francis and dominic: THE ARTs of devotion

* 2020 dates to be finalized *

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A pilgrimage-retreat IN ORVIETO

All guests of the Studio for Art, Faith & History’s seminars and retreats in Orvieto receive a rich experience of artworks still in the places for which they were created — in situ. During a long pre-modern epoch visual art commonly framed the places in which communities large and small gathered and did their work. An alert visitor will begin to notice how so many of the great masterpieces of Renaissance art in Italy are found in Franciscan and Dominican monasteries. Why is that?

Rev. Susan Skillen and Dr. John Skillen combine their interests in a retreat that focuses on
why and how the visual arts (and poetry and music as well) found a welcome place
in the preaching, teaching, and devotional practices of the Franciscan and Dominican movements

The church of San Francesco, Montefalco

The church of San Francesco, Montefalco

Almost simultaneously at the beginning of the 13th century, two young men — the Italian Francis and the Spaniard Dominic — imagined a new form of monasticism. While living in the traditional manner in small communities obedient to a shared rule of life, they cultivated a socially-engaged outward focus towards serving the needs of those in the world around them.  The rapid spread of their off-shoot communities brought spiritual renewal to church and society. The renewed interest in service-oriented community life in our own time gives new timeliness to the Franciscan and Dominican model.

The missions of the two founders were different but compatible. Francis, the preacher-evangelist, incarnated the Good News of God’s love in his tireless care for the poor, the sick, the discouraged. Dominic, the preacher-teacher, defended the faithful from the wounds of heresies, building up the body with the meat of sound doctrine.

The Dominicans typically used the arts to give visual form to ideas and to cultivate intellectually rigorous forms of meditation.  The Franciscans appreciated the power of the arts to arouse emotion and to strengthen the affective side of knowing and loving God and our neighbors.


The Dominican “order of preachers” and the Franciscan order of “poor brothers” (along with the sister orders of women) often established outposts at opposite ends of a city – which in short time became poles of social and cultural as well as religious life of the community.  Orvieto was no exception.

In fact, Orvieto has strong associations with the two theologians — one Dominican, one Franciscan — who remain towering figures in the history of the church.  St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the scholastic theologians and philosophers, lived and taught for several years in the Dominican monastery in Orvieto.  St. Bonaventure, born in nearby Cività da Bagnoregio, gave lasting shape to Franciscan ideals through a theology of creation and of prayer.

The purpose of this pilgrimage-retreat is to help us reflect afresh
on the work of art in the places of our own life of worship, devotion, and service,
taking our cue from the practices of the Francis and Dominic

COST (not including airfare): $2,000 per person in a shared double room (single room $2,500). A non-refundable deposit of $500 reserves your place.
For more information and how to register, please contact Dr. Skillen at:


  • Mid-day dinners and evening suppers are provided on most days, prepared by the program chef, Maria Battistini. (Sunday lunch is on your own with friends.) Picnic lunches are provided on excursion days.

  • Two day-long excursions to Florence and Assisi (and Montefalco), places rich with art in situ.

  • Local afternoon excursions in the afternoon: a guided visit to the Duomo with Prof Skillen; a hiking expedition to the Cappuccin monastery; perhaps a wine-tasting at one of the fine local wineries.


Days of teaching and meditation and guided prayer are punctuated with excursions to places and monasteries and towns resonant with the presence of Francis and Dominic, with Aquinas and Bonaventure, with Clare of Assisi and Catherine of Siena. Taking quiet walks, journaling, joining the chanted Vesper services of the Franciscan nuns, chatting with new friends over a cappuccino in one of Orvieto’s many cafés, turning off the cellphone … such activities are always in order.


Day 1: Arrive, get settled in the Convento dei Servi; first exploration of the town; evening buffet
Day 2: Morning pastries at Café Montanucci; church; afternoon topic: Francis & Dominic: Mission & Manners of Devotion
Day 3: Morning discussion: Art and Prayer, Art in Prayer, Art of Prayer; evening Vespers with the cloistered Franciscan nuns
Day 4: Excursion to Assisi (San Damiano, Eremo dei Carceri, Basilica) and Montefalco (monastery with Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoed life of St. Francis)
Day 5: Morning topic: Francis and Dominic in art and poetry; afternoon activity
Day 6: Excursion to Florence: the Franciscan monastery of Santa Croce, and the Dominican monasteries of San Marco and Santa Maria Novella
Day 7: Morning topic: Bonaventure and Aquinas: Creation, Cross, & Eucharist; afternoon local excursion
Day 8: Morning topic: Francis and Dominic: figures for our time; afternoon for shopping and relaxing
Day 9: Departure


Participants sojourn in the thirteenth-century (fully renovated) monastery of the Servite order, now leased by Gordon College. The nine double rooms in the residential wing come with private baths. The library-classroom is bright and airy. The sitting room is a comfy area for late-night chats. Our private chef Maria takes pride in presenting the best of Umbrian cuisine. The refectory has its own student-created Last Supper. Student and faculty artworks everywhere establish the ambiance. WiFi internet access is available (when necessary).

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Rev. Dr. Susan Skillen
(M.Div, D.Min, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) completed her seminary training while living in Orvieto during Prof. John Skillen’s tenure as director of Gordon College’s semester program in Orvieto. Ordained as a priest at St. Paul’s-within-the-Walls Episcopal Church in Rome, she established an Anglican-tradition church community in Orvieto with the blessing of the Roman Catholic bishop.  She frequently leads pilgrimage-retreats based in Orvieto, always focusing on the relevance for people of faith now of the great Umbrian saints: Benedict and Scholastica, Francis and Claire, Dominic and Catherine of Siena. Presently serving as the canon for Spiritual Formation in the Anglican Diocese of New England, Mother Susan is a spiritual director and trainer of spiritual directors.

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Dr. John Skillen directs the Orvieto-based Studio for Art, Faith & History, while serving on Gordon’s campus as senior advisor for classical learning initiatives. His study of the role of the arts in the church and society of medieval and Renaissance Italy informs his interest in why Franciscan and Dominican monasticism provided such fruitful seedbeds for the arts of painting, music, poetry, and theater. He is the author of Putting Art (back) in its Place (Hendrickson, 2016). Learn more about Dr. Skillen by clicking on the "ABOUT THE DIRECTOR" tab at the top of this page.

February is a fantastic time to be in Italy. No tourist groups in sight. We have the places to ourselves. Sweater and jacket and scarf weather. If it rains, we're never far from a cozy café. Maria the cook’s “comfort food” Italian style (like a steaming bowl of polenta con funghi). My favorite time to travel and study with groups. All the photos below were taken in the winter by participants in our programs. (Photo credits Madeline Linnell, Kimberly Spragg, Dan Nystedt)