(This is a collaborative post with input from Nancy Thompson, Jennifer Borland, and Emma Bergman)
The end of the semester always seems hectic and crazy. Between the frantic push to finish grading and the panicked emails from students, not to mention the holiday preparations for however you celebrate, there’s not much time to slow down. This blog post is about taking it slow.
We’re sharing a particularly successful response to a cool slow-looking assignment that several of us have played with in our classes over the past few years. The essay was written by an undergraduate who was specifically instructed not to do any research on her chosen object, a crozier head that was recently donated to our college’s museum. While the essay may have some errors, mostly due to the fact that little is known about the crozier head, this assignment is not about accuracy. It’s about taking the time to really look and think about what you’re seeing. That’s an important life lesson, even beyond visual art and art history. So, we hope you enjoy the assignment and the response, both of which are posted below.
Happy Holidays! Give yourself the space to take it slow.
Looking at Art: A Journey Through Time and Space
One of the things I love about period dramas is the way they allow you to dive into another world and connect with someone from the past. Even though I might be lying in bed looking at a screen, for an hour or two I am transported to another time and place, experiencing the struggles and joys of life in a different era. Looking at art from other places or time periods can cause a similar almost out of body experience for many people. Last week, I withdrew from my daily responsibilities and spent forty-five minutes looking at a medieval ivory crozier head. A crozier is a staff held by a religious official, which often has a decorated head. This particular crozier depicts the crucifixion, along with Mary, John the Baptist, and two serpents. The object took me on a journey through its life, from its beginnings as the tusks of an elephant, to being carved by an artist and held by religious leaders, and finally to the present moment when it was observed by me. Taking the time to truly look at the object made me connect with its past in ways I never thought I was capable of.
Hundreds of years ago, the intricately carved crozier head that sat on a pedestal in a small room was once a part of an African elephant. As I stood in the gallery observing the object, my mind wandered to what the life of the particular elephant I was looking at might have been like. I imagined him wandering through the African Savanna among a herd of dozens of other elephants, using his tusks to defend himself or to dig underground. One day, while the elephant slept far from the rest of its herd, hunters spotted him. The hunters would use a sword to cut off his trunk until the blood loss was too great for the elephant to stay alive. Finally they would saw off the tusks from the elephant. Years later, the elephant’s family would return to their father’s grave to embrace his bones, a grieving response scientists have observed among elephants Africa.
The brutal killing of such a powerful creature simply to use its tusks is shameful and unjust. When we first glance at a beautifully carved ivory sculpture, it is difficult to see past its aesthetic value. However, while I observed the crozier head for a long period of time, it dawned on me that the life and death of the elephant is present in the ivory. I was able to realize through the process of slow-looking that the ivory sitting on a small white pedestal was once both a part of a mighty, gigantic elephant, and was also the reason that the elephant’s life was cut too short.
After the hunters collected the tusks, the ivory was transported hundreds of miles to Europe, where it sat in an artist’s workshop and was carved. It was a powerful experience to be so close to what someone had touched thousands of years ago and see the intricate details that reflected their emotions. Spending forty-five minutes staring at the piece, analyzing how each detail added to the whole composition, gave me sense of connectedness to the artist. I was particularly drawn to the emotions portrayed on the figures of the piece. Jesus’s body looks limp, with his head hanging low, but his face looks peaceful, as if he had already passed on. The pain Jesus felt is portrayed not in him, but in the expressions of Mary and John the Baptist. Mary holds her hand over her heart while she looks up at her son, with her face carved to convey incredible pain, confusion, and anger. John feels a different kind of pain. With his hands clasped by his waist and his head bowed, his expression evokes a sense of defeat and sadness.
The emotions of the figures contrast with the beastly nature of the serpent above them and the second serpent on the back of the sculpture. In his post on the Material Collective blog, Kerr Houston discusses a similar ivory carving of the crucifixion that incorporates a serpent. He argues that the serpent represents evil, and including it with Jesus’s crucifixion underscores the idea that Jesus triumphed over sin through his sacrifice. Houston also points out how this idea is further demonstrated by the fact that burning ivory can repel snakes. In this way, the material of the carving reinforces the artist’s message: that through Jesus’s pain and suffering on the cross comes human salvation from the sin. Trying to unfold the layers of meaning the artist used to create the object forced me to put myself in the mind of the artist.
After the crozier head sat in the artist’s workshop, it was likely given to a religious leader to carry as they presided over services. Holding a staff can connect the owner to Jesus because Jesus would have held a similar staff as a shepherd. This metaphor is extended further in this particular ivory crozier head because it depicts the crucifixion. As I observed the carving, I imagined the sensation of power it would give to a religious leader through its association with the divine.
Hundreds of years and thousands of miles later, the crozier head sat on a white block inside a small room. It journeyed through time and space to get to the point where it is today. At first glance, the object seems insignificant. The fact that the carving stands lifelessly in a mostly empty room seems to ignore the power the object held in the past. But imagining who had touched it and where it came from brings life to the carving that I would not have imagined without taking the time to really look at the object. I was able to travel back to a different time and experience a part of life from the perspective of another person, or even an elephant. When you take the time to truly look and connect with a piece of art, you can uncover discoveries that you never considered before.
–Emma Bergman, Music Education Major, St. Olaf College, Class of 2020