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Decoding the details

The religious frescoes of Giotto (1266–1337) may not make your heart skip
a beat. But view them
in Prof. Penny Jolly’s late-Gothic art-history class, and the paintings will positively pop, resonant with history and glittering with exquisite tidbits of lore.

That’s what makes classes with Jolly—recently honored with Skidmore’s Ciancio Prize in Teaching—so rich, memorable, and even funky. Take Giotto’s
scene of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
The mourners are ostentatiously covering their noses because, Jolly says, “dead bodies smell,” and this is Giotto’s way of “reassuring his viewers that Lazarus was really dead before Jesus got there, and this really is a miracle.” Or look closely at Giotto’s nativity scene, whose attendant beasts include a horned black goat. Unlike the assembled sheep, the goat is turning its head away from the manger, putting its face into profile—and profile was a medieval convention to protect viewers from the evil eye. Might the black goat represent Satan, an evil so omnipresent that it takes its place even at the birth of Christ?

Jolly’s delight in such evocative details points to why she became an art historian in the first
place: “I love the visuals. I just get sucked in by them,” she admits with a smile. And she often
urges her students to try their own hands at art analysis. Rather than have them uncritically
accept the text that museums post next to artworks, she wants her students to master the facts, methodologies, and intuitions that will let them read for themselves the subtle visual narratives that artists tuck into the lines of their landscapes, their background colors, their symbolic figures. That shared search for the story in each artwork makes Jolly’s classes particularly zesty.

But students also feel “the breadth and force of her scholarship,” says Jonathan Winter ’07.
“You dive into a painting by Giotto and you pick up what marriage was like in his time—and society, commerce, religion, everything.” For Laura Beshears ’07, “that’s what makes art history
so complex: the fact that art is another way of looking at societies and cultures.” Jolly’s telling details, says Winter, work as “mnemonic devices to help us remember it all.”

A thirty-year veteran of teaching medieval and Renaissance art, Jolly is the college’s Kenan Professor of Liberal Arts and a much-sought-after lecturer (her talk “Decoding DaVinci” was a must-see on campus and off). Along with keeping up a torrid pace of research (she travels,
studies, writes, and publishes regularly), she says, “I love being in the classroom with students,” working to spark what she calls “the hoped-for affective response to late Gothic art.”

In her new course “Ad/dressing the Body” a classroom wall offers the visual opposite of religious frescoes: the kings and courtiers of the seventeenth century, when the divine right of kings was
very much alive and well dressed. Up flashes a portrait of France’s Louis XIV; at age sixty-three, the Sun King is portrayed as boyishly clean-shaven, cloaked in ermine-trimmed velvet, and sporting long, wavy black curls. In the style of the day, Jolly confides, “men shaved their heads under those wigs.” In his white tights and red-heeled shoes, the king stands tall, his toes turned elegantly out. Jolly suddenly urges her students, “Stand up! Take Louis’s pose—hand on hip, stomach in—doesn’t that feel good? Now,” she beams, “imagine going out into the world feeling like that.” —BAM