8 Bits of Advice for BA History of Art Students

By Madeleine McCarthy and Michael Kurtz (BA History of Art 2019)


1. Learn to love the Sackler Library

It’s easy (cool, even) to go your whole degree without really using the purpose-built art history library, especially if your college has a well-equipped internal library. But if you give the Sackler some time and let it become one of your spaces in Oxford, it can be a saving grace. After all, what it lacks in glamour, natural light and beauty it makes up for with large desks, comfortable chairs and every history of art book you will need. Having a place to escape to (from the occasionally claustrophobic environment of college) and get my work done in peace was one of the things that got me through.


2. Prioritise reading

The pressure each week to produce an essay often makes it tempting to skimp on reading. You should definitely ‘read smart’ (don’t try to read every text let alone every page from the reading lists) but reading and noting key texts thoroughly is crucial. When you write essays or prepare for exams, your own arguments and visual analysis will come easily if you already have an in-depth understanding of the arguments of previous art historians. Once you’re in the Oxford routine, you’ll be able to write an essay in a couple of hours – especially if your reading and ideas are clear in your mind beforehand.


Christ ChurchHall Staircase Christ Church © Josephine Bailey


3. Communicate with your tutors

Oxford can be a bewildering place full of unnecessary mysteries, but I never had a tutor who wasn’t keen to change this. Whether you want advice on essay writing technique, tips for extra reading, or your work is being affected by issues outside of the classroom, your tutor would always rather you sought help and communicated. The tutorial system is the best aspect of Oxford academia because it fosters close interaction, mutual interest and respect between staff and students – so make the most of it!


4. Do access work

Art history has an image problem (ha ha). The stereotype of the subject as a reserve of the most privileged sections of society can hamper its transformation into a more open, socially conscious field. For this reason, it is important to consider widening access to the discipline as a central aspect of your involvement. No number of radical Marxist essays will cut it if you aren’t actively engaged in improving your immediate academic context. Apply to work on open days, the UNIQ summer school or one of the many other outreach programmes during your time.


5. Write about art you love

Throughout your entire History of Art course it will be necessary to discuss case studies and particular art works in your essays. Yes, you will have to mould your choices to fit the topics of your essays but I would strongly advise choosing works that you genuinely engage with and find stimulating. This will make studying and writing weekly papers much more enjoyable. As well as this, weekly essays are often used in revision for final exams so it will be much more pleasurable to look back to writing that you enjoyed producing, and if you like your chosen artworks the whole topic will be much more memorable. Your passion shows and will be recognised!


Sloanes HouseSir John Soane’s Museum © Josephine Bailey


6. Make time for extracurricular activities and breaks

Art is great – where would we be without it? However, you have to be careful to not let such an interesting and exciting subject become a chore or a burden. Over-working can cause this. I do not know one person at Oxford who spends 100% of their time on their degree work. Always take breaks, spend time with friends and definitely take part in extracurricular activities which you already enjoy or are new to you and seem exciting. Both the university and your college have so much to offer.


7. Make neat notes

Normally in tutorials, classes and lectures you are concentrating on listening and discussing and only manage to scrawl down a few, illegible notes. Try your best to neatly write up these notes at the end of the day. Firstly, this makes reading over them during revision much more easy and bearable. Secondly, it consolidates your understanding of the topic and plants it more firmly in your brain. Finally, it makes you feel ordered and clear-headed.


8. Enjoy yourself

The three years of the course goes so quickly and now that I am finished with my degree I actually miss it quite a lot! Although it can get stressful, try to take a step back every so often and appreciate what an interesting course you are studying in such a beautiful city. Make the most of the Ashmolean, Pitt Rivers, Modern Art Oxford, the Weston Library exhibitions etc. Make the most of all the fascinating collections you have access to. Keep loving art!

final examFinal exam © Josephine Bailey

Further information about the BA History of Art course can be found here.

Reflections on ‘Pilgrimage and the Senses’ Conference

By Helena Guzik and Sylvia Alvares-Correa (DPhil History of Art)

PilgrimageSenses_wordmark_square_300pxH_web-cropOn Friday, June 7th, Oxford welcomed over 70 international delegates to the “Pilgrimage and the Senses” conference, hosted in the historic St Luke’s Chapel in the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter. Organised by Oxford History of Art DPhil Students Helena Guzik and Sylvia Alvares-Correa, with assistance from Shanti Daffern (MSt Student, Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford), the interdisciplinary conference shed light on how sensory perception shapes and is shaped by the experience of pilgrimage across cultures, faith traditions, and throughout history.

While pilgrimages are grounded in physical experiences—a journey (real or imagined), encounters with sites and/or relics, and commemorative tokens—they simultaneously demand a devotional focus on the metaphysical. A ubiquitous and long-lasting devotional practice, pilgrimage is a useful lens through which to examine how humans encounter the sacred through the tools of perception available to us. Focusing on the ways in which pilgrimage engages the senses contributes to our knowledge of how people have historically understood both religious experience and their bodies as vehicles of devotional participation.

Given the recent surge in both sensory studies and pilgrimage studies, the time seemed ideal for a conference combining these fields. The call for papers generated a groundswell of interest: in the end, 15 papers were chosen from the over 150 submissions received from 34 countries. What resulted was a dynamic programme, featuring a mix of senior scholars and early career researchers. Through their papers we journeyed from early Solomonic Ethiopia to Renaissance Italy, from medieval Jerusalem to modern India, from the early Islamic Middle East to contemporary Britain. Our speakers traveled equally great distances, flying in from as far afield as Chile, India, Thailand, and the United States.

The day was divided into five thematic panels: “Texts and Travellers”, “Sacred Soundscapes”, “Perceiving in Proximity”, “Embodying Pilgrimage”, and “Objects and Memory”. Speakers approached the conference theme from a number of disciplinary perspectives, including anthropology, art history, history, literature, religious studies, and sociology. Together, the papers demonstrated how sensory engagement helped amplify, ritualize, record, and recall the experience of pilgrimage.

The first panel, “Texts and Travellers”, chaired by Professor Geraldine Johnson (University of Oxford), explored the ways in which textual material facilitated or documented the sensory experiences of pilgrims, whether real or imagined. DPhil Student Raphaela Rohrhofer (University of Oxford) got things started with an examination of the role played by the sense of sight in The Pilgrimage of the Lyfe of the Manhode, the anonymous fifteenth-century translation of Guillaume de Deguileville’s Pèlerinage de la vie humaine (1331). Professor Anthony Bale (Birkbeck, University of London) looked at medieval pilgrims’ accounts of the Holy Land to understand how perceptions—particularly visual—of the sacred topography of the Holy Land shaped emotional responses and constituted a form of geographical knowledge. We then shifted to Africa to learn from Dr Jacopo Gnisci (University of Oxford) about how manuscripts facilitated contemplation of the loca sancta in early Solomonic Ethiopia.

IMG_7818Conference co-convener Helena Guzik delivers the welcome remarks.  © Eleanor Townsend

After a break for hot drinks in the Andrew Wiles Building, we returned for our second panel on “Sacred Soundscapes”, chaired by Professor Gervase Rosser (University of Oxford). Dr Blaíthín Hurley (University College Cork) launched us into an examination of the lively soundscape described in fifteenth-century canon Pietro Casola’s pilgrimage account. Professor Guangtian Ha (Haverford College) detailed a series of vocal rituals in the pilgrimages of China’s Jahriyya Sufi community, revealing how organised use of the human voice forges identity, cultivates piety, sustains sanctity, and builds community. Finally, Professor Kathryn Barush (Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley) brought our focus back to our own backyard in her consideration of how the British Pilgrimage Trust is making effective use of ancient pilgrimage song and chant—a musical site of communitas—to translate the practice of British pilgrimage from the past into the present. Dr Guy Hayward, co-founder of the BPT, was in attendance, and got the entire room to take advantage of the chapel’s acoustics by participating in an impromptu rendition of Jerusalem.

For our third panel, “Perceiving in Proximity”, chaired by Professor Kathryne Beebe (University of North Texas), we drew our focus inward, to sensory experiences involving direct bodily contact. DPhil Student Fuchsia Hart (University of Oxford) analysed Ibn Qulawayh’s tenth-century The Complete Pilgrimage, one of the earliest pilgrimage guides in the formative period of Shi’i Islam, to examine the roles of scent, smell, and taste in pilgrimage rituals. Dr Adam Bursi (Utrecht University) then explored early Islamic proscriptions for and against what to touch at pilgrimage sites.

Following lunch we returned for our fourth panel, chaired by Professor Peter Frankopan (University of Oxford), on the theme of “Embodying Pilgrimage”. PhD Student Medardo Rosario (University of Chicago) analysed the text of Francisco López de Úbeda’s 1605 La pícara justina (The Spanish Jilt) to show how protagonist’s embodied pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela gave her agency to escape the moralising and marginalising restrictions of seventeenth-century Spanish society. Dr Shruti Amar (King’s College London) examined the experiences of female pilgrims at the Shravan festival of Jharkhand, focusing on how caste politics influence sensory perceptions of the journey. Finally, Dr Tatsuma Padoan (University College Cork / SOAS, University of London) took us on an anthropological journey to Mt Kiso Ontake in Japan to explore the phenomenon of spirit possession, considering bodies themselves as moving sites of sensory encounters with the sacred.

After another break for caffeine, we returned for our final panel of the day, on “Objects and Memory”, chaired by Professor Jaś Elsner (University of Oxford). PhD Student Kristen Racaniello (City University of New York) looked at seventh-century pilgrim flasks and their potential to capture the sensory experiences of shrines for the pilgrim to carry home. A dual presentation by Professor Olaya Sanfuentes (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile) and Natalia Keller (Museum of Solidarity Salvador Allende / Adolfo Ibañez University) delved into the rich sensory world of fanales, illuminating how these glass bells which encase miniature figurines of the Christ Child acted as vehicles for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century South American nuns to experience a mental pilgrimage to paradise. Last but not least, Professor Juliet Simpson (Coventry University) addressed the modern afterlife of medieval beguinages, treated by nineteenth-century travellers and artists as nostalgic and touristic sites of sensory pilgrimage.

The day’s events culminated with a keynote address by Professor Kathryn Rudy (University of St Andrews), introduced by Professor Henrike Lähnemann (University of Oxford). We journeyed from Belgium to India to witness how objects from different faith traditions were used to evoke and recall the sensory experience of pilgrimages, such as a sixteenth-century shirt embroidered with Holy Pilgrimage shrines in Mughal India which served as both a visual and haptic stimulus.

Throughout the course of the day, the papers showed how visual, tactile, and olfactory stimuli could serve as mnemonic devices helping pilgrims recall their own journeys or even to conjure visualizations of journeys that were never physically enacted. You could drink your clay amulet, wear your embroidered shirt, or trace your fingers around a painted miniature of a shrine. We learned how shrines can encompass not only mountains and architectural structures, but even the human body itself. We heard how the soundscapes of pilgrimages—both harmonious and cacophonous—were used to cultivate personal piety and to help forge a common group identity, even linking a pilgrim to those who have come before them.

From the lively conversations overheard throughout the day and which continued into the evening, it is clear that the theme sparked many ideas for future projects and avenues for collaboration. The rich and varied papers that the conference call solicited attest to the potential for this topic to be carried further, and we sincerely hope this conference will inspire further inquiry into these themes.

OPSN_pilgrimagesenses_5Conference co-convener Sylvia Alvares-Correa explains the history of Godstowe Abbey to our group of pilgrims. © Helena Guzik

Finally, no pilgrimage-themed conference would be complete without the chance to make a local pilgrimage. On Saturday, June 8th, interested speakers and their guests were invited on a 15km pilgrimage, beginning at St Leonard’s Church in Eynsham and culminating at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. Along the way we visited the remains of Godstowe Abbey—burial place of King Henry II’s “Fair Rosamunde” and a favoured picnic ground of Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell—as well as St Margaret’s Church and St Frithuswith’s Holy Well, a popular pilgrimage destination with a rich history. The sunny, windy day allowed for a leisurely walk through the Oxfordshire countryside, along with some delightful detours for kite-flying, strawberry picking, lunch at the Trout pub, and an impromptu performance by Henrike Lähnemann on the harmonium at St Margaret’s. As everyone knows, the best parts of pilgrimages are unplanned.

“Pilgrimage and the Senses” was generously sponsored by The Oxford Pilgrimage Studies Network, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), the History of Art Department, the Centre for Early Modern Studies, and Camino Pilgrim ™ The Confraternity of St James. The organisers would also like to thank our colleagues in TORCH, the Mathematics Institute, the St Luke’s Chapel team, and the staff of the Vaults & Garden Café for making the day run so smoothly. Finally, an enormous thank you to all our speakers, panel chairs, and attendees for contributing to the conference’s success.

For the full programme and paper titles, please visit the conference website

‘Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Oxonian History of Adolphe Braun’s Sistine Chapel Series

By Sofia Garré, (MSt History of Art and Visual Culture 2018)

This research project was made possible by generous funding awarded by the Edgar Wind Benefactors Committee and the John Fell Fund. It concerned the provenance of a set of photographs by Adolphe Braun of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, housed in the Visual Resources Centre. Also of interest was the possibility of a connection with Professor Edgar Wind, first Professor of History of Art at Oxford, who specialised in the work of Michelangelo.

Last year, like many fellow Master’s students, I was busy writing my dissertation, preparing for exams and sending out job applications. However, when the opportunity to investigate Adolphe Braun’s 1869 photographic reproductions of the Sistine Chapel came up, I happily embraced the possibility of making the term a little busier. Currently held at the Visual Resources Centre in the Department of History of Art these 125 carbon-print photographs have been digitised and are now available to view online on the Digital Bodleian site.

The prints were initially released in 1869 by the French photographer Adolphe Braun, whose company was among the earliest to make photographs of artworks available to a wider public. In fact, at the time of their release, Braun’s prints constituted the first photographic survey of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, making the images interesting not only from an aesthetic perspective but also from an historiographical one. Given this premise, it is not surprising that the department should want to find out more about the acquisition and subsequent uses of Braun’s series. It is precisely with this intention in mind that I first approached the photographs, though – this time, quite surprisingly – I soon realised that very little information existed on Braun’s series, its acquisition and its movements within the University.

Part of my surprise in this lack of documentation stemmed from a very practical consideration: Braun’s photographs, mounted on boards that are nearly half a metre tall, are hard to miss, particularly as they are housed in six, equally large, book-shaped cases. The cases themselves are covered in red leather bearing the crest of the Earl of Eldon, which provided me with a crucial piece of information on the origin of the series.

0002.jpgAdolphe Braun, View of the Sistine Chapel, box 1,  © Department of History of Art

The Eldon family made important contributions to the study of the Italian Renaissance at the University of Oxford. In 1845, the Second Earl of Eldon contributed £4000 towards the acquisition of drawings by Italian masters, and most notably by Michelangelo and Raphael. Twenty-three years later, in 1868, his son donated an additional £1200 to guarantee the maintenance of the drawings and the University’s continuing dedication to the illustration of Italian art.[1] Thus, it seems reasonable that the Eldon fund would have been used by the curators of the University Galleries, founded in 1855 and indicated as recipient of the second donation, to purchase Braun’s photographs.

Placing this reasonable hypothesis on firmer foundations, however, was a less straightforward endeavour than I had foreseen. The prints are unaccounted for in University publications such as the University Calendar, which limits itself to a laconic mention of the donations made by the Earls of Eldon in the issues published between 1855 and 1871.[2] Equally, I have not been able to uncover any definitive reference attesting to the precise moment of the prints’ acquisition. There are no comprehensive accounts of the University acquisitions in the nineteenth century and no extensive list of the artworks purchased using the Eldon Fund currently exists in the Ashmolean Museum or in other University archives.

Only the issue of University Gazette published on the 14th of June 1870 suggests, however vaguely, the presence of Braun’s photographic series, situating it at the north end of the Great Gallery in the University Galleries. There, the document claims, were ‘cases containing prints, with illustrations of the works of Michelangelo and Raphael, provided out of the funds placed at the disposal of the curators by the present Lord Eldon.’[3] The reference to the prints was intriguing, but far from unmistakable. The date of the account – June 1870 – struck me as especially problematic: could all the photographs, taken in Rome in 1869, have been printed and placed in personalized cases at such an early date?

In my attempt to answer the question, I relied on one of the few scholarly texts engaging directly with Braun’s Sistine Chapel series, Philippe Jarjat’s ‘Michelangelo’s Frescoes through the Camera’s Lens: The Photographic Album and Visual Identity,’ published in 2011. Jarjat’s discussion is centered on a series of images released in Paris, which resemble those in the collection of the Visual Resources Centre in both size and number. Furthermore, like their Oxonian counterparts, the Parisian prints are housed in book-shaped cases whose spines are covered in red leather (although, it should be noted, the French series only comprises two cases). [4]

Adolphe Braun, Delphic Sibyl and Daniel, box 4,  © Department of History of Art

According to Jarjat, such images would have been available individually and as part of a series from 1870 – a possibility that partly undermined my hypothesis, which located the images in the University Galleries as early as June 1870. However, while navigating the records of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, I stumbled upon a catalogue of Braun’s Sistine Chapel photographs dating back to 1869, listing in their present order all the images included in the Oxonian series with the exception of four prints capturing works by Perugino, Rosselli, Signorelli and Botticelli.[5] Jarjat’s article does not account for this document, and, in fact, claims that the earliest printed catalogue was released in 1876.[6]

The existence of the 1869 list conferred a renewed credibility onto the possibility that the cases mentioned in the 1870 University Gazette actually included those containing Braun’s prints by indicating that the images themselves may have been available before 1870. The prominence of the Eldon crest on the cases also sustains the hypothesis that the acquisition of Braun’s prints may have shortly followed the 1868 donation made by the Third Earl of Eldon. Assuming that the prints were actually acquired between late 1869 and early 1870, the University of Oxford would have been among the first to acquire Braun’s photographic reproductions of the Sistine Chapel: a gesture demonstrating the appeal of the images as well as the University’s interest in illustrating the Renaissance through a variety of media.

But how were the prints used between 1869 and their reappearance in the Visual Resources Centre in 2003 remains somewhat of a mystery. Braun’s photographs were moved to the Department of History of Art following the transfer of the Western Art Department Library from the Ashmolean Museum to the Sackler Library in 2001. This relocation was consistent with the different functions of the two institutions, the Visual Resources Centre constituting a more suitable home for the prints than the Sackler, which does not collect images.

However, very little information exists in the University’s records concerning the status of the images prior to the transfer. Considering the interest of Edgar Wind – the first Professor of the History of Art in Oxford – in Michelangelo’s work and his extensive research on the Sistine Chapel, looking for references to Braun’s prints in Wind’s scholarly work, personal and academic correspondence, and slides seemed appropriate. Unfortunately, though, these sources suggest that he may have not been aware of the existence of these images. For example, in 1958, three years after his appointment, Wind complained in a letter to Henry Allen Moe that ‘as for slides and photographs, there were none at all when I arrived.’[7]

0012Adolphe Braun, Ceiling of the Chapel in Four Parts, No. 2, box 1,  © Department of History of Art

The same lack of awareness (or interest) pervades other accounts, including the records of the Keeper of Fine Arts of the Ashmolean Museum, published from 1885. Such sources invariably mention the precious drawings and sketches held by the University, but they fail to place emphasis on the didactic and aesthetic value of Braun’s series or later photographic reproductions of artworks, such as those by Alinari and Anderson.

This probably tells us more about the perceived value of photography in nineteenth and early twentieth-century art historical practice than they do about the actual potential of Braun’s images. Indeed, it makes sense that University records and publications would disregard photographs in favour of originals at a time when photographic images were widely treated as ‘mere reproductions.’ By looking at the prints themselves, however, Braun’s ambition that his images be viewed as something more than simple reproductions emerges clearly. Not only do the quality and size of the photographs bear witness to their value: the variety of images of the Sistine Chapel ceiling – a curved and therefore uneasy surface to photograph – illustrate the technical skills of the photographers just as eloquently as they capture Michelangelo’s mastery.

Braun’s series is therefore endowed with multiple layers of significance. The early acquisition of the Oxonian set bespeaks the University’s openness to new forms of art historical illustration, while its general neglect in subsequent accounts testifies to the stature of photography among other forms of documentation and artistic practices. Maybe, had my final term in Oxford been a little quieter, I would have also been able to unravel the mystery of the photographs’ use in their 150 year-long sojourn at the University. As of now, though, I can only hope that another student will re-embark on this promising investigation.


Jarjat, Philippe. ‘Michelangelo’s Frescoes through the Camera’s Lens: The Photographic album and visual Identity.’ Art and the Early Photographic Album. Edited by Stephen Bann, 151-172. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Moltedo, Alida. La Sistina Riprodotta: gli Affreschi di Michelangelo dalle Stampe del Cinquecento alle Campagne Fotografiche Anderson Calcografia. Roma: Fratelli Palombi Editori, 1991.

O’Brien, Maureen. Image and Enterprise. The Photographs of Adolphe Braun. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Wind, Edgar. The Religious Simbolism of Michelangelo: the Sistine Ceiling. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.


[1] ‘Eldon Fund,’ Council Regulations 25 of 2002, 2. http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/statutes/regulations/councilregs25/Ashmolean%20Museum%20of%20Art%20and%20Archaeology.pdf

[2] In each issue, the Eldon donation is mentioned in the section devoted to the University Galleries. See The Oxford University Calendar, issues from 1855 to 1871.

[3] Henry W. Acland, ‘University Galleries,’ University Gazette Vol.1 No.19 (June 14, 1870), 9.

[4] Philippe Jarjat, ‘Michelangelo’s Frescoes through the Camera’s Lens: The Photographic album and visual Identity,’ Art and the Early Photographic Album, edited by Stephen Bann, 151-172 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

[5] Rome. Palais du Vatican, Chapelle Sixtine. Fresques de Michel-Ange reproduites par Adolphe Braun. Mulhouse: L.L. Bader, 1869.

[6] Ibid, 156

[7] Correspondence between Edgar Wind and Henry Allan Moe, 1st July 1958, MS. Wind 13, Box 1, Folder 1. Edgar Wind Papers, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.


Teaching with Objects in Oxford: Krasis and Cabinet

By Dr Sarah Griffin (DPhil History of Art 2018), Research Assistant at the Oxford Internet Institute and Junior Teaching Fellow at the Ashmolean Museum.

As art historians, we don’t need to be persuaded of the importance of visual culture to the study of the past. The pedagogical value of interacting with and reading objects and images is central to the ways in which we teach and research. In recent years, other Humanities subjects have become increasingly interested in material culture, moving away from traditional text-based teaching to incorporate more object handling and museum visits, demanding more resources be made for object-based learning.

Since joining the art history department, I’ve had the pleasure of working with two initiatives that encourage and deliver object-based teaching in Oxford: Krasis, a seminar series that uses the Ashmolean’s collections to teach; and Cabinet, a digital tool designed to support this method of teaching. Both speak directly to the experience and interests of art historians and are available for students and staff across the University.

Cabinet: Digital Tools for Object-Based Learning

In 2015, my then doctoral supervisor, Gervase Rosser, introduced me to a project at the Oxford Internet Institute that was in the early stages of design. This new online platform, I was told, would display the significant and diverse collections of Oxford’s museums together to create a digital Cabinet of Curiosities. Although immediately captivated by this idea, I did not yet know that Cabinet would come to play a defining role in my research and in the development of my teaching practice.

Cabinet is an online platform pioneered by Oxford researchers (led by Kathryn Eccles, formerly the University’s Digital Humanities Champion) to facilitate the use of objects and images in teaching. Its ultimate aim is to make Oxford’s collections as accessible for use in learning as text-based resources and so is particularly pertinent to art historical approaches. Cabinet won an OxTalent award for innovation in 2017 and has since been adopted as a University service to support digital object-based teaching.

As a research assistant, my first task was to create an online component to complement Gervase’s ‘Early Renaissance Italy’ course using the Ashmolean’s collections. One of my favourite outcomes was a 3D model of the Embriachi Casket, a fifteenth-century octagonal marriage casket made in Venice, now publicly available online. Cabinet RA Jamie Cameron makes these models through a process called photogrammetry. Photos are taken of every angle of the object and inserted into software (we use AgiSoft Photoscan) that calculates the distance between the photos taken to generate the model. In the Cabinet viewer (pictured below), the model can be turned, toggled and zoomed in upon, allowing the user to digitally handle the object.

Embriachi CasketSource page for the Embriachi Casket, hosted by Cabinet

Although Cabinet is well known for its 3D models, this is just one of many features it has that help the viewer to engage with the source material as closely as possible. As well as annotating the 2D image or 3D model (as seen in the coloured numbers in the casket above), one can present the object with interactive multimedia interpretation, including textual commentaries, links to external websites, and embedded videos and audio.

Another significant feature of the platform is the ability to arrange objects in a carefully curated learning pathway within a Cabinet ‘paper’. Many of our papers that are tailored to a specific undergraduate course currently require a login from Weblearn or Canvas to view, but a selection are freely available on Cabinet’s discovery page.

A large part of my role is to help Oxford staff to create and upload their courses onto Cabinet. Seeing how digitised images could be so easily imported using IIIF, I was inspired to create a paper based around my own specialism in medieval science and manuscripts: ‘Corpus: Representing the Body in Medieval Manuscripts‘. Building the paper, I came to realise that the ways in which one can organise visual materials is essentially an extension of art historical methodologies, encouraging the paper’s viewers to compare, contrast and contextualise the images within their distinct visual culture. In ‘Corpus’, I grouped manuscripts illustrations together according to provenance and iconographic similarity, such as these medieval depictions of the zodiac man. You can read more about how I designed ‘Corpus’ to teach students about the history of medicine and medieval manuscripts on the OII blog.

Zodiac ManClassification of medieval images of the ‘Zodiac Man’ by provenance on Cabinet

Krasis: Teaching with the Ashmolean’s Collections

Created by Jim Harris and Samuel Gartland, Krasis brings together eight students (Krasis Scholars) and four DPhil or postdoctoral researchers (Junior Teaching Fellows) in the Ashmolean for four interdisciplinary seminars that utilise the awesome potential of the museum’s diverse collections. Born out of the Ashmolean’s Academic Engagement Programme, it builds on the success and high demand for Eloquent Things, a four-day course that teaches cross-divisional DPhils and ECRs how to teach with objects.

From the Ancient Greek word κρᾶσις – a good mix, compound or union – Krasis does exactly what it says on the tin. The seminars are broadly related by a theme (absence, presence, movement, sound, the body, trust, to name just a few), yet each session is led through the specialism of the junior teaching fellow. Students are encouraged to bring their own rigorous disciplinary interpretation to discuss with others, and together unpack how one object can be read in a multiplicity of ways.

Krasis_2 Krasis_1Krasis teaching with Jim Harris and myself (left) and DPhil student, Helena Guzik, leading a session (right)

Each two to three-hour session is dynamic, including object-handling sessions, gallery presentations, and creative tasks. So far we’ve seen historical plays re-enacted and podcasts recorded in the gallery space, museum tours constructed, ideas for the re-organisation of a display pitched to a (brave) Ashmolean curator, and costumes designed upon objects in the collection. No two seminars are alike, but we do have one ongoing tradition: a cup of tea in the rooftop cafe. The time and caffeine to polish off a task is always welcome, but more crucially it gives scholars the chance to chat with the fellows about life as a graduate researcher.

After three runs of being a teaching fellow, I now co-convene the seminar with Jim, functioning as both an advisor to the teaching fellows and the organiser of the seminar’s digital component.

Krasis on Cabinet: A Teaching Tool and Digital Legacy

That these two initiatives speak directly to one another has not gone unnoticed. From 2019, Krasis has partnered with Cabinet to create an online component of the seminar in the form of a Cabinet paper. Each unit of the paper is designed by a teaching fellow, giving them a space to curate the objects handled and discussed during the session and the ability to create a digital pathway of resources through which the students can further research the seminar topics.

Not only will this send students away with, in Jim’s words, a “bibliography of objects” to consult later, it will soon be made public – showcasing the creativity of the seminars, giving a wider audience access to objects often not on display, and offering a digital portfolio to the teaching fellows.

Krasis on CabinetKrasis on Cabinet – Hilary 2019

Both projects have been challenging. They have demanded that I bring together my experience as an art historian, teacher, researcher of the Middle Ages and digital humanist, and put them into practice. Looking back, I cannot imagine a better way, nor with a more exceptional group of people, that I could have honed these skills for my next post-DPhil step.

How do I get involved?

If you would like to use Cabinet, for research, teaching or another purpose, please contact the Digital Education learning technologists at IT Services for information on how to gain access and create content.

If you’re interested in being a part of Krasis, either as a Scholar or a Junior Teaching Fellow, read more about the application process on the Ashmolean’s Academic Engagement site.

2019 Slade Lectures: Islam and Image: Beyond Aniconism and Iconoclasm

By Alex Solovyev and Michael Moore-Jones, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture 2019

In March 2001 the Taliban government of Afghanistan destroyed the two monumental Buddhas carved into a cliff in the Bamiyan province of central Afghanistan. Less than a year later, Professor Finbarr Barry Flood, Professor of Humanities at NYU, wrote an article for Art Bulletin responding to the widespread public perception of Islamic iconoclasm that the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas engendered. He wrote in that article, in 2002:

To many commentators, the obliteration of the Buddhas seemed to hark back to a bygone age, reinforcing the widespread notion that Islamic culture is implacably hostile to anthropomorphic art. Even those who pointed to outbursts of image destruction in medieval and early modern Europe saw these as stages on the road to Western modernity; the persistence of the practice in the Islamic world seemed to offer implicit proof of an essential fixation on figuration fundamentally at odds with that modernity.


Fig 1 BuddhasBamiyan Buddhas, 6th century, before and after destruction, © AP/AFP

Eighteen years after that episode, Professor Flood delivered his Slade Lectures in which he returned to these questions, critiquing the commonly held paradigms of so-called “Islamic iconoclasm”. He asked, in the first lecture, whether Islam has an “image problem”—a double entendre suggesting both the difficulties of the Islamic world’s theory of images, and the response that Islam’s seeming anti-modernity generates in the “West”. Over the next eight weeks his Slade Lectures examined in detail the Islamic world’s theory of images, and then moved outwards to ask some of the largest questions of art history: how questions of iconoclasm and iconophilia affect our understanding of Enlightenment epistemologies; how an Islamic theory of the image could be described; and what the role of Modernity and modern museums are in the response to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and Islamic art as a whole. These were lectures that focussed in immense detail on textual and visual sources, but brought these back in the end to the largest questions that art history as a discipline should attempt to answer.

Fig 2 Ibrahim (002)Ibrahim destroying the idols of his people, Al-Althar al-Baqiyya, NW Iran, early 14th century (EUL MS 161)

Take, for instance, the image frequently used by Professor Flood to demonstrate the paradoxes within “Islamic iconoclasm”. In an early 14th century manuscript from north-western Iran there is an image of “Ibrahim destroying the idols of his people”. It depicts, clearly enough, Ibrahim destroying images—but from here, all kinds of paradoxes and complexities stem. On the surface, the image seems to depict an iconoclastic act, an act of image destruction, in the same vein as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Yet clearly, since this is itself an image of image destruction, the underlying theory of an image cannot be so simplistically or nakedly iconoclastic. Even iconoclasts need images—in wanting to destroy them, they only make more apparent their power.

The complex relationship between image creation and image destruction was highlighted in Professor Flood’s fifth lecture of the series, entitled “Grammars of Defacement: Censors and Redemption.” Starting with the assertion that a geographically, ideologically, and historically varied set of beliefs dictated whether certain figural images were defaced or not, Professor Flood sought to ask an even more difficult, often impossible, question: when were figural images in manuscripts and on other objects defaced? Most frequently, it is, indeed, impossible to ascertain at what point in an object’s history it was defaced or altered. In other instances, some conclusions are more accessible, as with, for example, the case of an illuminated manuscript page representing the portrait of a steward c. 1530. At the moment of its creation, this image and its subject were deemed acceptable to represent. At some point after its production, the face of the steward was removed by scraping after the steward had fallen out of political favour. Such an alteration demonstrates both the socio-political importance of figural imagery and the changing history of the art object as it faces alteration over time. Citing Stephen Greenblatt, Professor Flood posited the history of art objects as temporal rather than static, as a history in motion rather than one concentrated in the moment of creation.

Fig 3 StewardPortrait of a steward, detached folio, c. 1530, British Museum. © Alex Solovyev.

In the final two lectures of the Slade series, the Islamic “image problem” collided with the problems of Modernity and modernism in the nineteenth century through to the present day. Though many of the same questions and debates about the representation of figural images persisted from medieval Islam to the modern period, Professor Flood argued against the reductive label of the “transhistorical” that had been applied by the West to the Islamic “image problem” as recently as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. In the Western perception of Islam, past and present, acts of “Islamic iconoclasm” were understood as de-historicized incidents, all guided by the same, anti-modern impulses. In contrast, Professor Flood laid out what he characterized as a diverse and nuanced spectrum of responses and motivations that guided alterations and other iconoclastic acts. In the modern era, a comprehension of these nuances is essential to understand the role of iconoclastic acts in the anti-colonial landscape, specifically to understand the place of monumental statuary in Cairo, Algiers, and Istanbul in the nineteenth century. Professor Flood asks us to witness a nuanced legal, religious, and ideological debate around these statues, far removed from the reductive dichotomy of the secular and modern West contrasting with the religious and traditional East.

The same questions which Professor Flood addressed in his 2002 articles and with which he began his first Slade lecture were returned to in his eighth and final lecture, intriguingly entitled, “Beyond Enlightenment? Towards a Conclusion.” Bringing the series full circle, he returned to consider the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, an event that was recorded and widely shared on YouTube. The complexities and paradoxes of iconoclasm, aniconism, iconism, defacement, and alteration that are present in so many other Islamic manuscripts, statuary, and objects are visible too in the contemporary medium of video. Indeed, to focus on the act of destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, Finbarr Barry Flood argued, is to ignore the centuries of iconophilia the Buddhas were subjects of. An image that proudly depicts the destruction of images, whether in a 14th century manuscript or twenty first century YouTube, is somewhere between iconoclasm and iconophilia and is clearly more than aniconism. As Professor Flood summed up in his final lecture, “There are no straightforward acts of iconoclasm.”

Fig 4 Flood© Alex Solovyev

For information about future History of Art lectures see the Events page.