RELIGION AND BEAUTY IN THE CLASSROOM

by Nicholas Adams

This is a short report on teaching a course on late medieval and early renaissance art in Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, in the summer of 2004. The question I pose for the reader is: was I teaching 'theology' or 'religion' in this course? My purpose is to describe the course content, the teaching environment, the difficulties inherent in the conception of the course, and the relations between students and the work. I hope to give enough detail for it to be possible for someone to reproduce the course themselves, and for it to be a useful historical document.

First, the relevant background. Dartmouth College has a teaching exchange with the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, where I hold a post teaching Christian Theology and Ethics. I was invited to spend two months in Dartmouth College, in the Religion Department from late June to late August 2004, as part of that exchange. The exchange is much valued by both institutions, and colleagues from Edinburgh are accorded warm hospitality, comfortable lodgings, and exemplary administrative support for the duration of their stay. This stay involved, in my case, teaching one course, for two days a week, over nine weeks, for which I was paid $10,000, with $2,500 deducted for rent. Dartmouth College's teaching has a four-quarter term structure, and the summer term is the fourth quarter; typically fewer students are in residence, and some faculty do not teach during this period. The Religion Department conceives of itself in the following way: 'Everyone teaching in the department also believes in the importance of comparing religious traditions and in studying religions in a comparative way. It is the department's insistence on an undergraduate major that is comparative and interdisciplinary in nature that distinguishes the study of religion at Dartmouth' (http://www.dartmouth.edu/~religion/). My impression is that the department aims to be even-handed, unbiased, non-theological, and unconcerned with the particular religious history of its own location in Hanover in particular and New England more widely.

The initial proposal for the course was entitled 'Christ in Art', or its fuller title 'Christ in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art.' There seemed to have been some discussion by faculty in the Religion Department as to whether 'Jesus in Art' was a more appropriate title for the course. This may reflect a teaching and research culture in which theology is not taught, and that to name a course 'Christ in Art' might indicate theological presuppositions that are not present in a name such as 'Jesus in Art'. However, this was not an ideologically enforced issue, and my observation that the paintings were originally produced in a period that understood images to express Christological themes produced ready agreement that the course be named 'Christ in Art', and this was the title that was presented to students.

Second, the teaching environment. The course was taught on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 10:00 and 11:50, in a classroom located in the impressive Baker-Berry library. The room had no natural light, and was equipped with a computer/projector, linked to the internet, and a large rectangular table around which the seventeen students enrolled on the course could comfortably sit on three sides, with the teacher at the far end, underneath the projection screen. The class size had been capped at 20, to reflect the style of teaching and use of course materials. The lack of any windows in the room gave the class a feeling of being divorced from the ordinary world, a feeling reinforced by the use of projections of paintings which became not only windows into another world, but the only window in the room at all. In this respect the room became a bit like a Lady Chapel: a relatively intimate space, with a stained glass window depicting biblical characters. The main teaching tool used was the online product Blackboard, which was used to communicate to the class members, and to upload relevant documents as the course progressed.

There was also an additional timetable slot available to the class. This is known as the X Hour, which for this course was scheduled for 3:00-3:50 on Wednesdays. The use of this hour was initially obscure to me, and I received several explanations of its purpose. By the time the course was underway I was left with the impression that it could be used for additional teaching in ways that the instructor saw fit. I found a use for it on three occasions during the nine weeks of the course, which will be explained below.

The timetabling of the course reflects a trend in American universities more widely, I have now discovered, which is quite alien to my home setting in Scotland. This is the desire by students (and some staff) to have as many courses as possible taught between Tuesday and Thursday, or more explicitly, not on Mondays and Fridays. This enables students to enjoy a very long weekend from Friday to Monday. Administrators indicated in e mails that this was causing stresses on the timetabling process, leading to high incidences of class clashes, which effectively reduces the number of courses open to students. The initial course enrollment had been 20, and I received two e mails from students who attended the two classes in the first week explaining that they could not participate because of timetabling issues. Their practice, it seemed, had been to try out a number of classes and pick the ones that suited them best; it is difficult to determine whether their choices were indeed constrained by timetabling issues, or whether they had presented timetabling issues as a courteous way to inform a teacher that they did not wish to take the class. The teaching pattern for the Christ in Art course in Dartmouth afforded me more time for other scholarly pursuits, but I also used that time to do additional class preparation that otherwise I would not have undertaken, which will also be outlined below.

The student profile for the course was varied. Some of the students had already declared Religion as a major, but there were other students who had declared other majors, including politics and history. There were nine women and eight men in the class, from a variety of religious backgrounds. Three of the women were active in the Roman Catholic chaplaincy, and made it explicit that their religious commitments had guided their decision to take the course. I do not remember whether all three were religion majors; at least one was. I openly referred to my own Church of England background and affiliation at the start of the class, but did not invite students to articulate their own religious commitments. This reflects my practice in teaching this subject in Scotland too. The students who wished to discuss their Roman Catholic tradition volunteered this freely after class one day, and this continued to feature in their conversations. They played a major role in helping the class form a mini community, and this is one of the factors that contributed to the success of the course.

Third, the content of the course. The purpose of the course was to interpret paintings in the light of their original contexts as religious objects. The pattern of the course was to set readings from a variety of texts, for discussion on Tuesdays, and to lay out high quality photocopies of works of art on the tables for interpretation on Thursdays. The Tuesday texts were explicitly intended to cover three areas of scholarly inquiry: art-historical background, religious-social background, and practical guidance for interpreting religious paintings. The main art history texts were Veronica Sekules's Medieval Art, Evelyn Welch's Art in Renaissance Italy, and Jill Dunkerton et al., Giotto to Dürer. We also used Michael Baxandall's Words for Pictures. The main religious-social background texts were Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition vol. 1 and vol. 4, Steven Ozment's The Age of Reform and Daniel Lesnick's Preaching in Medieval Florence. The two practical guidance texts were Neil MacGregor's Seeing Salvation, and John Drury's Painting the Word. The Thursday practicals were structured around the medieval church year: one cluster around Christmas, the other around Good Friday-Holy Saturday-Easter. The first cluster included the Annunciation, Nativity, and Madonna and Child. The second cluster included the Crucifixion, Deposition, Pietà, Dead Christ and Resurrection. Paintings were taken from roughly 1200 to 1600 in Italy and the Netherlands. The goal was for the Tuesday texts to provide students with a varied vocabulary for interpreting paintings, and for the Thursday practicals to afford a context for students to become skilled in the use of this vocabulary. There were significant approaches that were not taken up. We did not explore issues of painterly technique beyond basic issues of the cost and use of materials; we did not investigate more recent theoretical perspectives focused on issues of gender, sexuality, politics or economics. We tended to ask questions of the type 'why are there so many paintings of the Virgin and Child?' rather than 'what can we reconstruct of fifteenth century Florentine views of maternity from paintings of the period?'. Correspondingly, the enquiry tended to explore Marian theology rather than ideas of the family before the rise of the bourgeois private home. Nonetheless, questions of the latter kind repeatedly came up because students discovered very quickly that the concepts and descriptive categories available to pre-Reformation Italian Christians differed significantly from those used in early twenty-first century New England. Certain relations repeatedly entered discussion: between religion and work, public and private, civic and aesthetic, social status and prayer, rich and poor, healthy and sick. Some of the students clearly articulated their grasp that a different kind of self was conceived, with a different relation to community, with a differently mediated relation to God. It was fascinating to see some of the brighter students reflecting on what they described as a dominant focus on immediacy and 'experience' in contemporary North American culture, and its relative absence in earlier times, especially in the light of Dartmouth College's own marketing strategy to prospective students, which I learned is named 'The Dartmouth Experience'. As the course progressed, a significant portion of discussion was devoted—in a way I had planned—to charting the differences between earlier and later conceptions of religion in society and—in a way I had not planned—to throwing into question certain contemporary cultural practices relating especially to the care of the vulnerable and the place of religious aspiration in advertising.

Students signed up for one or more excerpts from the texts which they would summarize and present to the class on Tuesdays. When each student had presented his/her summary, the remainder of the class was devoted to discussion of the issues. Students were instructed to compile a glossary of terms over the course of the class, and I reviewed these periodically. The Tuesday classes thus took the form of seminar discussions. On Thursdays the tables would be laid out with between fifteen and twenty reproductions of paintings, often taken from images on the web. Students were instructed to find another class member, and to go round the table as a pair, interpreting a painting for each other in turn. Generally, during the course of an hour, each pair would manage about four paintings. For the second hour the whole class would interpret a painting selected by me, projected onto the screen.

The course was constrained, as it is in Edinburgh, by the brevity of the nine-week term. This means that it is not possible to spend time reading classic Patristic interpretations of scripture, which are so crucial for the medieval visual imagination, nor for reading extended passages of Dante's Divine Comedy, which heavily determined views of hell and heaven from the early 1300s onward, nor for acquiring some knowledge of the principal saints in Italy, nor for exploring non-liturgical devotional literature in the different periods and cities in which the paintings were produced. Instead, the religious background focused on the architecture and use of churches (especially the location and function of paintings), the structure and content of the Mass (especially the taking of communion), ordinary liturgical texts such as the Magnificat, the Gloria, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei, seasonal liturgical texts such as the Stabat Mater or O Sacrum Convivium, and elements of folk tradition preserved in Christmas carols such as Adam lay y bounden, or The Coventry Carol. The latter were not, strictly speaking, relevant to paintings in Italy or the Netherlands, as they are part of an old English tradition. They gave some flavor of popular piety, nonetheless, and were in any cases the carols I happen to know.

By far the most time, however, was spent reading the Bible. Some of the students had detailed knowledge of the Gospels, a few more had a vague knowledge of some stories, and a small minority had almost no working knowledge of the New Testament. It was thus an ongoing task to lay out the relevant Gospel passages so that students knew who and what was meant when reference was made to John the Evangelist, Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene, the disciples, Joseph of Arimathea, and when reference was made to particular events, such as the temptation in the wilderness, the washing of the disciples' feet, the crucifixion, the appearance to Mary Magdalene, and so forth. Had time permitted we would also have read the early chapters in Genesis, Genesis 22, Psalms, and portions of Isaiah and Daniel. By the end of the course, the students had a reasonable knowledge of the crucifixion narratives, and—because we had made a detailed comparison between the different accounts—were able to see how painters had harmonized the accounts, selectively, in various ways. It thus became possible, towards the end of the course, for students to discern particular theological nuances.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2006, Vol. 56,  No 2.