When she first encountered the painting The Descent from the Cross by Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden in college, Mary Shepard was intrigued. In fact, she said, it started her thinking about becoming an art historian.
Flash forward: Dr. Mary B. Shepard, having completed her fifth year as the art historian at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith, has a chance to fly to Spain for research, thanks to the Lucille Speakman Legacy Endowment. In Madrid, she stops at the Prado National Museum. There she sees in person The Descent from the Cross and realizes she is encountering it for the first time.
“I just stood there thinking, ‘I don’t know this painting at all,’” she said recently, still surprised. “It was so much bigger than I imagined, nearly as big as that wall,” she said gesturing to demonstrate a work more than six feet high and more than eight feet wide.
“The way I teach that painting will be different now.”
It was Shepard’s first trip to Spain, although she’d traveled often to France and England in support of her research. She proposed the trip to southern Spain to study the sacred art, especially the worship sites, of Christians, Muslims and Jews in the former Muslim caliphate.
Her observations reinforced the historical record that the Muslims were tolerant. “Jews and Christians weren’t marginalized,” she said. “They were a vibrant part of the culture.
“The amazing confluence of artistic output of these three groups shows the respect they paid each other. Christians took Islamic perfume bottles and used them as reliquaries. Jews were having Muslim architects design their synagogues.”
Standing inside these structures offers insights impossible to glean from two-dimensional slides, Shepard said.
“You don’t really know how things fit together until you are there,” she said. “You walk around and see how the different parts congeal and you see the relationship of form and space. … To actually stand in the Great Mosque of Cordoba was mind-blowing.
“You get ideas when you are standing there. You see new ways to bring the art alive,” she said. “I’m going to bring this experience into my non-Western art class and my survey class; I will change things around. When I do medieval art, I’m going to do a whole week on Jewish/Christian/Muslim interaction in Spain.”
Asked if she expects to spur discussion when she introduces these ideas to students, she said she hopes so.
“I want to demystify. I want students to understand the faith that produced these glorious works of art is not the perversion that is on the news.
“Art is a path through to understanding. It’s a door through which you can enter and appreciate and not have to judge. And that is the beginning of understanding.”
Originally from Wisconsin, Shepard completed her master’s degree at the University of Virginia and her doctorate at Columbia University in New York.
The Lucille Speakman Legacy Endowment was started by Randy Wewers and supported by him and other alumni to provide opportunities for faculty to travel, study, or in any way enhance their classroom skills. Shepard received the endowment’s first award.
“It was an inspired idea that Randy Wewers had,” Shepard said. “It’s just such a wonderful opportunity to give faculty a chance to develop their curriculum in a new or interesting way.”