Unlocking the Gallego Code at SMU

Faculty and students at Southern Methodist University pulled off a stunning bit of academic skulduggery this year when they got their hands on a 15th-century altarpiece from the cathedral of Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain.

The masterpiece’s 26 surviving panels, created in oil and tempera between 1480 and 1500, originated in the workshops of the great Spanish artist Fernando Gallego. They were painted by Gallego and the unknown Maestro Bartolomé and are on loan to SMU from the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

The chance to study the dazzling panels, which depict biblical scenes from the Creation all the way to the the Final Judgment — think Sistine Chapel but smaller and with a Spanish flavor — became a semester-long series of courses for 11 professors and 110 students who immersed themselves in all aspects of Spanish art, culture, politics, life and religion of the period, according to a report from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The professors came from disciplines as expected as art history and as unexpected as engineering. They came up with courses designed around the altarpiece and taught them on top of their regular workloads.

According to the Chronicle,  “students earned 30 percent of their grades through individual or group projects that brought an element of medieval Spain to life. Some students designed Holy Week floats that they paraded across campus shortly before Easter. (The campus chaplain blessed the floats and taught students about the traditions of Spanish Holy Week.)

“Others took on the role of class minstrels and learned to play and sing Spanish songs in musical groups called sopistas, the medieval forerunners of present-day tunas, the roaming student music groups. (On Valentine’s Day, a group of self-described valentunas burst into a meeting of campus administrators and serenaded the startled deans.) Still others produced plays or videos about events such as the conquest of Granada or the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Students built models of medieval cathedrals, replicated fashions of the time, and documented historical events in YouTube videos.

“Working in groups of three to five, students earned 60 percent of their grades by becoming experts in one of the altar panels and teaching fellow students and members of the public about it.”

“When you see students pay attention with such intensity, you know it is transforming the way they will look at art and the way they will interact with art objects forever,” Mark Roglan, director of SMU’s Meadows Museum, told the Chronicle.

Roglan snagged the loan from UAMA. The Meadows has perhaps the finest collection of Spanish art in the U.S.

The church has long used the power of art to move souls, especially young ones. I suspect the two Spanish masters knew this deeply but could hardly have suspected the impact on 110 students in Dallas a half a millennium later.

It’s probably only a coincidence that the Catholic chaplain of SMU is Deacon Bronson Havard, who is soon retiring as the longest-serving editor of the Texas Catholic. TC did a terrific story on the exhibit. You can read it by visiting their Web site. The panels and the results of the work of the faculty and students will by on display at the Meadows until July 27.

It’s worth a trip to Dallas. It’ll take you back 500 years and a half a world away.

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