.

unity and meaning in the illumination of churches

This talk will consider the holistic medieval understanding of light by referring to texts of theology and science, and seeing visual evidence of architecture and art. It points to a refreshing clarity instead of so much intellectual and artistic confusion.

  • John Lewis M.Arch (Auck.), PhD (Otago), ANZIA, is an architect and medievalist, specialising in theology, architecture, and art of the Middle Ages in Western Europe.



John Lewis  •  Sunday, 7.00 pm, 4 September 2016

architecture  of virtue

This talk will start with the form and function – the ‘architecture’ – of virtue. A subsequent talk will seek to show the role and effect of virtue in the architecture of buildings.

The difficulty is that ‘virtue’ is hard to define; even Plato leaves us to speculate. But virtue, like beauty, seems an innate human percept. In the past it has often been made an associate of wisdom.

In the Middle Ages illustrative schemes were devised, such as the Angelic Orders, the Tower of Wisdom, the Glorification of Wisdom. These will focus the talk.

The difficulty of definition was avoided by astutely identifying, even in ancient times, the practical art and working of ‘virtues’, in the formulation of four cardinal virtues, which are the arts of life.

So we will traverse these four skills – the ‘art’ of the virtues. The subsequent talk will show how they might have been employed in the material arts.

  • John Lewis B.Arch, M.Arch (Auck.), PhD (Otago), ANZIA, has been a practising architect, and now specialises in the theology, architecture and art of the Middle Ages in Western Europe, and in the poet Dante. He has a particular interest in vernacular architecture.



John Lewis  •  Sunday, 7.00 pm, 10 December, 2017

St Patrick's Cathedral
St Patrick's Cathedral, New York.

The medieval-revival cathedral in New York seems diminutive and irrelevant, largely forgotten - just as the theology informing the architecture and art of the Middle Ages is now - just as the reality and meaning of the Incarnation is lost in the modern/post-modern world and the secular appropriation of Christmas.

It is necessary to rediscover things that are true. An emphasis in Medieval theology is that the Incarnation gives access to realities otherwise incomprehensible. Left to itself a fragile human soul is overwhelmed by the bewildering context of its existence.

John Lewis John Lewis, B.Arch, M.Arch (Auck.), PhD (Otago), ANZIA, has been a practising architect, and now specialises in the theology, architecture and art of the Middle Ages in Western Europe, and in the poet Dante. He runs the GAPS ARTS programme.