Thursday, August 09, 2018

An ART in Orvieto Missive: Week 3, Sacred Recycling and Artistic Vocation

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by Julia de Boer

Gallery night, where all participants shared their work from Orvieto.

In our last week in Orvieto, we took a little "field trip." Instead of being in Rome, Florence, or Assisi, this one was within the city itself, just a short walk from the convent. It was arranged for our group to go below the church of San Andrea, to see the archaeological excavations that were going on underneath the floor of the present-day church.

Human activity on top of this rock foundation dates back to at least the Bronze age, to some Italic peoples. Etruscan activity begins in the 7th century B.C.E. Our guide was able to show us the cobblestones of an Etruscan road and some home dwellings. After the Etruscans are brought under the long and forceful arm of Roman administration, the distinction between people groups begins to disappear and the Etruscans and their descendants intermingled with the Romans. What is clear, however, is that after they were Christianized they went to nearby Bolsena to avoid a Barbarian invasion, and then later returned to Orvieto and built a church on that site, making use of the Etruscan wells for their baptismal font and the stones of their homes for the church walls. The church at street level is the second one built on the site, the seat of the bishop before the Duomo was built a few hundred metres away. The blending of various people groups and religious traditions is significant, because the Christians who returned to Orvieto and built the font were related to the Etruscans who dug the wells initially.

Decorations from the first Christian church built on this site,
above Etruscan homes and roads

It felt to me like a physical hermeneutic spiral, going around and coming back at the problems of life with fresh insight. Or like an ambitious recycling project, reusing bits of mosaics from pagan temples in Rome to decorate around the altar.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

An ART in Orvieto Missive: Week 2, Part 2, Chasing Grace through Art History

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by Julia de Boer

Basilica Papale di San Francesco, Assisi

This week, the temporal proximity of two of our day trips provided our students with a study in contrasts. There are three day trips incorporated in the three-week ART in Orvieto program, these two being proceeded by a sojourn in Rome. This year, our Assisi and Florence trips happened on the Wednesday and Friday of the same week, in distinction to last year (when they were a week apart).

The Assisi trip is the first of the two for the simple fact that works Dr. Smick highlights in Assisi are older than those which are our foci in Florence. One of our course readings, a selection from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, shows the significance of each city’s treasured works within Italian art history. Vasari is included in our syllabus not just for this biographical content, but for his philosophical content; because historical writing is never uncontextual and a reader may see emerge from Vasari’s biography a dedication to certain aesthetic concepts, particularly an interest in the idea that some art discloses a sort of "grace" or "gracefulness." And consequently, that some art does not.

Our day in Assisi was as much a contemplative’s journey as it was an art history field trip. Before leaving, many of the students had read selections of Bonaventure’s hagiography on St. Francis, and we paused throughtout the day to re-read some of those passages and some Franciscan prayers at each of the sites. Besides bringing a real spiritual warmth to our day, this had the added benefit of highlighting the interactions between literature and image in the early middle ages.

The  Hermitage of St. Francis, Assisi

We started our day at San Damiano, the crumbling monastery where St. Francis received a divine message to rebuild the Church, starting from those very ruins and continuing outwards. Francis eventually gave the monastery to St. Clare, and it became the first home of the order of Poor Clares, the sister order of Franciscan nuns. Next we saw the Basilica di Santa Chiara, the church built in her honour and housing the belovèd San Damiano cross. Even before lunch time we made it up to the hermitage of St. Francis and his brothers, then picnicking while overlooking the valley that Francis himself observed in his many months of isolated contemplation.

Friday, July 27, 2018

An ART in Orvieto Missive: Week 2 Part 1, Visit to the San Brizio Chapel

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by Julia de Boer

Week 2 of the ART in Orvieto program has been very travel-heavy, visiting Assisi and Florence in addition to an educational jaunt to the San Brizio chapel inside of Orvieto’s Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta, so this report comes to you in two parts. Read the report on week 1 in Orvieto here.

Entrance to chapel, looking outward.

A visit to this 15th century chapel illustrates the usefulness of taking in medieval sites while philosophizing about religious art in the 21st century. Dr. Rebekah Smick, progenitor of the ART in Orvieto program, has been teaching about the philosophical historiography surrounding the concepts of "image," "symbol," and "metaphor," how the current discourse around artistic activity in our current time is shaped by the thought of previous generations of philosophers.

Her course serves to illustrate that current philosophical work on aesthetics did not emerge from a vacuum, but that it instead is the legacy of thinkers within and beyond the Christian and western canons. Do you want to understand why religious imagery is not valued in the institutional "art world" today? You will need to spend some time in the literature of philosophical and theological aesthetics to learn that story.

Dr. Skillen encouraging visual literacy among students.

Of course, philosophical literature has context and praxis, and that is where another professor, Dr. John Skillen, comes to our aid. Dr. Skillen, Gordon College professor and long-time Orvietano, helps program participants to understand the connections between the theoretical literature Dr. Smick teaches and medieval art that surrounds us. His special passion is making it understood that the physical context of religious art from the medieval period matters, that a fresco cannot be understood if divorced from a recognition of the purpose of the room into which it was painted, the time of the liturgical calendar which it is connected to, or from a conception of the affect on people who viewed it when it was first created. He teased us with the question as we entered the chapel: when does this art become theology? Philosophically, what can we say of the difference, since religious art immediately begs a question about what theological commitments are being expressed?

Monday, July 23, 2018

An ART in Orvieto Missive: Week 1

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by Julia de Boer

Dr. Rebekah Smick explains the sources of inspiration for the painting
done by Gordon College students for their classroom.

What is religious art in the secular era? How should Christian artists interact with ‘High Art’ and its institutions (and what about making money)? How have theologies of the image from the wider Christian tradition shaped the creative experience of Christian artists today? How can a life, led aesthetically or artistically, witness our faith?

The Institute for Christian Studies’ ART in Orvieto program seeks to provide space to ponder these and other questions. When reflecting on her own art history training, Dr. Rebekah Smick considered how different it would have been with the inclusion of some historiography to frame the discussion, to help understand why the course of art critique and theory developed in such a manner, and how it framed modern discourse. This was the impetus for her creation of the ART in Orvieto program; to provide scholars and practicing artists the opportunity to learn about the history of the image within the Classical and Christian traditions and their legacy to art theory and criticism today.

Some of the people who attend are philosophers and theologians by training, others school teachers, fine artists, and the intellectually or spiritually curious. The program is multi-purposed, juxtaposing the academic seminar with studio time for those who are practicing artists, and sending everyone to see influential and overlooked works in situ in Rome, Florence, and Assisi. Students leave understanding the cultural and social contexts which changed and were changed by the philosophies and theologies of art throughout the last 2500 years.

All of this takes place in a repurposed, Servite convent atop the tufa rock plateau that is the city of Orvieto. Gordon College, a Christian college in Boston, Massachusetts, have a satellite campus in which they run semester-long experiences for fine artists from their school during the main academic school years, and host programs like our Art, Religion, and Theology course in the summer months.

The worn patinas of a convent door, once home to a monastic order,
now home to Gordon College.

We are midway through the first week of our 2018 program. Most of the participants are beginning to overcome their jet-lag and all our artists are set-up and enthusiastically setting forth upon their projects in the studio. Maria, the fantastic cook who works for Gordon College here in Orvieto, provides steaming platters of al-dente pasta, seasonal vegetables, and roast meats at our lunch and dinner meals.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

On Unlearning “Western” Philosophy

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by Joshua Harris

This post is part of the series "Human Rights and Human Wrongs," an attempt to create a space for authentic dialogue about justice and injustice.

Ibn Sina

Recently ICS hosted Matt Bernico for a great conversation about curricula and pedagogy in Christian higher education, made available here and here via ICS podcast Critical Faith. Typical ICS vibrancy and dynamism aside, I was a grateful listener on account of a headspace I’ve acquired over the course of my last year as an adjunct professor in Providence College’s “Development of Western Civilization” program. Without going into the exhausting details, suffice it to say that this program is, well, controversial.

The following intervention might seem like a “response” to Matt’s talk. It is not. For all I know, he may agree (or disagree) with everything I say. Yet it is certainly occasioned by the concerns he raises—concerns about curricula in Christian higher education, especially insofar as they are dominated by texts written by white, Western authors. Any serious decolonial project, says Matt following several contemporary decolonial theorists, must involve a systemic “unlearning” of what Ramón Grosfoguel provocatively calls this status quo of “Euro-North American ethnic studies,” which happens to masquerade as universal standards of knowledge in the interest of justifying or at least furthering existing systems of Western power and exploitation.

It is this process of unlearning that I want to explore here with respect to philosophical canons specifically, albeit (perhaps) with a slightly different orienting question: namely, “What is the “Western” philosophy that we are called to unlearn, in the first place?” It seems to me that the answer to this logically prior question matters a great deal for anyone interested in a more epistemically just university.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Christian Reflections on Locke Street Anarchism

by Kiegan Irish

This post is part of the series "Human Rights and Human Wrongs," an attempt to create a space for authentic dialogue about justice and injustice.

Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.
--Martin Luther King Jr.

On Saturday, March 3rd, in Hamilton, Ontario, a group of anarchists marched on Locke Street and destroyed many of the storefronts that lined it, a direct action that has been widely condemned. Police linked the attack to an anarchist book fair that took place the same weekend. An outpouring of support for the Locke Street businesses followed.

Those responsible for the damaged storefronts were hoping to elicit a reaction and expose the fault lines in the community that liberal discourses of urbanization work to smooth over. I did not participate in the actions on Locke, nor do I know anyone who did. At first, I felt simply shocked by the action. But having observed the response from many people and communities, including fellow Christians I love and respect, I wondered if there might be another kind of Christian response. While it takes some inference and understanding of the perspectives and goals of the anarchist community to make sense of their praxis, shouldn’t Christians be precisely those people who can understand the perspectives of people who are, historically, against the violence of the state and who have so often attracted prominent Christians like Dorothy Day and Jacques Ellul?

The way the church has been mobilized in this case—as a tool to morally legitimate the violence that elicited “ungovernable” actions—shows the dearth of thoughtful analysis that too often afflicts the church’s engagement with its world. As someone who is interested in following Jesus and understanding what his life might mean for the world, I found their response inadequate. For those who are interested in seeing genuine engagement and mutual exchange between Christian communities and leftist politics, or simply between Christian communities and those who are marginalized in our world, this is distressing.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Human Rights & Human Wrongs: A Ground Motive Series

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A Ground Motive Series

“Human rights” occupy a strangely fraught place in political discourse today. In one sense, they bear the burden of being obvious. To deny the moral weight of human rights among those of good faith would be strange, at best, and suspicious, at worst. After all, few judgments are more immediately meaningful—and morally charged—than to say that an individual or institution is guilty of violating human rights. We might disagree about whether this is true or false in particular cases, of course. But we do not disagree that such a thing is possible.

However, like so many other concepts integral to our fragile humanity, the precise meaning of human rights is decidedly not obvious. Do human rights “exist”? Are they visible, however faintly, under the ever-sharpening gaze of cutting-edge neurobiology? Are they compelling fictions, devised naively by brilliant but outdated theorists of yesteryear? Are they gifts from God?

These questions are philosophical (and theological) in nature, but they are not academic—at least, not in the sense of being conveniently irrelevant to concrete scenarios of human concern. If anything, the present moment intensifies our embarrassment at such ambiguities even more palpably than previous generations. Whatever else might be the case in Trump’s United States, the Brexiters’ Britain, Zuckerberg’s social media, or Kim Jong-un’s Democratic People’s Republic, with respect to human rights, one thing is clear: things are unclear.

It is in this sober, clear-eyed spirit that we kick off our new series, “Human Rights and Human Wrongs,” here on Ground Motive. We will feature two kinds of reflections: on the one hand, we will present pieces dealing with various theoretical approaches to human rights and their significance in today’s world; on the other, we will engage thoughtfully with concrete contemporary events, thus sparking further reflection on the practical ways in which the language of rights affects our society. The idea is to “do what we do” at ICS—engage pressing questions pertaining to our responsibility before God in a world steeped in the bondage and decay of injustice—albeit publicly, i.e., in a spirit of conversation open to anyone interested.

In “Human Rights and Human Wrongs” we will feature the diverse, and in some cases directly opposing, views that represent the constituencies that make up ICS, its partners, and its communities of support. In light of this, we invite you to engage in this dialogue by submitting your reflections or responding to the posts in the series in the comments section. Our hope is to overcome the original discomfort proper to deep dialogue through a process of communal discernment and reflection, through which we can generate new ways of thinking about our societies, their challenges, and their futures. We look forward to your contributions and comments!

Please email Héctor Acero Ferrer at with your submissions.

In the series:

On Unlearning "Western" Philosophy, by Joshua Harris

Christian Reflections on Locke Street Anarchism, by Kiegan Irish