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.