Restoring Art to a Place in the Community: New Lessons from Early Renaissance Italy #9

For three weeks in the summer of 2016, twelve faculty members from the art, art history, theology, biblical studies, and Christian ministries departments of both Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges gathered at Gordon College’s residence in Orvieto (Italy) to explore how to overcome the divides that often keep these two areas of the undergraduate curriculum in separate compartments. http://www.gordon.edu/lfpsummerseminar

Participants were invited to write brief personal narratives that highlighted one or two particular aspects that encapsulated the experience.  This series of posts features several of these essays.

ANGELA RUSSELL CHRISTMAN (LOYOLA UNIVERSITY MARYLAND): THE VIRTUE OF RESTRAINT  

I WONDERED THEN AND STILL DO: WHAT SHAPE WOULD OUR COMMON LIFE HAFE, WHAT SURPRISING GIFTS MIGHT WE DISCOVER, IF ALL OF US PRACTICED THE VIRTUE OF RESTRAINT? 

Our three weeks in Orvieto inhabit a dream-like place in my memory. The experience of living in that beautiful town and discussing theology and art with new colleagues is not something I could easily forget—nor would I want to! When I recall our time together, I still feel waves of gratitude to everyone who was part of the seminar (including Maria our cook and Isabelle and Gianna the assistants). 

On the Saturday at the end of the first week—a week packed with provocative discussions as well as excursions to Florence and Siena—a group of us hiked up to the Capuchin convent outside of town. The hike was both strenuous and exhilarating, because the convent is at the top of an incredibly steep hill. Although we enjoyed some breathtaking views of Orvieto along the way, what stands out in my memory is the conversation we had when we stopped to eat our picnic lunch. (See the pictures of the “Stone Table Conversation” with the blog posts of Amy Hughes and Samuel Smartt.) As we reflected on the previous week, the notion of restraint emerged as a theme 

What precisely do I mean by restraint? It involves the acknowledgement and acceptance of the constraints we have by nature, as finite beings created by God to love and serve him, as well as the recognition that the modern illusion of autonomy is just that, an illusion. Restraint is closely linked to humility, the antidote to pride. For me, this concept has become key to understanding various facets of our seminar, including a number of the artistic masterpieces we visited. It crystallizes many of the issues we discussed, and it ties together the ways in which I constantly felt that our discussions of theology and art are relevant for major issues facing our communities, our country, and indeed, the world.

A profound example of the way in which the concept of restraint is manifested visually is found in the Convent of San Marco in Florence. While each of the convent’s cells is unique in the way it exhorted its inhabitants to heed the Gospel, the private cell of Cosimo de Medici stands out. While many of the monks’ cells depict a scene from the Passion, Cosimo’s cell portrays the adoration of the Magi. On the left side of the lunette sits Mary with the infant Christ in her lap and Joseph standing nearby. The three kings—representing youth and middle and old age—gaze reverently on the Christ child. While a few others in their entourage also seem focused on Jesus, most are not. Indeed, the figures on the right side of the lunette seem oblivious to the significance of the one whom the wise men worship.  They appear distracted and absorbed with worldly cares. Two of them are carrying weapons, one a sword and the other a mace. 

In the lower, central portion of the lunette is a niche for the display of the Body of Christ and below that is the tabernacle. Within the niche Christ is depicted as the Man of Sorrows (Isaiah 53). He stands in a sarcophagus, crowned with thorns, the horizontal beam of the Cross behind him. On the sides of the niche one can see some of the arma Christi, specifically, the pillar on which Christ was scourged, the sword used to pierce his side, and the vinegar-soaked sponge extended to him when he cried out, “I thirst.” The contrast between the weapons of the distracted courtiers and the arma Christi could not be greater. While the sword and mace convey the desires for worldly power and glory of those who wield them, the arma Christi disclose the humility of Christ, who allowed these weapons to be used against himself for our salvation. I do not know what thoughts this fresco prompted in Cosimo, but for me, its message was clear: Restrain your disordered desires, conform your life to Christ’s, and embrace the humility of the Man of Sorrows. 

 Many of the other masterpieces we saw articulate a similar message, albeit in different ways. Another favorite of mine was the series of frescoes that decorate the cloister walls and narrate the life of St. Benedict at the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The bucolic setting and the muted colors of the frescoes beckon viewers to stop and meditate. Here the monks were—and still are—encouraged to follow Christ by contemplating and imitating the life of their order’s founder. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” writes St. Paul (1 Cor 11:1). Paul’s pithy counsel captures well an important facet of veneration of the saints: they offer us concrete examples of those who have restrained their desires and reordered them so as to conform themselves to Christ.  

In our current climate, the virtue of restraint is rarely recognized, and some even see it in a negative light. In popular culture it is associated with a lack: a loss of selfhood and the absence of creativity. The daily meals prepared by Maria, our magnificent chef at Gordon College’s monastery property in Orvieto, give the lie to this assumption. Consistent with the Slow Food movement that has deep roots in Orvieto, Maria prepared delicious meals for us, all the while accepting the constraint of using ingredients readily available during the season. Contrary to the popular stereotype of restraint, Maria’s creativity as a chef was not stifled by this, but rather took flight. This was even clearer to us on weekends, when we had “leftovers night.” The need to stay within a budget—another restraint—meant that Maria saved any significant leftovers for the weekend meals. “Leftovers night” showcased Maria’s inventiveness, and we loved seeing (and tasting!) the way in which she combined dishes from earlier in the week or augmented them to create entirely new, but equally scrumptious, meals. As was true for the late Medieval and early Renaissance artists of the bottega, working within constraints did not hinder Maria’s creativity but rather fostered it. 

 This concept of restraint is relevant to thinking about not only paintings of the past, but also the crises of our world today. As wonderful as our three weeks in Orvieto were, our idyllic time was shattered on more than one occasion by horrific news from back home in the US, both of wrenching violence and of the brutal political scene. I wondered then and still do: What shape would our common life have, what surprising gifts might we discover, if all of us practiced the virtue of restraint? 

Restoring Art to a Place in the Community: New Lessons from Early Renaissance Italy #8

For three weeks in the summer of 2016, twelve faculty members from the art, art history, theology, biblical studies, and Christian ministries departments of both Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges gathered at Gordon College’s residence in Orvieto (Italy) to explore how to overcome the divides that often keep these two areas of the undergraduate curriculum in separate compartments. http://www.gordon.edu/lfpsummerseminar

Participants were invited to write brief personal narratives that highlighted one or two particular aspects that encapsulated the experience.  This series of posts features several of these essays.

Leah Samuelson (Wheaton College)

These glimpses into each person’s heart created a real yet complex environment in which explorations of our societies’ long history with art making and viewing could find a rich nesting place.

I enjoyed the seminar’s focus on visual arts because I am a drawer and painter, and I express observations and knowings more fully through the two dimensional drawing surface than through reading, writing, or conversation. For me to visit Orvieto and see dozens of examples of paintings that seem to hold the same station of meaning and belonging felt like a welcome home. Much of my experience in Illinois with discussing the function of art has involved trying to discover or defend whether arts fit well in contemporary life.  But in central Italy and within this seminar the discussion was how art and life grow within each other. Supporting the assumption that the existence of older art and the generating of more art are non-negotiable was the faithful, voluminous presence of various arts in various settings. Our visits to places that were synonymous with seeing the art and synonymous with being human were, for me, the highlight of these three weeks in Umbria and Tuscany.

The sights, feelings, and ideas about the arts were personalized for me because they had voices and faces and histories. Reading an essay about the themes of this seminar could not approach the experience of living out the weeks with scholar friends because facts and concepts were not what this trip was about. Instead, thirteen people—artists and intellectuals, men and women, Catholic and Protestant—brought and shared their subjective and contextualized versions of the life of the arts. Using a conversational method called mutual invitationallowed us to share as personally as we wished or didn’t wish to on topics relevant to our arts, faiths, and lives. These glimpses into each person’s heart created a real yet complex environment in which explorations of our societies’ long history with art making and viewing could find a rich nesting place.

Although I came to this seminar without a deep knowledge of various Christian doctrines or traditions, I grew by leaps and bounds from lectures and readings on how the arts of various branches of the church came to look and function as they do today.  For example, a Catholic scholar-friend shared her habits, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of devotion that pertain to church spaces and their imagery. But her stories unfolded not just during our hours of formal discussion but over meals, car rides, during walks, and while peering up into church apses. The connection struck me as profound, warm, embodied, and communal. Later this friend shared a hauntingly beautiful choral piece from YouTube that ignited the blessing that is Mary, mother of God.

Days later I stood alone in a swarming crowd of strangers in the Rome airport, struggling with my own senses of overstimulation and transition. I placed my headphones on my tired ears and searched the internet for that piece of music. As I listened, I felt my internal stance transform. The memories of being with friends, being near sacred images, and in spaces built for community awakeness calmed my racing thoughts.  I began to see Jesus’s ever widening reaching arms wrapping around Rome’s travelers with compassion, pain and fervor. His humanity was palpable in the crowd and in my imagination of Mary embracing him as a child, and at his death. Paintings of that body holding body moved through the music and through the press of people. I felt I was within the circle and we were a precious group.

 

Restoring Art to a Place in the Community: New Lessons from Early Renaissance Italy #7

For three weeks in the summer of 2016, twelve faculty members from the art, art history, theology, biblical studies, and Christian ministries departments of both Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges gathered at Gordon College’s residence in Orvieto (Italy) to explore how to overcome the divides that often keep these two areas of the undergraduate curriculum in separate compartments.  http://www.gordon.edu/lfpsummerseminar 

Participants were invited to write brief personal narratives that highlighted one or two particular aspects that encapsulated the experience.  This series of posts features several of these essays.

Amy Hughes (Gordon College)

“You just got back from that conference in Italy! How was it? Did you eat a lot of pasta?”

I’ve not yet come up with a suitable response to these questions. Even the pasta one is difficult to answer. How could I possibly explain that what Maria served to us every day was more than mere pasta but that her food created space for laughter, meaningful reflection on complex topics, and growing intimacy among new friends and colleagues? How do I explain that I have returned with such an embarrassment of riches that I will be sifting through them for years to come? How could I possibly measure the impact of sustained and expansive ecumenical conversations upon how I view the church? I am still exploring the architecture in progress in my mind of art and theology, church and pedagogy, and history and community as a result of this seminar.  But I can choose three “thick” moments that characterize my experience. 

On Looking Up and “Looking Along”: The Baptistery in Florence

Something happens when we look up, craning our necks to view the dome of the Pantheon in Rome or the exquisite ceiling of the baptistery in Florence. As I stood in the center of that baptistery I thought about how centuries of architects and artists have been creating spaces that compel us to look up. What a marvel that I am one of many over the course of centuries to throw my head back and squint to capture every magnificent detail! But why put such beauty so high where accessibility is limited and where the details might be lost to one so far below?

I realized while I stood there rubbing my neck that those responsible for the baptistery intended for us to privilege a kind of formative and intuitive seeing in a physical space similar to what C.S. Lewis called “looking along” versus the analytical “looking at.” It’s a good thing to consider the lines and the artistry and other “looking at” kinds of things but the liturgical setting of a baptistery is surely meant to provoke a “looking along,” a perceiving of a narrative beyond us as humans that reforms us in the waters of the font. 

Looking up is a physical motion that unlocks the tightness in our chest that comes from the stasis of living and looking horizontally. This is how we function on our shared plane that allows for relation between people, the ability to walk in a straight line, and have a sense of equilibrium. Throwing one’s head back to look up is a submissive and a vulnerable posture. It also unlocks a set of muscles in our upper chest and throat that can provoke emotional release and cause disequilibrium. Surely it’s no accident that the biblical narrative depicted on the ceiling of the baptistery demands a throwing back of one’s head in effect prompting that submissive and emotive vulnerability in response to the narrative of the gospel that requires transformation. It takes more than a looking at but a “looking along” to access this story, this truth that is not of our equilibrium or terrestrial mode. 

The “Stone Table Conversations”

On our first Saturday a group of us decided to hike down from Orvieto and up the ridge to the Capucchin monastery. It was a hot day and the sometimes-overgrown path made for an arduous trip. Once on the monastery grounds we stopped at a stone table that afforded a beautiful view of Orvieto to rest before we made the final, steep ascent to the monastery. Our reflections on our discussions over the week bubbled to the surface. After an hour or so of discussing art and justice, Flannery O’Connor, and Augustine, we pulled ourselves away and continued to the monastery. On our way back we found ourselves at the stone table again. Perhaps it was the need to rest after the exertion, or the meditative surroundings, or our growing comfort with one another, or some combination of all of those things, but what transpired next was a dialogic feast at a stone table. Building upon our earlier conversation we found ourselves in the midst of an ecumenical search for understanding: what truly are the differences between Catholics and Protestants? The varied experiences of both the Catholics and Protestants present allowed for a rich conversation about how we can articulate differences in ways that do justice to one another instead of settling for benign indifference or even subterranean animosity. The rich resources we each brought to this table from respective fields sparked important moments of clarity and wonder.

Athens and Jerusalem

I was not prepared for the fast moving mob that carried me through the Vatican Museums to the Raphael rooms on our last excursion of the Seminar. Tired and claustrophobic, we finally arrived in the library of Pope Julius II and everything opened up. Now there was plenty of space for us to look and discuss some of Raphael’s most famous pieces. My mind also opened in a way that I know was only possible after spending three weeks with such knowledgeable colleagues and discussing the power of art, audience, theology, and formation in situ

I had, of course, seen the famous School of Athens before in a book, but I had no idea that it was situated as part of a larger visual meditation on the nature of truth. The disputation between Plato and Aristotle about the nature of truth and reason is meant to be viewed with the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament across from it, a stunning visualization of narrative theology that, in effect, illuminates the limitation inherent in the famous philosophical disagreement. The entire room, including the ceiling, is really one work. And yet, during the 45 minutes we stood in that room, I witnessed group after group who filed in, stood with their backs to the Raphael’s gorgeous image of the church spanning heaven and earth, took a photo of the School of Athens, and then shuffled out. It makes sense considering the School of Athens is the only one that ends up on mugs and t-shirts. The power of experiencing art in situ confronted us again in that room, that these pieces were meant to be seen together: Athens and Jerusalem, theology and philosophy in dialogue. Our discussions in that room reflected our having spent so much time together, practicing dialogue between disciplines, and navigating faith distinctives. I opened my heart and mind and drank deep of the moment, for I had a new taste for the rich mixture of the draught of art and theology, and it had changed me.

Restoring Art to a Place in the Community: New Lessons from Early Renaissance Italy #6

For three weeks in the summer of 2016, twelve faculty members from the art, art history, theology, biblical studies, and Christian ministries departments of both Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges gathered at Gordon College’s residence in Orvieto (Italy) to explore how to overcome the divides that often keep these two areas of the undergraduate curriculum in separate compartments.  http://www.gordon.edu/lfpsummerseminar 

Participants were invited to write brief personal narratives that highlighted one or two particular aspects that encapsulated the experience.  This series of posts features several of these essays.

Samuel Smartt (Calvin College)

What is missing, it seems to me, is theological engagement with secular work in the arts, broadly construed.  

Early in his presentations, John introduced the notion of liturgy as the primary lens through which to think about the both the functionality of late-medieval art and the means by which communities participated in that art.  Implied was that the loss of a liturgical approach accounts for, in large measure, both the separation between artist and community we find in the Romantic-modernist paradigm and the birth of a distinction between “art for art’s sake” and craft. For me, this was quite provocative – it was the inciting incident, introducing the major conflict in the narrative of the seminar, and prompting the central dramatic question that would give shape to the rest of my experience:  must the work of Christian artists today be liturgical?

Later in the first week, John started us out with the question, “Why is it that we as a culture are so allergic to didactic art?”  This prompted fascinating discussions about the relationship between sophistication, formation (a word we opted for over didacticism) and functionality in artwork.  Our conversations on liturgy continued with the visit of guest speaker Bill Dyrness, but now with an eye towards the “new aesthetics” that emerged from the Reformation – specifically the birth of the intellectual and emotional “cold gaze.”  In various ways we problematized “disinterested contemplation” as the dominant mode of engaging with art in our time, as well as the notion of artist as individual genius primarily concerned with self-expression. 

The second week brought a significant shift in our line of inquiry:  we started teasing out the disciplinary and institutional divisions that animate our various stations and exploring their historical contexts. The framework for this conversation came from Lisa’s observation that theological differences cannot exclusively account for the variety (or lack of variety) of ways that churches of various traditions employ art, and that a social anthropological approach is needed to compliment the theological approach.  I found this refreshing because it moved us outside the walls of the church – indeed, one my few disappointments from the seminar was that, despite a nominal commitment to art outside sacred spaces, our conversations tended to always come back to the church proper.  Perhaps this is one reason why I found myself feeling constrained by the idea of liturgy; even though we attempted to expand our notion of the word, I never got a sense that those broader construals were a priority in the discussion.  

It is somewhat ironic, then, that the day devoted to discussing Environment and Art in Catholic Worship provided the climax of the seminar for me.  The document provided a launching point for us to discuss the idea of the “appropriateness” of artwork as determined by the liturgy.  For John, the conditions of‘answerability’ or ‘accountability’ were very important here.  He suggested the need to “cultivate an artistic environment where artists in all churches submit their artistic work to the church community’s liturgical work.”  He acknowledged that artists operating in the individualist mode may feel constrained by this, and that in response he felt the church needed to open up the “liturgical relevance of other spaces.”  This provided an opportunity for me to express that, as an artist, the sense of being constrained by the liturgy is not grounded in a resistance to functionality (or in the defense of my individual creative expression, for that matter), but rather in a desire to embrace functionality more broadly than the liturgy.  Brent and I both articulated our desire to create work that is formative, sophisticated, and faith informed, even if it is not necessarily appropriate for a sacred space or specific liturgical purpose.  

The idea of endowing work outside the church with spiritual significance is powerful to me, and maps clearly onto our discussions about Christian involvement in the arts. (In fact, this seems like the most promising area of future work for me that could come from this seminar.)  I teach media production to students who will go on to a wide variety of careers.  The individualistic fixation on self-expression is indeed counterproductive – very few of them will go on to earn a living as independent filmmakers.  But equally restrictive, I think, is the notion that their work should be limited to the church or para-church organizations.  And this is a binary they are faced with.  What is missing, it seems to me, is theological engagement with secular work in the arts, broadly construed.  I want to emphasize that I do see liturgy as a helpful lens through which to observe our present situation, and that I need to continue to think more about its broader implications.  For the moment, however, as I struggle to understand it beyond the walls of the church, it feels like a retreat – like a cloistering of our creative abilities.  

And hence, for me, the importance of Leah’s presentations on community art.  Leah described community art as extremely pragmatic – an interesting notion to me because I had always thought of it as being rather idealistic.  For Leah though, arts are the “most actual.”  You get people to actually DO something together.  In one sense it is “a rehearsal for society-making.”  I was reminded of Charles Taylor’s distinction between language as descriptive vs. language as constitutive.  Throughout the entire seminar I had been very much in a descriptive mode, trying to analyze, make distinctions, solve problems.  But for the last two days of the seminar I was forced to depart from that mode.  I was reminded that, as a process – regardless of the result – art-making is necessary part of our existence as humans, as spiritual beings. 

Such a brief reflection on these three weeks seems wholly inadequate. In true Protestant form I have focused on the arguments that proceeded from our conversations rather than the experiences we enjoyed together.  I have also forefronted conflict, which, while critical for conveying the arc of events, was not the defining characteristic of the Summer Seminar.  Our excursions to cathedrals and monasteries, the many side conversations, often over meals or on walks in the countryside, and the delightful experiences marking our time together, the friendships formed with like-minded colleagues at other institutions: these things I will treasure, and hope to continue for many years into the future.  Indeed, for me the dialogue across the Protestant-Catholic divide was one of the richest and most fruitful aspects of the seminar.

Restoring Art to a Place in the Community: New Lessons from Early Renaissance Italy
 #5

For three weeks in the summer of 2016, twelve faculty members from the art, art history, theology, biblical studies, and Christian ministries departments of both Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges gathered at Gordon College’s residence in Orvieto (Italy) to explore how to overcome the divides that often keep these two areas of the undergraduate curriculum in separate compartments.  http://www.gordon.edu/lfpsummerseminar 

Participants were invited to write brief personal narratives that highlighted one or two particular aspects that encapsulated the experience.  This series of posts features several of these essays.

Michael Bruner (Azusa Pacific University)

Passeggiata + Panna Cotta

The nightly passeggiata through the cobblestoned streets of Orvieto not only brought me back to another time when the world wasn’t in such a big hurry, but I was reminded each evening that, though I was thousands of miles from home, I was closer to something else—something ancient and familiar—than I had been in a very long time. Ancient rhythms, slower footfalls, lingering stares, a little mirth in the evening air all mingled together with the jasmine that was in full bloom during our three weeks in this medieval town and helped set the tone for what would become a deep and lasting experience.

I remember one night in particular. During our first week together, a group of us decided to venture out to a local eatery that was famed for its wine, wild boar, and panna cotta. Trattoria La Palomba’s cozy ambiance ushered us right in, and the eight of us were seated together at a long table in the far corner of the restaurant. I got a seat at the head of the table, which afforded me a bird’s eye view of the easy vibe and friendly conversation that filled the air, and as the night wore on (we were there for almost three hours), I sensed walls melting and hearts warming to the touch. Food and wine have a way of doing that, and Italian wine and food do it better than most. I promised myself that I would remember this moment long after I’d left Italy because I knew that, in spite of all the learning we’d undoubtedly experience and the beautiful places we’d visit, it was this camaraderie that would linger longest in our minds and hearts. It has, and it was a beautiful thing to behold that evening. The panna cotta wasn’t bad, either.

Our morning huddles around another table in a different part of town provided a different kind of meal altogether. Wonderful ideas, a lot of probing questions, a few disagreements kept each of us on our game. It was clear that I was in pretty rarefied air, and it didn’t take long for me to feel out of my depth. My exposure to medieval and early renaissance art was limited, and the knowledge that others had about such things was a few orders of magnitude above mine. It was a bracing experience at first, but the grace my companions showed me, mixed with their easy familiarity with artistic esoterica, provided another barrier-breaking experience. I learned more in those three weeks about art and theology than I ever expected to.

My late evenings in the apartment I shared with artist and fellow Lilly comrade, Brenton Good, was another highlight. Off one of the narrow side-streets, our third-floor apartment looked out over an overgrown green space with large trees and a local vegetable garden, and the breeze that drifted through our windows many of the nights we were there gave the whole place a Lower French Quarter (Little Palermo) New Orleans kind of vibe. And Brent and I gave each other space, which allowed enough room for the two of us to get to know each other in a comfortable and unhurried way. The other friendships I made with my some of my other colleagues left an equally deep impression, and I am grateful for the Christian collegiality that gave the whole experience a particular depth and warmth.  

Between the food and friends, great art and lively theological conversation, the Lilly Seminar exceeded my expectations. I knew it would be a good experience. How could it not be? Orvieto, Michelangelo, Timothy Verdon, Fra Angelico, the various Duomos, Maria our devilishly good cook, our master of ceremonies, Captain John Skillen (with his able assistants Gianna Scavo and Isabelle Skillen), and a dozen thoughtful scholars: what’s there not to love? But it was more than all of that. Much more. The whole of the experience was truly greater than the sum of all of its marvelous parts. I guess you really had to be there. Here’s to hoping we can all be there together again. 

Full heads, full hearts, full stomachs. Thank God for the passeggiata.

 

Restoring Art to a Place in the Community: New Lessons from Early Renaissance Italy #4

For three weeks in the summer of 2016, twelve faculty members from the art, art history, theology, biblical studies, and Christian ministries departments of both Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges gathered at Gordon College’s residence in Orvieto (Italy) to explore how to overcome the divides that often keep these two areas of the undergraduate curriculum in separate compartments.  http://www.gordon.edu/lfpsummerseminar 

Participants were invited to write brief personal narratives that highlighted one or two particular aspects that encapsulated the experience.  This series of posts features several of these essays.

Lisa DeBoer (Westmont College)

The three weeks in Orvieto, living with, traveling with, reading with, poking around town with, relaxing with and eating with, fourteen other excellent, thoughtful people reminded me of what “deep learning” feels like. The “eating with” was especially important—not least due to Maria’s amazing cooking.

It’s been six weeks since we wrapped up our time in Orvieto. I’ve been pondering, trying to figure out what, exactly, it is I’ve taken away from the experience. The pondering has made me realize that not since my days as an undergraduate, where occasionally I was asked to write a reflection paper at the end of a semester, have I been asked to self-consciously, straightforwardly name what I’ve learned, what new questions I’m asking, what I’ve valued about a learning endeavor. Of course, most of us probably do this in the amorphous context of our background thinking all the time. But that’s a different kind of mental processing from being asked to nail it down, say it out loud, and to write it out. This is something of an irony for me, as I’m one of those professors who does ask students to write down what they think they will take away from a class. So part of this reflection is what I learned (again) about learning in the course of this seminar. Another part is what I learned about un-learning in the course of the seminar.  And I have this assignment to thank for pointing me to both of these things that I learned.  

What I learned (again) about learning

It has been 28 years since I was an undergraduate at a Christian liberal arts college. I spent another eight years in graduate school, but that’s a different type of learning. That’s professional education. By the end of our three weeks in Orvieto, what struck me most was how the character of how I was learning felt so much more like the way I learned in college, as opposed to the way I learned in graduate school. This was first and foremost, a residential, Christian, liberal arts experience. I learned like I want my students to learn. With the people in the room, not just alongside them; engaging in free-range, “big picture” thinking, not only discipline specific and disciplinarily bound thinking.

On the one hand, this rediscovery is a truism. We learn best in community because we learn from one another. We learn best through engaged back-and-forth discussion, following the questions where they lead, not simply through the acquisition of the facts and methods required by any given discipline. We learn best in a group that has shared goals, rather than in a competitive, zero-sum environment. True, all of that. But I’d not had the chance to be on the receiving end of this kind of learning for a long time. I help create it for my students in my classroom (I hope). And I enjoy little snatches of it here and there with my colleagues on campus over a good lunch discussion, or at a faculty retreat, or sometimes in a committee context. But those moments, however refreshing, are intermittent, and incidental.  “Christian Liberal Arts Learning” is something we do mostly for our students. Not all that often for ourselves. 

The three weeks in Orvieto, living with, traveling with, reading with, poking around town with, relaxing with and eating with, fourteen other excellent, thoughtful people reminded me of what “deep learning” feels like. The “eating with” was especially important—not least due to Maria’s amazing cooking. It’s hard for me to imagine the conviviality we shared around the seminar table happening in quite the same way, without the fellowship we shared around the dining room table twice a day. Leah’s “mutual invitation” exercises were also key to this “deep learning.” In an ordinary academic seminar, we could anticipate learning from our varied disciplinary expertise and our varied personal backgrounds. That would happen in any traditional, academic “summer seminar.” But in this setting we also learned from our faith backgrounds, and even deeper, we were together long enough and in enough different ways to learn through and from our different personalities and temperaments. Even though, when we talked in seminar, we tended to preface our remarks with some disciplinary or confessional frame, it was also the case that we were all clearly speaking out of who we were in all of our grand, beautiful, messy, human particularity. Learning in this kind of setting is truly formative; it’s an education of the whole person.

What I learned about unlearning

These thoughts have been percolating in my head for the last six weeks. But now the new school year is almost upon me, and I’ve got to revise my syllabi.  Including my Art 124: Italian Renaissance Art syllabus.  How timely!  

Except that my summer seminar has unsettled my thinking about what this class should be about. I realize, in looking over what I did the last time I taught this class, that I taught Italian Renaissance Art (surprise, surprise) like an art historian.  That is, I more-or-less took for granted that certain key artists and monuments, that stylistic change over time, and that dominant patterns of patronage were the main currents we needed to trace. As a specialist in Northern European early modern painting, the “big question” guiding my syllabus was a disciplinary, methodological question: how did early and obsessive attention to Italian Renaissance art embed particular assumptions about art in the very bones of the discipline? And are those assumptions the most appropriate ones for the study of all art, as early practitioners of the discipline seemed to think the case?  Evidently, I’d bought the argument that those assumptions were at least appropriate and adequate for the study of Italian Renaissance art.

Our seminar has prompted me to ask whether the tools of the discipline, notwithstanding their roots in the study of Italian Renaissance art, are fully adequate for its study.  After all, art history as an academic discipline took shape hundreds of years after the art in question was made. The interests of those earliest art historians in attribution, in stylistic innovation (note, innovation, not merely change), and in the ferreting out of textual sources for complex symbolic and iconological programs gives us one take on what’s noteworthy about Italian Renaissance art.  It's not a trivial take, or a wrong take. But is it the only take?  

Challenged by our discussions and our site visits, and challenged by reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age with a colleague on campus (and also with Jamie Smith’s commentary How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor) I’m trying to teach this class a little less like an art historian, and a little more like a person trying my best to imagine what life felt like for the original makers and viewers of these works, and what, about their experience of the world, might be important for me to take seriously.  How did living in a more “enchanted” world, where nature was a divinely ordered “cosmos” rather than a scientifically defined “universe;” where the self was experienced as porous to that cosmos, rather “buffered” (Taylor’s word) from external powers; where personhood was understood in the context of community, rather than as the achievement of autonomy—how did all of this inflect Giotto’s arena chapel? or the elaborate tombs of prominent humanists? or the meanings of the descriptors “graceful” and “marvelous” and “sweet” as they play through the pages of Vasari? Above all, how does this world challenge our world?  And vice versa?  

So thank you, John, for requiring this exercise. And thank you, to all of you, for reminding me what good learning feels like and for challenging me to remember that while I can and should be an art historian in the classroom, I can also be more.  

 

Restoring Art to a Place in the Community: New Lessons from Early Renaissance Italy
 #3

For three weeks in the summer of 2016, twelve faculty members from the art, art history, theology, biblical studies, and Christian ministries departments of both Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges gathered at Gordon College’s residence in Orvieto (Italy) to explore how to overcome the divides that often keep these two areas of the undergraduate curriculum in separate compartments.  http://www.gordon.edu/lfpsummerseminar 

Participants were invited to write brief personal narratives that highlighted one or two particular aspects that encapsulated the experience.  This series of posts features several of these essays.

Brenton Good (Messiah College)

Comparing William Kentridge’s mural in grime along the Tiber to the great fresco cycles of the Italian Renaissance

What the Lilly Fellows Program Summer Seminar revealed to me was how refreshing it was for individuals from a variety of disciplines to come together and discuss art in great depth. Our discussions about the functions of art bounced quickly from a point made by a theologian, picked up by an art historian, commented on by a studio artist, then passed on to an English scholar. These exchanges were at times exhilarating, and done with both compassion and graciousness in a sincere desire to move forward as a group and discover something new.

What I still find fascinating is how the discussions within our structured meeting times naturally flowed over into our leisure time. Points made during a focused discussion found their way into conversations over coffee or walking around town. The communal experiences – the daily readings, the travel days, the food shared – seemed to intertwine organically and to influence my own time spent drawing and painting, discovering and rediscovering works of art throughout central Italy, shadows cast across a valley, or ancient stains and lichens growing on a stone wall.

For me, this unique experience can be illustrated by two separate but relatable stories – my own discovery while painting during this time and a surprising visit to a contemporary work in Rome by the artist William Kentridge.

(RE)DISCOVERING LANDSCAPE

During our first few days in Orvieto we visited the San Brizio chapel in Orvieto’s famous Duomo, spending time viewing and discussing Luca Signorelli’s fresco cycle illustrating scenes from the book of Revelation. As an undergraduate student I was lucky enough to have studied in Orvieto for a semester with the Gordon College program, and already had a sketchbook full of these figures and compositions. What I found myself being drawn to on this occasion, however, was the gridded windows behind the chapel altar. Simple panes of uncolored glass, some old and stained, some newly replaced and a stark clean white. This simple juxtaposition of values (and cleanliness) presented itself as a structure to investigate, and using this matrix as a meditation I began to produce small paintings in gouache. Although these new works directly related to the San Brizio windows (and therefore that place and specific memory) they were still very much in conversation with the geometric gridded prints and paintings I have made over the past fifteen years. This image was meditative, personal, and very formalist, but what came next was more jarring and unexpected.

During our trips to Pienza, Siena, and Assisi I began to draw the patchwork landscape of fields and tree lines - partially as a way of investigating geometry, but more so a recording of these spaces in that moment. During one of our warmer days in Orvieto I ventured out to find a spot with both some shade from the sun and a cool breeze, finding this along the western wall looking out over the surrounding valley. These views were familiar to me, but as I began a watercolor study of the landscape, it was the overlapping range of yellow-greens, the dark shadows cast by tree lines, and the obsessively complex planes of the fields that resonated most. With only one final week left I became obsessed with these colors and these forms, capturing as many records as I could. On one hand these landscapes seem to have little to do with my other abstract work, but perhaps they have everything to do with it. This range of influences, from a fresco to a window to a landscape, reflect the range of voices and disciplines present throughout the seminar itself - unexpected juxtapositions sometimes bear surprising fruit.

TRIUMPHS & LAMENTS

Arriving in Italy I was aware of a newly completed work by the contemporary artist William Kentridge in Rome, and was hoping to find time to visit it at some point on my own. What I was unprepared for was how much it would relate and reflect the topics being discussed within the seminar itself. Titled “Triumphs & Laments,” the Kentridge “mural” is a procession of monumental figures pressure-washed (with the aid of stencils) out of the grime of the travertine walls lining the Tiber river. These figures record the history of Rome, cryptically referencing a range of events both art historical, political, and personal. The work itself is similar to other works by the artist that often balance an incredible heaviness with whimsy or play. We had spent the first part of the seminar using the art of the fifteenth century as examples of what can be done when a range of artists, scholars, patrons, and communities come together to create art – and here it was being done in 2016.

Walking along the wall the surfaces were hypnotic, with the figures overwhelming the viewer in both scale and narrative content. Although not explicitly religious, the civic responsibility was a clear factor as well. The community was involved in the process, along with the location itself being chosen to help a neglected neighborhood. When the work was dedicated in April of 2016 it was accompanied by a theatrical performance with original composed music, and found Romans en mass attending on the alternate side of the Tiber. Their own story was being told, and in interviews a range of attendees expressed not only their love and admiration for the project, but also the responsibility of every Roman to come out and experience the work.

The more time I spend reflecting on these three weeks the more I find myself comparing Kentridge’s mural to the great fresco cycles we visited. It seems to check off all of the boxes we were analyzing as a group. Having just taken trips to Assisi, to Monte Oliveto Maggiore, to Siena - the parallels to Renaissance storytelling was obvious. A stark difference (and certainly a contemporary spin) here is longevity – the Kentridge work will supposedly remain for three to five years as it is obscured by a new layer of grime and dirt, fading and eventually disappearing.

Restoring Art to a Place in the Community: New Lessons from Early Renaissance Italy #2

For three weeks in the summer of 2016, twelve faculty members from the art, art history, theology, biblical studies, and Christian ministries departments of both Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges gathered at Gordon College’s residence in Orvieto (Italy) to explore how to overcome the divides that often keep these two areas of the undergraduate curriculum in separate compartments.  http://www.gordon.edu/lfpsummerseminar 

Participants were invited to write brief personal narratives that highlighted one or two particular aspects that encapsulated the experience.  This series of posts features several of these essays.

Anne Greeley (Indiana Wesleyan University)

On Sacred Art in the Modern Age: The Musei Vaticani

Interposed between the Stanze di Raffaelo and the Cappella Sistina at the tail end of the sprawling Musei Vaticani in Rome is the youngest of the Vatican art collections, the Collezione d’Arte Religiosa Moderna, born out of the efforts of Pope Paul VI (r. 1963-78) to achieve a rapprochement between contemporary artists and the Church.

At the closing of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in 1965, the pontiff had exhorted artists thus: 

We now address you…who are taken up with beauty and work for it…To all of you, the Church of the council declares to you through our voice: if you are friends of genuine art, you are our friends. 

The Church has long since joined in alliance with you. You have built and adorned her temples, celebrated her dogmas, enriched her liturgy. You have aided her in translating her divine message in the language of forms and figures, making the invisible world palpable. Today, as yesterday, the Church needs you and turns to you. She tells you through our voice: Do not allow an alliance as fruitful as this to be broken. Do not refuse to put your talents at the service of divine truth. Do not close your mind to the breath of the Holy Spirit.[1]

Driving this allocution was the sobering reality that the once-great alliance of art and Church, evinced in the magnificent and ubiquitous religious art and architecture of the pre-modern and early modern periods, had fractured and dissolved under the secularizing forces of modernism. 

The institution of modern art, born of European socialist thought during the revolutionary period of nineteenth-century France, had been founded on a thoroughgoing rejection of the socio-political values and structures of the ancien régime––chiefly, the orthodoxies of the French Academy with its special preference for religious narrative paintings. Not only were religious subjects anathema to the project of avant-gardism, that project was fuelled by a utopian socialist belief in the revolutionary, redemptive power of art itself to transform the lives of individuals and society at large. Art’s emancipation from, and eventual supplanting of, religion in the modern age is strikingly foreshadowed in Henri Saint-Simon’s call to artists, in 1825, to fulfill their “priestly” duty of “exercising…a positive power” over society, and of “marching forcefully in the van[guard] of the intellectual faculties.” As Daniel Siedell has observed, Saint-Simon’s and others’ re-envisioning of the artist as a privileged member of a new spiritual vanguard entrusted with spreading “news ideas” among men provided the intellectual justification for the arts to shirk the authority of Church and state and advance its own ‘religious’ values as an autonomous institution.[2]

This rigorously anti-clerical posture, together with the decline in papal patronage that occurred in the aftermath of the Italian Risorgimento, conspired to drive a deep wedge between art and the Church. Hence, religion, as distinct from mere spirituality, was radically estranged from art in the modern age. Or so one hears echoed down throughout the historiography of modern art.

While this narrative is powerfully affirmed by the conspicuous absence of religious artwork from historical surveys and museums of modern art, it is challenged by the Vatican’s aforementioned modern art collection, established by Pope Paul VI in 1973. Boasting over 500 artworks by such modernist luminaries as Salvador Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, the collection proves that modern art’s alleged ‘divorce’ from religion was ‘never de facto,’ to borrow the words of one art historian.[3] But be that as it may, the collection is also a testament to what James Elkins has appositely deemed religion’s ‘strange place’ in modern and contemporary art.[4]

Where religious themes and subjects do explicitly and unironically appear in modern art, they tend often to be treated in a highly idiosyncratic or abstruse manner that renders the meaning of the work ambiguous and the artist’s motives unclear. Indeed, it is fair to ask just how many works in the Collezione d’Arte Religiosa Moderna could be said to meet the criteria for religious art laid down by the modern Catholic philosopher and defender of modernism, Jacques Maritain: namely, that it be legible and finished; that it be in absolute dependence upon theological wisdom; and that it be above all religious, made by an active participant in the spiritual life of the Saints.[5] Though some might dispute the last of these criteria, the first two are unquestionably fitting, and are contravened by much of the modern art on view at the Vatican. 

There are nevertheless a few works that might appropriately be regarded as sacred art, by which I mean religious art that inspires an attitude of worship––the consummate example of these being, to my mind, Gerardo Dottori’s 1927 Crucifixion.

It was this image that kept me from bypassing the collection altogether on my recent trip to the Vatican as part of the Lilly Fellows Program Summer Seminar in Orvieto. Fatigued from having walked miles across Rome, and then having been herded with countless other visitors through the museums’ myriad antecedent galleries, I admit that even I––a declared lover and historian of modern art––was wholly resolved upon leaving the Raphael rooms to hurry through the Borgia Apartments to the Sistine Chapel, as so many wearied visitors are wont to do. All the sooner to rest my feet. But as I hastened after my companions who were striding toward la pièce de resistance, I was stopped in my tracks by Dottori’s painting, which caught the corner of my eye as I crossed the first gallery. 

I knew the image from reproductions, but had not expected to see it there at the Vatican. Even in its degraded printed and digitized forms, the painting had long struck me as a profoundly beautiful and intensely poignant image of Christ’s death upon the cross. 

As I stood there contemplating the stunning fluidity of form that connected the hands of the grieving women to the broken body of Christ in a holy mystical union, I found myself wanting also to kneel at my Savior’s feet and commune with Him in prayerful adoration. But such a response is prohibited by the rules of museum decorum. 

In the secular context of the museum––to which virtually modern and contemporary art is relegated––one is not only discouraged from overt displays of religiosity, but is encouraged to see all artworks, dispassionately, as autonomous aesthetic objects unsullied by any mediating function. The museum space annuls any stimulus to spiritual devotion, conditioning the viewer to see even such a profoundly religious image as Dottori’s in strictly formal terms. Within the neutralizing space of the museum, Dottori’s Crucifixion operates much less as a pious and affective meditation on the redemptive sacrifice of Christ than as a splendid example of Futurist aeropittura composed on a sacred theme.

It struck me as I lingered there in front of the image, imagining how much more power it might draw forth if it were hung over the altar in a church, as was customary in the pre-modern period, that the real tragedy of art in the modern age was not so much that of art’s severance from religion––for as the Vatican collection clearly demonstrates, that break never occurred in toto––but of art’s institutional displacement from sacred space and liturgy.

[1]  Pope Paul VI, “Address of Pope Paul VI to Artists” (8 December 1965), https://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/speeches/1965/documents/hf_p-vi_spe_19651208_epilogo-concilio-artisti.html, accessed 14 July 2016.

 [2] See: Daniel Siedell, ‘A Christian Approach to the History of Modern Art,’ The Cresset (May 1998), pp. 24-5.

 [3] Christopher Evan Longhurst, ‘Forty years of modern art in Vatican City,’ L’Osservatore Romano, 35 (2013), p 12.

 [4] James Elkins, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (New York: Routledge, 2004).

 [5] See Jacques Maritain’s talk to the Journées d’art Religieux of 23 February 1924, which forms the second appendix of Art and Scholasticism. https://www3.nd.edu/Departments/Maritain/etext/artapp2.htm.

Restoring Art to a Place in the Community: New Lessons from Early Renaissance Italy

For three weeks in the summer of 2016, twelve faculty members from the art, art history, theology, biblical studies, and Christian ministries departments of both Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges gathered at Gordon College’s residence in Orvieto (Italy) to explore how to overcome the divides that often keep these two areas of the undergraduate curriculum in separate compartments.  http://www.gordon.edu/lfpsummerseminar 

Participants were invited to write brief personal narratives that highlighted one or two particular aspects that encapsulated the experience.  This series of posts features several of these essays.

Katie Davis (University of Dallas)

“Mary the cook is a culinary artist, and her goal is to honor the body” (and so is the goal of painter-artist Luca Signorelli)

Each time I sat down to write this essay about my personal experience as a participant in the 2016 Lilly Summer Seminar for College Teachers, I felt compelled to begin with an account of how well we ate.  Maria, our cook, was a magician in the kitchen.  She prepared lovely meals every day for lunch and dinner.  She had a great memory, too: if someone mentioned in passing how much he liked her risotto with frutti del mare or chicken balsamico, those dishes mysteriously reappeared later on – better even than the first time.  She also noticed what wasn’t as popular. By watching us eat, she learned our preferences and accommodated for them in the menu.  She watched us, got to know us, and endeavored to make us happy by providing nutritious, satisfying, delicious meals.  

More on this anon.

I came to this seminar with one not very well articulated question about religious art in the post-modern era.  Prior to this summer, I had visited the San Brizio Chapel and the Stanza della Segnatura – and I had taught the latter several times – before.  I love these fresco cycles.  And I take it for granted that they represent a distinct achievement in the history of art, and perhaps in the history of human endeavor.  Compared with these frescoes, other art – especially contemporary church art – seems dull, ugly, and alienating to me.  A bit of time reflecting on this opinion led me to understand that I don’t understand contemporary art.  So I came to Orvieto hoping for enlightenment.  

Thanks to my new seminar friends – and especially the practicing visual artists among us – I had my mind changed about the merit of abstract modern and contemporary art.  I saw beauty where I hadn’t seen it before: in line, in form, in color.  I realized that churches – even the most revered churches in Italy – have always contained abstract elements: one need only look at the pavement at St. Peter’s, or the façade of the Duomo in Orvieto – to see that this is the case.  But when we looked together at images online of churches built recently in a modern style – even Catholic churches where I could imagine myself going for Mass – I still felt alienated.  Why?  

My working response is a direct consequence of meditating upon Maria’s cooking. 

Maria takes for granted the centrality of the body.  That’s what she’s aiming to satisfy, nurture and delight.  It wouldn’t make sense for a cook like Maria to say that the body isn’t important, to suggest that we move beyond it or get over it.  She is a culinary artist, and her goal is to honor the body.  This is not hedonistic, but perhaps we are a bit uncomfortable with the suggestion, thanks to certain readings of Plato and St. Paul, Descartes and Bacon (no pun intended) that go beyond the scope of this personal narrative.  Let’s just say that we moderns aren’t always comfortable with the suggestion that one acceptable aim of art is to glorify the body.  

But the Church, at its best, has always taken this for granted, at least in theory if not in practice.  It is not simply that we have bodies: we are bodies.  Or, we are embodied, and this is a fact worth celebrating visually.  There were those dark days when fig leaves were added to the most famous scenes from Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.  But the fact that they had to be added means that at some point, the glorious form of the first human body was proudly rendered by artists whose advisors (churchmen and scholars), patrons, and community-audience expected to see Adam wearing what God gave him and nothing more. 

And this brings me to Luca Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body.  I don’t know whether fig leaves were ever applied here, but I can say with all modesty that I am glad they are not present. I have always had a love-dislike relationship with this frescoed scene.  This summer, the love half of the tug-of-war claimed victory.  It is extraordinary to see skeletons emerging from the earth and taking on flesh again.  To see trapezius muscles forming and separating the skull from the spinal column.  And, most importantly, to see faces coming into being, or re-coming into being.  Faces that had withered and decayed and been eaten by maggots, now glowing with lovely skin and clear eyes and full mouths.  What an imaginative marvel!  Faces to look at other faces, to look at the angels standing above them, to look at the Face of Christ the Judge. 

At the risk of employing a hopeless cliché, these bodies are naked without shame, or if there is shame, it no longer has anything to do with the body as such. Instead, it has to do with the will.  The souls in anguish suffer for the things they chose to do with their bodies during their lives. Agony in Signorelli’s fresco cycle is a consequence of the freedom of the will; the same goes for delight.  Suffering is finally wholly just; likewise, rapturous joy.  And what joy there is in this at-times harrowing and shocking fresco cycle comes from emerging bodies recognizing their dear ones, from faces recognizing faces, and ultimately, resurrected body-soul composites recognizing the Face that makes all other faces dear for those who love God.  

It is because of the face – because of the reality of the body, its needs, desires, temptations, and its governance by the reason and the will – that, in my humble and still-being-educated view, makes the human form a sine quo non as the focus of contemporary art in the Church. 

Thanks, Maria, for your help in working this out!  And thanks to my new Orvieto friends, for being willing to think through these questions with me.

Lilly Fellows Program Summer Seminar

Welcome to the new SAFH blog.  The brief essays here, rich with photographs, will exhibit more elegance of presentation and substance of thought than (dare we say it) is possible in a FaceBook post.  Curious for more? Interested in the themes of the Studio's projects?  Turn to the essays on our home page.

On Sunday, the Studio launched the three-week Lilly Fellows Program Summer Seminar for College Teachers with a splendid supper buffet in the Studio's new headquarters in Palazzo Simoncelli, the capstone to their initial stroll through the town of Orvieto with Studio director, Dr. John Skillen. 

Twelve faculty members from the art, art history, theology, biblical studies, Christian ministries departments from both Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges will explore how to overcome the divides that often keep these two areas of the undergraduate curriculum in separate compartments. The close involvement of the Church in the arts during premodern Italian culture provides a backdrop. Our chef Maria was the star of the evening.

palazzodinner-12.jpg

Towards the end of dinner, Lilly Seminar participant Brian Johnson shared a poem by Adam Zagajewski titled "I Walked through the Medieval Town"...

I walked through the medieval town
in the evening or at dawn,
I was very young or rather old.
I didn't have a watch
or a calendar, only my stubborn blood
measured the endless expanse.
I could begin life, mine
or not mine, over,
everything seemed easy,
apartment windows were partway open,
other fates ajar.
It was spring or early summer,
warm walls,
air soft as an orange rind;
I was very young or rather old,
I could choose, I could live.