Context Messaging: Professor to Investigate Pre-Modern European Art

April 30, 2012

Sara Nair James ’69, professor of art history, was selected to attend a summer seminar on teaching pre-modern European art in context, “Making and Meaning in Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque Europe.” The seminar is sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges
with a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and it will be held at Oberlin College in Ohio.

Altar Wing with Five Saints

The seminar, held June 17–21, is geared toward faculty members who teach undergraduate-level art history at colleges without large campus art museums or proximity to major art museums. Students at these colleges benefit from viewing original artwork, but it is often difficult to access the period pieces they study in class.

“There’s nothing like seeing the real thing,” James said. “There’s still a thrill in the students eyes when looking at the art. On our yearly trip to the National Gallery in Washington, we’re always setting off the buzzer in front of the van Eyck.”

The seminar at Oberlin will focus on connecting medieval, Renaissance, and early Baroque artworks to their original form and function. Today these pieces are found largely in museums, but they were once located in churches, homes, and the public sphere.

“The approach deals with teaching in context. Students need context to understand artworks,” James explained. “Art is a reflection of the society that made it.”

Seminar sessions will focus on topics such as workshop practices, how patrons commissioned objects, liturgical art, and art in the Renaissance home. In investigating these subjects, participants will examine works in the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, such as Neri di Bicci’s “Altar Wing with Five Saints” (pictured above). Curators at the Cleveland Museum of Art will also lead workshops.

“Making and Meaning” will cover issues of conservation, and participants will meet with art conservators from the Intermuseum Conservation Association laboratory. There will be some overlap with the conference James and Lundy Pentz, associate professor of biology, attended last year at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. James will incorporate knowledge from both forums into an Mary Baldwin class on art and science that she and Pentz plan to team-teach.