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President Dan Weiss uncovers political and religious messages in ancient art

For the second year, Lafayette President Dan Weiss shared his expertise in medieval art with an enthusiastic audience at Reunion College. His talk Friday morning addressed “Teaching Medieval Art in the Modern World: Finding Meaning and Relevance in a Lost Era.”

Harkening back to his days as an art professor at Johns Hopkins, Weiss admitted that communicating the relevance of medieval art to students was a challenge – and a necessity given the much greater popularity of other eras in art history.

Showing a slide of a Monet painting of a hazy sunrise, Weiss noted the work was originally derided by critics, who believed anyone could paint in that seemingly shoddy fashion. What people came to understand through Monet’s Impressionism was that paintings can depict things in the way the eye sees them through the filter of the brain, challenging the notion that paintings have to represent objects in their reality.

Jackson Pollock took this idea further, noted Weiss, demonstrating that paintings don’t have to be representational at all, instead being about color, light, and composition. Weiss’ presentation developed the point that what art expresses can go far beyond faithfully representing objects.

“Art functions best when it communicates with us,” said Weiss, noting that this is true even if the viewer’s response to this communication is negative. Art fails, he added, when it does not engage people.

Religious art in the Middle Ages depicted biblical themes, said Weiss, but it communicated other meanings. The challenge is trying to discover what the artists were trying to express. Decoding those meanings strips away thousands of years and brings us directly to the intent of the artist, because while a composer’s notes are interpreted by a symphony and a playwright’s words by actors, visual art is an unmediated experience, Weiss noted.

In the search for these meanings, said Weiss, there is no substitute for looking very closely at the work of art; every detail was placed there deliberately. It also helps to have a sense of historical context and the traditions in which the artist operated, he added.

Weiss showed images of an ampulla, a flask-like object worn by pilgrims in the Holy Land, and a wooden box, both of which would carry soil or other items to take home. Scenes of Christ’s life were rendered on them in a rudimentary way, but the quality of the art was not the most important element. The containers were considered sacred by the pilgrims, believed to possess miraculous powers.

Another example was the art of Santa Maria Maggiore (432 A.D.), the first church commissioned by a Pope. It depicts Old Testament heroes such as David, Joshua, and Moses to appear like Christ. In the historical context of a Christian religion still developing its identity, this made a statement that there was not a distinct Hebrew Bible, but rather an Old Testament complementing Christianity’s New Testament, said Weiss.

The church’s image of the Virgin Mary is not the modest, poor young woman of history, but rather is wearing gold and gems as the queen of heaven. Three angels being greeted by Abraham in another scene appear as the Trinity, and they are dining at an altar as at a Eucharistic table.

The cathedral of San Marco in Venice, built in the 11th century and decorated in the next two centuries, was “first and foremost a political statement about the dominance of Venetians on the world stage,” said Weiss. Most of the church’s objects, including the famous statue of four horses and even the columns, were spoils of war from the conquest of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade.

“Religious images are just the vocabulary people used to engage their audience,” said Weiss. “They can inspire us, they can dazzle us, we can marvel at the craftsmanship to produce them,” but there are meanings and agendas behind them.

The church of St. Faith in Conques, southwestern France, has an enormous sculpture of God’s final judgment of humanity, said Weiss, with images of local people, including someone who wouldn’t sell his land to the church being eaten by demons. A statue of St. Faith has the face not of the young girl martyred by the Romans for her Christian faith, but of a Roman official. This was done because the point of the sculpture was not to depict the girl, but to show off its gems, and because the Roman face put the sculpture in a definitive historical context.

The final example was the Sainte-Chapelle, a chapel built by King Louis IX in his palace to house the purported crown of thorns of Jesus Christ and other religious relics. Its stained glass windows put the king squarely into Biblical history – all the heroic figures look like him.

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