By Ashley Miller 18’
On Nov. 17, the Barrington Art Department hosted a book reception for John Skillen’s new book, “Putting Art (back) In Its Place. The book focuses on the Christian discussion revolving around the sacred role artwork played in the history of the church, and how it still desires to interact with the Christian faith today. Skillen taught at Gordon College for fifteen years before launching the Gordon IN Orvieto program in 1998. A Gordon College graduate, Skillen directed the program from 1998-2009 shortly after joining the English Department of his alpha mater in 1983, serving two terms as the department chair before being appointed the Communication Arts department inaugural chair. A specialist in medieval and Renaissance literature with a Ph.D. (1982) from Duke University, he’s been teaching courses in Orvieto since the program began, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, renaissance storytelling in literature and visual art, as well as the cultural context of medieval and Renaissance art.
The Tartan reporter conducted a Q & A session from the author to get a better understanding as to why it is so important to discuss the role art played in the Christian faith, and how it has influenced, and still is influencing, the role art plays in our contemporary society.
Q: In your own words, summarize the book’s purpose and how your experience in Orvieto has influenced why you wrote the book.
A: “I guess the origin of my book goes back to 1993 when I worked with Bruce Herman and a group of artists in Florence. I was struck by the enormous number of ‘famous masterpieces of Renaissance art’ found not in museums, but in the places where these works of art were commissioned for a particular community’s use in very particular places. Statues representing the patron saints of each of the trade guilds were installed in niches all around the chapel used by the guilds collectively. Famous Last Suppers were frescoed in the dining halls of monasteries, where only the monks would have seen them. A famous painting such as Ghirlandaio’s depiction of the Shepherds adoring the newborn Jesus was just sitting there, unprotected, on the altar in a side chapel of a functioning parish church; and so on and on. I was bowled over by the fact of artworks once doing their work as physical objects in real, everyday life settings, rather than being abstracted from everyday life in museums and galleries.
That time in Florence eventually led to the invention of Gordon’s semester program in Orvieto, soon beginning its 35th semester. During almost 20 years living in Italy, I deepened my understanding of the long stretch of pre-modern European history when all works of art were designed for the use of a particular faith-informed community in a particular place. Artworks assisted the community in the performance of those actions that defined its identity and its corporate work.
My book Putting Art (back) in Its Place is the result of those years of experiencing art in the places for which it was made. In the conclusion of the book, I wonder out loud whether we might do well to reinsert the work of art in the physical places of our life, in the places of our more formal “liturgical” actions as communities, and as the place where we highlight the stories which shape our identity in community.”
Q: What do you hope to have readers get out of your book?
A: “The main purpose of the book is to give non-specialized readers an understanding of how art functioned in the past in order to help them see with fresh eyes how art is typically made, seen and used in our own time – and then to help them imagine how artworks might be put to work in our communities in the future.”
Q: Why is it important to understand the history of art in relation to the history of the church?
A: “For several centuries, certainly during the period of Protestantism, the arts have typically held a suspicious place in the life of the church. And in the general culture artists and artworks have been admired, but associated with places like galleries and museums where they are appreciated with a sort of disengaged aesthetic eye – and not used to help us perform important actions. In fact, during a much longer period of pre-modern history, the arts held a central and welcomed place in every aspect of the life of the church and society.”
Q: Is there a solution to the question you pose in your argument? (a hope for reconciling art’s purpose in a church and art’s purpose in a gallery space)
A: “I guess I don’t imagine a true and complete reconciling of what you call ‘art’s purpose in a church and art’s purpose in a gallery,’ although a number of recent Christian writers on the arts have made good arguments that the concentrated beholding of artworks in galleries and museums (or as reproductions in books) is, or can be, a close relative to the contemplation of beauty practiced in Christian devotion that is spiritually uplifting and edifying.”
Skillen’s book is available for purchase on Amazon. All images in the book are credited to Gordon alum Gianna Scavo, unless otherwise noted. For more information on Skillen’s book, or to view more of Scavo’s photography, visit http://www.artinitsplace.com/.