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Theater and the Sacred in the Middle Ages

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Andrzej Dąbrówka

The book presents a theory of relationships between the forms of devotion
and early drama genres. The historical background is the circumstances of the Church becoming independent of the Empire. A theological and philosophical aspect of the transformation of piety at the time was the specification of the ontological status of the sacred (spiritualization) and "shifting it to Heaven" (transcendentalization). In opposition to a theory of Western civilization as a process of increasing individual self-control, the author argues for the need to take into account purely religious conditions (the idea of recapitulation). This allows the author to develop a holistic aesthetics for the religiously inspired creativity in the period spanning the 11th-15th centuries and to propose a new typology of medieval drama.

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17. The Incarnational Aesthetics of the Theatrical Performance

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Among social conditions which explain the presented theory and practice of entertainment, we should also point to motivations related to devotion in a positive manner. Theatrical activity was not only about breaching the influence of Satan but also about experiencing, promoting, and manifesting human bonds with God.

For convenience, I shall employ the term aesthetics to designate all implied or explicit views on the nature (construction, roles, and destiny) of works of art and literature, even though the term itself appeared much later and usually had a narrower scope of reference. The point here is not to discuss aesthetics as a theory of beauty, or literary aesthetics as a theory of literary work,576 but it is only to critically use the two recent conceptions: Gail McMurray Gibson’s incarnational aesthetics (1989) and Alan Knight’s genological theory (1983).577 I shall address the latter in part five.

1. Images of visible god. For Gibson (1989: 11 ff.), visualization is the foundation of medieval aesthetics. Emphasizing the conservatism of the didactic motives of Christian art, associated with the slogan of art as a book for the illiterate, Gibson notes that even the famous Biblia Pauperum578 might have been intended for scholarly reception; in fact, iconographic programs were not populist, but – on the contrary – very sophisticated, even “bookish,”579 in terms of their theological contents, and comprehensible only for a narrow group of specialists. This was also noticed by contemporaries: “Rightly so, the shape and artistry of...

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