Sublime … Not So Ridiculous?

‘Theory developed by Edmund Burke in the mid eighteenth century, where he defined sublime art as art that refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation’ (, 2018). (2018) informs us:

‘The theory of sublime art was put forward by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful published in 1757. He defined the sublime as an artistic effect productive of the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling. He wrote ‘whatever is in any sort terrible or is conversant about terrible objects or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime’.

This would appear to be in direct contrast with the definition provided by the Oxford Dictionary for the word sublime:

‘Of a feature of nature or art: that fills the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; that inspires awe, great reverence, or other high emotion, by reason of its beauty, vastness, or grandeur’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 2018).

On one hand, sublime is seemingly used to refer to strong emotions associated with terror, on the other hand it is used to refer to awe inspiring greatness relating to some physical attribute including, but not limited to, beauty.

The two seem very much at odds, both statements cannot be correct.

How do we reconcile this dissonance?

Before attempting an answer, I need to determine how this is relevant to my practice?

Previously I have described the observation and craftsmanship shown by Vermeer in producing the light fall-off in The Milkmaid as sublime. It has been suggested that my use of the term is incorrect.

I didn’t agree with this notion on the occasions that the suggestion was made, and I don’t agree with it now.

For me, the important thing is to recognise and accept that one definition of the sublime does not preclude any or all other definitions.

Use of the term, that is to say which definition of the term is used, is very much context dependent. And this brings me very nicely to my final point.

I think this discourse is also relevant to my practice from the point of increasing my visual literacy and associated vocabulary.

Vermeer painted in such a way that light has a presence, a vibrancy all of its own – it is awe-inspiring and, for me at least, retains the right to be described as sublime.



“sublime, adj. and n.”. OED Online. Oxford University Press, January 2018 [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 25 January 2018) ca. 2018. Art Terms entry: ‘sublime’ [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: Thursday 25 January 2018)

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