Artist Lecture Review 2- Heidi Gearhart

Samantha Gault

ARTH 3539

Review of Artist Lecture: Heidi Gearhart (Art History Lecture Series)

Heidi Gearhart was introduced by a former colleague and friend as a brilliant art historian and a recipient of several pre- and post-doctoral fellowships, including one at the Getty Research Institute, as well as was noted to have earned her PhD at the University of Michigan.  She is currently working as a professor at the University of Los Angeles.  Gearhart’s lecture was entitled, “Is There Virtue in Virtuosity? Art and Skill in the Medieval Monastery”, and centered primarily on the cryptic art practices of the Middle Ages, much of which remains unknown.  I had little to no background on this particular subject before attending her lecture, but I was intrigued to hear what she had to say on the topic.  

Gearhart began by reminding us that Medieval art is extremely scarce, and showed us a rare manuscript, written by a monk named Theophilus, that described the techniques and methods involved in various forms of art-making.  It was an orderly account of the craft and theory of art applicable to this time period.  In this text, entitled “On Diverse Arts”, Theophilus described the appropriate skills and key processes required for painting, glass, and metalwork.  Gearhart continued to show us particular excerpts from this manuscript.  Theophilus initially introduced himself with a statement of humility, promoting the idea of man to hold creative capacity. He made three statements in this text: 1) that man is humble, 2) the nature of man is that he is made by God, and 3) that by God, man can do things.  Through these statements, an artist’s work is justified because it is given through the grace of God.  The ideology that man is placed above all other creatures, in terms of divine intelligence, allows for further justification of the artist and his work, because its processes allow him to be closer to God in mind and form.  The prologue of this manuscript prefaces the idea of religion and virtue being attributed to art-making, and it makes a clear distinction between art’s image—which describes man’s potential—and art’s similarity or likeness—which represents a closeness to God.  Through these values, man can be restored, and there is indeed virtue in an artist’s work.

Gearhart presented a painting of the biblical story of Genesis, in which man is made, falls, and is redeemed by the Lord.  It was a set of nine rings—three rows and three columns—with God placed in the center that depicted the fall and forgiveness of mankind.  This highlights Theophilus’ point that man is made in the image of God and always holds potential for redemption.  It is an example of the exercise of reason and free will.  Theophilus stresses that man’s highest pursuit is wisdom.  Therefore, it is possible for man to pursue art in order to regain closeness to God because artistry involves learning, thus reinforcing the relationship between mans’ potential and his closeness to God.  The use of Theophilus’s techniques, associated with appropriate methods for mixing pigments and staining glass, can be seen in the stained glass pieces entitled, “Adam and Eve” and “Head of Christ”, which possesses vibrant colors and intricate glasswork.  The “Gauzelin Chalice” exemplifies his methods regarding the purification of metals and the processes of metallurgy.  The artists’ journey is a progression of worth; his materiality, function, and craftsmanship are linked to virtue and the restoration of man.  In comparing Medieval art, the “Altar of Henry of Wert” can be seen with an excessive use of studs and support, while the “Altar of the Countess of Gertrude” lacks studs, therefore revealing evidence of labor, process, and ultimately, artistic virtue.

In “his little book on diverse arts”, Theophilus’ instructions are viewed as a series of hypothetical situations.  In explaining art techniques and other procedures on how artistic actions are to be performed, it can be seen that virtue is something to be learned and appropriately enacted.  Art is a matter of discipline, and there is moral significance in delicate touch.  Appropriate artistic action can be viewed as the beginning of wisdom as internal knowledge.  Gearhart also noted that, in Theophilus’ theory, physical activity is integral to moral activity, and art-making is a part of man’s journey to virtue.

Although I had no previous experience with this subject matter, Heidi Gearhart allowed me to view art from the Middle Ages in a completely new and sophisticated light.  I can see that a sense of closeness to God was extremely important to the people of this time period, particularly to the monks, and that this art stressed the nature of man in terms of free will, rationality, and redemption.  I found it intriguing that following appropriate artistic procedures allowed for evidence of good and virtuous work.  The piece of art itself determined the level of virtuosity of the artist.  More virtuous artists, i.e., more skilled and disciplined artists, possessed the wisdom that allotted redeeming qualities.  I think that some of Theophilus’ concepts and ideologies can be applicable to today’s artists, perhaps not in biblical terms, but rather in an artist’s spiritual sense of closeness to his or her artwork.  I believe that wisdom of art allows for the progression of an artist’s sense of self, and the possibility of an artists’ personal redemption through artistic expression.  Overall, I felt that this was quite a difficult lecture to fully grasp, but I think that Heidi Gearhart did a sufficient job laying the groundwork for the theory of virtuosity in Medieval art.




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