john e. skillen

The experience cracked me out of a museum and gallery mentality and opened my eyes to the long run of centuries in medieval and Renaissance Europe when nearly all artworks were commissioned by or for a particular group for its use in a particular location.

My family heritage is mainly that of well-educated Scotch-Irish Calvinists more oriented towards the word than the image.  My own interest in art in general, and that of the Italian Renaissance in particular, was sparked when, as an impressionable twelve-year-old, I camped with my brother and sister-in-law for a long summer throughout southern Europe.  For me, fresh from reading Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, our slow journey through Italy was a pilgrimage from one Michelangelo masterwork to another. Later, as a philosophy major in college, I came to view the arts as the media, or mediators, through which a culture’s underlying religious convictions and guiding philosophical beliefs were given “a local habitation and a name” (to cite Theseus’s phrase in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) in the everyday practices and assumptions of the community’s life. My doctoral studies and eventual career as a professor of medieval and Renaissance literature introduced me to the close interplay between the verbal arts and the visual arts of the pre-modern period of European history.  

But the event that opened my eyes to a new, or rather old, view of the role of art in a community’s life occurred in 1993 when I accompanied a small group of artists as the diarist for a month-long printmaking workshop in Florence.  Organized by the painters Bruce Herman and Edward Knippers, funded by a private donor and administered through the organization Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), the group rented a printmaking studio and lodged together in the convent of the Oblates of the Assumption. The goal was for each artist to contribute three images, incised in a traditional manner into copper plates, to a joint collection marked deliberately, if loosely, by the theme of Sacrifice. 

Among the motivations of that project was something of a mutual discomfort with the highly individualistic model of artistic production that has marked what we call modernity.  The initiators of the workshop shared a sense that the modernist model of the artist living and working without connection to any community investing care in the artist and her work might not be a mode of art-making best suited to the New Testament image of the community as a body, where every part has need of the other. 

Hence, we charged ourselves with an “Experiment in Artistic Community”—as I titled an essay published the following year in Image: a Journal of the Arts and Religion (No. 6 (Summer 1994): 79-105). We dined together in the convent, prayed together, together visited the cultural riches of Florence, and kept common work hours together in the studio.

The workshop accomplished its purpose, in that we formed a lively and supportive community outside the actual creating of the work of art.  The friendships have endured.  And the product, the Florence Portfolio of twenty prints protected in a sculpted box designed and constructed by Ted Prescott, enjoyed a twenty-year tour before being retired in 2014 for permanent display in the monastery-home of Gordon College’s arts-oriented semester program in Orvieto, Italy—the town where the Portfolio artists spent their first night together in 1993, en route to Florence. 

I still treasure the experience of living side-by-side with a group of highly-skilled artists with big personalities, generous spirits, and liberally-educated minds. Their conversations introduced me to the challenges faced by artists of Christian faith who feel stuck in a sort of no-man’s-land: held in suspicion by their church communities and ostracized by the secular art world establishment for the unironic sincerity of their convictions. But in hindsight, I am struck by the limits we placed on how far the artistic community was permitted to infiltrate the actual process and product.  The six artists worked independently, making gracious comment while passing by one another’s stations, offering a suggestion when asked for one, but careful not to interfere.  Each developed his or her own prints individually.  While the titles rotated around the common theme, there was no expectation of, let alone effort to impose, actual collaboration; no effort to design the prints to create purposeful sequences among them.  The work produced had no role in our shared devotional life, nor did we exercise any collective effort to allow the rich body of sacred art surrounding us in nearby places such as Monastery San Marco to provide common reference points. 

The community was only the group of artists themselves, and did not include the patron who funded it, nor any scholars outside the circle of artists who might have rendered more sophisticated their theological understanding of the common theme of sacrifice. We did not include anyone who might represent the church or university or private galleries who we hoped would rent the Portfolio for temporary display, or the collectors who might purchase an edition for their private appreciation. The Portfolio’s life as a road-show exhibition has occurred mostly in galleries of educational institutions, less often in church exhibition space, and seldom if ever has it been used to focus worship or to guide the sort of devotion for which gallery exhibition is ill suited.

Herman and Knippers had selected Florence as the location for the workshop for the dense presence in the city of the pre-modern sacred art tradition.  I arrived eager to explore the Uffizi Gallery and the Galleria dell’Accademia and the Bargello Museum and the museum of the Duomo.   But what bowled me over was how many of the masterworks of the Italian Renaissance remained in the public settings for which they had been made.  The experience cracked me out of a museum and gallery mentality, we might say, and opened my eyes to the long run of centuries in medieval and Renaissance Europe when nearly all artworks were commissioned by or for a particular group for its use in a particular location. Artworks existed entirely in situ—the Latin phrase used to indicate the place where the artwork was originally installed, where it did its work in a complex matrix of meanings and reverberations.

I would like to expand the meaning of the phrase in situ beyond simple identification of original location to indicate the artwork's intended place embedded in a community, the places where the "work of the people" (the meaning of the world liturgy) was performed and enacted. Monastic communities, for example, commissioned Last Suppers for the walls of their dining halls not for the prestige of “owning a Da Vinci” (as we would say nowadays) but for the purpose of associating their own suppers with the Lord's Supper. 

My new interest in the situated art of pre-modern Italy led me step by step to a conviction that the conditions that went into the making of that period’s art held valuable lessons for our postmodern time.  I imagined a renewed engagement of communities of faith not just in affirming artists and appreciating art but in commissioning artworks to assist their work.

The immediate effect of my experience in Florence was to increase my use of the art of the Renaissance in my teaching of the literature and culture of the Renaissance, but the classroom experience of projecting images of artworks on the pull-down screen just didn’t cut it.  Sitting at desks looking at slides detaches the artwork from any relation to place or action, from any situated context. It encourages truncated attention to formal aesthetic features, partly because there is little else to look at.

I decided to take students to see the real thing, unmediated by media. So began several years of month-long summer seminars to Florence. What a blast those travel tours were for the students and for me. But soon enough they too felt inadequate.

There turned out to be less difference than I had hoped between the experience of looking at a good-quality slide of Duccio's Rucellai Madonna—scaled to actual size on the classroom wall—and viewing the painting itself on the wall of the Uffizi Gallery.  Artificially set side by side with similarly-sized, enthroned Madonnas by Giotto and Cimabue, the painting was controlled by the conventions of museumized detachment: slow stroll, hands behind back, staying far enough away to avoid an embarrassing rebuke from the guards, with ne’er a thought about where such works were originally installed and whose lives and actions they enriched and served.

So I was drawn to take my students to those works that still remained in situ. And of course the value of Florence is that a boatload of such works can still be found in their original locations. We could experience Ghirlandaio's famous Adoration of the Shepherds on the altar in the side chapel of the Sassetti family to the right of the main altar of the church of Santa Trinità—witnessing how the frescoed scene of the healing of a young boy directly above the altar was set in the Via Tornabuoni immediately in front of this very church. We could feel how the painting drew us into a scene whose setting we ourselves had just walked through. My students could see the kneeling figures of the patrons Francesco Sassetti and his wife Nera Corsi frescoed into the walls on either side of the altarpiece, visually suggesting their own active participation with the shepherds in adoring the Christ child. We could begin to imagine artworks in their liturgical setting, guiding the appropriate response of the extended Sassetti family as they gathered over generations to celebrate the Nativity, or the feast day of St. Francis after whom the paterfamilias was named, or to honor in memory the elder Sassetti, whose earthly remains were contained in the sarcophagi in the niches on each side wall.

It was certainly an improvement to see the so-called Allegory of Good and Bad Government in the Siena town hall.  Commissioned for the meeting room of the Council of Nine, that council’s legislative work—their liturgy—would have been enacted under Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s conscience-pricking figures of virtues and vices embodying the elements of the Commonweal and of Tyranny.  But, alas, still not an absolute improvement, since no town council was any longer doing its work in situ.  We joined the huddles of tourists shuffling after their guides with little active sense of how this Civic Museum once functioned as the town hall.

So the next step in my train of thought was that we needed to see artworks when a real liturgy was going on. This is possible in Florence.  We could look at Pontormo's Deposition—the dead body of Christ being taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus—while attending mass in the church of Santa Felicità.

But not completely possible.  Many masterworks are now roped off, as is Pontormo's Deposition, behind iron grating, beyond the coin-eating light box. Famous pulpits sculpted by the Pisano family in Pisa, Pistoia, and Siena exist only as art objects, no longer used for preaching. The past two decades mark the period of turning churches into ticket-charging museums, understandable in a secularized Europe where the clear majority of people entering churches are tourists, not worshippers, and both towns and dioceses are strapped for cash to maintain the cultural heritage.

I began wondering if maybe seeing a frescoed Life of Mary of secondary fame and quality (like that in the apse of the Orvieto Duomo) but still unprotected in an active church was a more fruitful and satisfying educative experience than one's allotted fifteen minutes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova.

And that led to the next stage of this train of thought. Instead of just taking my students to see an in situ artwork when the local folk are using it in liturgy, why not be in the liturgy as real participants, not just observers, along with those folk— personally experiencing the intended purpose of the altarpiece ourselves?

Alas, I discovered that attending mass one time doesn't actually a liturgy make, since liturgy is the work of a community through time, not just in space.  The artworks created to enhance that liturgy were "shared and enjoyed between members of a community over the long haul," to cite a phrase in an article in which my colleague Bruce Herman argues that the "scheme" of commercialized "mystique marketing" in our own time has rendered the art object more as "the subject of an elaborate game than a beautiful or meaningful thing-in-itself shared and enjoyed between members of a community over the long haul” (“Art and Market: Mystique or Mystery,” Comment [February 2012]). 

One needs to become a member of the community, not just a drop-in spectator, in order to understand how the artworks assist their worship by focusing attention and amplifying theme and lesson. My conclusion was that my students and I needed to live long enough and substantially enough to become bona fide members of a community.

So those summer seminars evolved into the semester-long program now well established in Orvieto.  Everything about the program gently urges students to experience repetition, to exercise commitment.  Why not join the parish choir of San Giovenale, not just sit in the back pew to observe the mass and enjoy the vibes of a thousand-year-old church with its palimpsest of frescos?

The next stage inevitably follows. At some point, you're going to want, or the choir director is going to invite you, to introduce a new song into the San Giovenale repertory.  As the museum-going tourist becomes a member of an in situ community, she experiences not only the power of old art put to work in worship, but feels the urge to make new art that might take its place in an unfolding tradition. 

Gradually, our students and teachers were invited to contribute to the artscape of the town. A series of ceramic-relief plaques of the 14 Stations of the Cross made by Shelly Bradbury and her students is installed in the contemplative garden of monastery San Lodovico, where they began to be used during the Via Crucis liturgy on Good Friday to guide the gathered congregation's devotions. A local hotel purchased one of our students’ large-scale drawings of a view of Orvieto for display in its dining room. Marie-Dominique Miserez, a Swiss painter deeply steeped in the traditional medium of egg tempera, joined forces with her students to paint a wall-sized Last Supper now installed in the refectory of the renovated 13th century Convento dei Servi.

Matthew Doll, the present director of the Orvieto program, describes the culminating event of one fall semester, when theatre artist Jeff Miller and ceramics artist Marino Moretti and their students joined forces to create a performance of the Nativity in the courtyard, a Presepe Vivente to which the townsfolk were invited as audience and participants. As Doll wrote in a private email,

The result was a perfect synthesis of our program's desire to radiate out from the center, in grateful and charitable service, with the creative fruit of our students' lives evident in their work. Everyone participated in the process. Everyone made masks with Marino for our major set piece in the garden-courtyard of Palazzo Simoncelli [the program headquarters], and each person had a role in a theatrical performance created as an itinerant procession of the shepherds through town, looking for the Christ child. With a growing crowd of local people following along, the players eventually entered the courtyard of the Palazzo. Candles dotted the perimeter walls, surrounding the central drama of 60-plus masks, placed on metal rods, at the back of the enclosure. At the center was a small fire instead of a traditional figure of the baby Jesus. The mask figures were placed beneath a metal canopy "punched" with designs by the students, itself open to the sky above and reflecting the firelight below. It was simple and focused, and invited participation. People were moved by the quiet but deep presence of a shared expression of the mystery of the Nativity.

After the performance, the audience-now-participants were invited into the studio for an exhibition of original drawings, prints, paintings, sculptures and masks, all for sale. The proceeds of a thousand euros were given to needy families in Orvieto and in Bethlehem.  The event reflected the very purpose of St. Francis in his original living crèche in the village of Greccio, while introducing some creative innovation to the traditionalism of exhibiting manger scenes at Christmastide, so beloved by the people of Umbria.

Thus has been our progress from studying in situ art to making art in situ for a community; from renewing a respect for tradition to contributing to that tradition.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Comment magazine, September 17, 2012 here. It appears in the Introduction to Skillen’s book Putting Art (back) in its Place (Hendrickson Publishers, October 2016).