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.