Impressions of Christian Art

For Professor Kiely’s freshman seminar, the students chose their favorite paintings depicting the life of Jesus and gave presentations about their impressions of the art.

The professor posted ten paintings by Italian Renaissance painters of scenes from the life of Jesus on the course website and asked students to choose a favorite one and answer a series of questions including: What do you see? Describe the painting as if to a person who had never seen it. What pleases, surprises you about the painting? How does it affect your reading of the gospel episode from which it is taken? If you think the painting is beautiful, what makes it so?

Instructions were given orally in class and online as a reminder. The activity lasted for two weeks. Students were to write a paper and give a presentation in seminar, responding to comments from the class. They looked at the paintings on a large screen during the presentations. The primary goal of the activity was to teach students to stop and look and then to find words to describe what they found before saying how they felt and thought about it. Professor Kiely found that everyone had something, usually a lot, to say. Many of the students had never seen any of the paintings beforehand.

The professor needed to reassure the students that previous familiarity with the painters or paintings was not necessary. The process should not be hurried. He asked them not to look up the paintings in Widener or Wikipedia. He asked them to use concrete, specific, nontechnical language. Most said they had never thought they could do this. All said they loved it.