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

WORDS/WORKS/WALLS: Conceptual Architectures in Visual Culture

By Emily Cox and Meredith Miller (MSt History of Art and Visual Culture 2018)

Emily and Meredith share their experience of organising a conference whilst studying in the History of Art Department.

Walls shape space and define place. They work by structuring human movement, understanding, and history. Walls exist in multiple dimensions, as the building blocks of architectural structures, in the mind as conceptual metaphors, and even on paper, as two-dimensional diagrams. They are a key part of what Hubert Damisch refers to as the ‘truly architectonic dimension of the workings of thought,’ and indeed, their presence in the genealogy of philosophy is impressive: Cicero, Descartes, Leibniz, Bachelard, Derrida—the list goes on. What architecture, and the wall in particular, seems to offer these thinkers is a framework for understanding the relationship between body and mind; between our physical presence and our mental one. In more modern conceptions, the wall serves as the essential block on which theoretical structures are not only raised but also deconstructed.

The complexity of architecture’s relationship with thought was introduced to us in Professor Hanneke Grootenboer’s MSt special option course, Image and Thought. Such questions and issues inspired us to plan a cross-temporal conference during which academics would speak on relationships between physical architectural structures and their conceptual counterparts. The Ertegun House for the Humanities was fascinated by our thematic and interdisciplinary approach to the conference and provided us with a grant to make our plans into reality. Grants from Trinity College and The History of Art Department cemented the resources we needed to put on a robust one-day international conference.

We had read Mary Carruthers’s book, The Craft of Thought, for our option course and decided to ask her to speak on the relationship between memory and architecture in Medieval Europe for the keynote address. We were beyond excited when she quickly responded that she would love to present new material analyzing the geometry of creative thinking predicated on architectural diagrams. From there, we curated different panels of speakers so that each set would refer to this theme of thought, gradually moving from the medieval period to the present day as the program progressed. Museum director Bruce Boucher, academics Anthony Geraghty, Leslie Topp, Leo Schmidt, and artist Do Ho Suh, all agreed to take part in the conference, probing the discourse surrounding the wall as a concept. Talks addressed the relationship between ontological, psychological, and metaphorical walls, each speaker addressing the central question through his or her area of expertise.

carruthers hanneke photo WWWProfessor Hanneke Grootenboer moderates Mary Carruther’s talk ‘The Geometry of Creativity: Using Diagrams in the Middle Ages’. © Julia Peck

We divided this conference into four key themes in which the wall plays an integral component: thought, spectacle, authority, and memory. Throughout, the talks continually referred back to the central paradigm established in Umberto Eco’s Semiotics of Architecture: How does architecture function as a structure (its primary function), and how does it communicate (its secondary function)? More significantly, how does it oscillate between these two poles?

To begin the day, Hanneke gracefully moderated Mary Carruthers’s gripping keynote address that taught us how thinking is itself a kind of moving through space. The first panel, which commenced after a brief tea break, interrogated the architecture of spectacle in the 18th and 19th-centuries and was moderated by our fellow MSt student Anna Espínola Lynn. The talks considered the owning of memories in Sir John Soane’s museum by its director, Bruce Boucher, and the self-reflexive skin of the masonry on Castle Howard by Anthony Geraghty.

After a lunch filled with intellectual conversation, the second panel, moderated by Ertegun Scholar Conor Brennan, examined the architecture of authority, looking to two examples from the 20th-century, German-speaking world. Leslie Topp spoke on living foliage fences and the performance of the dissolution of barriers in relation to asylum architecture in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Leo Schmidt gave an insightful and humorous address on the recontextualization of the two ‘Berlin Walls,’ physical and psychological, before and after the GDR, and the East and West sides.

geraghty photo WWW.jpgAnthony Geraghty presents ‘ “The Beauty and Strength of the Building”: The Representation of the Masonry Wall at Castle Howard’. © Julia Peck

The day culminated with Craig Clunas moderating an artist talk by Do Ho Suh, who is currently working with the V&A on this year’s architecture pavilion at the Venice Biennale and has work represented in major collections such as MoMA and Tate. His work—surreal polyester installations that mirror structures of the home—questions the mobility of space and demonstrated how the architecture of our home is a clothing that, even when not physically present, we carry with us through life.

Our favorite part of the day was meeting some of our most admired academics and a world-renowned artist, getting to ask them questions about their scholarship and sharing with them our own work that had been developing throughout the MSt year. Over lunch, Meredith spoke with Mary Carruthers about the role of smeared ink in the interpretation of medieval diagrams, a concept she too had been pondering in reference to the photography of Alejandro Guijarro for one of her option papers. The speakers were inspired by each other’s work; some of them had read each other’s articles but never had the opportunity to meet because their work did not fall into the same geographic or temporal category on which most conferences are based. Lively discussion ensued during the breaks, relating Castle Howard to Dutch still lifes and comparing the flattened architecture in medieval books to rubbings of a contemporary artist. After the conference, participants were able to directly engage with each other and with speakers over a wine reception. Dinner at Branca gave everyone a chance to share a few stories and laughs, a much-needed break after such an intense and intellectually fruitful day.

The conference intersected quite nicely with our course work in both Theory and Methods and in Image and Thought. Ultimately, we had a chance to see theory applied to specific works of art or eras—a skill that we developed throughout our readings and seminars. The opportunity to hold a conference helped us develop tangible administrative and organizational skills—the kind of things you don’t usually learn through academic coursework—and will surely carry over into our future professional careers in in museum work. We are supremely grateful to the Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme in the Humanities for providing both the generous support and space for our interdisciplinary conference. We are also immensely appreciative of the support of several History of Art Department members, who helped mentor us through the process of putting on the conference: Geraldine Johnson, Hanneke Grootenboer, and Craig Clunas.  ‘Words/Works/Walls’ was an excellent opportunity for us to develop our art historical skills and knowledge, meet exciting academics and curators, and create a space in which we could more deeply explore interests outside of the classroom.

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

The Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme in the Humanities provides full funding and other benefits to support exceptional graduate students studying across the Humanities at the University of Oxford. Ertegun Graduate Scholars become part of a community of researchers who are encouraged to expand their knowledge and to exchange ideas across disciplines.







Banner image: Copy after the original of the Hortus Deliciarum before its destruction, made by A. Straub – Coll. Bibliothèque du Grand Séminaire de Strasbourg © Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons

Photo Archives VI: The Place of Photography

By Francesca Issatt, Visual Resources Assistant, History of Art Department

Last month on the 20th and 21st April I was lucky enough to attend the sixth Photo Archives conference. It was hosted by Geraldine Johnson (University of Oxford), Deborah Schultz (Regent’s University London) and Costanza Caraffa (Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz—Max-Planck-Institut). The Photo Archives series has previously explored the photographic memory of art history, hidden archives, the idea of nation and the paradigm of objectivity. This iteration focused on the place of photography, a broad concept which was interpreted diversely.

Photo Archives VI was held in Oxford at Christ Church College. The significance of this location, in the heart of Oxford, was not lost. As Geraldine Johnson commented in her opening remarks Oxford plays an important role in the history of photography. Geraldine talked about William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, the first photographically illustrated book to be commercially published, which depicts on its very first plate the Queen’s College in Oxford. Further to this on plate 18 is a photograph of the front entrance to Christ Church itself, known as Tom Tower.

christchurchedit2Christ Church College, from the Visual Resources Centre photo archive, © Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

She continued her example with one of Christ Church’s most famous Fellows, Charles Dodgson (pen name Lewis Carroll), who some twenty years after Talbot’s publication was photographing Alice Liddell whom he based his Alice in Wonderland novels on. In his own time he was a renowned mathematician but now is most famous for his writing and photographs. Dodgson’s living quarters and homemade photographic studio were only a few doors down from Tom Tower. Therefore as Geraldine clearly put it “we can place photography quite literally in the stony streetscapes and grassy quads of Oxford.”

I think the broad notion of place was best described by the first speaker, Joan Schwartz (Queen’s University, Ontario), who set up a framework for the papers that followed. As she explained, both photographs and archives are places – physical and digital. Photographs can be of place, depicting real places with geographical co-ordinates, or they can be of abstract conceptual places such as home, family, history, war and environment.

Photographs can also be investigated as place and as surrogates for place. As a way to construct and recall place as if the viewer was physically present. Photographs in place, and in particular in archives, is where photographs derive much of their meaning. Such as in an album juxtaposed with other images, organised in a filing cabinet geographically, chronologically or numerically.

Costanza Caraffa, Frederick Bohrer, Joan Schwartz, Katarina Masterova (4)edit© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

I hugely enjoyed the first day and heard some great papers. Speakers covered the topics of archival processes, photographic albums and disciplinary structures, with focus on photographic material from artist’s studios, archaeological excavations and science laboratories to name a few places. To round off the day’s stimulating papers the keynote lecture was given by Geoffrey Batchen (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand) who spoke about The Placeless Image.

Geoffrey offered examples of placeless images including digital images, which will never have a physical printed manifestation and will always remain on mobile devices and online sites. He said “Photography has slothed off its dependency on a physical substrate and become nothing but image […] photography has become an immaterial medium – or at least it is different materially to our past photographs”.

edit8© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

This is very much a twenty-first century issue but the placeless image has always existed. Another example was of engravings ‘from photographs’ in the nineteenth century. Which he said “free the image from an otherwise static existence. Unfixing it from any medium specificity and any particular place. The image is passed on through a potentially endless chain of transfers from one substrate to the next.”

Geoffrey also talked about the purification of photographs by institutions. For example galleries suppressing complicated origins, for the ease of having a single author, a single date or a single title. Archives find photographs difficult to deal with due to their spatial and temporal migration. As an institution they are traditionally fixated on the storage, cataloguing and study of static objects. Photographs are a challenge to fix in place.

On both days of the conference site visits were offered to some of the places of photography in Oxford. Delegates had the opportunity to visit the Bodleian Library, the Christ Church library and archive, the Griffith Institute, the Museum of the History of Science and the Middle East Centre Archive. As well as our very own Visual Resources Centre! This proved a very successful and appreciated element of the conference, many delegates tweeted their enthusiasm under the hashtag #PhotoArchivesOxford.

© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

I was co-host with Deborah Schultz for the site visit to the Visual Resources Centre in the History of Art Department. A selection of material was brought out from the photographic archive and glass lantern slides depicting art and architecture. As well as photograph albums with a mix of commercial and amateur photographs inside. Another highlight was the over-sized Adolphe Braun reproductions of the Sistine Chapel, presented in portfolios designed to look like expensive leather bound books. All of which sparked great discussions about art historical photographic archives, their past use as study resources, their materiality and their relevance to scholarship and teaching today.

The second day of the conference saw speakers address production, reproduction and value as well as forms of materialisation. Specific talks looked at, amongst other topics, the place of photography related to the encounter between sitter and camera, the ‘trash to treasure’ rediscovery of anonymous collections, curatorial practice, and digitisation as a cultural form.

edit9© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

To conclude a thought provoking and intellectually thrilling couple of days Elizabeth Edwards (VARI, London/De Montfort University) gave her closing remarks. Elizabeth spoke on the presence of politics that lurked in all the papers but hadn’t been addressed directly. Such as the political acts of how we create value, how we imagine, how we appropriate, disseminate and control. She remarked that “Where we place photographs matters politically. How places are made photographically matters politically.” This also raised questions about photographs out of place.

All of the papers focused on the work of photographs in specifically defined places – the archive, the laboratory, the archaeological excavation. Elizabeth asked what happens when photographs attempt to stray and wander in to other places. What are the patterns of their wandering? As she put it “photographs out of place is the very nature of the reproductive and digital worlds in which we live. Photographs can no longer be contained within places – they no longer have material resonance.”

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the conference and co-hosting a site visit. It was a great chance to share Oxford’s fantastic photographic collections with delegates. The brilliant papers and the discussions that followed them made us think about how photographs both articulate and occupy space and time. Elizabeth Edwards summed up the subject of the conference perfectly when she said “photographs are the endless nomad.”

For more information about the conference please visit the conference page.

Podcasts of some of the conference papers are available to listen to here.

For further information about the Visual Resources Centre and its collections click here.

2017 Oxford Slade Lectures, The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities: Collecting Excessive Objects and the Revival of the Past

By Aidan Mehigan, Current Graduate MSt History of Art and Visual Culture

Caroline van Eck’s 2017 Oxford Slade Lectures, The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities: Collecting Excessive Objects and the Revival of the Past, were announced by a flyer bearing an image of an ornate candelabrum sculpted under the supervision of Giambattista Piranesi and now housed in the Louvre. In just the small part of the object captured by the photo, we can see several tiers of stonework, a lion’s head, acanthus leaves, foliated strigilations, clusters of berries, and much more. Van Eck’s idea of the “excessive object” is immediately clear.

Louvre Candelabrum Lions large

Close-up of the Louvre Candelabrum, © Hende Bauer

But what made me (and I’m sure many others) particularly excited for these lectures—even though, as the Slade Lectures, they really need no further advertising—is the fact that this object has two siblings in Oxford. The Ashmolean Museum houses two such candelabra, purchased from Piranesi’s workshop in the mid-eighteenth century by Roger Newdigate, who donated them to the University in 1775. They spent a few decades in the Radcliffe Camera before moving to the Greek and Roman sculpture collection at the Ashmolean in 1846.

The first few Slade Lectures this year, then, stayed very close to home, and I think we all relished the opportunity to learn more about a set of objects with which we already had some passing familiarity. Prof. van Eck spent several sessions walking us through the controversial provenance of these complicated works and explored their ancient precedents, initial reception after their supposed “discovery,” and relationship to Piranesi’s other design work and drawings.


Candelabras in the Ashmolean, © Aidan Mehigan

Despite their imposing form, the Ashmolean candelabra are easy to overlook—because they are placed against a wall, it’s impossible to get a full view of them, and since they flank a doorway, the natural impulse is to keep on moving. The chance to be forced to spend some significant time really looking at them in detail, to see them close read again and again from a variety of angles, was most welcome.

But it soon became apparent that, despite her intensive initial focus on them, the candelabra themselves are not the real focus of Prof. van Eck’s project. Putting on a display of the trademark scholarly versatility and appetite for wide-ranging argumentation that have made her reputation over the years, Prof. van Eck has, in her last few talks, pivoted to an in-depth exploration not of any particular objects but to the birth and intellectual roots of Neoclassicism itself.


Candelabra in the Ashmolean, © Aidan Mehigan

Patrons, artists, viewers, collectors, and their habits have all had their part to play as Prof. van Eck has probed into the origins of the eighteenth-century impulse to make present an ancient past. Characters as diverse as Wolfgang van Goethe, Caroline van Humboldt, and Aby Warburg have all made appearances. Objects themselves have wielded considerable agency as well, particularly given that, as Prof. van Eck has pointed out, certain works (such as Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix) were perceived by their contemporaries to be truly alive, and were treated as such.

Other topics that have been incorporated into the series include the profusion of animal-related imagery, especially in tableware, and its links to ideas of domestication, totem poles and Rorschach inkblots, the eclectic interiors of the Hôtel de Beauharnais in Paris, and the emergence of the tableau vivant—all of which, Prof. van Eck is careful to repeatedly point out, were conceived, created, and experienced in contexts that predate the museum.


© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

In a conversation with the History of Art Department’s own architectural historian, Dr. Matthew Walker, as part of a reception held at St. Peter’s College on February 21, Prof. van Eck made explicit for the first time just what she’s driving at with this impressively large cast of objects and moments. As one might have suspected, the book project she envisions developing out of this lecture series will not be about the Piranesi candelabra in the Ashmolean or elsewhere, but rather more generally about the formation and emergence of the Empire Style in early nineteenth century France.

The candelabra, fascinating objects though they may be, are, for Prof. van Eck, most useful as summary objects around which to organize both the initial questions she’s interested in asking and the later-emerging concepts her analysis engages with. That they are so striking certainly makes this organizational role a vivid and memorable one, but Prof. van Eck has made clear that her interests here are in higher-order phenomena themselves rather than any particular manifestations thereof.


© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

The final two lectures of the series elaborated on the ideas previewed at the St. Peter’s reception. The whole audience was especially intrigued by lecture seven, in which Prof. van Eck surveyed a great deal of literature in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral anthropology to familiarize us with the essentially universal human tendency to assign animacy and intentionality to even the most abstract movements and visual stimuli.

Though it took some time to get an audience of art historians and art enthusiasts up to speed on some occasionally quite technical material, this foray into the sciences proved crucial to substantiating Prof. van Eck’s point that the defining feature of the Empire Style is its immersiveness: uncanny animal forms invite us to grasp and control the world of objects. For Prof. van Eck, the Empire Style profoundly entangles humans with things.

Prof. van Eck, at the opening of her final lecture, urged us to consider a line from an essay by Novalis on Goethe: “antiquity is only now coming into being.” In this moment, one of her larger implicit arguments of this series immediately became clear: Piranesi and his fellow antiquarians were not restoring, recovering, or reimagining antiquity—they were creating it. The artistic and intellectual situation in Napoleon’s Paris around 1800 prefigured, she asserts, the material turn currently taking place in the academy—where the obsession is not with ideas or texts but overwhelmingly with things and their thing-ness.


© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

In this final lecture, Prof. van Eck wonderfully demonstrated the need for scholars to bring together anthropological ideas about agency attribution and art historical ideas of style formation. Anthropology, archaeology, and art history all have claims on the object, and it is only by uniting them, Prof. van Eck concluded, that we can begin tackling the problems of materiality.

I can’t be alone when I say that I was wowed by the breadth and depth of Prof. van Eck’s lectures and that I left them unsettled and inspired in equal parts. I’m sure our memories and notes from this term will serve us all well for years to come. We’ll certainly need something to tide us over until the book arrives, and I believe I speak for everyone when I say I am incredibly excited for that day to come.

Professor Caroline van Eck was appointed in October 2016 as Professor of History of Art at the University of Cambridge.

Thinking Colour



By Lucy Whelan, with co-organiser Anita Paz. Lucy is a current DPhil student at the History of Art Department.

Reading academic calls for papers, I am often reminded of when the children in Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree end up at Dame Slap’s school. The longer the children look at the questions written on the board, the more they realise they are impossible. “If there are a hundred pages in a book, how many books would there be on the shelf?” – Three blackbirds sat on a cherry tree. They ate one hundred and twenty-three of the cherries. How many were left?” – and “Why is a blackboard?”

The impossibility of the questions in calls for papers is – usually – not because they are sheer nonsense, of course, but because every question taken seriously opens a hundred more. Following Heidegger, real thinking is not monolithic, or answer-seeking, but playfully opening ourselves up to an encounter with the groundless and unfamiliar. In art history, asking questions of mute objects can sometimes have a similar effect. And there is no subject of interrogation more seemingly silent (or in excess of language) than colour, traditionally mistrusted as irrational, feminine, and carnal.

When my colleague Anita Paz and I were asked to lead a class for Hanneke Grootenboer’s History of Art and Visual Culture MSt option on Image and Thought last year, we wanted to discuss the different thinking tools or mechanisms that images have or use, and colour seemed like one obvious direction. How do images articulate thought, or even, how do they think, through colour? What is colour’s affective power? Can colour be a device for – or even a form of – thinking, for artist or viewer? These were the questions we wanted to explore, only we couldn’t find much written on them. So we decided to bring together those who have explored these questions, to consider the philosophical relations between colour and thinking. We invited Eric Alliez, David Batchelor, Laure Blanc-Benon, Natasha Eaton, Paul Smith, and Liz Watkins – and to our astonishment, all of them said yes.


The Thinking Colour Symposium poster

It turns out we weren’t alone in wishing to sound out the silence around colour. In addition to our speakers we had over sixty attendees, many travelling here from Europe, the USA, and even Australia. We were also joined by paper respondents both from Oxford – Hanneke Grootenboer and Justin Coombes (Ruskin School of Art) – and from wider afield, and by yet more speakers following a call for papers. And so we found ourselves on the day of the referendum result, 24th June, in the beautiful Danson Room at Trinity College, with voices from various perspectives and various countries, coming together to explore colour.

In our first panel, Natasha Eaton (History of Art, UCL) and Paul Smith (History of Art, Warwick) thought through the phenomenology of colour in different ways, moving us from Wittgenstein’s ‘grammar’ of colour and colour wheels, to negotiations of the colour white in contemporary Indian art. Responses by Justin Coombes (Oxford) and Susanne Komossa (Architecture, Delft Institute of Technology) were both poetic and playful.

The second panel brought together thinkers who have expanded the ways we approach colour. David Batchelor’s paper was radiant, arguing visually and verbally for colour as a fall, a loss of consciousness, a place, while Eric Alliez (History of Art, Kingston University) looked at the painter Daniel Buren’s ‘colour-thinking’. They were responded to by Judith Mottram (Royal College of Art), who raised the question of the radical power of both colour and form, and Hanneke Grootenboer, who addressed the conceptual state of betweenness that colour inhabits, and its philosophical consequences.

In the third panel, Laure Blanc-Benon (University Paris-Sorbonne) and Liz Watkins (University of Leeds) explored the significance of colour in photography and film, as Laure asked how we would understand photography if colour photography had been invented first, and Liz looked at how colour shaped early non-fiction films made of Antarctic explorations. Both papers explored role of colour in media technologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that was furthered by their respondent Regina Lee Blaszczyk (University of Leeds).

A round-table of shorter papers in the late afternoon acted like a kaleidoscope, collecting up our ideas on colour, and holding them up to the light. Tessa Laird from the University of Melbourne looked at contemporary filmmaker’s and the power of colour to evoke a bodily unconscious and overspill various boundaries; Claudia Tobin (Royal Drawing School) looked at chromatic language in Virginia Woolf and what it is to inhabit colour; Sophie Knezic also from the University of Melbourne looked at contemporary artist James Turrell through Merleau-Ponty’s ideas on colour’s intensity; Rey Conquer (University of Oxford) argued how colour helps us to think through poetic processes; and Elodie Ripoll (Universität Koblenz-Landau / EHESS, Paris) described what she designates as three elementary functions of colour words from a literary perspective. What ensued was a rich discussion of colour from various disciplines and perspectives.


Paul Klee, Signs in Yellow (1937). Public domain via Wikimedia.

My favourite moment from the day, without a doubt, was when an attendee suggested that we had been doing too much thinking colour, and not enough feeling colour. Because it made me realise how actually, by thinking with colour as much as about it, and through some particularly sensitive and sensuous papers, we had managed to do both. Sitting in a dark room overwhelmed by so many phosphorescent slides, we had experienced colour as ‘a kind of bliss’, as Barthes has put it, its jouissance. And, if we follow Heidegger, this too is a kind of thinking. For ‘joyful things, too, and beautiful and mysterious and gracious things give us food for thought’. And by not rejecting these mysterious things as those to be ‘kept out of the wings of thought’, we widen the spectrum of thinking and make it polychromatic.


Enid Blyton, The Magic Faraway Tree (London, 1987)

Martin Heidegger, What is called Thinking?, trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York, 1972)

The Thinking Colour Symposium was co-organised by Lucy Whelan and Anita Paz. It was made possible by the AHRC-TORCH graduate fund, and their hosts Trinity College.

Please visit the ‘Past Event’ page for more information and paper abstracts: