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Art and the Sacred in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages


No time in history saw a richer, more varied expression of sacred art than the European Middle Ages. And no other age has known as powerful, as all-embracing a religious institution as the medieval church. In this interdisciplinary lecture course, we will ask why the Christian church and the art made in its service took such extraordinarily varied forms in the 1,000-year period from the catacombs to Chartres, from the third century to the 13th. We will also ask why certain features of contemporary Christianity that are looked upon as quintessentially Catholic rather than Protestant were established not in the earliest years of the church but in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: monasteries and nunneries, the cult of the Virgin, a celibate clergy, and a papal monarchy with virtually unlimited powers. Since Christianity is a religion not only for the here and now but for the afterlife, of special interest will be perplexing beliefs such as that we on Earth might affect the fate of the dead in purgatory and, conversely, that some of the “very special dead” might assist the living or perhaps punish them. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the course will be studying these topics in visual, as well as in written, texts; for instance, in the architecture and decoration of early Christian and Romanesque churches and, at St. Denis and Chartres, in the birth of the uniquely Western style that we call Gothic. By also examining how sacred words were illuminated in manuscripts linked to Lindisfarne, Kells, and Charlemagne’s court, we will attempt to engage with a novel expression of spirituality in the Middle Ages: the book as icon. Near the end of our course, we will follow men and women from all over Europe on their pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela, stopping at such memorable French Romanesque churches as Vézelay, Conques, and Moissac. In New York City museums, students will have opportunities to view chapels and cloisters brought from Europe, as well as sculptures, ivories, metalwork, stained glass, books, paintings, and tapestries that are among the world’s most precious treasures. Lectures will be devoted primarily to art; the weekly group conferences, to readings from the Middle Ages.