Judging the Owner by the Abbey

At least two of Jane Austen’s books tie the aesthetic appreciation of a beautiful abbey with a positive moral judgment of its proprietor: Pride and Prejudice, favoring Mr. Darcy, and Emma, praising Mr. Knightly. Emma’s visual assessment of Donwell Abbey is clearly informed by Gilpin’s Observations, and although Emma grew up near Donwell, at this point in the novel she looks upon it with renewed interest:

She felt all the honest pride and complacency which her alliance with the present and future proprietor could fairly warrant, as she viewed the respectable size and style of the building, its suitable, becoming, characteristic situation, low and sheltered— its ample gardens stretching down to meadows washed by a stream, of which the Abbey, with all the old neglect of prospect, had scarcely a sight— and its abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted up.— The house was larger than Hartfield, and totally unlike it, covering a good deal of ground, rambling and irregular, with many comfortable, and one or two handsome rooms.— It was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was— and Emma felt an increasing respect for it, as the residence of a family of such true gentility, untainted in blood and understanding. (Austen, Vol.III ch.VI)

Emma notes that the Donwell is all that an abbey should be, just as Gilpin had explained: it is characteristically located in a low and sheltered area, surrounded by abundant lines of trees, and with ample gardens and a stream. Its location is not “charming,” but “becoming” and “suitable.” The house attests to the age of the abbey, having a “rambling and irregular” shape with many rooms that are “comfortable,” presumably aimed to please guests and provide warm hospitality. The description of the estate evokes the original idea of abbey—hospitable, communal, modest—and inspires respect, arising from the style—which is neither fashionable nor extravagant—and from the size—which is ample.

Here, too, the aesthetic judgment of Emma is linked to the moral approval of Downwell’s owner, who is respectable, modest, has good taste, and is hospitable. Furthermore, Emma associates owning an abbey with “gentility,” and because of her observation and her moral assessment, she concludes that the Knightleys are “true gentility,” who belong in such a respectable abbey both because of their lineage (blood) and because of their good understanding. She further connects the abbey and its owners when she says that “it was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was,” implying that there was no pretense or hypocrisy in the estate—it was a true abbey in the original sense, and it looked like a true abbey: modest, welcoming, becoming, and hospitable.

Austen, Jane. Emma. 2012. Kindle file.


Creator and Subcreator

The ‘creation’ of the artist is by no means a parallel to the creation of God. It is its dullest reflection, and is completely overwhelmed by the light of the life of God. Whoever truly serves beauty, serves God. But whoever serves God does not yet therefore serve beauty. God can destroy for his servant all beautiful words and sounds. The deepest, even the ultimate religious art, cannot exist before the face of God. In its highest forms of expression we feel a longing for a different image, a different song; for something which would be no longer ‘art.’–van der Leeuw in Thiessen, Theological Aesthetics: A Reader, 312-313

The Discipline of Seeing

There is a discipline in seeing, just as there is a discipline in everything else that we do well, whether it is reading or writing or making something or listening to significant music, or even loving someone. A discipline of seeing does not come by being told how to see, though that might be helpful, even necessary; it comes primarily by seeing and seeing and seeing over and over again. In the realm of music we assume that it takes discipline and repeated hearing to find one’s way into the appreciation of a symphony. Such a discipline stands in marked contrast to the lure of a popular melody, which demands little of us. Frequently the same people appreciate both; yet in terms of stretching of our sensibilities, a symphony rates above a popular tune. With respect to the visual arts, people are not generally willing to grant a similar distinction, that is, between naïve and high art. –Dillenberger in Thiessen, Theological Aesthetics: A Reader, 238


Meaning is not projected on to an arrangement of paints or of masses of stone. It is already embodied and communicated there through its creator’s handling of the sensuous. We can recognize beauty therefore, without creating a theory of the beautiful. Indeed, there is no such theory to create. There is the stating of what aesthetic objects are, and to the degree that they are, they are beautiful–Aidan Nichols in Thiessen, Theological Aesthetics: A Reader, 230


Taste is not the inner organisation of aesthetic perception but merely something which sharpens or dulls it. We can acknowledge that a canvas is a work of art without appreciating it personally. We can, and perhaps more commonly do, appreciate an artwork without giving it properly aesthetic acknowledgement. For instance, you may be hugely appreciative of Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, but the appreciation may be directed to memories of childhood or religiosity which it awakens. Our special preferences in art may dictate the breath or narrowness of our vision, our errors and failures of appreciation. Their consequences may be enormous, as when neo-Classical observers failed to ‘see’ the English Gothic cathedrals. Hence the need to examine them and re-examine. It is in the moment that our aesthetic judgment cases to specify such preferences and simply registers in the presence of the beautiful that it is wholly, universally valid and not simply valid ‘for me.’  This is so because at such a moment, it lets the object speak and show itself for what it is. The historical conditioning of taste is no argument against aesthetic judgment of this kind. We need not fear that we are indulging in a piece of concealed solipsism when we describe an artwork, ‘really’ chatting away about ourselves. We are doing something mercifully more interesting than re-arranging our pleasurable sensations–Aidan Nichols in Thiessen, Theological Aesthetics; A Reader, 230.