Ugliness and Hermits in Umberto Eco's On Ugliness

In his excursion into the nature of ugliness (On Ugliness, 2007), Umberto Eco mentions many philosophers, painters, sociologists, and theologians in the quest to define the aesthetics of ugliness. The pages of the book are well-populated with colorful classics of art and painting, from Renaissance to modern, depictions intended to illustrate ugliness as a physical defect and psychological unease.

In chapter 2, section 3, titled "Martyrs, Hermits, Penitents," Eco mentions hermits.

The hermits mentioned are necessarily of the early Christian centuries, the classic desert hermits, for Renaissance depictions of martyrs and others only focused on this early era. Eco notes that these works deliberately beatified their subjects in order to convey the era's re-evaluation of the body in portraiture and to present an expression of the twin virtues of saints: masculine "virile strength" or feminine sweetness.

But what of depictions of hermits? How did these differ from the Renaissance ideal?

The area where concessions were no longer made to gentility was often in the portrayal of the hermit, who by tradition and definition was made ugly by long sojourns in he desert. ...

Among the hermits of the early centuries the ugliest were the stylites, who isolated themselves atop a column, bearing the inclemencies of the weather, not to mention the insects and worms that crawled all over them as they struggled with hauntingly seductive visions or diabolical nightmares.

The ugliest were the stylites? That the stylites hermits should be the ugliest of hermits is not clear -- most colorful, eccentric, bizarre, perhaps, but ugliness as in repulsion is not captured by images of hermits in Eco's book. Rather by words.

But Eco's example is puzzling. He includes a panel from Grunewald's famous "Temptation of St. Antony," wherein all of the ugliness resides in the demonic and fabulous horrible creatures tormenting the hermit, but St. Antony himself does not look "ugly." Later chapters extrapolate images of the Devil in various modern versions of St, Antony's temptations, but these are ugly, not St. Antony.

Instead, Eco presents as evidence of art the obscure "Saint Simon Stylites" by artist William Hone, from Hone's The Everyday Book, 1826 (right). Again, Simon is not particularly ugly.

And for illustrative text (departing from the graphics motif), Eco chooses Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "St. Simeon Stylites," which Tennyson himself states (though Eco does not) was entirely influenced by Hone's sketch, not by a direct reading of the hermits' life from Athanasius.

The entire poem is put into the hermit's mouth as the self-convicting ravings of a madman:

Altho' I be the basest of mankind,
From scalp to sole one slough and crust of sin,
Unfit for earth, unfit for heaven, scarce meet
For troops of devils, mad with blasphemy,
I will not cease to grasp the hope I hold
Of saintdom, and to clamour, morn and sob,
Battering the gates of heaven with storms of prayer,
Have mercy, Lord, and take away my sin.
Let this avail, just, dreadful, mighty God,
This not be all in vain that thrice ten years,
Thrice multiplied by superhuman pangs,
In hungers and in thirsts, fevers and cold,
In coughs, aches, stitches, ulcerous throes and cramps,
A sign betwixt the meadow and the cloud,
Patient on this tall pillar I have borne
Rain, wind, frost, heat, hail, damp, and sleet, and snow. ...

An angel stand and watch me, as I sang.
Now am I feeble grown; my end draws nigh;
I hope my end draws nigh: half deaf I am,
So that I scarce can hear the people hum
About the column's base, and almost blind,
And scarce can recognise the fields I know;
And both my thighs are rotted with the dew;
Yet cease I not to clamour and to cry,
While my stiff spine can hold my weary head. ...

Eco should know that the hostile depiction of Simon Stylites descends from Gibbon's remarks in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (4, 27):

In this last and lofty station, the Syrian Anachoret [Simon Stylites] resisted the heat of thirty summers, and the cold of as many winters. Habit and exercise instructed him to maintain his dangerous situation without fear or giddiness, and successively to assume the different postures of devotion. He sometimes prayed in an erect attitude, with his outstretched arms in the figure of a cross, but his most familiar practice was that of bending his meagre skeleton from the forehead to the feet; and a curious spectator, after numbering twelve hundred and forty-four repetitions, at length desisted from the endless account. The progress of an ulcer in his thigh might shorten, but it could not disturb, this celestial life; and the patient Hermit expired, without descending from his column.

Though from this passage we can easily deduce what Gibbon felt about Simon Stylites, his physical ugliness of Simon Stylites is not really sustained.

It is, rather, in Gibbon's broader treatment of hermits (in the same section mentioning Simon Stylites) that the vituperation is better revealed. Gibbon approximates a disdain and repulsion for what Eco would call ugliness had he not held so tenaciously to sarcasm and reasonableness.

The fervent monasteries of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, were surrounded by a Laura, a distant circle of solitary cells; and the extravagant penance of the Hermits was stimulated by applause and emulation. They sunk under the painful weight of crosses and chains; and their emaciated limbs were confined by collars, bracelets, gauntlets, and greaves, of massy and rigid iron. All superfluous incumbrance of dress they contemptuously cast away; and some savage saints of both sexes have been admired, whose naked bodies were only covered by their long hair. They aspired to reduce themselves to the rude and miserable state in which the human brute is scarcely distinguished above his kindred animals: and a numerous sect of Anachorets derived their name from their humble practice of grazing in the Gelds of Mesopotamia with the common herd. They often usurped the den of some wild beast whom they affected to resemble; they buried themselves in some gloomy cavern, which art or nature had scooped out of the rock; and the marble quarries of Thebais are still inscribed with the monuments of their penance. The most perfect Hermits are supposed to have passed many days without food, many nights without sleep, and many years without speaking; and glorious was the man (I abuse that name) who contrived any cell, or seat, of a peculiar construction, which might expose him, in the most inconvenient posture, to the inclemency of the seasons.

As an aside, much research, documentation, and reflection has come to light about the desert hermits since Gibbon's day, and while he would doubtless retain his disdain today, there is far less objectivity to his attacks than ever. Even the anticlerical filmmaker Luis Buñuel's portrait of Simon Stylites is filled with a profound appreciation for the hermit's psychology and will (see Hermitary entry).

In short, Eco does not present depictions of hermits (Renaissance or otherwise) that present obvious ugliness. In fact, portraits of hermits, from Sadeler's famous series, to Grunewald, de Ribera, Bellini, El Greco, to more recent painters in the classical style, depict a quiet, deep inner strength in the hermit that belies Gibbon.

In Eco's lengthy section titled "The Metamorphoses of the Devil," where the fall of religious and clergy is more vigorously depicted, the theme of the temptation of St. Antony reappears. Eco quotes Athanasius in describing the nightmares and temptations, but these are not intrinsic to Antony's ugliness.

Eco rightly notes, however, that over the centuries, as portrayals of the devil intensify the demon's power, lust, and evil intent, artists and writers blurred the temptations such that by modern times,

between the Romantic and Decadent movements, the theme [of the devil as tempter] is almost blasphemously turned on its head. Instead of emphasizing the ugliness of the Devil and the strength of the hermit who resists him, the artist dwells on the image of the tempter and on the mushy posturing of the tempted (see, for example, Flaubert).

Flaubert's imagry is famously scurrilous. Eco quotes from Flaubert's The Temptation of St. Anthony, conflating some passges:

In the middle of the portico, in bright sunlight, a naked woman was bound to a pillar. Two soldiers were beating her with their straps, and at every blow she writhed. ... Her body was beautiful ... marvelously so. ...I could have been bound to the pillar next to yours, face to face, before your eyes, responding to your moans with my sighs, and our suffering would have blended into one, our souls entwined. (He scourges himself furiously.) Take this, and that, for you, again! -- But hold, now, I am seized by a tremor. What a torment! What a delight! Like kisses. My bones are melting! I'm dying ...

Flaubert borders on the ridiculous, if he isn't outright so. But the piquancy of the idea of a corrupt hermit is such a wild juxtaposition to historical fact that Flaubert could not apparently leave off. There is nothing about historical hermits here, and everything about Flaubert!

As to a history of modernpaintings of the temptations, the whole subject requires a separate treatment. Needless to note, it does not intersect with the historical hermit.

Ugliness, therefore, is as much a state of mind as it is an objective issue of aesthetic theory. Ugliness distinct from revulsion is conceptual, intellectual, even ideological.

But hermits were not part of ugliness in art from the Renaissance to the early modern. Only in some modern literature and art contriving themes of temptation, fantasy, and psychological projection does ugliness have anything to do with ancient points of view like eremitism.