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Fordham Conference Examines Life and Art in the Middle Ages


A crowd of more than 400 convened on May 30 at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus to learn about all things medieval.

The event opened, “Seeing the Medieval: Realms of Faith/Visions for Today,” a two-day conference co-sponsored by Fordham and at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) in Manhattan.

Thomas Cahill Photo by Leo Sorel

Held at Fordham on May 30 and at MOBIA the following day, the event featured scholars from diverse perspectives who discussed the period in which Europe experienced a rebirth of scholarship, art, literature, philosophy and science and began to develop a vision of society that remains at the heart of Western civilization.

The Friday portion featured a panel discussion on “Why the Medieval Matters” and a keynote speech by Thomas Cahill, author of Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe (Nan A. Talese, 2006).

Two key characteristics of medieval art during this period were playfulness and a heightened sense of the visual, Cahill said in his lecture “Life and Art in the Middle Ages.”

“(Artists in this medieval period) exhibited a lack of ultimate seriousness even when dealing with the holy text of the Gospel,” said Cahill, who pointed out picture after playful picture included in medieval texts.

An illustration of Hildegard of Bingen, in which she does not appear larger than life but rather weathered, showed how the images of humans in medieval art were never “overly august,” Cahill explained. “They were always human.”

It was during this period that Europeans began celebrating Christmas, Cahill said, pointing to the oldest known picture of “Madonna and Child,” which was, and still is, used in many Christmas cards. This veneration of the Virgin Mary prompted a boost in women’s status.

Another illustration he displayed during his lecture portrayed Jesus with his arm around his mother.

“In this picture, Jesus has a happy face, almost cartoonish, and he’s hugging his mother—something that had never been seen before,” Cahill said.

The period signified the beginning of realism, he added.

“We look at this art and see that the artists were wondering what it would’ve been like to have been there,” Cahill said about a painting of St. Francis renouncing his father.

On May 31 at MOBIA, panel discussions included topics such as “Medieval Objects from Different Viewpoints” and “Teaching Techniques for Medieval Studies.”

MOBIA organizes temporary exhibitions revealing the extraordinary diversity and richness of art inspired by the Bible, including works done in various media, styles, artistic movements and schools.

The Fordham Center on Religion and Culture seeks to explore questions arising at the intersection of religious faith and contemporary culture. At a time when the influence of religion in U.S. public life is recognized as well as contested, the center fosters conversations about the issues today’s culture raises for religious belief and institutions, and the challenges posed by religion to the culture.


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