Professor Elliott D. Wise on Affective Piety, Ekphrastic Mysticism, and Dramatic Teaching

Affect, verb: (1) have an effect upon; make a difference to. (2) touch the feelings of (someone); move emotionally.

Elliott D. Wise, assistant professor of Art History in the Comparative Arts and Letters department, confesses that he teaches in a rather emotional style—dramatic, even—in part to keep people awake in the dim light of an art history lecture hall. “You have to keep people going,” he laughs. “But I mainly do it because when looking at a work of art, even experiencing a work of art, you’re supposed to feel it.” Students report they do; when asked to describe Professor Wise’s teaching, students comment on his evident passion for the subject, fascinating insights, and engaging lectures. The adjective most often heard is “kind.” Professor Wise was recently awarded the Early Career Teaching Award by the university, recognizing his outstanding promise and contribution to teaching at an early stage of his career. In terms close to Professor’s Wise’s heart and discipline, he affects students and the spiritual life of the College powerfully by his careful teaching and scholarship.

For Professor Wise, the depth of feeling—affect—inspired by the Northern Renaissance’s devotional artwork guides his scholarship and teaching. “I study these things because I care very deeply about being close to Christ, devoted to Christ, and having the deepest reverence for His beloved mother, His saints, [and] His apostles.” Some of the best ideas for his research come from his own understanding, and desired practice of, a devout life. Actively seeking after many of the principles undergirding Renaissance and late medieval art, including affective piety, Professor Wise finds his own spiritual experience gives him insight, alongside his scholarly training, into Northern Renaissance artwork and the catharsis, compassion, empathy, and imitative devotion it inspires.

Professor Wise completed a B.A. and M.A. in Art History at Brigham Young University before completing doctoral work in Art History at Emory University. His semester at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and fellowship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City broadened the scope of his academic project and enabled him to explore the affinities between vernacular mystical literature in the Low Countries and panel paintings by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1399-1464) and Robert Campin (c. 1375-1445).

He is particularly interested in ritualized religious practices and the nexus created by visual exegesis, ekphrastic and vernacular mysticisms, and meditation upon word and image. “Fifteenth-century art is so enmeshed in [the world of religious practice] and does it in such an elegant, beautiful way. Northern art’s major purpose was to work a change in your heart—a literal change, a converting change. On its surface, the Northern Renaissance seeks to create an affective experience where you are moved to tears, and [that movement] changes something—literally—inside you.” In his office, he keeps framed prints of Rogier van der Weyden’s Vienna Crucifixion Triptych and Escorial Calvary. Calling the affective power of Van der Weyden’s work “gut-wrenching,” Professor Wise gestures to the intimacy created by Van der Weyden’s composition of the Virgin Mary mourning at the feet of her crucified son and says, “No other artist pulls your heart out more through [formal elements of his work]. It’s hard to be a religious person and not be moved to tears by Rogier van der Weyden’s work.”

Professor Wise is quick to point out that while the period he works within has emotional and spiritual affect, contemporary practices of visual exegesis and vernacular mysticism demonstrate the discipline and academic rigor at play during the fifteenth century, and needed today, to understand the complex works. Still, experience remains at the heart of Wise’s praxis and his understanding of devotional artwork’s power. On the cultural shifting of mystical writing’s language—from Latin to the vernacular of Northern Europe—Professor Wise says, “There is something about the experiential nature of vernacular language—the language used in the marketplace, that you use to speak to your mother or your father, or to your love, your husband, or your wife—that holds an aura well suited to the endeavor of mysticism. To experience something you can’t read about, you can’t quite visualize or depict, something you can only experience to understand—the vernacular as the language you use when crying or expressing love holds power.”

The critical gap between spiritual experience and its depiction, Professor Wise argues in his dissertational work—an ongoing book project—and other articles, can be bridged by ekphrasis. Ekphrasis, the use of detailed descriptions of a work of visual art as a literary device, evokes a “verbal” or “non-pictorial image” within the worshipper. Northern Renaissance devotional art, well-known for its brilliant colors and exquisite detail, should be “read” as “bare bones, [or] an archaeological ruin,” Professor Wise says. “We—the scholars and the viewers, together—have to build back the function of the image,” as it operates on Augustinian levels of exegetical meaning: literal and metaphorical, allegorical and anagogical.

While some interpret the new painting style of the fifteenth century, typified in Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait or his collaborative work with brother, Hubert, The Ghent Altarpiece, as a move toward secularism and the rational, empirical world Enlightenment, Professor Wise sees instead a different approach to religion. “It’s an approach in which the mysteries of the life of Christ are made so vivid by the naturalism in the painting that you feel you can step into them.” Professor Wise asks what it would mean to interpret scripture, and life-like mystical experience, visually rather than with only words, as in his forthcoming chapter on ekphrastic mysticism. “[The chapter] looks toward the role of ekphrasis in mysticism and trying to use images to approximate mystical experience, which by very definition is not imaginable. You cannot describe it; it has to be experienced. I suggest ekphrasis allows you to see a veiled representation of something you can never actually see until the final day, when you behold the face of God.”

Interpreting scripture through artwork, and artwork through scripture, requires scriptural literacy—something Professor Wise appreciates in the students he works with at BYU. “The student body, almost without exception, really values being devout and knows what it feels like. They have deep emotional and spiritual connections to what they encounter in the classroom. Devotional artwork touches the things that they value the most in their life.” He finds the students’ connection to the works encountered in the classroom, and his connections with students, deepen as he looks at devotional images with them in office hours and required meetings surrounding major research projects for the semester. The process is generative: “I find that I get fabulous ideas for my own research, because it forces me to look carefully at something I wouldn’t look at carefully, otherwise. For me, teaching and research really go hand in hand; they support each other.”

While understanding and evoking mystical experience has been central to Professor Wise’s work thus far, both in the classroom and in his research, one of his next projects turns more fully to the textual world of the fifteenth century and visual depictions of the Virgin Mary as priest. “It’s a dangerous area because it is a heresy to have a woman as a priest. There are some texts that compare Mary to a priest in one way or another, but nothing in the textual world prepares you for the onslaught of Northern Renaissance images that use priesthood as a visual framework for the representation of the Virgin Mary. It’s a fascinating case of a kind of visual exegesis that doesn’t have much of a textual counterpart but has significant implications on lived religious life. Wherever projects take me, I come back to devotion, to the Virgin Mary and the suffering Christ.”

This post was written by Abby Thatcher, Humanities Center intern.

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