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Michael Cothren - Baccalaureate


When Val Smith called last Fall to ask me to address the class of 2017 at Baccalaureate, I was not only surprised; I was scared.  This is the most challenging teaching assignment of my Swarthmore career.  It’s also the last. What could I say to you in this, my last lesson to teach.  How could I limit myself to 20 minutes?  Could an art historian be expected to meet this challenge without pictures, using only words?  I negotiated a way to use a single picture, but which picture to pick?  The painting I chose is on the back of the program, and I hope you have already spent time looking at it.  That was my way of assigning homework to prepare you for my last lecture.  Keep it handy.  I will be referring to it.

When I received the presidential invitation, I was reading Upstream,[1] a collection of profound essays by American poet Mary Oliver, full of gentle but powerful evocations of human life in this beautiful world we live in, musings on land and sky, plant and animal, work and reflection. In the middle of the book, Oliver shares thoughts—both broad generalizations and fine grained details—about her relationships with writers from the past, developed over a lifetime of reading their works.  Through what they have written, these authors have provided Oliver nourishing companionship and bracing challenge during her own life as a writer.  As I relished her account of these experiences, I came to realize that the last lesson I wanted to teach at Swarthmore was related to the story she was telling.  Her cultivation of lifelong relationships with the beautiful and meaningful creations of authors, matched my own experience with painters.  Today, I will make a case for finding friends in the Humanities. 

Mary Oliver begins this section of her book with a poem:

Wherever I’ve lived my room and soon
the entire house is filled with books;
poems, stories, histories, prayers of
all kinds stand up gracefully or are
heaped on shelves, on the floor, on
the bed.  Strangers old and new offering
their words bountifully and thoughtfully,
lifting my heart.

But, wait!  I’ve made a mistake!  How
could these makers of so many books
that have given so much to my life—
how could they possibly be strangers.[2]

If I substitute “pictures” for “words,” and “paintings” for “books,” Oliver’s poem characterizes my own life in the liberal arts. 

She outlines more thoroughly and circumstantially the friendships she has developed with Emerson, Poe, Whitman, and Wordsworth.   She explains what they brought to her personally, and what she brought to them personally, how communicating with them nourished her over time, in ways that changed as she changed.  She says about Emerson in particular, “The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and the absolute, but to the extravagant and the possible.”[3]  (“to the extravagant and the possible”)  She continues, Emerson “opens doors and tells us to look at things for ourselves.”[4] 

My most meaningful friendships with artists from the past have been with painters—with Cézanne, with Caravaggio, with Rogier van der Weyden, with Giotto, to name just a few.  By picturing their profound imaginings of human life, its extravagance and its possibilities, they have continually opened doors for me—actually it was windows, allowing me to look at things for myself through their eyes.  In their work, I look in the present as they have looked in the past, think as they have thought, feel as they have felt.  They do not reflect my own experiences, my own self, back to me.  They open windows, not lift mirrors.  They bring me into communion with them so that our human selves, theirs as well as mine, can talk and listen, disagree as well as discuss, so we can come together to an understanding of our distinct but related experiences as humans alive on this earth.

Giotto's Kiss of JudasThis is powerful stuff—transformational, life altering—but it does not come naturally.  I had to learn to communicate with these artists, practice recognizing their humanness, open myself up to resonate with it.  I had great teachers and great mentors in my liberal arts education, and I learned to do this soul development in the Humanities—in English Literature classes at Vanderbilt University where Dr. Hunter taught me to find sober speculations on the meanings and challenges of human life in Shakespeare’s plays, where Dr. Nathanson took me directly into the minds and hearts of the metaphysical poets, especially George Herbert and John Donne.  During a semester in France, Provençal painter Françoise Celly sent me on pilgrimages to look at the work of Gislebertus, Ghirlandaio, and Giotto, ostensibly to help solve disabling formal dysfunction in my own paintings, but actually nudging me down a path that would take me into a lifelong attachment to the history of art.  Meyer Schapiro demonstrated the power of humanistic time travel—foregrounding its human, not its scholarly, implications.  He conjured up Rogier van der Weyden, who came to stand with us at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as we probed deeper and deeper into the formal fabric of one of Rogier’s greatest paintings.  Throughout these journeys, Glenn Gould and Leontyne Price played their part.  As Mary Oliver has said in one of the most compelling passages in her book, these authors and artists impressed upon me

“the responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently.  To enjoy, to question—never to assume, or trample. Thus the great ones (my great ones, who may not be the same as your great ones) have taught me—to observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always caringly….with the inherited devotions of curiosity and respect.”[5]

My dream for each of you includes taking time to make friends of wise artists in the past, especially those who lived in distant worlds and curious cultures, distinct from your own heritage, and your own experience.  You will find that what you have in common with these artists is much more powerful than the differences that separate you.  You can meet them on the shared domain of your humanity.

I want to root this dream for you not only in broad generalities, but in one concrete example—medieval artist Giotto di Bondone’s “Kiss of Judas,” the painting that appears on your program.  Some will find my choice puzzling.  Others may presume that, because of its subject matter, it is related to our current context at Baccalaureate.  But the specific narrative subject is not the point.

At the end of “The Western Tradition,” among my favorite art history courses I taught at Swarthmore, I hand out a student evaluation form to solicit feedback on the course from those who have just taken it.  I’m not a fan of this form of evaluation, rooted in the frightening rise of assessment culture in higher education.  I would rather have a conversation with my students about their experiences in my classes.  These mandated evaluation forms reimagine what we do as a consumerist enterprise, susceptible to market analysis.  The growth of the soul cannot be evaluated in this way, and the growth of the soul is, for me, one of the two main objectives of liberal arts education—in case you are interested, nimbleness of mind is the other.  Nevertheless, I hand out these evaluation forms, and sometimes I learn interesting things.  Recently, a student returned the form without addressing any of my questions, writing one simple phrase across the middle of the page: “Too much Jesus.”

In the Western European tradition that is surveyed in this course, the art world was centered in the Christian church.  The principal subjects pictured by the principal artists were signature stories and theological doctrines of the Church.  Many works we studied in this class envisioned scenes from the life of Jesus.  But these paintings, like the one reproduced on the back of your program, are not really about Jesus.  Scenes from his life are employed to teach topical moral lessons, to probe the meaning of human life, to parse out the complexity of the decision making that molds the way we live in community on this earth.  The people who first saw these paintings already knew the stories they told, knew them well.  What touched their souls and guided their reflections, was the way these stories were told.

The painting by Giotto on your program imagines in visual form an important event in the life of Jesus, but Jesus occupies very little space in the scene.  In this painting, there is hardly “too much Jesus.”  He is instantly identifiable by his imposing halo, inscribed with a cross.  Near the center of the painting, he confronts Judas face to face.  Judas was one of Jesus’s beloved friends and followers.  He is about to betray Jesus, identify him with a kiss so law enforcement can apprehend and arrest him, leading to his trial and execution.  Judas, not Jesus, is at dead center.  As Judas reaches out to embrace Jesus, he conceals Jesus behind his broad yellow mantle, effectively disembodying him.  Jesus is only head, head in profile, locking Judas in a piercing stare as the betrayer leans forward, lips puckered, ready to plant the fateful kiss.  This is a, maybe the, critical detail.  The title usually given to this painting is “The Kiss of Judas,” but actually Giotto portrays the moment just before the Kiss of Judas; there is time for the betrayer to pull back, change his mind, rewrite the script.  At the center of the painting, the story is halted at a critical moment just before the required action.  Judas is frozen in arrested aggression.  Jesus remains extraordinarily calm.  

There is a lot going on around this central focus.  Let’s step back.  The scene is positively packed with people; faces glare across the expanse from both sides to the center.  A dense cluster of helmeted soldiers forms a blackened backdrop behind Judas and Jesus—a seemingly innumerable battalion.  I counted the helmets.  There are 20 in the foreground, not sure how many are obscured behind them.  This dark mass sets off the full-color prominence of Judas and Jesus at the front.  It also sets off the figures slightly behind and just beside them, two on each side, posed in profile, symmetrical red and green bookends to stabilize the central narrative focus from the sides, just as the somber battalion stabilizes them from behind.  Remember, Judas and Jesus are arrested in a tense and unresolved confrontation.  Aggression is not restricted to the center.  It has already resulted at left in a severed ear slipping down from the side of a figure’s head across his neck, where the second most prominently haloed figure, Saint Peter, reaches out toward the right with a knife.  His groping gesture forms a mirrored visual rhyme with the expansive reach of Judas directed toward the left, linking these two aggressive actions in pictorial resonance.

But what truly grips me in this left third of the painting is not Peter’s conventional lunge to slice off this ear.  The balletic and sanitized nature of this particular action has drained it of the gore that would guarantee its prominence.  The figure I continually return to, the figure that most perplexed me when I first saw this painting in 1971, is the mysteriously hooded man draped in blue who turns his back on us.  He is one of four figures distributed across the foreground of the tableau, figures whose outreaching arms align to create an implied horizontal, unifying and sequestering the crowd behind them.  The hooded man is the only member of this group who has no clear identity in the story.  The other three—Peter, Judas, and the High Priest—are major players.  This man is an enigma.  His outstretched cloak protects us as observers from Peter’s violent act, forming a curtain to signal the picture-plane near the front of the fictive theatrical space.  He is the only participant who turns his back to us, standing as we stand while viewing the painting, linking through posture our world outside the picture to his world inside the picture.  The intimacy this creates is breathtaking, even goosepimpling, once you notice it.  Knowing who he is even more urgent since he is a stand in—so to speak—for me, and for you.  Maybe we are he.  Maybe he holds our place in the painting.

We are just warming up to Giotto’s “Kiss of Judas.”  Much remains to notice, to take in, to ponder, to question.  It is easy to get caught up in details, while losing sight—both literally and figuratively—of the overall picture.  As a whole, the painting remains dominated by aggression, male aggression—there is not a single woman present.  A bristling array of weaponry radiates from the central confrontation to document the militarism of the arresting soldiers, drawing our attention to, and forming a brittle contrast with Jesus, who stands solid and upright, a model of calm resolve centered in angry chaos.  This painting portrays a mythic confrontation between good and evil.  Within that confrontation, Giotto highlights the composure and resolve of Jesus, unmoved by the disorienting aggression, even when the bad guys are destined to prevail, even though he is disembodied by a friend.  The way Giotto pictures this moment allows viewers to empathize with participants, both in its present and in our present.  He prompts us to meditate on how we might react to such a situation when faced with it.  “Faced” is the important word in that sentence, as it relates to this painting. 

There is so much more I want to talk about.  I haven’t mentioned that I find this painting so profoundly beautiful that it still makes me weak in the knees each time I look at it, each time I teach it, even though I have been looking at it and talking about it for 46 years.  Soulful works of art are not meant to be quick reads, but life-long companions.  I also haven’t mentioned the perspective of Enrico Scrovegni, the ridiculously wealthy and deeply sinful business-man who paid for this “Kiss of Judas.”  Paintings this beautiful and this deeply rooted in the meaning of the human condition, reveal their mysteries, teach their lessons, pose their questions only to those who are patient and visually intelligent enough to digest them over time.  Patience and visual intelligence are learned behaviors, not natural talents.  My hunch is that during your 4-year monastic retreat within the liberal arts at Swarthmore, you have learned to be patient and intelligent enough to reap the rewards of deep, slow reading and looking. Develop this practice, especially the looking.  You live in a culture in which communication becomes increasingly pictorial by the day.  You must be critically aware of how the images around you communicate with you if you are going to be a responsible citizen in a global society.  You need visual intelligence to do that.  You must learn to crack visual codes, or be destined to manipulation by them.

Much more is at stake.  Great works of art—paintings, poems, buildings, novels, songs, even some theories—can be life-long companions, dear friends.  To make this happen, you must open up your hearts and minds to them without preconceptions or stereotyping.  You must allow them to be who they are, as they allow you to be who you are.  You must avoid shutting down the relationship before it starts by refraining from saying “too much Jesus,” or “too much abstraction,” or “too Western,” or “too ugly,“ or “too male.”  Resist the tendency to judge quickly, by saying this work is not about me; it doesn’t reflect my experience.  You can reflect your experience.  The goal here is to expand rather than to withdraw, to reach for the “extravagant and the possible.”  Learning to do that may not always leave you feeling comfortable.  But the challenge it offers, when accepted, will lead to personal growth—to soul development.

Make friends in unlikely places within the Humanities.  Find your “great ones,” to use Mary Oliver’s eloquent words, in “that immeasurable fund of thoughts and ideas, from writers and thinkers [I would add painters] long gone into the ground….To enjoy, to question—never to assume, or trample.  Thus the great ones (my great ones, who may not be the same as your great ones) have taught me—to observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always caringly….Yes, it is a din of voices that I hear, [and, I need to add, pictures that I see] and they do not all say [or envision] the same thing.  But the fit of thoughtfulness unites them….I go nowhere, I arrive nowhere, without them.  With them I live my life, with them I enter the event, I mold the meditation, I keep if I can some essence of the hour, even as it slips away.  And I do not accomplish this alert and loving confrontation by myself and alone, but through terrifying and continual effort, and with this innumerable, fortifying company, bright as stars in the heaven of my mind.”[6] 

I hope Oliver’s phrase “alert and loving confrontation” brings into your mind’s eye the painting by one of my “great ones,” my dear friend and companion Giotto, whom we met this afternoon.

Find your great ones.  Bring them back to life in your inner life, in the heaven of your mind.  Make friends in the Humanities.  If you are open and curious, some of them will come from unexpected times and places.

[1] Mary Oliver, Upstream: Selected Essays, New York: Penguin Press (2016).

[2] Oliver, Upstream, p. 63.

[3] Oliver, Upstream, p. 68.

[4] Oliver, Upstream, p. 69.

[5] Oliver, Upstream, p. 57.

[6] Oliver, Upstream, pp. 57-58.

Watch: Michael Cothren