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.