The following is from the June 13, 2008, edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Encountering the Middle Ages:
Spain and the Meadows Museum


Mark Roglán, director of the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist, knew he had snagged a cultural gem when his institution acquired as a loan a 26-panel altarpiece that once adorned a 15th-century Spanish cathedral. But he had no idea that the massive medieval artwork would inspire 11 faculty members and about 110 students to spend a semester dissecting the piece in a multidisciplinary course that featured songs, floats, videos, and painting.

The course sprang out of a discussion Mr. Roglán had with Bonnie Wheeler, an associate professor of English and director of medieval studies. She says she was intrigued by the idea of developing a course around the altarpiece.

"By focusing on a group of paintings, we could study a broad range of subjects in a way that is truly interdisciplinary," Ms. Wheeler says.

Eleven professors from the departments of art history, law, English, history, theology, engineering, and music volunteered to teach the course on top of their normal teaching loads, without extra pay. Some 110 students from disciplines as varied as music and engineering signed up to take it.

An engineering professor explained how infrared rays and ultraviolet light have made it possible to examine the painting's many layers, including early sketches and even artists' notes. A professor of art recreated the materials available in medieval times and showed students how to prepare and paint panels of their own. A law professor discussed intellectual property and the question of who owns the medieval treasures. Each class session also included the study of one panel and a song and a poem from the period.

The altarpiece was hung in the cathedral of Ciudad Rodrigo in Castile, Spain. The panels, created in oil and tempera between 1480 and 1500 by the painters Fernando Gallego and Maestro Bartolomé, are on loan from the University of Arizona Museum of Art. They depict biblical scenes from the Creation to the Last Judgment.

Ms. Wheeler says the altarpiece dates from a crucial time in Spanish history at the end of the medieval period and the beginning of the age of imperial expansion. It was a time when Christopher Columbus voyaged to the Americas, literature and fine arts flourished, and Christians lived in fear of a coming apocalypse. "All of those events are reflected in this altarpiece," says Mr. Roglán.

Reading list:

The Medieval Spains, by Bernard F. Reilly (Cambridge University Press, 1993); Ways of Seeing, by John Berger (Penguin, 1990)


Students earned 30 percent of their grades through individual or group projects that brought an element of medieval Spain to life. Some students designed Holy Week floats that they paraded across campus shortly before Easter. (The campus chaplain blessed the floats and taught students about the traditions of Spanish Holy Week.)

Others took on the role of class minstrels and learned to play and sing Spanish songs in musical groups called sopistas, the medieval forerunners of present-day tunas, the roaming student music groups. (On Valentine's Day, a group of self-described "valentunas" burst into a meeting of campus administrators and serenaded the startled deans.) Still others produced plays or videos about events such as the conquest of Granada or the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Students built models of medieval cathedrals, replicated fashions of the time, and documented historical events in YouTube videos.

Working in groups of three to five, students earned 60 percent of their grades by becoming experts in one of the altar panels and teaching fellow students and members of the public about it.

"When you see students pay attention with such intensity, you know it is transforming the way they will look at art and the way they will interact with art objects forever," says Mr. Roglán.

The final 10 percent of the grade was determined by a midterm exam, quizzes, and class participation.

Students say:

Heather Hunt, a sophomore who is majoring in medieval studies, history, and art history, says she has enjoyed performing with her fellow "valentunas" and learning how art, science, history, and other disciplines intersect. "I think the best learning is done through traveling, but since we couldn't travel to Spain, the array of subjects we're studying has allowed me to soak myself in the culture as much as possible."

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