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.