Shedding Light on Art History in the City of Lights

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Paris was recently host to the inaugural gathering of a new professional organization, the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art.

By Rachel Hostetter Smith

In the shadow of the famed Museé d’Orsay, known for its extensive collection of French impressionist and post-impressionist art, a group of scholars and students gathered in Paris from May 25 to 31, 2010, for History, Continuity, and Rupture: A Symposium on Christianity and Art History. This was the inaugural event of the newly formed Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA), a professional organization that seeks to redress the tendency in much of recent scholarship to ignore or minimize the influence of Christianity on the arts. Symposium speakers represented a diversity of academic institutions including Asbury University, Eastern Illinois University, the New York Center for Art and Media Studies, Pratt Institute, Rhode Island College, Taylor University, Trinity Christian College, the University of Cambridge, the University of Chicago Divinity School, the University of Kentucky, the University of St. Andrews (Edinburgh), the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and Wentworth Institute of Technology. Yet the symposium attracted interest beyond Western Europe and North America, drawing scholars from as far away as Estonia and South Africa to participate in the event, exceeding expectations of symposium organizers Linda Stratford, associate professor of art at Asbury University and current President of the Board of Directors of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), and James Romaine, associate professor of art history at Nyack College and CIVA Board member.

The symposium met at Le Pavé d’Orsay, a venue for the arts strategically located just one block off of the left bank of the Seine in the heart of one of the most elite neighborhoods of Paris where the movers and shakers in Parisian political and cultural affairs reside. Under the direction of Steve Thrall, Le Pavé seeks to support and encourage the arts and artists regardless of their faith affiliation by providing a space at an enviable address at a reasonable cost to the artists for performance of music and poetry, the mounting of art exhibitions, as well as meetings like the symposium. By working with the artists and living and working in the neighborhood, Thrall and his staff help to bridge the gap between these artists and the culture-shapers of France, cultivating opportunities for interaction and important conversations about art, culture, and faith as they emerge out of natural associations.

Engaging New Methods and Enlarging the Conversation

Situated so ideally in the center of Paris, symposium participants alternated their time between presentations of papers that examined the history of the relationship between Christianity and the visual arts—from Early Christian to contemporary art—and excursions to cultural and artistic sites in the city, allowing ample time for reflection and interaction among the participants. Open discussion sessions provided for deliberate consideration of the methods and approaches best suited for dealing with art that reflects Christian content in one form or another. The vigorous debate confirmed the organizers’ conviction of the need for forums like this to expand the scholarly conversation.

Highlights for the group included a personal behind-the-scenes tour of the Upper Chapel of Sainte Chapelle, the private chapel of Louis the Pious, to see a crucifixion painting recently “rediscovered” through information gleaned through archival research by one of the presenters, Emily Guerry, who is currently conducting research on site there. Another highlight was a visit to L’Institut de France, the premier cultural institute of the French state. Symposium presenter Dr. Brent Seales arranged the visit. Seales was granted access to work with L’Institut’s collection of papyrus scrolls from the remains of Pompeii, which have been charred beyond any possibility of unrolling the scrolls without causing their further disintegration. Seales introduced the group to his groundbreaking work in digital imaging for cultural artifacts. Using modified MRI technologies, Seales is able to digitally penetrate, separate, and document layers of imagery from a variety of objects previously inaccessible to researchers due to their damaged or fragile state. As Seales put it, these new technologies allow us to rescue and restore aspects of our cultural heritage that were previously thought to be lost to us. These two “field trips” reflect the vast range of methods currently employed in art historical research and the invigorating engagement that took place that week in Paris.

Le Pave d’Orsay Director Steve Thrall with Symposium organizers James Romaine and Linda Stratford

The gathering concluded with vigorous discussion among the participants regarding the future development of ASCHA and planning for new projects and initiatives. Those include the publication of a book focused on methodologies of interpreting art appropriate to dealing with aspects of Christian content or perspective, and a symposium focusing on contemporary art scheduled in conjunction with the 2011 College Art Association conference in New York in February.

 

A Call for Submissions

 

As an outgrowth of the Paris symposium, ASCHA plans to publish a collection of essays that expands the conversation begun there. Toward a Sacramental Methodology of Art History will be an anthology that celebrates some of the best recent scholarship on the history of Christianity and the visual arts. The essays will reveal specific canonical works of art—in their creation, use, and interpretation—as the materialization of a three-part exchange between sacred content, visual and concrete form, and religious/historical context. The collection will demonstrate the profusion and range of the history of Christianity and the visual arts as well as the methodological challenges and opportunities that this represents for the field of art history. A call for submissions is posted on ASCHA’s website, www.christianityhistoryart.org.

Please keep checking our website regularly for more updates. We welcome your ideas about other projects and opportunities that ASCHA should initiate or join.

Coming Up Soon—Why Have There Been No Great Modern Religious Artists?

On February 8, 2011, ASCHA will hold its second symposium, hosted by the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City. The daylong program takes place the day prior to the start of the annual conference of the College Art Association, the premier professional organization for university art faculty. The overwhelming response to the call for papers from scholars across North America and Europe signaled yet again the need for scholarly forums that foster discussions about the interactions between Christianity and art. Presented with the good problem of having too many strong proposals to select from, organizers James Romaine and Rachel Smith promise participants a rich program of presentations that examine specific examples of art, from the 20th century until the present, which employ Christian subjects, symbols, and contexts in order to consider the methodological challenges that these works of art pose. Click here for registration and program information.

The Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA): Statement of Purpose

The Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA) is dedicated to the facilitation and promotion of scholarship examining the historical and contemporary relationship between Judeo-Christianity and the visual arts. ASCHA is international, non-profit, non-political, and ecumenical; we invite the participation of scholars, educators, curators, publishers, artists, and other professionals of all personal faith persuasions working in art history, history, church history, theology, philosophy, and related fields. ASCHA encourages the critical study of Judeo-Christianity and the visual arts as that relationship is diversely manifested in all historical periods and world cultures.

ASCHA is dedicated to the establishment and upholding of professional standards of scholarship and education through the development and practice of rigorous scholarly methodologies. ASCHA is dedicated to examining problems that confront the field by identifying scholarly needs and fostering opportunities. ASCHA is a forum for the advancement of research, dialogue, collaboration, and publication in the area of Judeo-Christianity and the visual arts through the open and respectful exchange of knowledge and ideas among scholars.

It is clear that the moment is right for an organization like ASCHA to have an impact. Anyone who is interested in more information about ASCHA or has ideas to contribute to its development is encouraged to see http://christianityhistoryart.org or to contact James Romaine at drjamesromaine@gmail.com.

Rachel Hostetter Smith is Gilkison Professor in Art History at Taylor University. She is the Project Director and Curator of the exhibition Charis: Boundary Crossings, a member of the Board of Directors of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) and a member of the organizing committee of ASCHA. She writes on a wide range of topics related to the arts, culture, and faith. She may be contacted at rcsmith@taylor.edu.

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