'How to Read a Cathedral' with Green Mountain Academy


MANCHESTER >> Jane Carroll knew she wanted to study art history when she was 9 years old in Ohio.

"My parents took me on vacation to New York," she said, "and when we walked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art I remember thinking, 'Someone made all of this. What were they thinking?'"

Now an art historian and Dartmouth professor, Carroll continues to marvel at illustrated manuscripts from the medieval and early modern periods.

On Wednesday, June 17, she will give a talk at the Southern Vermont Arts Center looking at the countless visual cues found in European cathedrals — "How to Read a Cathedral" — put on by the Green Mountain Academy for Lifelong Learning, based out of Dorset.

She has spoken several times for the Green Mountain Academy, according to the organization's executive director, Gloria Palmer.

"She's dynamic and very engaging. We love having her," Palmer said.

Carroll will talk about over-arching themes many European cathedrals share and some outlier narratives specific to churches throughout the continent.

"Every building is just as unique as [the] unique people in the world," Carroll said. "It's like getting to know and learn about somebody new."

Carroll will focus on Gothic cathedrals, she said, because they tend to be the most ornately decorated among history's various architectural church styles.

The Gothic style began with the French abbot Suger of Saint-Denis around 1140 A.D. and ended with the arrival of the Renaissance in about 1500. Suger's changes to the already-existing Church of Saint-Denis (burial home of most of the French monarchs) are thought to have spurred the Gothic architectural style.

Gothic cathedrals evolved in France, she said, and the style moved to England and then Germany.

"The French were a lot more interested in sculptural decoration and telling a narrative," she said. "The English didn't decorate as lavishly inside or outside."

As she talks about the stories in cathedral buildings, Carroll will also talk about how to approach them. A cathedral's main entrance always lies on the west side, so that someone coming in is walking east toward Jerusalem, the Christian holy land.

Cathedral styles reflect what the builders wanted to say at the time, she said, and with changing viewpoints came different vehicles of visual expression.

For many people in in the Middle Ages, she said, faith, community and service to it came before individual wants and needs — a sense of the world that changed with the Renaissance.

"I always tell my students that in the Middle Ages, you start broad and narrow down," Carroll said. "It went from, 'I'm a Christian' to 'I'm a parent' and finally to 'I'm a writer,' for example."

Gothic cathedrals were statements of pride — pride in the church, empire and town. The Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral, for example, was the required pilgrimage site for every medieval French king to be coronated and receive the holy oil that marked him as king of his people. As the king-to-be entered the cathedral, he would see at the center door's pinnacle a sculpture representing the Coronation of the Virgin Mary by Christ.

"In that manner, the contemporary political world and the sacred world intersected," Carroll said. "There's a correspondence between decoration and what's going to happen inside."

Pride translated into piety as well. Medieval writers including Abbot Suger described a practice called the "Miracle of Carts" — lay people who wanted to be involved or who felt sinful spontaneously detached oxen from their loads and carried heavy stones uphill to cathedral sites.

But not all of the public supported cathedrals — Carroll told of riots opposingto paying the taxes raised to build these massive monuments.

After years of visiting cathedrals, Carroll said she finds new details and relationships in them after each trip. She gives herself permission to see different details on the second or third time around. When Carroll and her husband last stepped into the Westminster Abbey in London, she took time to analyze the building's roof patterns — she had focused on the eye-level details in earlier visits.

"It's hard to look up," she said.

She will also touch on the sculptures surrounding cathedrals, she said. Usually representative of holy figures, sculptures create a dialogue that decorate meaning within the buildings themselves, she said.

"People get most overwhelmed by the vast number of sculptures and how to read them," she said.

Carroll considers herself a visual analyst from a cultural standpoint, meaning she always considers the history connected to the images she studies. She stressed the importance of being aware of surroundings in everyday life. When President Barack Obama makes a televised speech, for example, Carroll looks at the portraits behind him and the placement of his officials, searching for meaning within these choices.

Along with Car5oll's talk, the Green Mountain Academy curates many programs for cultural and intellectual enrichment — events in music, literature, art, history and more throughout the year, Palmer said, as well as cooking, pottery and woodworking classes throughout Southwestern Vermont.

Carroll feels fortunate to have been sure of her career early on. In college, she said, she told her freshman year roommate that she was definitely going to teach art history. She carries the memory of the first experience that sparked her interest in this field at the Metropolitan Museum.

"It's like I'm still 9 years old when I walk into a cathedral," she said.

If you go ...

What: 'How to read a cathedral,' lecture with Jane Carroll

When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 17

Where: Southern Vermont Arts Center, Yester House

Admission: $15 in advance; $20 at the door

Info: 802-867-0111, greenmtnacademy.org


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