Monday, July 23, 2018

An ART in Orvieto Missive: Week 1

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.

The convent is spacious and cool, at least it was once all the visitors learned how to open and close their windows and shutters with the movements of the hot Italian sun. It is perhaps too early to tell what insights will be developed over our three weeks about the questions we set before us at the beginning, or what sort of creative work may emerge, but energy and excitement are tangible.

One would not wish to suggest that Italy is the only place on God’s green earth where these conversations could take place. With a pastoral and corrective lecture, Dr. Thomas McIntyre reminded us that the spread of the Christian gospel went in all directions, not just to Italy, and that Rome is not the singular viaduct through which redemptive water flowed.

What one may say, however, is that Italy’s compact size, dense history, and general charm make it a wonderful place to try answering those questions, if one has the chance. Many historically significant works of art may be visited, the texts of people theologizing about those works may be consulted, and the spiritual fervour of the monastics and artists whose lives formed the context of our investigations may be indulged and appreciated.

Succulents from a window box near
the ART in Orvieto lodgings.

On a very practical note, the hot Italian summer is the polar opposite of our cold, Canadian winter. The light here is indeed yellow, a soft, safe light or a scorching beam, depending on the time of day. Orvieto has a magnificent duomo and bustling little piazzas, the whole of the city surrounded by the deep, breathtaking scenery of the river valley which runs the length of central Italy and inspiring if one is a landscape painter. If one’s tastes are more to the abstract, it takes but a few minutes to pause and reflect on the colour and shape around; rich yellows and browns, verdant green, and more orange and pink than are commonly found in North American cityscapes. There is just so much detail and delight to be found, in every square inch, that Italy makes it very easy to be moved to consider our crucial questions.

The possibility for having religious art in a postmodern world suddenly seems possible, not because the vectors of Italian life are so dissimilar to our own in Toronto or elsewhere that our philosophical ponderings seem moot, as if Italy is a land out of time, but because the dissimilarity of experience cuts through the noise of our thoughts to suggest that it is possible, that alternatives must be possible.

The rust and patina of a door hinge can be an experience of transcendence, not to mention the soaring cliff faces or the fruit trees. So does the realization that you have been standing on land which has continuously homed people, from at least the Etruscans onwards, for three millenia. The evidence of Etruscan temples along those soaring cliff faces also indicates that for much of that history, religious activity here has recognized the transcendency of this landscape.

If this is so obvious here, is it just as obvious in Toronto, in our own cities of origin and the wilderness that surrounds them? Perhaps we will arrive home, not only with new works of art, but with renewed spiritual energy and fresh, keen, perception for the traces of transcendence in our regular lives.

A detail of the apse mosaic in St. Pudenziana, Rome, visited by students.


Julia de Boer is a PhD student at ICS and assistant to Dr. Smick in Orvieto, studying philosophical aesthetics and linguistics. Orvieto had a special place in her heart, even before she went on the ART in Orvieto course the first time, and she continues to fall deeper in love with this city on every sequential visit. Photos by Julia de Boer.

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