Sharon Gerstel Examines Light in Art and Architecture

“The church shines with its middle part brightened, for bright is that coupled with the bright, and bright is the noble edifice which is pervaded by the light” quoted UCLA Professor of Byzantine Art and Archaeology Sharon Gerstel from patron of architecture Suger at the talk titled “Illumination: Reflections on Light and Medieval Churches.
“This is the kind of wordplay that drives my undergraduates crazy,” said Gerstel, drawing a laugh from the crowd.
Gerstel spoke at the talk held Thursday afternoon in the Scheuer room as a part of the lectureship endowed to former Swarthmore Professor Mary Albertson, which focuses on Medieval studies. Current Swarthmore Art History Professor Michael Cothren, who had taught Gerstel during her undergraduate years at Bryn Mawr during a Tri-Co faculty exchange, introduced her to the attendees.
“She took a course from me on medieval stained glass […] She was fiercely intelligent, profoundly questioning, possessed with a sort of holy curiosity about medieval art. All of those qualities made her stand out among her peers, and continue to make her stand out among her scholarly colleagues today,” said Cothren.
Gerstel’s speech focused on the way light manifests itself within Medieval churches. She began by talking about her experience of taking a seminar with Cothren that significantly influenced her academic path.  
“I frequently tell my students about how Michael Cothren walked into a class of Bryn Mawr women, who’d all taken seats in the back, leaving a huge gulf in the front. Cothren had none of it—he forced us all to the front of the classroom. There we stayed for the entire semester, riveted. The result of this seminar, for me, was a life in the field of Medieval Art History,” Gerstel said.
Gerstel explained that her specialty lies in Byzantine art. In Cothren’s class, she had focused on a stained glass windows of the Tree of Jesse, which depict the ancestors of Christ rooted in the biblical book of Isaiah. Later, she realized the Tree of Jesse was also a popular feature of Byzantine artwork, and that the two disciplines of the Medieval East and West shared more in common than originally thought.
“These two works, one in the East and one in the West, are equivalent manifestations of the sacred theme, even though they have always been seen as belonging to separate disciplines,” said Gerstel.
Gerstel went on to discuss the architectural influence of Suger, who used light in his buildings to represent the divine. She argued that Medieval Eastern artists were similarly interested in using light to explore divine themes, in a way that many Medievalists have failed to acknowledge. Referencing three Byzantine religious manuscripts, she noted that there were widespread references to the thought of Dionysius, which had a profound influence on the architecture of buildings within the Byzantine capital, specifically in regards to light.
“Luminosity was integral to the symbolic meaning of the church and its wisdom. It was manipulated in many cases by the use of reflective silver tesera which directed illumination like spotlights, emphasizing parts of the building,” said Gerstel.
The control of illumination symbolized the intelligibility and immanence of God. The use and emphasis of light in religious architecture continued throughout Byzantine history, Gerstel argued, although this has not been meaningfully explored within academia. She did acknowledge that in many instances the effects of light have changed or diminished as the buildings have aged.
Gerstel then turned to tetragrams that accompanied the light sources in Byzantine churches. Found in Byzantine manuscripts, the tetragrams served to represent important theological concepts. She also noted that other forms of light could be found throughout Byzantine churches, such as candles and chandeliers, that involved their own rituals.
Gerstel concluded her talk by drawing attention, again, to the similarities between the East and the West, acknowledging that the two artistic disciplines had been treated very separately. At the end of the talk, she turned back to the influence of her undergraduate seminar.
“This was the gift given to me by Michael Cothren- to think beyond the walls of Saint Denis to question the canon, to stretch intellectually. This is the fortune of students who study at a college like Bryn Mawr or Swarthmore, the gift of holy wisdom,” concluded Gerstel.
Several of the audience members at Gerstel’s talk were current students of Cothren.
“I think that I definitely heard some things that Cothren has taught me echoed in the discussion,” said Colette Gerstmann ’18 who is currently taking “Visual Narrative in Medieval Art,” the last class Cothren will be teaching at Swarthmore. “I thought it was a really sweet and poignant event.”

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