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.