CHAPTER 24 – Handing on the Torch of Civilisation II: The History of Art Teacher
Everything came together to draw me to the History of Art:
Firstly, my first history paper was History I – the Fall of Rome and the Dark Ages, and Renaissance and the Reformation, a fascinating study which still today draws me into deeper continued reading. And part of the Renaissance study was an introduction to the Early Renaissance paintings of Giotto. The history professor at that time had an abiding interest in the history of art and culture and had made space for this little topic. Aubynne and I both loved this refreshing topic, learning about chiaroscuro, the search for depth, and the search for a more human depiction of religious narrative painting.
Secondly, Giotto’s discovery, also echoed my thirst for learning more of the development of Catholic Western culture. This indeed fitted well with my earlier enthusiastic readings of the history of culture and thought.
And thirdly, St John’s College needed another humanities subject for senior students. I had raised the issue in the mid-1980s among the staff, that senior non-science but good, able humanities and language students were forced to take Biology as a fifth subject. At that time, I had little confidence in teaching Classical Studies – topics about Ancient Greek and Roman cultural history – but noticed that senior Art History was based solely on Renaissance paintings and sculpture. And so this new subject was introduced for the senior boys.
With great help from a small group of enthusiastic history of art teachers, I launched into this new subject, and to my surprise this subject became the love of my teaching life through until I retired. My enthusiasm remained unabated for 20 years. My knowledge of the subject grew and grew and my teaching of it became a source of joy for not only myself but for my students. Such was the impact on the boys that even parents would approach me and inquire how they could join my classes.
And what was it about this subject that fascinated and enthused the students?!
There was a logical narrative flow: 1300 to 1520. The exam was based on a consistent essay form – the critical literary essay form of a poem or novel. Once this essay form was partially mastered, the same skill was required for all the exam questions. The content was visual. For many senior boys, reading had become a challenge. Here was content to look at and explore. And no previous knowledge was required: it was totally unfamiliar to all the students.
Students became immersed in the Early Middle Ages and here we could link together the ancient world of Greece and Rome, the barbarian invasions, the rise of Catholic civilisation, and the growing demand for religious narrative. Greek and Roman architectural discoveries joined hands with the humanising influence of St Francis spirituality, with the need to tell the story of Christianity in visual and spatial forms. The boys dismal post-Vatican II understanding of their own faith was challenged. Why is Mary enthroned? What is an altar? Why all the gold in the background? Why is there a dove?
We explored Christian iconography, searched for examples in our parishes, noted the classical colonnade in Napier, the neo-Classical buildings of our cities, and discussed the difference between an Italian Lamborghini and a German BMW viz Durer and the Italians. And the great Sistine Chapel ceiling became a vehicle for understanding the cultural and mythic history of Europe, and the idea of man himself. We discussed Greek idealism and rationalism, the magic of mathematics, proportions, the Golden Ratio in nature, Catholic humanism, mercenary warfare, Gothic imagination and horror films.
Philosophy, history, art, culture, the modern media and society all came into clearer view. The boys learnt more about their Faith in a year of art history than five years of compulsory Religious Education. They became evangelists for this subject and classes grew in size. Staff would approach me inquiring about this little “counter revolution” going on at St John’s. One year after another the number of A Bursary (scholarship) successes grew – unheard of for a humanities subject at our school.
But it could not last. The forces of the cultural and sociological revolution finally impinged on even this subject. Post-Modern Deconstructionism rendered historical truth meaningless and purely relative. By 2000, the curriculum and examination changed for the worse: the narrative flow was made non-prescriptive and internal assessment options reduced the reach of the overview of time. Technical skills and concepts replaced understanding of historical developments. By 2005, it was becoming impossible to continue teaching this subject as before. The future looked bleak indeed. And so by then I retired from teaching. Looking back now, if it weren’t for those changes I may have continued teaching for a few more years.