Art History

A Year in the Life of the Terra Visiting Professor

By Miguel de Baca, Terra Foundation Visiting Professor of American Art, 2017-18

The Terra Foundation Visiting Professorships at the University of Oxford enable a respected scholar of American art to spend a year in Oxford teaching and carrying out their own personal research. It is also an opportunity to make connections throughout the University and the wider academic community.


The Terra Foundation Visiting Professorship in American Art at Oxford has been a wonderfully enriching experience and a milestone in my professional life. Oxford is uniquely influential within higher education, and I feel privileged to have come to know it as a teacher and a colleague within the History of Art Department.

My Masters’ course, “Transnational Memory in American Art History,” taught over the 16 weeks of Michaelmas and Hilary terms, was an exciting opportunity. I teach a similar course at my home institution, but without the transnational focus, so I retooled the syllabus to allow for new conversations to emerge. Fortunately, the composition of the seminar, which included students from Britain, America, France, Australia, and Israel, ensured that we would enjoy a diverse dialogue over the course. These students were a joy to work with, bringing energy and life to historical and theoretical texts from week to week. Interestingly, I have noticed that, in any class, the first readings are the ones that stick with students and come up again and again in their papers. Some of our first texts in “Transnational Memory” included seminal works in the fields of memory studies and American studies, and it was instructive to me to observe students relate them in rich and unexpected ways to a range of artists and artworks within and beyond the United States.

IMG_6083History of Art Research Seminar © Department of History of Art

I learned so much pedagogically from the advantages of the Oxford tutorial system. In essence, a tutorial is something like a personalized seminar in which students discuss ideas and essay drafts in a one-on-one (or very small group) setting with the professor—and this comes in addition to classroom-based learning. I come from a strong ‘liberal arts college’ context in the United States, so I am to some extent familiar with this type of teaching. However, the Oxford tutorial is a philosophy that foregrounds each student as an individual with their own capabilities, energies, and strengths. Thus, my approach to teaching the tutorial was less scripted than it might otherwise be; I outlined various suggested topics in advance, but generally allowed students to follow their interests in the space of the tutorial hour.

In addition to spending time in the Department, it was a great pleasure to be a Visiting Fellow of Worcester College. Colleges are the soul of university life at Oxford. You never know who might be sitting next to you at lunch or dinner in the dining hall, or with whom you might strike up a conversation in the Senior Common Room for a postprandial coffee (despite British peer pressure, I still won’t drink tea). I met a wonderful range of scholars from diverse fields, each contributing to the whole picture of collegiality. In this way, I would describe Oxford as a consummately hospitable place, where knowledge is nurtured generously by good conversation, food, and drink.

MdB_with_Terra_President_CEO_Elizabeth_Glassman_GJMiguel de Baca with Terra Foundation President and CEO Elizabeth Glassman, Worcester College Main Quad © Department of History of Art

A home base in Europe allowed frequent chances to study artworks and collections I would not have such occasion to see at home. Tate Britain, Tate Modern, and Tate Liverpool all had excellent openings during my time. The Irish Museum of Modern Art had an unusual show on the Aspen 5+6 group, which was packed with really interesting information about Irish, continental, and American connections in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is not to mention the contemporary art fairs I was able to visit—Frieze, the Venice Biennale, and the Berlin Biennale—in order to sharpen my focus on modern curatorial practices as well as American artists’ place within the exponential growth of biennial culture worldwide. I am absolutely confident that these experiences will lead to more engaging and effective teaching of contemporary art to my students back in the United States.

Lastly, as the Terra Professor I was able to share my own research and interests with communities of scholars in the form of many talks and lectures. I tested out a new project on video art with the History of Art Department in the research seminar series, a paper on Washington Color School at the conference In and Out of American Art: Between Provincialism and Transnationalism, 1940-1980 at the University of St. Andrews, an in-depth conversation about the influential curator Walter Hopps with the author Deborah Treisman at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford, and a conversation with the inimitable art historian Jo Applin on the multiple expressions of feminism in modernist sculpture at the Terra Foundation campus in Paris. I shared the edited-out portions of my book, Memory Work: Anne Truitt and Sculpture (2015), with an audience at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, which was a great occasion to revisit and advance my thinking on an earlier project.

Terra_18_12Terra Foundation Lecture at Worcester College © Department of History of Art

This spring, I delivered the Terra Foundation Lectures in American Art at the Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre at Worcester College: four lectures, one per week in May, on different topics under the heading “The Body of a Nation”. I also shared some thoughts on the painter Ed Ruscha at History of Art colleague Craig Clunas’s retirement celebration, and a lecture on 1970s Polaroids at the Maison Française d’Oxford. It was a very full and rewarding agenda, to be sure! Many of these kernels have led to publishing opportunities that will keep me occupied for the months and, indeed, years to come.

The capstone to this wonderful academic work was a study day on video art at LUX, the premier European video and film arts agency, based in London. I assembled an international group of scholars at LUX to discuss the subject of video art and activism, and learned a great deal from our conversation. This collaboration was the first of its kind between Oxford and LUX, which I hope will continue to grow as scholarship on moving image practices of the late 20th and 21st centuries expands both at Oxford and in the field at large. There is so much more to know!

LUX study day.jpgLUX study day © Miguel de Baca

In short, I cannot imagine a more fruitful or rewarding year. Oxford is an institution I can now think of as a home and a habit of mind—a place of collective purpose and shared belief in the real potential for research and knowledge to train future leaders. And my colleagues and students in the History of Art have refreshed my belief in the vitality, even the centrality, of visual culture to a circumspect and well-examined life.


Miguel de Baca was the Terra Visiting Professor of American Art 2017-18. He is the chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Lake Forest College. The 2018-19 Terra Visiting Professor of American Art is John R. Blakinger.

Podcasts of the 2018 Terra Foundation Lectures in American Art are available to listen to.

Further information about the Terra Foundation Visiting Professorships at the University of Oxford.

Further information about the Master’s Degree in History of Art and Visual Culture.

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Visiting and Revisiting Beloved Spaces: The Photographic Reproductions of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Frescoes in the Visual Resources Centre

By Sofia Garré and Irene Wang, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture

This year’s Slade Professor David Ekserdjian kindly offered to hold a workshop for History of Art students in the Department’s Visual Resources Centre. The topic of this event coincided with his Slade Lecture on Michaelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Students had the opportunity to discuss with Professor Ekserdjian the visual historiography of art history since the invention of photography, using examples from the Department’s photographic collections.


The Sistine Chapel, accessed only by a handful of people in its original context, is now open to all visitors who can afford a ticket. Since Michelangelo completed the vault’s decorations in 1512 it has been represented in different mediums, which have enabled this once socially enclosed space to be known to the wider public. Sketches and prints of the chapel initiated this process as early as the Renaissance, but it is only in the late nineteenth century that more reliable and less expensive photographic reproductions grew increasingly popular. In the History of Art Department’s Visual Resources Centre copies from nineteenth century campaigns are held alongside contemporary reproductions.

Professor David Ekserdjian, this year’s Slade Professor at Oxford, explored their historical and documentary importance in a workshop tailored to students. As graduates specialising in Italian Renaissance Art, we felt especially eager to take part. Professor Ekserdjian looked specifically at photographs of Michelangelo’s frescoes, considering how they have been used by scholars and conservators before and after the chapel’s restoration, completed in 1999. Adding an interesting layer to his discussion, he also encouraged us to reflect on changes in accessibility to images and how they have affected the practice and study of the history of art.

DSC_0849_crop.jpg© Department of History of Art

The workshop started off with Adolphe Braun’s large photographic prints of the Sistine Chapel, the first photographic survey of this space ever attempted in 1868. Housed in large leather-bound volumes, these prints are themselves works of art, showing beautiful views of Michelangelo’s frescoes. Although objects of clear aesthetic interest, Braun’s photographs failed to capture some of the details due to their low contrast and wide perspective.

This is no fault of Braun’s studio of photographers but of the technology and aesthetic preferences of the period. The prints are large (37x47cm) because they are contact prints and reflect the size of the glass plates used to take the photographs. Photographic technology at the time relied on the collodion wet plate process, which had a slow exposure time, up to several minutes in low light conditions indoors such as the Sistine Chapel. Photographers had to work quickly to coat, sensitize and expose the plate within a time frame of 15 minutes before the collodion set. It was necessary for a portable darkroom to be employed when working in the field. Considering Braun had large scaffolding constructed in order to photograph the ceiling at height, it becomes clear what a huge feat this first photographic survey of the Sistine Chapel was.

DSC_0846.JPG© Department of History of Art

The Braun photographs are carbon prints which gives them their matte brown tone. Carbon prints can be produced with a variety of colour pigments including reds, browns and cool blues and greys. They are resistant to fading and were commonly used from the 1860s onwards for commercial prints. The matte quality, soft focus and colouring of the photographs give them the look of a painting or drawing. Indeed they are treated as such in their presentation, they are housed in grand portfolio boxes as if they are Renaissance drawings themselves.

As Professor Ekserdjian remarked, Braun’s series, initially released in 1869, constituted a first attempt to replace previously circulating prints and sketches. However, the reach of prints of this size and quality was still relatively limited because of their high cost. The smaller prints distributed by the commercial publishers Alinari and James Anderson later in the nineteenth century, were a partial solution to this problem. At once more affordable these images record more effectively the status of the Chapel before its restoration. Indeed, thanks to their sharper printing, these photographs allow us to see more of the minute features in Michelangelo’s frescoes while, at the same time, showing the extent of their damage.

Reflecting on the documentary quality of these photographs we were made aware of how key aspects of the frescoes, still visible on the ceiling when Braun’s and Alinari and Anderson’s pictures were taken, have either irreversibly disappeared or reappeared in the process of restoration. The lines dividing different sections of the frescoes, easily discernible prior to the conservation intervention, are now impossible to decipher. Similarly, the finishing touches on the frescoes, also known as tracce a secco, were removed during the cleaning of the ceiling.

DSC_0876.JPGLantern slides © Department of History of Art

Looking at the photographs gave Professor Ekserdjian an opportunity to discuss with us how this ambitious restoration altered scholars’ understanding of the cycle by bringing the frescoes’ original colours back to light. In particular, the symbolic value of one of the Chapel’s lunette had to be re-evaluated when its dark tones, which had been interpreted as a metaphor of the obscure ages preceding Christianity in pre-restoration literature, disappeared in the cleaning process, revealing the lunette’s original bright colours.

Colour, an especially striking feature of the Sistine Chapel and a traditionally important category of analysis for art history, was also central to our discussions as a group. As we moved from black and white prints to slides in colour, we were invited to think about the limitations of the photographic medium in capturing and faithfully reproducing shades of colour in the artwork. Precisely because of these inevitable limitations, we were encouraged to be cautious when using photographic reproductions in our academic work. However, Professor Ekserdjian did not fail to place emphasis on the immense contribution that colour photography, and photographic slides in particular, have made to the study of the history of art. The crucial didactic value of this medium was that it finally allowed professors to incorporate images of faraway artworks like the Sistine Chapel into their teaching practice.

DSC_087535mm slides © Department of History of Art

No physical resource, however, has been able to compete with the internet in terms of widening accessibility to artworks’ reproductions. Thus, as the workshop came to an end we touched upon free digital collections of images, undoubtedly the most democratic source available at this stage. We were introduced to a range of key databases, including the Fondazione Zeri online catalogue, which collects 290,000 digital images of Italian art and architecture. Making digital photographs accessible to the general public, these platforms also indirectly transformed slides themselves into aesthetic objects, collected as such in the Visual Resources Centre alongside valuable printed photographs. As a final note, students were encouraged to reflect not only on what is gained but also on what is lost in this change of medium and accessibility. Platforms that provide easily accessible digital photographs should not fully replace the exercise of memory, crucial in allowing art historians to recollect the details of an artwork.

Ultimately, Professor Ekserdjian turned a workshop on photographic reproductions of Michelangelo’s frescoes into an opportunity to raise much broader questions around the history of art. Professor Ekserdjian certainly did provide us with an interesting overview of the resources on the Sistine Chapel available in the Department. What is more, he reminded us of the need to constantly question not only our views, but also the availability and reliability of the primary sources we employ.


Sofia and Irene are both MSt History of Art and Visual Culture students and take the MSt Women and Art option with Professor Geraldine Johnson.

To listen again to Professor Ekserdjian’s lecture on Michelangelo watch the podcast.

The Department of History of Art holds several large photography collections, for more information about the Adolphe Braun Sistine Chapel prints and our other photographic material please see the Visual Resources Centre page.

2018 Oxford Slade Lectures ‘From Drawing to Painting in the Italian Renaissance’

By Sofia Garré and Irene Wang, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture


In March 2018, people visiting the Ashmolean Museum had the rare opportunity to see a remarkable group of drawings by Michelangelo. This temporary exhibition offered a unique insight into the artist’s draftsmanship while hinting at the role played by drawings in the creation of artworks that are now considered among the most representative of the Italian Renaissance. But the Ashmolean Museum was not alone in raising questions on the wider significance of Renaissance drawings. This year’s Slade Lectures, given by Professor David Ekserdjian (University of Leicester), considered how drawings by some of the most famous Italian artists from the period honed the form and content of their major works. Starting with Michelangelo and ending with the Carracci brothers, Prof Ekserdjian surveyed nearly a century of Italian art, discussing ‘la crème de la crème’ of Renaissance draftsmanship. Each lecture focused on a single pictorial project, endeavouring to reconstruct its evolution through a close examination of the artist’s preparatory drawings.

The lectures were framed by a preliminary discussion on the history of drawings’ use in the process of art production, demonstrating that such an investigation would hardly be possible in Europe prior to the sixteenth century. For the second lecture focus was turned to some of the sketches and drawings created by Michelangelo for the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, examining a number of examples from the Ashmolean’s own collection. This lecture was especially interesting in its reconstruction of Michelangelo’s creative process. In fact, the sketches and letters considered by Prof Ekserdjian encouraged an understanding of the Chapel as the product of a collaboration between the artist and his patrons. This perhaps unsurprising conclusion was nevertheless intriguing in light of Michelangelo’s notorious ambition to be acknowledged as the sole author of his work.

FI photo 1© Department of History of Art

The significance of drawings in the professional relationship among artists and their patrons was not limited to Michelangelo. This is certainly the case for Correggio’s drawings of The Assumption of the Virgin, the fresco decorating the dome of the Cathedral of Parma. The preparatory sheets suggest that the dome had already been sketched by Correggio before he signed the contract, pointing to the crucial role played by drawings themselves in the dynamics of the artist’s recruitment. Parmigianino’s studies for his unfinished Madonna with the Long Neck, the subject of the fifth lecture, were equally informative in highlighting otherwise elusive details in the history of the work’s commission. Reflecting on the quality of the finish of Parmigianino’s preliminary drawings, Prof Ekserdjian compellingly suggested that the artist must have used them to illustrate the project to his patrons.

Despite placing emphasis on the collaborative nature of these artworks, Prof Ekserdjian did not undermine the importance of the individual artist, whose direct engagement was often seen as essential by the patrons themselves. Correggio’s contract for the Assumption of the Virgin, for example, specifies that all the figures included in the fresco had to be made exclusively by the artist. This attests to the perceived superiority of the artist in Renaissance Italy, but it also testifies to the technical difficulty of the project, which required an experienced artist to tackle. Correggio had to conduct extensive studies before assembling the composition of the fresco, which was to include numerous figures viewed from below.

FI photo 6© Department of History of Art

These studies lend themselves particularly well to illustrating how artists in general used sketches to negotiate the difficulty of engaging with curved surfaces, large scale or unusual viewing perspectives. A similar challenge was also faced by Annibale and Agostino Carracci in planning their monumental cycle for the curved ceiling of the Farnese Gallery, The Loves of the Gods. As Prof Ekserdjian argued in his final lecture, the Carracci brothers’ exploratory sketches show that they were well aware of the difficulties of transposing the pictorial composition onto the ceiling of one of the rooms in the Farnese Gallery. To solve the problem, they designed an architectural and sculptural grid framing the pictorial scenes of the fresco that would transpose well onto the curved ceiling.

The fact that artists were facing complex practical challenges is demonstrated not only by their studies on how to transpose drawings onto unusual surfaces, but also by the representational strategies they adopted while completing the drawings themselves. The sheets examined in the lectures often reflect the hierarchy of mediums used by artists in their drawings to distinguish final ideas from exploratory studies. Michelangelo, for example, relied on colour to draw such distinctions, using red chalk for finished works and black pen for initial sketches. Florentine artist Bronzino also adopted a somewhat hierarchical approach to mediums in his studies for the decoration of the private chapel of Duchess Eleonora of Toledo. Looking at the relatively few surviving sketches for this project alongside those made in preparation for other frescoes, Prof Ekserdjian observed that Bronzino used chalk for his finished drawings, while pen was used when the artist was ‘thinking out loud.’

All the aforementioned aspects of Renaissance drawing practices seem to point in a single direction. That is, they all bear eloquent witness to the assiduous studies, often impossible to detect in the final work, that lie at the root of these artworks’ creation. This is perhaps most evident in Raphael’s sketches for the Stanza della Segnatura, examined early in the series. Indeed, Raphael’s frantic drawings, in which numerous poses and combinations are considered by the artist before settling on a final arrangement, betray the amount of work behind his seemingly effortless frescoes. Using drawings as his starting point, Prof Ekserdjian proved that Raphael was so meticulous in his formal investigation that he even sketched the reliefs decorating the architectural setting of the School of Athens. Not unlike Raphael, the lesser known Federico Barocci also completed punctilious preparatory studies for his altarpiece of the Madonna del Popolo, now on display at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Over one-hundred sheets tracing the gestation of the altarpiece survive, mirroring the artist’s diligence in studying both the poses of the individual figures and the composition’s overall appearance.

slide53© Ashmolean Museum

The reasons behind artists’ alterations of their original plans were varied, ranging from purely aesthetic and formal motivations to changes endowed with deeper symbolic and political significance. Correggio’s changes to his depiction of the Virgin belong, at least in part, to the latter category. The artist’s studies for the Assumption reveal that the Virgin’s pose, which originally envisioned the Madonna with her legs spread and visible, had to be changed to avoid causing a scandal. Similarly, Raphael’s Poetry in the Parnassus fresco, originally drawn nude, was partially clothed in the fresco to elude the risk of seeming inappropriate to his contemporaries. Drawings thus give us information about how the artist modified his design in order to comply with contemporary norms of decorum regulating artistic representation.

In our opinion, the enormous potential of Prof Ekserdjian’s minute analysis of Renaissance drawings lies precisely in its ability to detect such differences and to hint at their politically and culturally charged nature. His largely formal investigation of the relation among the final piece and the artist’s preparatory sheets constitutes an intriguing counterpart to our own research, which pays greater attention to questions of gender, class and race in connection with Renaissance art. Nevertheless, this year’s Slade Lectures consistently raised points that may be interpreted under the lens of cultural studies. By way of example, the fact that the Carraccis first sketched a female model while developing a male character of the fresco may open up interesting questions related to the politics of gender inversion in art.

All in all, this year’s Slade Lectures offered interesting insights to an audience of students and experts in the field as well as Art History enthusiasts. Prof Ekserdjian can be sure to have passed on to the public very thorough yet accessible information on the making of some of the most iconic artworks of the Italian Renaissance, ultimately furthering our understanding of this complex historical period. He is to be truly congratulated for his fascinating analysis.


Professor David Ekserdjian is the Slade Professor 2017-18 at Oxford. He is Professor of Art and Film History at the University of Leicester. 

Please look out for a follow-up blog by Irene and Sofia on a student workshop held by Professor Ekserdjian in the Department of History of Art.

Writing a first year extended essay, ‘Mavungu: Provenance and Aesthetic Appropriation’

By Michael Kurtz, Second Year Undergraduate BA History of Art

Michael won the Reaktion Book Prize for the best First Year Undergraduate extended essay on an ‘image, object or building in Oxford’. Here he writes on his research and gives an insight in to how he approached the essay.


In the first year of the Oxford History of Art undergraduate degree, students write an extended essay about any one object, image or building in the city. Given Oxford’s outstanding architectural and museological history, this assignment is not as narrow as it might seem and choosing a topic can be daunting. I knew I wanted to explore the areas of crossover and tension between the western tradition and non-western culture and so focused in on the Pitt Rivers Museum – as a unique collection loaded with the legacies of cross-cultural and often colonial interaction (read its history here).

PRM000017126Kongo peoples, Mavungu, late nineteenth century, © Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

I was immediately drawn to ‘Mavungu’, a wooden figure with its mouth wide open and pierced with hundreds of metal shards, stood at the back of a case labelled ‘West African Sculpture’. It was the instant aesthetic appeal that the object had for me, as a western beholder, that was intriguing. In essence, it was this first interaction, the sense I had of simultaneous beauty and otherness, understanding and novelty, that I wanted to analyse and explain. That primordial meeting between viewer and artwork defines the nature of the research as it sets in motion the kinds of questions that one is curious to answer – in order to contextualise, explain or at least discuss this response.

The figure, I learnt, was a material manifestation of a hunter spirit (nkondi in Kongolese), designed in the late nineteenth century to ward off the growing Portuguese colonial forces on the trading waterways of the Kongo. It is thought (but interpretations are vague and vary considerably) that a nganga (or priest) would have been paid to incite the spirit against specific individuals or groups by implanting nails into its body. As such, the figure is more a functional than aesthetic object and, unlike most western ‘artworks’, did not have one moment of creation or one creator but was subject to a ritual process of material accumulation.

Figure 2Kongo peoples, Mavungu (detail), late nineteenth century, © Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

I was able to explain the uncanny familiarity of Mavungu quite quickly as the Kongo kingdom had a long history of close interaction with Catholic missionaries from Portugal, and so its culture and cosmology was intertwined with Biblical art and tradition. The nailed masculine figure is a visual type that is surely affixed on the retina of every European art-lover. However, there were also assumptions I made that I had to reconsider and criticise. For instance, I first read the figure as an image of intense pain – with a face that recalled Edvard Munch’s Scream and a body pierced with metal shards – but the nails were in fact symbolic of the suffering the spirit would inflict on its victims and the mouth was open wide in order to hold manioc, a root poisonous to people who had failed to keep to promises confirmed by the spirit. I had thus westernised the figure’s features, forced them to conform to my European way of seeing and failed to understand the practical role within a ritual process that Mavungu had fulfilled.

Figure 3Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, © National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

It was these misunderstandings and re-interpretations that became the focus of my study; my essay was structured as a biography of Mavungu’s reception in order to trace and analyse the changing ways the figure was seen across its history. My own initial experience of the object became just one in a series of encounters that I could research, the most prominent of which being that of Mary Kingsley, the Victorian traveller who owned Mavungu before it was given to the Pitt Rivers in 1900. She kept the figure as the centrepiece of her hall in London and showed it off to guests as proof of her adventures and evidence that we should save ‘pure’ and ‘wild’ African culture from colonial influence. She thus betrays her ignorance of the role of Catholic missionaries and colonial forces in the formation of the figure.

Around the same time, the English establishment was using objects like Mavungu to reinforce an idea of ‘Africa’ in the European public consciousness as barbaric, uncivilised and therefore deserving of imperial domination. Its 1901 museum label reductively described its involvement in ‘gruesome practices’ and thought it blood-smeared, an ironic mistake given that its lips were painted red once it was in England in order to generate a stereotyped, barbaric appearance. These examples from my research demonstrate my overall argument that a piece of material culture can been used as an ideological tool and is drastically changed both physically and conceptually depending on its contextual function and beholder’s mindset.

Just as it is, I think, the initial interaction one has with the artwork that shapes the aims of an academic inquiry, the method of choosing an object is eventually mirrored in the final essay. From a general area of potential interest I found my object and then through this specific point I re-explored, with much more specific purpose, the broader themes that brought me to the figure in the first place. The original, vague conceptual notions and presumptions that bring you to an object, image or building are re-evaluated by your engagement with that art historical evidence. As both the approach and subject of my essay, this extended negotiation with the complexities of the way we think about and look at objects through time is surely the value of the exercise.

4eabfc7d7f3f7aabf3229c36772a1d76Renée Stout, Fetish No. 2, 1988, © Dallas Museum of Art, Texas

In order to provide an alternative and current perspective, I concluded my essay by discussing a contemporary artist, Renée Stout, who in her 1988 work Fetish No. 2 manipulates the form of a Kongolese hunter spirit and adapts it to her current situation as a black woman artist in urban America. By making her figure first a nude and secondly a self-portrait, she engages in the western tradition as well as the Kongolese and adapts both to meet her own needs. She inserts herself into the fraught history of reception of African art that I explored but re-appropriates the artistic form as a radical act against western appropriation. Yet Stout also admits that her sculpture is in no way engaged with the ritual function of Kongolese spirit figures and so it symbolically reflects the journey that Mavungu has made, from liturgical furniture to aesthetic artefact, trapped behind glass in twenty-first-century Oxford.

The inclusion of this last, contemporary artistic point-of-view was the suggestion of my supervisor, and former Senior Curator of the Pitt Rivers, Jeremy Coote. During several meetings over the course of the year, he provided relevant reading lists along with crucial theoretical insights that helped to shape the methodological framework of the essay. In my experience, the supervisory relationship was the most rewarding aspect of the process as it fostered a sense of productive collaboration and mutual academic interest that I found immensely exciting. The three-way dialogue – between object, supervisor and student – inevitably leads to interesting and unexpected results and has been hugely important in forming my ideas, and the way I want to write, about visual culture.


For more information about the BA degree, please see the Department’s Undergraduate Admissions page.

For information about funding and prizes available to current and prospective students in the Department of History of Art please see the funding page.

Collaborative work during your DPhil: My time at Empires of Faith

By Stefanie Lenk, current research student in the History of Art Department


Doing a doctorate in a research project is still fairly rare in the humanities at Oxford. The idea polarizes people. Being part of a research project helps connect students to others with similar interests quickly. Getting feedback on your work, a fresh eye on an old problem, or simply a little bit of moral support, are some of the perks that come with project work. If your project is functional, that is. If it isn’t, a research project soon can become exhausting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Empires of Faith team

Empires of Faith, my research project, has taught me a lesson. I know now for sure that collaborative work during your PhD can be done successfully, for everyone involved. And I know how much impact it can have on you as a researcher, in ways that you couldn’t imagine at the outset. The key to making it work, I think, is the goodwill of each to be part of a group. For me, this meant putting my energy into group projects, besides my daily DPhil work, and being open to my colleagues’ ideas and suggestions, which often led to research avenues I had not originally contemplated.

I embarked on this journey four years ago, together with most of my DPhil and Postdoc colleagues, simply by responding to a call for applications. EoF is a collaboration between Oxford University and the British Museum, so we also have a BM curator on board, and of course the head of the project, Jas’ Elsner, professor of classics at Oxford. This makes for a jolly team of ten. We all work on religious art in late antiquity (c. 200-800 AD), but from different religious and geographical vantage points. From day 1, we immersed ourselves in the art and material culture of the early Islamic empire, the Sasanian empire, the Kushan empire, and the Roman empire – the latter tackled through Roman religions, the British Isles, East and West Rome. Only a fraction of my colleagues are trained as art historians. The others have backgrounds in history, classics, archaeology and the social sciences.

2Empires of Faith at the Kosmos Summer School 2015 in Berlin © Stefanie Lenk

My own DPhil project looks at pre-Christian imagery and architecture used in 5th and 6th century Christian baptisteries in the Western Mediterranean. Many of the issues that I focus on in my DPhil, like questions of religious identity in late antiquity, what material culture can tell us about religion, how important iconographic readings are for the meaning of art, or how we can compare the evidence of different sites to one another, are also of interest to my colleagues. To some extent, this has to do with the similarity of our research fields. Some topics lend themselves more to some questions than to others. But my suspicion is that most of what interests me today is a product of our continuous conversations and the work we did together.

3Choosing wall colours for Imagining the Divine with our designer Byung Kim and my EoF colleague Rachel Wood © Stefanie Lenk

We started by meeting up militantly for at least three hours a week during term. This was in October 2013. At the time, few of us were truly engaged with any other fields of religious art beyond our own research areas. Most had not worked collaboratively or across disciplines before. Now, four years later, Empires of Faith has curated two exhibitions, Imagining the Divine. Art and the Rise of World Religions, the Ashmolean Museum’s current lead exhibition, and Those Who Follow, a cooperation with contemporary artist Arturo Soto, also currently up in the Classics Centre of the university. Four of my colleagues and I have co-written Images of Mithra, the first volume of a new OUP book series called Visual Conversations, which OUP offered to run, as they liked the first book so much. Moreover, we have written a historiographical volume altogether on how the different ways of art history writing in our respective disciplines developed over the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the exhibition catalogue for Imagining the Divine. To arrive at this point, we gathered much input from fellow researchers on numerous occasions in Oxford, London, Edinburgh, Berlin and Chicago.

4Public workshop in Those Who Follow at the Ioannou Centre, run together with my EoF colleague Dominic Dalglish © Stefanie Lenk

In our final year, 2017, we opened up Empires of Faith’ research to wider audiences, both in academia and to the general public. My two DPhil colleagues on the programme, Philippa Adrych and Dominic Dalglish, and myself, launched a graduate student workshop series called Talking Religion for ten DPhil students in the humanities. In a series of seminars, held at Wolfson, the Ashmolean and the British Museum, we discussed the question of how to write religious history from objects. The Talking Religion group gives collaborative and interdisciplinary student tours on a regular basis through Imagining the Divine. Currently, we are running weekend workshops for Oxford’s religious communities on Those Who Follow and Imagining the Divine. In Michaelmas term, we held an Empires of Faith academic seminar series, and from 11th to 13th of January 2018 we celebrated our immensely productive time together with the Empires of Faith conference.

5Talking Religion student Hugo Shakeshaft at work in Imagining the Divine © Stefanie Lenk

You might wonder how all of this relates back to my DPhil work. Well, I will be finishing this year, my fifth year as a DPhil student (having deferred last year), and cannot pretend that Empires of Faith expedited the progress I have made on my dissertation in terms of getting the words down on paper. I am not sad about this, though, because I consider my work to have become so much better thanks to my colleagues. I have also been involved in terrific publications, and worked as the lead curator of Imagining the Divine.

Most importantly, however, I have experienced the tremendous benefits collaborative work can bring to academia. None of what we have achieved would have been possible, or even enjoyable, on our own. True, not every PhD student has the luck of participating in a project like Empires of Faith. I don’t think, though, that this is necessary for similar experiences. All it takes is a little leap of faith. Under the pressure of DPhil work, it can easily seem too challenging to dedicate energy to experiments with others. But at least in my experience, it works the other way around: collaborative work gives you more energy than it takes.

6We made it! Imagining the Divine up and running at the Ashmolean museum! © Stefanie Lenk


Stefanie is working on Baptismal Art in the Late Antique and Early Medieval Western Mediterranean (400-800 A.D.)

DPhil is the Oxford term for a PhD. For more information about the History of Art DPhil, please see the Department’s Research Degrees page.

Imagining the Divine is currently on at the Ashmolean Museum.

For more information about the Empires of Faith project, please see the project page.