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Art history and holiday homework

Leigh Mencarini United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the)
Leigh Mencarini | History of Art Contact Leigh
Art and society, Widening Participation and being a mature student.
Find out more about me Contact Leigh

One of many brilliant things about studying art history is how you can pass off much of your holiday as educational. 

Particularly if, like me, you can’t resist the cool, serene interior of a church on a blazing hot day. 

This year we visited family in rural south-east France, so there were plenty of opportunities to put the old visual interpretation skills to the test in the Romanesque churches we found, such as Saint-Andre in Ruffec (main picture). 

And if you’re joining us this coming term, take a tip from me – your nearest church may be a good place to start preparing for your first year.  

Not only because Christian iconography informs a lot of Western European art and architecture, but the process of analysing what you see, and interpreting what it may mean, is central to helping us understanding the context in which art of all kinds has come to be. 

Knowing your saints 

I didn’t know much about Christian saints or their attributes before I started my undergraduate degree. 

But it soon became central to the first term’s core module, Introduction to Art History: Classicism and the Arts of Christianity, and the Art Historical Study Skills module. 

(Top tip – it’s well worth picking up a copy of The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine if you want to brush up on the saints’ hagiographies. You’ll dip into it more than once, trust me). 

One of the things I spent a lot of time doing (and explaining to relatives who hadn’t really asked) was identifying figures in stained glass windows, font carvings and church paintings. 

The Romanesque façade of Angoulême Cathedral offered plenty of opportunity to do this with its combination of scenes of the faithful and the damned, the Apostles and the Evangelists, and finding lots of Christ in Glory depictions in mandorlas.  

Saint Michael in Angoulême Cathedral.

Inside the cathedral, statues of Saints Joan of Arc and Michael demonstrate the connection between the church and French military forces.  

But had I not recalled the significance of certain attributes or iconography on my visits, there was much to admire in the intricate decoration found in many Romanesque church arches; such as the variations of geometric patterns, or the carvings of the 12 labours of the year found at the Eglise Saint-Jacques in Aubeterre-sur-Dronne. 

A Romanesque arch at Saint-Jacques, Aubeterre, showing the 12 labours of the year.

Since many churches in this area were damaged during the Guerres de Religion in the late 16th century, the contrast between the highly detailed facades and their simple interiors was a poignant reminder that such a seemingly distant history is still very much present. 

First encounters 

You will, of course, always come across something new and unusual when you study art history… and my holiday homework was no exception. 

The subterranean church of Saint-Jean, also in Aubeterre, is a church like no other in many ways, given that it was first carved out of a limestone cliff in the 7th century.

Yet much of the cavernous structure, or that which remains, feels familiar given its basilica-like space.  

The interior of the subterranean church in Aubeterre.

You cannot help but turn your head upwards to assess the 20-metre high nave, carved on the orders of Viscount Pierre de Castillon, who in the 12 century decided it should accommodate relics looted during the Crusades. 

An ambulatory-like gallery surrounds the space, which you can walk around (if you have a head for heights!) while a large stone reliquary dominates the apse, carved from a single stone in the image of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. 

A cross carved in the cave wall.

It was a truly remarkable site to visit, not least because it led me to reconsider a question we were asked in the first-year Architecture module – what is it that makes a space sacred? Do certain aspects of architecture encourage us to define a space as spiritually significant? And why? 

Every module counts

As I enter my final year of this art history degree, it is inevitable that I will have to narrow my focus on specific areas of interest for my dissertation.

So, although I probably won’t look so closely at Christian art or architecture this year, my holiday trips reminded me that those earlier modules continue to be just as interesting for me today. 

And that’s what’s so great about art history – it really can take you anywhere. 

Leigh Mencarini United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the)
Leigh Mencarini | History of Art Contact Leigh
Art and society, Widening Participation and being a mature student.
Find out more about me Contact Leigh

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