Core 3: The Higher Life in Art

Steven G. Smith
Office: Christian Center 11, 974-1334
Home: 1611 Edgewood St, 354-2290

IDS 1300 (04) Topics in the Premodern World — Core 3
Foci: Religion and Fine Arts
Spring 2005

The European Middle Ages and Renaissance were times of strong religious idealism both in the Christian West and in the corresponding phases of Asian cultures. Works of art played a crucial role in expressing people=s understanding of the relationship between life in this world and a higher, holy life. Although religious artworks are most readily appreciated as illustrations of religious stories and beliefs, they can be something more than that: they can be uniquely effective vehicles of religious realization, or direct means of encountering and appropriating holiness. We should be aware that the people who made and used premodern religious art often thought of it in this way; and, in general, we should be aware that religion has an artistic dimension and that art has a religious potentiality. To develop this awareness we must learn to think religio-aesthetically: we must be attentive to issues of artistic design and aesthetic value in relation to religious meanings.

We must also learn to think historically, for the style of religious art went through great changes in both the premodern West and the premodern East. What is the significance of those changes? Why did a more unworldly style in Christian art that was quite deliberately opposed to the style of the earlier “pagan” Greco-Roman art change by the Renaissance into a “classically” inspired art of great worldly realism and artistic virtuosity? To what extent did religious ideals change along with artistic ideals? In Asia, meanwhile, Buddhist art moved similarly between the poles of otherworldly abstraction and worldly realism, but in a very different sequence; what is the significance of that?

There is a good bit of information to be gathered in this course, yet there is more to the course than information. It is an exercise machine to strengthen your thinking, speaking, and writing powers so that you can enter more fully into the life and fellowship of the mind. Like other Millsaps core courses, this one promotes certain broadly relevant liberal arts abilities:

Reasoning. This is your ability to keep track of differences and similarities, of evidence and lack of evidence, and of your own acts of acceptance and rejection, so that you can draw conclusions about what is true or false, likely or unlikely, consistent or inconsistent. Most of the assignments I give and many of the things I say in class will challenge you to reason in a more sustained way.

Communication. Learning doesn’t take place only in a private laboratory in your head. It depends on the give and take of conversation. This course will ask you to weave your thoughts together with other people’s thoughts, in speech and in writing. The art of genuine response is difficult and important.

Historical consciousness. Besides gathering information about how important elements of human culture came into existence and spawned consequences, we will strive to understand more substantially how our lives belong to a historical-cultural continuum and how our perceptions, desires, and choices relate to the raveling and unraveling of this larger fabric.

Aesthetic judgment. This course is largely devoted to assessment of monuments of European and Asian religious art in terms of the aesthetic value of the works and the religious meaningfulness of the works as conditioned by their aesthetic value. We will have some chances to respond appreciatively to literary works and to consider parallels and contrasts between visual and literary expression.

Global and multicultural awareness. It has long been recognized that our so-called “Western” culture has been mixed out of culturally very diverse sources (ancient Near Eastern, Greek, Roman, Gothic). In our own time a global culture is being formed from a still wider diversity in which Western and Asian elements, among others, are bound to be important together. We can better understand the paths taken by Western and Asian cultures if we compare them, noting how they converge and how they represent alternatives to each other.

Valuing and decision-making. The ultimate concern of this course is not with how certain people or artworks expressed views of reality and the most fulfilled human existence but with what is reality and what is the most fulfilled human existence. So each of us is faced with live, open religious questions, and our work consists of experiments in answering these. You will be asked to articulate your own understanding of reality and to refine it critically in conversation with the historical sources and your fellow learners.

Course readings will be drawn from these required books, plus handouts:

Honour and Fleming, The Visual Arts, 6th ed.
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. John Ciardi
Wu Ch’eng-En, Monkey. A Journey to the West, trans. David Kherdian

Grading will be based on an interpretive study of a religious artwork (20%)–this is the paper that will go into your Writing Portfolio–and other writing assignments (30%), class participation (10%), two short sectional exams (20%), and a final exam (20%). Shorter writing assignments (1 page or less) will be graded “check” (possibly “check plus” or “check minus,” if they excel or fall short in significant ways). Longer papers will be letter-graded. We’ll be talking all along about how to approach writing assignments and exams.


The READ and WRITE assignments are placed on the day on which they are due. For each WRITE assignment I ask for a certain length, measuring by typed pages. A typed page is about 250-300 words. Typing is not required, however.

Although this schedule only lists one meeting during our fourth hour, Thurs. at 8:00 a.m., we may use this time on occasion for a make-up class or help session.

Week 1: Introduction to course issues.

M 1-10 Introduction to course.
W 1-12 How can we discuss art?
READ: VA (The Visual Arts) 21-30
Th 1-13 How can we discuss religion?
READ: On the holy (handout)
F 1-14 How shall we discuss religious art?
READ: Leo Steinberg, “The Seven Functions of the Hands of Christ” (handout)
WRITE: Design an awesome religious image (1 p.)

Week 2: Background and beginnings of Christianity.

M 1-17 Early Christianity
READ: In the New Testament, Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians and the Gospel of Luke, chaps. 1-6, 20-24

Sandy Zale (History), 11:30-12:30 and 6:30-7:30, AC 215

W 1-19 The “pagan” Greco-Roman artistic tradition
READ: VA 128-155
F 1-21 Greco-Roman tradition, cont.
READ: VA 193-196 (paintings seen at Pompeii), 207-208 (the Laocoön)

Week 3: Early Christian art.

M 1-24 The earliest Christian art.
READ: VA 300-327
W 1-26 Icons.
READ: VA 327-344
F 1-28 The Iconoclastic Controversy.
READ: Lactantius, Gregory the Great, John of Damascus (handout)
WRITE: Position paper on icons, incorporating analysis of an artwork (2 p.)

Week 4: Medieval Christian art

M 1-31 Romanesque and Gothic art
READ: VA 364-395
W 2-2 Romanesque and Gothic art, cont.
READ: VA 395-409
F 2-4 The cult of Mary
READ: Bernard of Clairvaux (handout)

Week 5: Buddhist art

M 2-7 EXAM #1
W 2-9 Early Buddhism
READ: From Buddhist scriptures (handout)
F 2-11 Buddhist representation from stupa to Gandhara style
READ: VA 223-242

Week 6: Buddhist art, cont. Daoism.

M 2-14 Buddhist representation, cont.
READ: VA 256-289 (the Buddhist parts)
W 2-16 Buddhist heavens and hells.
READ: From Pure Land Buddhist writings (handout)
F 2-18 Early Daoism
READ: Selections from Daodejing (handout)
WRITE: A Daoist artistic agenda (1 p.)

Friday, February 18, 7:00 p.m., AC 215
Eleonore Stump (St. Louis University), “A Philosopher Looks at Evil”

Week 7: Daoism and Ch’an Buddhism

M 2-21 Chinese landscape painting
READ: VA 284-287
W 2-23 Ch’an/Zen imagery
READ: VA 570-575

Thursday, February 24, 7:30 p.m., Recital Hall
Claudia Stevens performs music of Auschwitz

F 2-25 Later developments in Chinese religion
READ: TBA (handout)
WRITE: Analysis of a Daoist- or Buddhist-influenced work of art (2 pp.)

Week 8: Wu Ch’eng-En’s Monkey.

M 2-28 Introduction to Journey to the West (Monkey).
READ: Monkey, chaps. 1-8

Tuesday, March 1, 11:30 a.m., Recital Hall
James A. Sanders (Claremont School of Theology), “A Bible Reality Show”

W 3-2 Monkey, cont.
READ: Monkey, chaps. 9-16
F 3-4 Monkey, cont.
READ: Monkey, chaps. 20-23

Week 9: Dante’s Divine Comedy.

M 3-6 EXAM #2
W 3-8 The life and times of Dante Alighieri
READ: From Dante’s Vita Nuova (handout)
F 3-10 Inferno: the scale of vice.
READ: Inferno, Cantos 1-6, 11, 28-29

Week 10: Dante, cont.

M 3-13 Purgatorio: stages of the ascent to purity.
READ: Purgatorio, Cantos 17-19, 25-33
W 3-15 Paradiso: the scale of glory.
READ: Paradiso, Cantos 1-4, 23-24, 27-33
WRITE: “On the Dantean imagination” (2 pp.)


Week 11: The Italian Renaissance, phase I: Giotto and the quattrocento.

M 3-28 Giotto.
READ: VA 415-427
W 3-30 Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi.
READ: VA 445-449 (humanistic ideas in sculpture)


F 4-1 Renaissance images of Mary.
READ: 449-455, 461-464

Week 12: The Protestant Reformation.

M 4-4 Protestant theologies
READ: Luther, Calvin, Zwingli (handout)
W 4-6 Protestant art: Dürer, Cranach
READ: VA 474-479
F 4-8 Italian Renaissance architecture
READ: VA 428-432, 441-445, 483-486

Week 13: High Renaissance.

M 4-11 Leonardo and Raphael.
READ: VA 479-487
WRITE: Comparative analysis of pictures of Mary by Leonardo and Raphael (1 p.)
W 4-13 Leonardo and Raphael, cont.
READ: Leonardo (handout)
F 4-15 Michelangelo.
READ: VA 488-500

Week 14: Mannerism. The Renaissance legacy.

M 4-18 Michelangelo, cont.
READ: Michelangelo (handout)
W 4-20 Mannerism
READ: VA 510-514
F 4-22 Conclusion.



IDS 1300 (04), Spring 2005 S. Smith


1. Class Attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late. Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence.
One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the fourth absence. (For example, someone who missed class 8 times would thereby lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.) The reason for this: our in class inquiry is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.

2. Late and missing papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date. A ‘0’ will be recorded for any work not turned in (except that, in this class, two homework paragraphs may be skipped without penalty). No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations. Exceptions to this policy will be granted only to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.

3. Academic honor. All of us at Millsaps are pledged to uphold academic honor, the core of which is refraining from giving or receiving unauthorized aid on any assignment. I particularly caution against plagiarism, that is, using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgement. Plagiarized work means a mandatory referral to the Honor Council and may result in expulsion from the class.

4. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will be given only to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.

5. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.