From the Archives #4: Douglas R. Gilbert and Italian Light

Douglas Gilbert has had a long and distinguished career as an artist-photographer, first as a staff photographer for LOOK magazine during the 1960’s, then as a professor of photography in the newly established art department at Wheaton College, and then as an independent professional photographer—becoming a licensed therapist along the way. He has published four books of photographs with text by co-authors. Three evoke the worlds of the authors Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C. S. Lewis, and Flannery O’Connor. The most recent one brings to the light of day for the first time the historic set of photographs Douglas took of the budding young musician named Bob Dylan, when both Dylan and Gilbert were 21 years old. Fascinated by Italy, Douglas has sojourned here many times. The Studio for Art, Faith & History has hosted four shows of his work. The photographs featured here come from his most recent exhibitions, entitled Italian Light and Light from Light. Much of Gilbert's photographic work can be viewed on his website.

Writes Gilbert:
I began photographing the light in Italy in 1999 while visiting John and Susan Skillen in Orvieto. I was not prepared for the power of my response to what I found while in Italy. Since that first experience, my wife and I have returned six times. With each succeeding visit my fascination with Italian Light has grown.



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No matter where I’ve traveled in Italy – hilltown or city, rural landscape or seaside – I’ve experienced the light as a powerful presence. Italian light is both strong and revealing in highlight and shadow. I can look into the shadows and see detail, color, gradations of gray, unlike anywhere else I have been. It is no surprise that artists have gone to paint in that light for hundreds of years as part of their essential artistic education.

Light is essential to the photographer’s art, revealing the world in ever-changing configurations. Light draws the forms on the film and sets the shadows dancing in the frame. Italian light is especially bold and assertive, taking charge of the photographer’s “canvas” and challenging him to discover and order what is before him. It can whisper or shout, glow ethereally or push its way to the front of the stage. This dance of light and shadow, both physical and compositional elements, defines space and creates moving, changing environments.

A more recent body of work – entitled Light from Light from the phrase in the Nicene Creed – is inspired by my experience of light’s real presence in churches and abbeys. Light, for me, is a powerful part of creation and is redolent with theological implications. Light was the first thing created by God (Genesis 1) and He pronounced it “good.” God is light (I John 1:5) and light is one of the attributes of God. Light, literally and metaphorically, holds the presence of God mysteriously—it is incarnational. It is God’s presence, but it is not God.

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The churches in Italy where these photographs were made were designed for the worship and adoration of God, and included windows through which natural light would move through the church interior during the daylight hours illuminating, revealing and emphasizing the forms.
The stained glass windows, paintings and sculptured forms were the means used to both educate and inspire. Natural light would move through the church interior during the daylight hours illuminating, revealing and emphasizing the forms.

San Lorenzo, Orvieto

San Lorenzo, Orvieto

Light bursts through windows, unstoppable and glowing. A diagonal fire of light dances on a wall near ancient columns which call to the unwary visitor to look and see.

An ancient abbey with a light-filled apse, a spare altar covered with white linen watched over by a crucified Christ whose sacramental presence will be gratefully received at Eucharistic celebrations.

Sant’Antimo, southern Tuscany

Sant’Antimo, southern Tuscany

A sun-drenched corner of altar steps with a modest palm branch to the right, reminding the viewer of its significance in the Great Story.

And then, rounding a corner near the altar area, a sudden, almost blinding blaze of light, as it may have been in the holy of holies.

Sant’Andrea, Orvieto

Sant’Andrea, Orvieto

The light calls our attention to many details in these sacred spaces and invites us to contemplate what specifically is illuminated, and why.

Duomo, Orvieto

Duomo, Orvieto

A Winter Retreat for museum curators, gallery directors, and art collectors


How might gallerists and collectors and curators take more active roles in fostering a renewal of a more socially-engaged art – art that serves as “a welcome response and refreshing counterpart to the rarified world of contemporary art and its market driven, celebrity hungry culture”?

The Studio for Art, Faith & History’s activities in the visual and performing arts typically have something to do with putting the arts back in the place of local communities – putting the artwork to work in helping the community enact its identity and its mission.


For example, the Studio has a long-running collaboration with Karin Coonrod’s Compagnia de’ Colombari and Andrea Brugnera’s KaminaTeatro to work with the folks of the medieval quarter of Orvieto to rediscover their own rich history of sacred drama – sacre rappresentazioni. The heart of this neighborhood is the beloved 1,000-year-old parish church of San Giovenale, which turns out to have been the home-base of a confraternity that performed such plays in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The seminars and retreats hosted by the Studio every winter and summer help mainly-American groups recover a sense of how the arts were incorporated into the life and work of premodern communities not as decorative add-ons but as essential elements of the fabric of the buildings that housed the activities of the community.

So why did the Studio host a retreat in January 2018 for a dozen gallery directors, museum curators, and serious collectors of art?

After all, the typical pattern, as most of us think of it, is for artists to make what they are inspired to make, and only after the artist makes the artwork does another set of people kick into play. Gallery owners and auction houses and art fair organizers operate as middlemen through whom collectors buy works of art.  Art critics and the intelligentsia of cultural theorists and historians play an important role in setting the value of an artist’s work. Museum directors and exhibition curators give wider access to audiences interested in seeing art and artifacts of past or unfamiliar cultures – or of their own culture. Curators of non-commercial exhibition spaces play their role in educating a public about contemporary art even if the viewers are not looking to buy. And finally Collectors – the serious buyers – put the art somewhere for longer-term viewing by people (except for the billions of dollars worth of art now locked in climate-controlled warehouses as elements of investment portfolios). But all these people do their work after the Artists have done theirs.

This whole system is a product of the last couple of centuries when the artist was the one who made the artwork. But for an even longer period (at least of European culture) the sequencing moved in the opposite direction, and one must speak rather of the set of people who made the art work.

First, the call for art began with the network of communities and associations, guilds and confraternities, cathedral committees and prominent families: the nameable entities who used artwork to give shape and purpose to the activities that embodied their identity and mission.  Then came the patrons and commissioning agents – those engaged in funding the art and contracting the artists to make particular works of art.  Scholarly advisors were typically called in to explain the thematic matter to be given visual embodiment by the artist – to insure that the artist’s visual design measured up to the ideas informing it. The artists who made the artworks were last, not first, in this circle of the four parties who made the art work.

Well, we can’t suggest eliminating the whole now-institutionalized apparatus of entities and roles that get what the artists make into places where their artworks can be appreciated.

But we might imagine how gallerists and collectors and curators could take on more active roles in fostering a renewal of a more socially-engaged art – art that serves (writes Adrienne Chaplin) as “a welcome response and refreshing counterpart to the rarified world of contemporary art and its market driven, celebrity hungry culture. It aims to connect art with ordinary people and addresses issues that are relevant for today. It has an ethical focus by raising awareness of matters of injustice and by providing a voice for marginalized communities.”

Those were the challenges put before a group of such people participating in a Retreat in Orvieto sponsored by the Studio for Art, Faith & History in January 2018. The group – small enough for shared conversation – represented the various roles: the director of a university museum, the full-time curator of an active church-sponsored gallery, the director of the art gallery associated with a major international evangelism association and a financial supporter of that gallery, the director and former director of a major association of people of faith involved in the arts, and several artists and serious collectors.

One participant, Chad Bartlett, made a 7-minute video about the Retreat, focused on the three excursions we made to see artworks commissioned for specific places. Watch the video here.

The Holy Family in the frescoes of the Orvieto Duomo


Ugolino di Prete Ilario’s visual narration of Mary’s life exhibits an unusual attention not just to the sanctity of the Virgin herself but, as Sara Nair James writes, to “intimate glimpses” of the holy family’s daily life, of the “tenderness of human interactions” involving Jesus’s adoptive earthly father Joseph as well as Mary.

Photo Madeleine Linnell

Photo Madeleine Linnell

The cycle of frescoes on the theme of the End Times and the Last Judgment in the Orvieto Duomo is recognized as one of the major artworks of the High Renaissance in Italy. (The frescoes fill the right transept chapel often referred to as the San Brizio Chapel.) This work, begun around 1450 by Fra Angelico and completed 50 years later by Luca Signorelli, has received plenty of scholarly attention, including a book by a close friend of the Studio for Art, Faith & History, art historian Sara Nair James: Signorelli and Fra Angelico at Orvieto: Liturgy, Poetry and a Vision of the End Time.

Photograph from OPSM

Photograph from OPSM

Of enormous local significance is the earlier fresco cycle in the left transept chapel – the Chapel of the Holy Corporal – by Orvietan painter Ugolino di Prete Ilario, completed in 1364 with Eucharistic themes. Featured is the story of the Host that dripped real blood on the altar cloth in the pilgrimage church of Santa Cristina in nearby Bolsena, understood in Orvietan tradition as the miracle that prompted Pope Urban IV to institute the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1264 from the Pope’s residence in Orvieto.

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Largely ignored, however, by scholars and visitors alike is the large fresco cycle behind the altar devoted to episodes of the life of the Virgin Mary.  Sara James is the first art historian to give careful attention to this cycle in a lengthy article in the academic journal Gesta (Spring 2016, v. 55, n.1, pp. 79-104). My brief essay here is neither a review nor a summary of Professor James’s article but a description of the cycle through eyes opened by James’s study to features transparently present in Ugolino’s visual narration.

With construction underway by 1290 on a new cathedral in Orvieto, Pope Nicholas IV dedicated the Duomo to the Virgin Mary, particularly in the aspect of her bodily assumption into heaven soon after her death. 

The Assumption was declared as a dogma of the Church only in 1950. It has no clear grounding in scripture, but early references to the idea occur by the 4th and 5th centuries. In fact, St. Juvenal – the Bishop of Jerusalem and understood to be the same Juvenal (to whom the beloved church of San Giovenale in Orvieto is dedicated) who evangelized southern Umbria and became bishop of Narni – is cited by St. John of Damascus as declaring at the Council of Chalcedon (451) to the Emperor Marcian, “who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God,” that Mary died “in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened, upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven.”

In 1370 the administrators of the Duomo again turned to Ugolino di Prete Ilario to decorate in fresco the most important area inside a cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, namely, the space surrounding the altar at the East end of the Duomo (the tribune or apse).

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Cathedral records indicate that Ugolino and his workshop worked for over a decade on what remains the largest Marian cycle in western Europe, both in square footage (300 square meters) and in number of scenes (more than 30 captioned panels). The narrative culminates in the highest area of the East wall with five scenes: the Angel announcing to the aged Mary her impending death; her death (the Dormition); the disciples processing the dead Mary to her sepulcher; Jesus raising Mary from her tomb; and, in the high arch above the central window, her Assumption into heaven witnessed by the disciples. Directly above the Assumption in the triangular space of the ceiling vaulting is the Crowning of Mary by her Son.

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Arranged in a left-to-right U-pattern on two registers circling the lower and larger area of the apse are scenes from the life of the Virgin. Included are the beloved episodes from the apocryphal accounts of the young Mary, featured in most of the Marian cycles. Her miraculous birth to her aged parents Anna and Joachim fills the lowest register on the north wall (the left side, facing the altar). Mary’s entrance into the Temple as a young girl and her marriage to Joseph are depicted at the bottom of the east wall. The Annunciation and the Visitation, the Nativity and the Adoration of the Shepherds and of the Magi, the Presentation of baby Jesus in the Temple, and the Flight into Egypt all find their place in the Ugolino’s cycle.

But Ugolino’s narration of Mary’s life contains some strikingly a-typical elements. Viewers familiar with other Marian cycles (such as Giotto’s in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova) may notice an unusual attention not just to the sanctity of the Virgin herself but, as Sara Nair James writes, to “intimate glimpses” of the holy family’s daily life, of the “tenderness of human interactions” involving Jesus’s adoptive earthly father Joseph as well as Mary.

In fact, most unusual in a cycle devoted to Mary is the strong role of Joseph, often placed center stage by Ugolino. Joseph’s high profile in the Duomo cycle is perhaps not entirely surprising, given the veneration he received in Orvieto with the arrival of the mendicant orders in the 13th century, especially the Servites, whose annals for 1324 indicate a long-standing annual festival in honor of Joseph. Such veneration culminated in the official declaration of Joseph as patron saint of Orvieto in 1652.

For example, Ugolino’s Nativity scene focuses simply on Joseph and Mary kneeling before the newborn babe lying on the ground between them, but Joseph is the figure at the center of the visual field. In the scene of the Adoration of the Magi, Joseph in fact is placed at the apex of the pyramidal arrangement of the four men, his own hands raised in amazed adoration. In the Presentation in the Temple, Simeon holds the baby Jesus in front of the altar, while Joseph interacts with the priest behind the altar; in the background but at the center. Joseph again occupies a central position in the Circumcision, turning to Mary with a look of fatherly concern.

The sequence of four scenes on the lower register of the South wall begins with the Annunciation. But Joseph figures prominently in the other three episodes. In the Visitation the two husbands Joseph and Zacharias visually frame the embrace of Mary and Elizabeth in the center (although the men’s presence is not in the scriptural account). The last episode in this sequence depicts Joseph welcoming Mary into his house. Mary enters the scene on the left, but Joseph is the central figure, with some musicians on the right supplying festive accompaniment – nothing hugger-mugger here.


As for Ugolino’s interpretation of the Flight into Egypt (a much damaged section of the wall), Joseph leads the donkey, but the Flight itself occupies only half the space.  In the entirely unusual right half of the panel, Ugolino depicts the Holy Family at home, with Joseph the blacksmith working outside at his anvil and forge, while Mary seems to be “homeschooling” young Jesus inside!


Perhaps most surprising is Ugolino’s treatment of the story of Jesus at the age of twelve, having accompanied his parents to the Passover Festival in Jerusalem, but staying behind asking astute questions of the Teachers in the temple courts (Luke 2:41-52). The story is typically compressed into a single scene with Jesus seated in the center and the Jewish elders symmetrically-arranged on either side (as in Maitani’s depiction on the façade of the Duomo, and in Giotto’s cycle in Padova).


In Ugolino’s cycle, the story becomes an intimate family drama expanded to five scenes and filling the entire upper register on south wall (the same proportion as given to Mary’s own birth narrative). Joseph figures prominently in every scene. The first panel depicts the family on their journey to Jerusalem. In the next they stand before the temple (appearing rather like the Duomo itself), Joseph kneeling at the boy’s side apparently giving a lesson. In the middle scene, Joseph and Mary discover that Jesus is missing. A dramatic empty space opens between the two parents, their hands clasped to chests. The fourth scene depicts Jesus among the Elders, the teachers responding variously. The boy’s position on the right side creates a visual juxtaposition with his position on the left in the final scene. There, the boy who has just been speaking authoritatively to his elders is reunited submissively to his parents. The caption below the scene reads: “Where Jesus dismisses the doctors; He comes to the Virgin Mary [and] Joseph [and] ardently submits to them.”

To be sure, the saintly Virgin is highlighted in the culminating central height of the long cycle. But the visual experience of the viewer working her way through the larger portion of the cycle creates a strong experience of parents – of a fully engaged earthly father along with a devoted mother – working in concert to raise their boy in godliness. Perhaps we may perceive the lesson that, even for Jesus, learning obedience to his heavenly father began with training in obedience to his earthly father. As for Virgin, the cycle presents her as the vessel of God’s humanity in Jesus, not just in the womb but in his upbringing.

Perhaps in Ugolino’s Marian cycle we are invited to understand the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption into heaven as grounded solidly in her – and her husband’s – day-to-day fidelity to the task of rearing the Messiah. And we are invited to see even the Virgin of the Assumption not as an otherworldly saint sailing effortlessly up to heaven but as the wife and mother – faithful in the callings to which we, too, are called – who goes before us as promise and anticipation of our own bodily resurrection.

Photograph by Madeleine Linnell

Photograph by Madeleine Linnell

In sum, we can say that the Marian cycle in the tribune provides another element in the theme everywhere addressed in the entire decoration of the Duomo: the doctrine of the Incarnation. Taken together with the façade and the two transept chapels, we see God creating our first parents in his own image (even shaping Adam with the implements of the sculptor) and becoming fully incarnate in the Word made Flesh (the sculpted reliefs on the façade); really present in the Sacrament (Chapel of the Holy Corporal); initiating a New Creation of redeemed humanity not by eliminating flesh but by raising it anew in perfection through the One, wounds in hands, who exercises mercy and judgment (Chapel of San Brizio).


Photograph credits to Gianna Scavo (unless otherwise indicated)

From the Archives #3: Brett Foster on Assisi, Saint Francis and his namesake Pope

Brett Foster died in November 2015 at the age of 42, having battled an aggressive form of cancer for a year and a half.  Brett was a stunningly gifted man, a prolific scholar, a brilliant poet and translator of poetry, an essayist of breathtaking scope, boyish in his enthusiasms, humble and exuberant in his devotion to his friends, a charismatic teacher, devoted to his wife and two children.  From his post in the English department at Wheaton College, he visited Orvieto several times, finding the time to teach a course on Dante’s Divine Comedy in the spring of 2013 for Gordon’s semester program in Orvieto.  The essay below was occasioned by his excursion to Assisi with the Orvieto students.  It is edited from a longer essay published in the Huffington Post on October 4, 2013, updated on January 23, 2014, and available here.

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The usual parking spaces were all full near the Eremo dei Carceri, Saint Francis’s hermitage tucked away amid the oak and ilex trees in a crease of Mount Subasio hundreds of feet above Assisi. “Wow, it’s more crowded here than I have ever seen it,” said Matthew Doll, the program director of Gordon College’s semester program in Orvieto where I was teaching a month-long course in Dante’s Divine Comedy. We had to proceed farther up the mountain, but eventually found spaces for the three vans.

After a short walk we encountered a quietness and scarcity of people befitting a hermitage. Not even a guide was present to show us the way through the small rustic building and toward the pilgrim trail. We descended the small stairs in the relative dark, passing one woman earnestly praying in a stone nook. 

The trail beyond the site was lovely. We soon approached a flat rock, roughly the size of a twin bed, which held a bronze statue of St. Francis in repose. Honestly, the best way to describe his posture would be to say that he was chilling: flat on his back, arms raised and behind his head. His face appeared restful, like the face of one who knew himself to be a creature of God. This was where Francis and his brothers would retreat from the world and undertake their spiritual disciplines. The scenic space made it easier to imagine the quirky saint giving his sermon to the birds and meaning every word of it.

Before visiting the hermitage, we had stopped at San Damiano, a still admirably rough church with its small cloister and wooden stalls, located amidst the olive groves on the hillside below the city walls of Assisi.  It was here in 1205, when Francis was 23, that a wooden crucifix was said to speak to him, ordering him to “Rebuild my church.” The young man was then little more than a restless, eccentric son of a prosperous cloth merchant. He took the message literally, and began to restore stone by stone the church in which we were standing. The message, though, had broader implications, as the work and witness of his life and his posthumous legacy soon demonstrated. 

A grove near San Damiano is reportedly where Francis composed his “Canticle of the Creatures,” a rhapsodic poem of praise that, being written in the Umbrian dialect, makes it the great, inaugurating poem in the Italian language. “Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! / All praise is Yours, all glory, honor, and all blessing. . . . Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures. / Especially my lord Brother Sun, / who brings the day; and you give light through him. / And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!” 

The crucifix that gave Francis his marching orders now hangs in a chapel in the church of Santa Chiara just inside the town walls above San Damiano. Inspired by Francis’ example, Clare, daughter of a wealthy Assisi family, cut her hair, left home, and became one of the saint’s most devoted followers. Eventually she became abbess of the order that bears her name, the Poor Clares, and is buried in Santa Chiara. One of the more poignant frescoes in Giotto’s magisterial cycle on Francis’s life shows Clare and other nuns having raced forth from San Damiano to mourn over the body of the dead saint as it passed by in procession. 

They and other townsfolk sought out Francis’ body, as Bonaventure explains in his Life of Saint Francis, not to intensify their sadness but “so that they could dispel all doubt and add joy to their love.” Bonaventure compares one knight named Jerome to Thomas the doubting apostle, who was suspicious of the “sacred signs” on Francis’s corpse — that is, the evidence of Francis receiving the Stigmata. He touched the hands, feet, and side, and even moved the supernaturally present nails, “black like iron,” that Bonaventure says were embedded in the flesh like “continuous hardened sinews.” The knight’s bold examination of these signs of Christ’s wounds “completely healed the wound of doubt in his own heart and the heart of others.”

If Clare and her sisters wept for Francis’s death, many others through the centuries have found solace in his life and sainthood. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton included sweetly blunt prayers to Francis in his journals: “Holy Father Saint Francis, I believe that, in your immense and inexpressible love of Jesus Christ our Lord, you can look into my dumb, crooked soul and see what is there before I can say it in the selection of cheap, vulgar, stupid words presently about to flow from my inexpensive fountain pen.” Help me, Merton asks, to follow your own example, “that I may laugh and sing when I am despised for God’s love, and that I may dance and play when I am reviled for God’s love, and called a mad man, and a fool and a crook.”

When the students regrouped outside of San Damiano, the director led us up a path into the green-grey setting of the olive grove, with a breath-catching, panoramic view of the valley far below. The one noticeable landmark seen from there was the dome of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which one guidebook fairly describes as “vast but uninspiring.” Within it, though, sits one of the most inspiring Franciscan sites, the Porziuncola. Francis and his brothers repaired the schoolroom-sized chapel as their headquarters, around which they built outcropping shanties. The marble floors and high pillars of today’s grand church have been built around and above this modest originating spot.

On the way to our culminating stop at the Basilica of San Francesco, we took in the pink and light-grey stone, the native materials from which Assisi’s buildings were raised. We also marveled at the numbers of people. This hill town of fewer than three thousand residents welcomes around five million visitors each year. Assisi, then, is no stranger to huge crowds, and it also attracts its fair share of mystics and barefoot madheads. 

During the first weekend of May, many towns hold medieval festivals, which in a well-preserved town such as Assisi may seem to risk gilding the lily. Everyday is like a medieval festival in Assisi. Banners were on display throughout the narrow streets, emblazoned with ancient coats of arms. Many people, from children to venerable elders, were walking toward the town’s central piazza for a civic pageant of some sort. That area was closed to passersby, which meant we had to take a less traveled, narrower route to reach San Francesco.  In the wide lawn in front of the Basilica, the shrubbery is laid out in the form of the word “PAX”. The little girls and young women charmed in their pastel gowns and fluted headgear. This event partially explained the crowds, but there was another, greater reason, too — the election of the first Pope to take on the name Francis.

Jorge Bergoglio, shortly after being elected, declared to the world, “Good evening, I am Francis.” He explained how the name of the “man of peace,” the one called il poverello (“the little poor one”) came into his heart, and how he found in St. Francis a model for anyone who loves and cares for creation. Pope Francis has been a refreshing spiritual voice so far, even if some of his first actions as pope have made some of the Catholic faithful nervous. Many around the world, though, welcome what is perceived as a newly emphatic concern for Gospel-centered values that St. Francis himself embodied: just as this Jesuit worked among HIV/AIDS patients in Argentina and, as cardinal there, spoke harsh words to clergy when necessary, so as pope he is speaking up for the poor and calling churchmen to a higher account. 

Shortly after his election, he warned all believers against becoming “starched Christians” who discuss theology over tea, more polite than courageous or compassionate. He made these remarks in St. Peter’s Square, from the stairs of the church, speaking with a forthrightness that continues to characterize his papacy. He also admitted to nodding off sometimes during his evening prayers, and said it broke his heart that a homeless person’s death is not considered newsworthy. He has agitated some with this tendency to extemporize, and with a signaled willingness to reprimand even the powerful within the Curia. However, maybe we need to hear a little more roundly about struggles cultural and ecclesiastical, and about the pope’s own human challenges. These challenges came to the front earlier this year when Benedict XVI obeyed the dictates of his own ageing body. And now, a pope who struggles when attempting prayer with a sleepy body, with what St. Francis affectionately called “Brother Ass.”

A Catholic friend of mine put it memorably: “We have an Argentinian-Italian Jesuit dramatically assuming the mantle of St. Francis . . . it’s going to be a wild ride.” This fact was made clear just recently when a long, topic-ranging interview with pope Francis was published. (The English version appeared in the Catholic publication America [September 30, 2013].) Once again, Francis spoke of himself frankly, calling himself a sinner: “It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre.” Referring to controversial social issues that tend to divide those both outside of the church and within it, the pope regretted that sometimes the church “has locked itself up in small things”; it needed to find a “new balance,” he said, so as not to lose “the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” 

Francis may neither be the church-destroyer that conservative Catholics fear nor the social-revolutionary pontiff that liberal believers or the church’s usual critics wish to imagine. Undoubtedly, though, he is now one of our most interesting global figures. As the New York Times hailed, “Surprise Pope Keeps On Surprising.” 

Daniel P. Horan, writing earlier in America, hoped that the new pope will embrace St. Francis’ unwillingness “to compromise with the world and its powers.” He claims that the saint by rejecting medieval Assisi’s “emerging market economy and activity of the rising merchant class,” in which his own family was successfully central, foresaw today’s global economy and the monetization of goods, labor, and even people. 

There were obvious signs of excitement at the new pope’s election and his choice of papal name at the Basilica of San Francesco. A sign just inside the church’s upper level read in Italian, “Assisi shows gratitude and affection for Pope Francis,” and as I walked around the church, I noticed two different issues of Review San Francesco on display – one with Cimabue’s famous medieval portrait of the saint, which can be seen in person on the lower level, and one featuring the new pope. Its first page featured two images— Giotto’s apotheosis of “Francesco santo” and, beneath it, a photo of “Francesco papa” greeting the faithful.

Looking carefully at Giotto’s cycle, I soon realized that I had had a week full of popes. There were a number of them in these frescoes. Innocent III dreams of Francis lifting on his shoulder the Lateran, one of Rome’s great churches and papal residences. The image signifies that the saint would rebuild not just a little church outside of Assisi, but the entire Church. In another, he preaches before Honorius III, whom Giotto renders with the pope lifting a thoughtful finger to his chin. It was Honorius who accepted the new Franciscan order’s “Rule and Life of the Lesser Brother.” Late in the cycle, some of the final frescoes focus on Gregory IX’s canonization of Francis.

It was popes, popes, popes, everywhere I looked and in everything I read, a newly retired pontiff here, a newly elected pontiff there, good and bad popes from church history here and there.  My students and I had been recently encountering several popes in The Divine Comedy. There are bad popes like Nicholas III, who in Inferno is stuffed in a stone “purse” as punishment for his financial abuse of his office. He mistakes Dante’s arrival for that of Boniface VIII, who Nicholas fully expected to arrive in hell soon enough.  But there are also good ones like the pope in Purgatorio, who balks when Dante kneels before him, and who eventually begs off from their conversation in order to continue his penance.

On the very day of our Assisi trip, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was all over the Italian papers because on the day before he had returned to the Vatican for the first time since his retirement. Pope Francis welcomed him at his new home, a monastery within the Vatican. And it was during the same week that Umbria’s bishops had issued an invitation to pope Francis to visit Assisi today.  When the newspaper La Stampa interviewed the head of the Sacred Convent of Assisi about this news, the friar, Mauro Gambetti, remarked that the main similarity he sees between medieval saint and present pope is a sense of freedom, “through his gestures, attitude and way of being.”

From the Archives #2: Angelo Branduardi and Saint Francis of Assisi

I said to the brothers: why ask a thing of me, who am a great sinner? They replied: you see, for big things God always chooses the worst people! Thus they convinced me.

The centerpiece of the 2008 Festival of Art & Faith was a concert in the cathedral of Orvieto by the acclaimed Italian cross-over musician, Angelo Branduardi. Branduardi began his career in the 1970's as an Italian pop/folk singer, but turned his classical training in the direction of medieval and Renaissance music. His most recent project has been arranging texts from the primary sources about Saint Francis as a song cycle, now expanded into a mixed-media dance and theatrical performance. This work further develops his ongoing multi-disc project--Futuro antico--in which Branduardi arranges and performs medieval and Renaissance music in a spirit that renders it timely for our own age. Studio director John Skillen, co-founder of the annual Festival d'arte e fede with Alessandro Lardani, prepared this essay after Branduardi's concert.

In his notes to the first disc of the Futuro antico project, Angelo Branduardi writes:

All photo credits to Matthew Doll

All photo credits to Matthew Doll

In recent years there has been a lot of talk about the crisis of Western music. … The extraordinary progress of tonal music and its technical refinement has carried it to a sort of dead end: we are brought inside a structure so musically organized that it permits no movement forward. … This recording was made in a spirit of joy and love by amateurs, seeking a musical expression less sophisticated and more immediate, emotional, accessible. We are starting again from a distant and anti-modern past where one used to sing for birth and death, for joy and sorrow and for all the small and great facts of life, in a world equally turned towards the sacred and profane, flesh and spirit, in a profound unity.  We have, so to speak, killed the music conservatories in order to return again to the distant mystery of music as "the essence of heaven and of earth," and from this essence we have sucked life like a spider from its prey. We have returned as primitives and as children in the hope that this step backward may be the first of a hundred steps forward. Our past will thus be our future: Futuro Antico.

Recently, Branduardi has written on his website:

Music as we know it in the West has become like the noise of the traffic: we are aware that it exists only when it stops.  Yet thousands of years ago when music was born, it was closely linked with spirituality. The first musicians were shamans, people chosen for their capacity to communicate "with the above." To a degree, this is still the case, even though various cultures have developed very different musical traditions. Even now, for example, no one in tribal Africa would go to hear a Requiem Mass if there wasn't a real funeral for a dead person.  For many non-European cultures, music still remains closely tied to the deep issues of daily life, for which it provides profound expression.  It is not used just for distraction while driving, or as a diverting pleasure, and never as just "art." … Of this I have no doubt: that the sacred music of the pre-modern past--before the change to the modern art-for-art's-sake view of music--is the most beautiful music that has ever existed in the West; and that European sacred music has touched the highest summits and stretched the capacity of human being. What a shame that today only [a few composers such as] Arvo Pärt have succeeded again in saying extraordinary things through sacred music ... I don't want to be pessimistic; just realistic. I am not denying that even so-called light music, which has now become like a repetitive noise, may have in itself an enormous power. If only it didn't limit itself to seeking the widest possible radio play-time it could provide a living expression of our real life, and transcend the merely daily.  … In our time, however, it seems that the musician "shamans", with their capacity to communicate with the transcendent, no longer succeed in elevating the soul.

These ideas set the context for Branduardi's most recent project, the Laude of San Francesco, first as the album L'Infinitamente Piccolo (the Infinitely Small), now expanded into a mixed-media show integrating dance, actors, scenography, music.

As Branduardi has explained in interviews,

The idea for this album wasn't mine. Six years ago two Franciscan brothers came to me, asking me to write an album based on the primary texts of the Franciscan movement. Initially I didn't accept. The Church has expressed for 500 years the most sublime music ever written, and today all is reduced to a "Beat Mass." Frankly, I don't like this appeal to the merely popular, and didn't want to contribute to it. Fortunately, now there's Ratzinger, who loves Bach. 

I said to the brothers: why ask a thing of me, who am a great sinner?  They replied: you see, for big things God always chooses the worst people! Thus they convinced me.

The fact that this is such an ancient and minimal presentation makes it seem to be nearly avant-garde.  It is a bit the same paradox as in Futuro Antico: the famous step backwards before making two steps forward.

Or as Arnaldo Casali has commented in an interview with Branduardi in the newspaper L'Avvenire: "What a strange encounter: here we have the most medieval contemporary singer of Italian songs and the most modern saint of the medieval period."


From the Archives #1: "Seizing life from ancient roots": a visit to Orvieto, by Mark Sargent

Dr. Mark Sargent, former Provost at Gordon College, now Provost of Westmont College, was an instrumental figure in planting both the undergraduate semester program in Orvieto and the off-shoot Studio for Art, Faith & History. Dr. Sargent's first visit to Orvieto did not occur until 2005. He wrote an essay about his experience as one of his Letters from the Provost, e-published on an earlier version of the Studio's website. Twelve years later, Mark's essay still captures exactly the motivations and aspirations of Gordon College's programs in Orvieto. (What follows is an edited version of the original essay.)

April 2005

Two weeks before Easter, I was able to make a quick trip to Italy to see John and Susan Skillen and the students in Gordon’s semester-long program in Orvieto. Still far from the tourist mainstream, Orvieto remains splendidly medieval. Set on a high plateau of volcanic remains, the old walled city rests on the site of an Etruscan settlement. On the western fringe of the town, the Convent of San Lodovico, where the program makes its home, hovers close to the moss-laden walls that mark the sheer face of the cliff. Looking out from my own guest room I could see a neighboring monastery, a pasture and a few orchards in the valley below. At this height there is little to interfere with the view or the winter winds. From end to end, Orvieto is a maze of cobbled streets and sloping alleys, punctuated now and then by triangular piazzas and a few small, prosaic towers. There are some nineteenth-century structures and modern restorations, but most of the buildings in the town are ancient frames made from the bronze-toned tufa. After dark one evening, the students took me on a slow walk to hunt up the one open gelato shop in their ancient quarter. At noon, residents linger in the public squares or outside the cafés. Laundry dries in the sun; church bells still mark the fractions of an hour. The days stretch here, resisting tomorrow.

In time, you learn to read Orvieto's historical layers. Just outside the Convent, a long sequence of stairs and escalators descends to the parking lot at the city's footstep through a series of tunnels, first carved by the Etruscans, then the Romans. A short walk away, the magnificent façade of the Duomo is a virtual archive of Catholic history, a collage of medieval mosaics and marble relief carvings of scenes of Mary's birth and coronation, Christ's baptism, and the Last Judgment, and a set of bronze doors cast after the Second Vatican Council portraying the seven acts of mercy.

Photo by Greg Schreck

Photo by Greg Schreck

On Sunday morning I joined the Skillens and several students to worship in the thousand-year-old church of San Giovenale. The simple facade stares over the cliff's edge. Inside, the church's stone walls are adorned with frescoes mainly from the fourteenth century. I have since learned that San Giovenale was the headquarters of a medieval social-religious “confraternity” whose members performed plays of episodes from Scripture and the lives of the saints—sacre rappresentazioni—coordinated with the church year.

Such plays became one of medieval Europe's most notable literary traditions, the harvest of the medieval Church seasoned with a little raucous democracy. The English cycles of so-called mystery plays were performed as part of the festivities for Corpus Christi, the holy-day inaugurated in 1264 by Pope Urban IV from Orvieto itself.  The mystery plays, like Christianity itself, have spread through the world. Even in the medieval era, the Wakefield cycle included a short play about Thomas of India. As early as the fourteenth century, English guilds could not tell the story of Christian history without recounting the spread of the apostles' witness into Asia. Shakespeare borrowed motifs from the plays. Mel Gibson's high-stakes film "The Passion of the Christ" cuts Pilate some slack, a concession that can be traced back to the mystery play tradition itself. Today, in Tokyo, the Wakefield cycle is blended with Noh theatre, the deliberate, nearly silent mannerisms of Japanese drama. On a stage in Sao Paulo, a group of saltimbancos, or acrobats, tell of Jesus' travels and death in the northeastern backwoods of Brazil. In one South African version, Mary Magdalene assumes the guise of a township mother, weeping over the violence in a nearby shanty. Each year, on all continents, Jesus is born on city streets and dies a hundred times on the steps of the cathedrals.

Last spring, under the guidance of New York theater artist and Gordon alumna Karin Coonrod, several mystery dramas were produced in Orvieto, with help from John Skillen, Mark Stevick and many others. This is an example of what John envisions as a "studio for art, faith and history" in Orvieto—a gathering of artists, scholars and students who seek to create something new out of the heritage of the past. Six plays, framed by the story of the road to Emmaus, were performed in the streets around San Giovenale.

Harrowing Massimo Achille.JPG

On my Sunday walk to church, John and Susie took me down the Via Filippeschi, alongside the town's sistema proporzionale, a large plywood wall designated for political posters. Centuries ago the poet Dante, furious about the politics in the "whorehouse" of "slavish Italy," interrupts his journey up Mount Purgatory to rail against the murderous rivalry of clans that tore apart the civic fabric, families such as the Montagues and Capulets of Verona and the Monaldeschis and Filippeschis of Orvieto. John pointed to his own underworld, the steep descent of the Via del Caccia, site of last spring's play about the "Harrowing of Hell." The sanctuary of San Giovenale provided the setting for the grandest of the Old Testament dramas—the story of Abraham's readiness to slay his son. In the medieval cycle, the sacrifice of Isaac was played as a precursor of the Crucifixion, complete with anachronistic allusions to "Christ's blood." Just beyond San Giovenale's portal, last spring's players performed John's own adaptation of the Noah play, known for its humorous banter between the shipbuilder and his wife. "The Second Shepherds' Play"—the other great comedy from the cycles—was given another sportive turn when Mark Stevick infused the shepherds’ language with idioms from Gloucester fishermen.

Photo by Massimo Achille

Photo by Massimo Achille

At a time when the communion of saints belongs increasingly to the cable and web, there is need for drama as a communal and spoken event, a procession of actors and audience through the public and sacred spaces of the town. Even then, the plays are no mere antiquarian's retreat, but also a sign in their own right of the worldwide faith. They are fruits of a medieval tradition, flung far from their Italian source, now filled with the idioms and gestures of a modern Anglo-American language and culture. They are, in their own way, testaments and inventions from one corner of the global communion of Christian pilgrims—Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and seeker alike.

This spring, once again, Orvieto's residents will gather to watch the mystery cycle. It is as if the English literary genre—molded anew by American hands—has come home, returning to the very site from which the Corpus Christi tradition took wings.

There is something invigorating knowing that our program rests at the hinge of Orvieto's past and future. In our modest way, by helping our own students discover Italy's artistic legacy, Gordon-in-Orvieto is seeking to rekindle local interest in the town's heritage. Artwork from our students and faculty is now installed in Orvieto gardens and galleries. Sculptures by Jim Zingarelli's and Shelley Bradbury's students fill the garden at San Lodovico. This summer an exhibit of Bruce Herman’s "Broken Beauty" paintings will be hosted by the town in the Palazzo dei Sette, filling the multi-room gallery with another layer of reflection and witness.

Altar and altar ceiling bay copy.jpg

Sunday afternoon I visited the San Brizio Chapel, or Cappella Nuova, in the right transept of the Duomo, one of the great gothic cathedrals in Italy. The frescoes covering the walls of the Chapel, begun by Fra Angelico around 1450 and completed by Luca Signorelli around 1500, depicting scenes from the End Times and the Last Judgment, commanded my attention, largely because they will be a focal point of the upcoming "Eucharist and Eschatology: Art & Theology in the Orvieto Duomo" conference.  John Skillen, with the help of Monsignor Timothy Verdon, organized this international assembly of theologians, historians, and art historians. Scholars including Nick Wolterstorff, Bill Dyrness, Rachel Hostetter Smith, Susanna Caroselli, Jaime Lara, Dugald McLellan, and Gary Macy will convene to do what Gordon's students do for a full semester—to mine the past for the ore of Christian hope.

Photo by Dan Nystedt

Photo by Dan Nystedt

In just a few days it was hard to grasp all of the possibilities for Gordon in Italy, but those prospects were enough to keep my mind turning, even during my jet-lagged nights or the spare hours I had to stroll through the damp streets. Dusk was always a good time for a walk, as the Umbrian landscape absorbs the darkness. One evening I made the short descent from the Convent through the Via della Cava—the "way of the caves"—to the oldest gate in the city, a great arc first hewn by the Etruscans out of the tufa rock. As I left the old town, I clung to the path along the base of the rain-soaked stone. That trail provides superb vistas over the valleys beyond. Except for the steady stream of the distant autostrada, lights appeared in pockets, marking the small villages that have endured for nearly a millennium.   Spring seemed imminent, though still at bay. Snow patches lingered on the northern hill slopes. In almost every direction, I could see small villas and several rolling vineyards, still skeletal in the sharp March wind. At the foot of the volcanic plateau, archeologists have uncovered the Etruscan necropolis, a virtual "city of the dead," with streets separating the rows of chamber-tombs.

On the surrounding hills there are several olive groves, framed by fences or earthen mounds. Some of the hoary tree trunks have thickened, but often you will see new stalks springing out of the stumps, covered with rich humus by botanists eager to reinvigorate the historic groves. If tended well, the old stumps will not die. A new generation of stems and branches will once more seize life from the ancient roots.

The Stations of the Cross at SoulFest

The Studio for Art, Faith & History sponsored an installation of the Stations of the Cross by artist Gay Cox at SoulFest, New England’s largest outdoor Christian music festival.

Cox evokes the traditional 14 stages of Christ’s journey to Golgotha solely through images of Jesus’s face filling 6-foot high canvases placed slalom-like across the bottom of one of the ski slopes at Gunstock resort, home of SoulFest.

This Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, marks SoulFest’s first major visual arts element – not simply an exhibit but an outdoor installation large enough to shape the landscape and give the field of folk a common shared visual experience.  Six hundred or more SoulFest’ers made their deliberate way through the Way of the Cross.

Several volunteers for the Studio kept an eye on the paintings, handed out fliers about the Stations of the Cross, and answered questions.  One of them, Nathaniel Youndt (an alumnus of Gordon arts-oriented semester program in Orvieto), prepared this account of his experience of The Way of the Cross at SoulFest.

Knowing what to do with art is often a foreign idea to Evangelical Christians, let alone knowing what to do when art is used as a liturgical worship tool. The Studio for Art, Faith, and History wanted to show that art can and should be used as a medium of meditation and prayer within the church, and planting Gay Cox’s Way of the Cross canvases at SoulFest challenged the pervasive notion that art belongs in galleries and museums, and can't be understood by the lay person.

The exhibit opened on Thursday afternoon and ran until Saturday evening. During those three days, I saw Christians approach the paintings of Christ with eagerness, timidity, confusion, and some with discomfort. Several viewers were familiar with the practice of the Stations of the Cross and came with intention and reverence. One couple came through and spent 30-40 minutes carefully seeing each of the fourteen paintings. They returned, the man in tears, requesting that I thank the artist and noting that this exhibit could help so many people.

Another man came through with his daughter, an art student, and we began a discussion about art in context. I relayed my experience in the Duomo of Orvieto, Italy—how the architecture enables you to engage in physical worship. Walking across the front of the cathedral, reading the carved panels depicting the biblical story from Creation to Revelation has the viewer literally walking through God’s story; the windows in the San Brizio Chapel are placed by the risen Christ’s face, forcing you to raise your hand to view his face, thereby taking the stance of viewing one who is majestic. Following this explanation, the man said: “I get it now. I didn’t understand how important the actual place of art was until now.”

Another woman reported to me that she found her experience with the Stations somewhat unnerving. The exhibit was next to the main stage, where worship music boomed all day. The band was singing the chorus “Hallelujah! He reigns!” while she stared into the huge eyes of the bleeding, beaten, and despised Christ. She said it felt so wrong, but, at the same time, the contrast was appropriate. Praise mingled with grief; tasting goodness and hope amidst the reality of sin and death.

These are the kind of encounters we had dared hope people would have with Gay’s work. Well over 600 people passed through The Way of the Cross that weekend and their responses were overwhelmingly positive, filled with emotion and the pain of being confronted with the image of the suffering Christ, 5 and 6 feet tall in front of them, knowing that it was for them that he endured such a death. Even tearing down the exhibit had a surprising effect on me. As I dragged the paint-thickened canvases, like blood-encrusted rags, across the field I felt like I was somehow participating in the Crucifixion.

There are powerful experiences available to us if only we are offered the genuine encounter. Art communicates Truth to humanity in ways written theology and rhetoric cannot access. We need only reach a place where we, as Christians, do not fear art, but see it as an opportunity to redeem and recreate. It is our task to see the unfiltered layers of reality as beautiful, though broken, and Gay’s artwork, planted like a maze through the field, provided so many Christians the chance to offer themselves to encounter the Face of Christ in a new way.

Poetry and Painting in Orvieto: Ekphrasis #1

Ekphrasis is the ancient Greek term for poems about paintings.  Ekphrastic poetry turns out to be a vital current in the tradition of Western poetry, from Homer’s description of the marvelous Shield of Achilles in the Iliad, to a 20th-century poem such as W. H. Auden’s oft-anthologized “Museé des Beaux Art,” a reflection on Pieter Breughel’s painting depicting (almost unnoticed in the bottom corner) the mythological story of the Fall of Icarus.

The poem and essay below inaugurates a series of blogposts presenting ekphrastic poems written by poets (and their students) who have taught in Orvieto or participated in activities of the Studio for Art, Faith & History.  The poems will respond typically to works of art still found in their original settings where particular people gathered for particular purposes.  This is the case with our first poem, written in response to a fresco depicting the visit of the three kings to the baby Jesus,  painted by Fra Angelico on the wall of the private retreat cell of Cosimo de Medici, patron of the refurbished Monastery of San Marco in Florence.


Fra Angelico’s Adoration, San Marco, Florence
Christine Perrin

   Angelico has juxtaposed his bloody
Son of Man to the infant—
    the blood spills his ropy veined
           inner-arms where the tender flesh is pale
     and the mica-flecked wall glitters
like the surface of the moon.

     In this season and region, the olive trees
are heavy with dark fruit; all one afternoon
      I gather them with my hands
           to be crushed.  You have to grasp
      the bitter flesh-pits and drop them in a net.
Beyond the near-winter fields,

      only the hour-bells carry over the gulf
from the high city to shadowed valley.
      The monk who woke and slept
            and filled his eyes with this bright
       painting all his days, did he see the end
in the beginning?  An arc, an arrow, a shape in nature?

      Did its heart-tip burn the mark
like a black candle in dull noon?
       My sight searches and searches,
             as though to go to Him.
       So many buried lamps.  What shall I
take for a witness? Angelico’s blue?

      Fruit breaking loose from a tree?
The guard’s heavy footfall on the stone floor?
      Or the words he spoke
           in a tongue I could not understand,
      when I broke into song to sound the cell,
to hear the empty chamber answer.

Almost every semester an ekphrasis-oriented poetry course is included in the curriculum of Gordon College’s arts-oriented program in Orvieto. Our teachers hope to draw the students back into a conversation lively in the Italian Renaissance about the relation between poetry and the pictorial arts, between word and image. Taking up the classical dictum ut pictura poesis (as pictures work, so does poetry), the new humanists thought of poetry as a "speaking picture."  Dante’s phrase in the Purgatorio is visibile parlare, “speech made visible. Interest was reborn in the classical tradition of ekphrasis, including a sort of ekphrasis-in-reverse whereby artists created visual representations of verbal artworks or drew inspiration from verbal descriptions of lost artworks of the past.  In his influential book the Art of Painting (1435), the quintessential “Renaissance man” Leon Battista Alberti, for instance, cites Lucan’s ekphrastic description of a painting by Apelles (existing for Alberti’s generation only through its Roman description) on the subject of Calumny, or Slander.  Alberti goes on to give his own lengthy ekphrasis of the painting, a description that is likely to have inspired Sandro Botticelli’s painting of the same storia (or thematically-dense narrative).

Both directions from artwork to poem, and poem to artwork, find expression in the frescoes of Luca Signorelli in Orvieto's cathedral.  In the lower decorative zone of this vast programme of paintings concerning the Endtimes and Last Judgment, Signorelli depicts in reverse-ekphrasis episodes from the first eleven cantos of Dante’s Purgatorio, including the famous ekphrastic passage from canto 10.  There Dante describes the artwork of God Himself in carving in bas-relief on the very cliff-face of Mount Purgatory three scenes of humility-in-action designed to serve as inspirational motivators for the cleansing work of the Prideful on this cornice of the mountain.

Photograph by Gianna Scavo

Photograph by Gianna Scavo

“I perceived,” says the pilgrim Dante, describing the carved scene of the Annunciation and Mary’s humble acceptance of God’s will,

… that the encircling bank,

was of white marble carved with so much art
that Polycletus and Nature’s very self
would there be put to shame.

The angel who came to earth with the decree of peace

appeared before us so vividly engraved
in gracious attitude
it did not seem an image, carved and silent.

One would have sworn he said: ‘Ave,’
for she as well was pictured there
who turned the key to love on high.

And in her attitude imprinted were
the words: ‘Ecce Ancilla Dei’
as clearly as a figure stamped in wax. [Jean and Robert Hollander translation]

I think that ekphrasis now has a new counter-cultural edginess in our own tradition-forgetful postmodern age because it forces upon writer and reader a provocative close encounter with the linkages which make a tradition.  To write an ode in praise of daffodils in the anti-tradition of Wordsworthian Romanticism can allow one to suppose being in raw unmediated communication with our natural environment, obscuring how our view of “nature” is itself always and already conditioned by cultural values mediated through art.

How strange to hear that travelers journeying across the Alps in the 17th or 18th centuries pulled the curtains of their carriages shut to avoid looking at what the English essayist James Howell called “those uncouth huge monstrous excrescences of nature.”  But that’s because we are still heirs of the ensuing period of Romanticism, with biases of perception informed by poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley.  For Shelley the monstrous Alps had become the “sublime” source of “the secret Strength of things / Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome / Of Heaven is as a law, Inhabits thee!” as Shelley writes in Mount Blanc:

So solemn, so serene, that man may be,
But for such faith, with nature reconciled;
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.

Now we take glass-sided cable cars up mountains just to take in the awesome panoramas.  “Nature” is largely a function of “cultural” history.

But to write a poem about a painting requires attention to cultural history and to things made through human artifice.  When, for example, Mark Stevick asks his students to write an ekphrastic poem about Signorelli’s paintings, they are not being asked to “deeply feel” raw nature.  They are adding their own voice to a centuries-long conversation, responding to frescoes painted in 1500 which themselves exist as reverse-ekphrasis about Dante’s ekphrasis written almost three centuries earlier.  Dante himself was converting to Christian faith a trope common among the Classical writers of praising excellent art for its ability to match, even over-match, nature. One can see how these sets of ekphrastic reversals locate the student in history, activating a neural network of cultural synapses that mark the vibrant presence of a tradition.  Such training provides a worthwhile corrective to the Romantic association of poetry with being in touch with nature, with all its introverted gaze and unabashed subjectivity.

I see signs among our students of growing weariness with the intolerable burden of always starting from scratch and from the self to achieve “originality.” We see a willingness to accept discipline and disciplinary tasks (“write a sonnet about this painting” rather than “express yourself in free verse”), to allow constructs seemingly imposed arbitrarily from without to order “the general mess of imprecision of feeling” and our “undisciplined squads of emotion” (as T. S. Eliot puts it in section V of “East Coker”).

          Note: Christine Perrin, director of writing at Messiah College, is a regular guest teacher of the Poetry of Ekphrasiscourse offered every semester in Gordon College's arts-oriented semester program in Orvieto.  Several of her ekphrastic poems have appeared in the website of ArtWay, including an earlier version of "Fra Angelico's Adoration, San Marco, Florence" included in this blogpost.  This poem, as well as "At the San Brizio Chapel, Resurrection of the Flesh," are included in the recently-published collection of her poems entitled Bright Mirror (available through Amazon).

The Merchant in Venice: A review by Hannah Armbrust Badia

Twilight steals over the canals and bridges of Venice, and as birdsong gives way to the raspy hum of cicadas, the buildings that surround the Campo Nuovo, the Jewish ghetto's central square, burn in the setting sun. Their colors warm and intensify, while the flagstones begin releasing the day's accumulated heat. A rich perfume hangs in the air, stirred by fans and the audience's conversation. Almost imperceptibly, the air begins to cool. The audience falls quiet, and suddenly, music and motion fill the square. It is the opening night of the Compagnia de' Colombari's production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.

Venice, Venezia.  Equally in English and Italian, the name is rich with drama, tradition, and allure. Foreigners and Italians alike are drawn to her winding canals, tight alleys, shimmering lagoon; to her history of turmoil, intrigue, and masquerade. Venice, the tease. Venice, the darling; in recent centuries a playground and refuge for expats—attracting authors, musicians, and artists with her pageantry and general liberality. Venice, the inscrutable, its darker history lurking under the surface. The year 2016 marked two anniversaries: four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare, and five hundred years since the establishment of the Jewish ghetto in Venice, an early instance of a group within Europe being segregated and surveilled based on religious differences.

In fact, the term “ghetto” originated in Venice, as corruption of the Venetian “geto” (foundry) that used to occupy the neighborhood. Around the time of the Ghetto's creation, Venice was one of the most powerful, advanced, and diverse cities in Europe, but ongoing wars and rivalries had enflamed fears and suspicions surrounding various groups of foreigners, notably among them the Venetian Jews. An edict declared that for the good and safety of the city, all Jews must be within the confines of the ghetto by nightfall, when the gates would be locked.

Although Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice does not reference the Ghetto specifically and it is improbable that Shakespeare visited Venice, the play is deeply rooted in the city's mystique, and Shylock, though fictional, has become, for better or worse, perhaps the most famous of Venetian Jews. In fact, it is Shakespeare's characterization and treatment of Shylock that makes the play controversial for modern audiences. At times, the play is even written off as not performable, an anti-Semitic stain on Shakespeare's canon. With this history, the decision to produce and perform the play within the Ghetto for the first time as a way to honor both anniversaries was courageous, and ultimately, I felt, a kind of exorcism and redemption for both Shakespeare and Shylock.

The Compagnia de' Colombari is an international theatre company, based in New York City but formed in Orvieto, Italy in 2005 by theater artist Karin Coonrod and college professor John Skillen. The company’s experience working cross-culturally, particularly in Italy, made it ideal for this project. The Ghetto's main square, the Campo Nuovo, traditionally the heart of the communal life, was the stage. The surrounding buildings framed the set, with Jessica appearing in one of the windows. The drama inhabited and embodied the space, and I, watching, felt invited in as well. The lighting, designed by Peter Ksander, contributed to this feeling of intimacy. As the natural evening light mixed gradually with and was finally replaced by the staged lighting, the boundaries between external and internal space merged, while at the same time, individual locations were sculpted from the expanse of the square.  These subtle lighting transitions enhanced and defined the action which moves rapidly between multiple locations, subplots, and characters.  

Photograph by Andrea Messana

Photograph by Andrea Messana

Director Karin Coonrod's interpretation of the play was tactful, sharp, and contemporary. The decision to produce the play in the Ghetto was gutsy, since the play is often classified as anti-Semitic. Coonrod sculpted the play into something more complex. She worked under the supposition that Shakespeare uses the action to frame anti-Semitism and expose the hypocrisy of the dominate culture. This exposure is the play's intension. This interpretation allowed Shylock to be elevated into something at once Jewish and universal, representing all outsiders.  His rage, grief, frustration, and wit are moving and recognizable. Coonrod accented this universality by having Shylock played by five different actors, including one woman, of varying ages and ethnicities. Each actor accentuated a different aspect of the character and together created a complex portrait. (Each also doubled as another character – another bold and electrifying choice.)

Two scenes struck me with particular force and have remained with me in the months since I saw the play. The first, played by Shylock one, is the moment when the initial bond is struck between Antonio and Shylock. The performance complicated the balance of power and prejudices between the two characters in unexpected ways. Shylock already dislikes Antonio, because he has complicated his business ventures and treated him badly in the past, while Antonio, for his part, despises Shylock and wants only to strike a quick and convenient deal for cash without any personal contact. “Shall we be beholding to you?” he half sneers. There is an entitlement and a superiority in Antonio's position. The moving moment for me in this production was when Shylock says, “I would be friends” and extends his hand, offering to forget the past and lend the money without interest. He is asking for Antonio to relinquish superiority and acknowledge his humanity. Antonio shows no empathy, no mercy, but a bond, the bond for a pound of flesh, is struck between them nonetheless.

Our treatment of the outsider and the role of mercy seem particularly relevant this year, as debates about immigration and security have divided both the United States and Europe. Increasingly, there is an atmosphere of fear coupled with a distinct lack of the civility, empathy, and humility which would enable us to shake hands with the Other. This moment challenged me to consider my role and position both as an outsider and to outsiders.

The second scene that continues to haunt me takes place after Jessica, Shylock's only daughter, has robbed him and run away with the Venetian Lorenzo. As she and the merry company disappear into the darkness, a mournful trumpet calls the five actors playing Shylock together, unified by their golden sashes (which signify their Jewishness). Then the whole city seems to mock him, surrounding him and reviling his shame and misfortune, while the five remain still in the center of this mocking. We are drawn into the grief, rage, and humiliation of Shylock. The taunting and laughter becomes a kind of rhythm that compresses the Shylocks. In this moment, a wail of anguish rips the night in two. We have reached a turning. The lament comes from the female Shylock. The pain is raw and maternal. Shylock is not only being publicly shamed; he has lost, been betrayed by, his only child. His wife is dead, so this loss cuts him to his core. And from this loss, this complete humiliation comes the cry, “I will have my bond,” which is a call for retribution, a legal repaying, but also a cry for a type of connection. The desire that above all Antonio should share this experience of loss, of vergogna, shame. As the echoes of this unimaginably long and profound wail dissipate into the night, over the buildings and canals, it seems to bring a healing release to the space.

The honesty and diversity within play as performed by the Colombari feels risky, vibrant, and sacred. The creation of such theatre is a humble and costly experience with so much work, time, preparation, and sacrifice going into an event, an occasion that is by its very nature transient and unique. The drama has lingered with me, haunted me in a way, especially that shattering howl of desolation, which ripped apart and drew together the center of the play, pleading for mercy, for empathy even more strongly than Portia's famous speech. My feeling at the end of the play was of having taken part in a sacrament.

The production of the play was itself a response, a solution to the problem proposed by the play—who is the outsider in our midst? How do we share our differences with mercy? Its staging beautifully and profoundly confounded any dismissal of the play as anti-Semitic. From the first to the final moments, the play fought to be honest about the flawed humanity yet ultimate value of each character, using both word and action to expose the misconceptions and prejudices that we can harbor unaware.  That glimpse of the angel and the demon, which linger and war within us, has stayed with me. The rage and revenge we succor combat daily with the mercy and love towards which we reach. The whole cast and crew created something greater than its individual parts—a performance that served as both exorcism and redemption.

Restoring Art to a Place in the Community: New Lessons from Early Renaissance Italy #10

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.

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.



Luke 10:38-42:

Now as [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

The Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence began as a daughter house of the first Dominican community established in Florence at what is now called monastery Santa Maria Novella.  By the 1418, Monastery San Marco had developed a reputation for laxity in its discipline.  In 1437, Cosimo de Medici – in whose neighborhood San Marco was located – was instrumental in having the dwindling community at San Marco replaced with a group of zealous friars brought down the hill from a Reformed Dominican house in Fiesole.  Among these transferred brothers was the artistically trained friar now known as Fra Angelico.

Fra Angelico, together with his team of assistants, was given the responsibility for communicating a Dominican way of life in frescoes throughout the building, including the individual cells where Dominican friars not only slept but engaged in their daily study of scripture and theology and sacred tradition. These cell frescoes were designed to contribute to the spiritual formation of the mature brother or novice or lay brother assigned to that cell.  A century later in his collection of Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Giorgio Vasari writes of Fra Angelico:

He might have been rich, but to this he gave no thought; nay, he used to say that true riches consist only in being content with little. He might have ruled many, but he would not, saying that it was less fatiguing and less misleading to obey others. ….  He was most kindly and temperate; and he lived chastely and withdrew himself from the snares of the world, being wont very often to say that he who pursued such an art had need of quiet and of a life free from cares, and that he whose work is connected with Christ must ever live with Christ.

Fra Angelico considered his own work to be connected with Christ, and he was intimately involved in planning the theological significance of his paintings, though no doubt in consultation with the other leaders of the community. The frescoes that Fra Angelico painted in the brothers’ cells of San Marco encouraged each brother “ever to live with Christ.” 

The sisters Mary and Martha figure prominently as witnesses to the Piercing of Christ’s Side in one fresco (in cell 42, according to the numbering used in modern guides). But the fresco I wish to discuss depicts Jesus’s agonized prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (in cell 34).

The left side of the fresco illustrates with careful detail the scene of Jesus with his closest disciples – Peter, James, and John. He has asked them to watch with him a little while, but they have all fallen asleep. The eyes of Jesus are fixed on the angel who is bringing him a cup; this is the cup that Jesus has asked might be taken from him. Fra Angelico has portrayed it as a communion chalice. As Luke recounts the episode, “Jesus knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.” By placing the cup of suffering in the hand of the strengthening angel, then portraying the angel as pointing insistently at the chalice, the fresco suggests that the gift of strength will come through the experience of suffering. 

But it is the right side of the fresco that is surprising. Fra Angelico has placed Mary and Martha in a house next to the scene unfolding in the Garden. We know these women are Mary and Martha because their names are inscribed in their haloes. Nothing in the gospel account links Lazarus’s sisters with this moment in the garden.  In the fresco the sharp line of the wall of the house divides the scene into two distinct halves. In this picture, Mary and Martha are with Jesus in spirit while absent from him in the flesh. The little window in the separating wall suggests the link between them. They are doing what his male disciples have failed to do: they are keeping attentive watch with Jesus. 

Martha is in prayer, her hands in the same position as those of Jesus in the opposite corner of the picture. Her prayer is joined with his prayer. Mary and Martha have already received strength through suffering in the experience of the death and miraculous resurrection of their brother. Now they are watching over Jesus, our elder brother, as he begins this same journey, though the death he faces contains the penalty for sin, and the new life he will win is a permanent and glorified life. 

After her brother’s death, Martha’s address to Jesus was very similar to Jesus’ prayer here in the garden of Gethsemane. The gospel of John tells the story this way: 

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (John 11:20-27)

Martha begins by affirming her confidence that even now Jesus could take this cup from her, that even now God would give him whatever he asked, but her faith in Jesus is not contingent on his willingness to raise her brother. She confesses that He is the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world. And she knows that even if she must drink this cup of sorry now, she and her siblings may have confidence in the promise of the resurrection on the last day. 

It is remarkable that Fra Angelico chooses to present Martha as a paradigm of prayer and contemplation rather than as a symbol of the active life. In this fresco he imagines for us a progression in Martha’s life from the distraction of her domestic busy-ness, through the death and rebirth of her brother, to this moment of anguish shared with her Savior. She is now joined with Mary in choosing the better part. In the subsequent fresco of the Piercing of Christ’s Side, Martha will be shown joining Mary literally at Jesus’ feet, this time as he hangs on the cross in death.

Martha is gazing intently not at an angel but at Mary. It is Mary who has been God’s messenger, or angel, to her, showing her the one thing that is needful. Like Martha, Mary is also watching with her Savior; she has opened the Scriptures, which like him are given as bread from heaven. She is pointing insistently at the book, just as the angel is pointing insistently at the chalice. After his resurrection, Jesus met two disciples on the road to Emmaus and taught them from the Scriptures. Luke says: “Then he said to them, ‘Oh how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” In this fresco, Mary also points to the Scriptures as the interpretive key to Jesus’ experience of agony. 

This fresco is especially intimate because of the way that the cell itself has been extended to include Mary and Martha within the friar’s own living space. The curved arches in the room in which Mary and Martha sit echo the curved arches in the simple cells of the monastery. The single window linking their room with the garden echoes the single window in each cell. The walls are the same color and textured in the same way. The brother in this cell is to understand himself as watching alongside Mary and Martha. They are exemplars of the contemplative life that he is called to live, a life of both study and prayer. It is a life of union with Christ.  

The brother in this cell is also faced with the warning of the sleeping disciples in the garden. Surely the friar knows this temptation. The rhythm of the hours of prayer interrupts his sleep every night; he never has what we would consider a full night's sleep. But as a friar he is called to the contemplative way. This fresco daily calls him to stay awake and watch with Jesus. 

The life of prayer also interrupts his domestic work. In a community of all men, the brothers are responsible for all the activity of cleaning and cooking, of offering hospitality to travelers, care to the sick, and aid to the indigent. The brother in this cell knows the ever-present temptation to distraction that once snared Martha. The domestic work must be done, but his life is meant to be ordered around prayer and contemplation, with those other duties fitted in around his primary work of life with God. Surely the friar knew the temptation, even as we know the temptation, of reversing this pattern, of allowing the busy-ness of our many tasks to control the rhythm of our day and then trying to fit in times of prayer and contemplative reading of Scripture around those tasks. The friar must keep his priorities in order. This fresco daily says to him, “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” 

Martha is the only figure in this image who looks out of the frame into the life of the friar living in this cell. Her focused gaze and prayer posture remind him: “You have chosen the better part; it will not be taken from you.” The better part is to be where Christ is, doing what Christ is doing, and listening to what Christ is teaching. As Fra Angelico said, “he whose work is connected with Christ must ever live with Christ.” 

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.

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.



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.

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. 

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. 

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

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. 

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. 

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

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. 

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.


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.


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. 

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),, 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.

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. 

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.


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.