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?