Architectural beauty is a concept that is continually changing and entirely subjective. It is dependent upon who is doing the evaluating and the criteria with which they are basing their evaluation. Usually, the structure's ultimate function weighs in heavily in the determination of its beauty.Churches function as houses of God, and therefore have, up until recently, been held to higher standards of beauty than other structures. I say until recently because most of the newly erected houses of worship look like warehouses. Rather than depicting a spiritual connection with the divine through architectural beauty, their intention is to be as bare as possible on the outside in order to convey the message that it is what's inside (the fellowship of its congregation and sincerity of their devotion and faith in the concept of a plane of existence beyond our material world) that counts.
[...] However, the beholder whose eyes we are looking at San Vitale through is the Neoplatonist philosopher, Plotinus. According to Plotinus, God is the divine source of all things. God symbolizes all that is beautiful and good. In order for earth, the realm of matter, to be beautiful, it must invoke the harmony and order of the cosmos, God's immaterial realm. This must be done both intellectually and visually. Intellectual beauty begins with one's soul. Plotinus believed that souls are beautiful in so far as they are morally good. [...]
[...] In his book Sacred Forest, Otto von Simson reinforces this opinion through his statement that Vitale was to become the stage and setting proper to the sacred drama by which the emperor meant to communicate his theological and political concepts to the West” Essentially, he wanted to be God; just the opposite of being god-like and truly beautiful. The final specific feature of the Basilica of San Vitale that Plotinus would have no qualms about calling beautiful is its chancel vault. [...]
[...] implicit in the dedication of the Pantheon to the Gods,' the dome carried the traditional symbolism of universality and all-inclusiveness. In the vault of San Vitale, the four angels standing on orbs clearly echo this symbolism with the reference to the four corners of the world” However obscure or vague the views of Plotinus regarding beauty in art seem to be upon initial consideration, through careful dissection, they can be manipulated to pertain to just about any work of art. The Basilica of San Vitale is an excellent work of architecture to use as a point of reference [...]
[...] The mosaic that best represents Plotinus's diametrically opposed concepts of beauty and ugliness is the one that is located on the left side of the apse in the church, “Justinian, Bishop, and Attendants.” Through the eyes of Plotinus, this mosaic is beautiful because its flat, stylized figures appear to be gazing off into space, as if in a trance. Symbolic of metaphysical attitude, the figures seem to be lost in the contemplation of divine nature. The intense level of contemplation shown in the mosaic reaches out to the observer, casting its spell of spiritual emphasis, and thereby causing the observer to lose her/himself in their own sort of contemplation. [...]
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