virtues & vices

a jerusalem & athens winter seminar in orvieto

december 30, 2019 - january 12, 2020

photo credit Dan Nystedt

photo credit Dan Nystedt

Every winter during the first two weeks of January, the Studio for Art, Faith & History teams up with Gordon College’s Jerusalem & Athens great books program to offer a seminar that addresses one important aspect of the Christian digestion of the intellectual and cultural heritage of the classical world – of Jerusalem’s encounter with Athens, of the church with the academy.

Undergraduate students receive academic credit for the course. Adult learners of any age receive a rejuvenating, thought-provoking feast for the mind and eyes. Everyone enjoys the uncommon mix of ages and life-experience shared around the tables of classroom, café, and dining hall.

Prudence, by Lucca della Robbia

Prudence, by Lucca della Robbia

The January 2019 version takes up the concepts and vocabulary of the virtues and vices of human character
(like the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude and the seven deadly vices).
The real question is: Does the old language of character still have legs?

We explore how this moral vocabulary was accepted and interpreted by the theologians and philosophers of medieval-Renaissance Europe to render it compatible with Christian understanding of human sin and sanctification.

Yes, we read some of the classic texts that shaped the Western intellectual tradition. But our final purpose is to study how the vocabulary of virtues and vices got into the eyes, minds and psyches of ordinary people, serving as guides to perception, judgment, and choice-making in real life. For that, we will attend closely to the rich depiction of the virtues and vices in the visual art of the period, as well as in the popular literature of poets such as Dante and Chaucer .

Excursions to Rome, Siena, Florence, and in Orvieto itself give material grip to our study.

Among the questions to be explored are: What is virtue and how does one acquire it? What is vice and how can one avoid it? What is the relationship (asked as Christian believers) between moral behavior and our justification and sanctification? What is the relation, if any, between the cardinal virtues of classical tradition and the scriptural virtues of faith, hope, and love? What is the relationship between individual virtue and public/social responsibility? And most importantly to us now, to what extent might medieval and early-modern moral philosophy still be relevant to church, society, and government today. In sum: let’s delve with scholarly care and personal zeal into the big questions: What is a good life? What is a good society?

January is a great time to be in Italy. All the photos in the carousel below are winter scenes. 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. [photos by Madeline Linnell, Kimberly Spragg, Dan Nystedt]


Round-trip airfare from Boston and all ground transportation in Italy; lodging (in double rooms with baths); all meals (except for Sunday); all entrance fees.

Applications are due by October 15, 2019.

Students: $3,600 (includes 4 credits tuition); $30 application fee due October 15; $450 non-refundable deposit due October 31; remaining $3,150 billed to student account.

Adult Learners: $2,600; No application fee; $500 non-refundable deposit due by October 22; remaining $2,100 due by November 15.


Participants sojourn in the thirteenth-century (fully renovated) monastery of the Servite order that is now home to the Gordon in Orvieto program. 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).

To apply for this Seminar-Retreat, click here.

TEACHER AND HOST: Dr. John Skillen

Professor John Skillen (Ph.D. Medieval and Renaissance literature, Duke University) is the director of the Studio for Art, Faith, and History at Gordon College, and a senior advisor for Global Education. He was the medieval and Renaissance specialist in the English department before inaugurating the Gordon in Orvieto semester program in 1998. Professor Skillen's interests are broadly in the arts and cultural history, and the renewed relevance of moments in early European culture for the conditions of our present, themes explored in his recent book, Putting Art (back) in its Place (2016). Learn more about Dr. Skillen by clicking on the "ABOUT THE DIRECTOR" tab at the top of this page.

Linnell Pienza panorama.jpg

Photo credit Madeline Linnell

This Winter Seminar opens to a wider circle of students, alumni and adult learners the theme for which the Jerusalem and Athens Forum honors program is named: “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy?” Posed by the early church father Tertullian in his defense of Christianity addressed to the pagans, this “enduring question,” as philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff titles an influential essay, “remains as much alive today as it was in 198 A.D. when Tertullian posed it.”