From Cherubim of Gold: Building Materials and Aesthetics

Underlying and preceding form and color in any work of art

is the raw material that the artist has chosen with infinite care,

knowing that it brings to the work levels of meaning

impossible to achieve otherwise.

In fact, there are many works of ancient art

whose significance we cannot decipher,

but whose substance speaks to us across the centuries,

telling us about humanity’s place in the imponderable beauty

and unity of the universe.

These are the natural, classical materials of art and architecture:

marble, granite, limestone, slate, alabaster,

cedar, oak, walnut, gold and terra cotta.

These materials are not merely functional;

they have the power to inspire us,

to move us into another realm.

Georges Duby, in his book on medieval art,

quotes the twelfth-century Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis:

“For by way of material beauties the mind is elevated to true Beauty

and by the light of its splendors,

raised up from this earth in which it lay buried,

and enters into heaven.”

The American philosopher George Santayana

made the same point in a slightly different way

nearly a century ago:

“Form cannot be form of nothing.

If, then, in finding or creating beauty,

we ignore the materials of things,

and attend only to their form,

we miss an ever-present opportunity to heighten our effects.

For whatever delight the form may bring,

the material might have given delight already….

There is no effect of form

which an effect of material could not enhance,

and this effect of material,

underlying that of form,

raises the latter to a higher power

and gives the beauty of the object

a certain poignancy, thoroughness, and infinity

which it otherwise would have lacked.

The Parthenon not in marble,

the king’s crown not of gold,

and the stars not of fire,

would be feeble and prosaic things.

The greater hold which material beauty has upon the senses

stimulates us here, where the form is also sublime,

and lifts and intensifies our emotions.

We need this stimulus if our perceptions are to reach

the highest pitch of strength and acuteness….

The beauty of material

is thus the groundwork of all higher beauty.”


– from Cherubim of Gold: Building Materials and Aesthetics by Peter E. Smith

Chicago: LTP, 1993