The sublime – in garden and landscape design

Sublime and beautiful in garden and landscape design

The sublime is a neglected quality in garden and landscape design. Edmund Burke  associated the sublime with terror, astonishment, admiration, wonder, and respect ” hardly any thing can strike the mind with its greatness, which does not make some sort of approach towards infinity; which nothing can do whilst we are able to perceive its bounds; but to see an object distinctly, and to perceive its bounds, is one and the same thing. A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.” In today’s terms, the view is also beautiful.

I have visited many designed landscapes and gardens without seeing anything as sublime as this photograph – of fog and sagebush in the Rocky Mountains.

Image courtesty Josh

5 thoughts on “The sublime – in garden and landscape design

  1. Christine

    Longinus the Greek rhetorician and author of ‘On the Sublime’ believed the sublime was an experience of the soul;

    “Like Plato, Longinus feels that the human was the art or technical aspects, while the sublime was the ‘soul’ or that which eluded our experience of art. In order to understand the sublime, we must have some notion of what exists beyond the human, empirical experience.”
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    He believed the most important source of sublimity [is] the power of forming great conceptions.

  2. Christine

    Yes. Longinus did say “a work of genius must aim at estacy”! The sublime is thought to be a combination of the true, the good and the beautiful. In literature Longinus spoke of five sources of sublimity; 1) grandeur of thought 2) capacity for strong emotion 3) appropriate use of figures or style 4) nobility of diction and 5) dignity of composition.

  3. Tom Turner Post author

    It is an excellent list of design objectives – for some projects but not for all projects. I admire Vitruvius but think Wotton did him a great disservice with the translation of Venustas as ‘Delight’. The word ‘delight’ seems best suited to the gleam of pleasure one sometimes feels when a bottle is uncorked or the desert trolly arrives. Venustas is a far more serious matter and could easily include Longinus interpretation of the sublime. It is the quality which the Parthenon enjoys when seen on the Acropolis and with Lycabettus beyond.
    By the way, lets hope the Greeks don’t have to sell it to Abu Dhabi in order to comply with EU financial regulations. Bring back the Drachma would be my response!

  4. Christine

    Longinus makes an important distinction between nature and culture in his conception of the Sublime. He believes that within culture sublimity is not associated simply with grandeur, as it is in nature, rather in culture grandeur must be joined to utility and advantage.

    In this sense Longinus distinguishes between nature as in the image of the Rocky’s above and nature in the art of garden design.

    So when he speaks of sublimity in culture (as approaching the product of the Divine mind) he is references sublimity in nature (the product of the Divine mind). In this sense Divinity is the gold standard! The Nature of the Divine Mind of course ‘is always’ grand, useful and advantageous.

    Seems like I am approaching intelligent design theory here!….Those Greeks have a way of making things interesting!


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