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Journal of Visual Culture

Undergraduate Projects:

Laura Adams
Chloe Barnett
Bridget Costello
Elizabeth Damore
Hannah Flack
Molly Finnegan

Mariana Martin
Daria Ovide
Abigail Perkiss
Lauren Rosenblum
Debbie Wang
Maxim Weintraub
Petra Williams-Lescht

Graduate Projects:

Maya Balakirsky
Deborah Barkun
Andrea DeGiorgi
Zlatan Gruborovic
Elizabeth Martin
Michael J. McClure
Sara Morasch
Jeanne-Marie Musto
Kim Peters

Sarah Morasch

What is now the town of Lincoln in Lincolnshire, England was settled more than two thousand years ago and, in the first century C.E., it became the capital of the Roman province that covered eastern England.   Flourishing during the medieval period as an inland port and a center of wool production, the town was visited by pilgrims and became home to several communities of friars.   They were drawn to the region by its cathedral, the third largest in England, consecrated in 1092 and reconstructed one hundred years later in the Gothic style.   Today, its looming towers still command the view above a medieval town center making Lincoln a valuable destination for an aspiring art historian particularly interested in the later Middle Ages.   During the summer of 2005, I spent eight weeks working in the Lincoln Cathedral Library, which gave me the rare opportunity to live in this region of extraordinary history while assisting with a project that would itself expand my knowledge of medieval culture and art.     

The libraries of the Lincoln Cathedral contain manuscripts that date as far back as one thousand years.   The Medieval Library was built in the 1420's and is now used for regular exhibitions of books and manuscripts.   The Wren Library, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1675, houses an important collection of early printed books.   My project was to create a computer database classifying the woodcuts from the library's holdings of incunabula and early printed books .   It is estimated that around five hundred of the books printed before 1535 contain woodcuts.   I compared these images with those catalogued in Edward Hodnett's English Woodcuts, 1480 to 1535 .   This involved digital photography of the woodcuts and the creation of subject fields to enable cross-referencing.

The librarians arranged a visit to the Cathedral Works Department where we were shown around the stonemason's workshop and were allowed to see pieces of the Dean's Eye rose window on the light box.   I attended cathedral concerts, Shakespeare plays, and a study day in the Wren Library.   On the weekends, I traveled to London, York, Nottingham, and Haworth (the home of the lovely Brontë sisters).   I took a trip to Cambridge with the library staff and visited King's College Chapel and the Wren Library at Trinity College.

My summer work inspired my choice of thesis topic - I am now writing on a subject involving fifteenth and sixteenth century woodcut images.   But, what I learned from my internship that was most lasting came from my experience of the cathedral itself.   I remember seeing Lincoln's towering West Front for the first time, not over the rooftops of the town but as a image projected in a darkened Bryn Mawr classroom. Until I spent a summer in Lincoln, I had not truly realized that its Gothic monument was in fact still the center of so many lives.   In the morning, choir men walked their dogs around the circling drive and stonemasons walked the roof.   Organ music often drifted into the cloister where students from the Minster School took their lunches. Many of my co-workers, as children, had played rowdy games dangerously close to the chapter house windows. In the short time I'd spent working in the cathedral library, I grew to love this town in eastern England and was fortunate to be among those people whose faith and care had sustained this place for more than a thousand years.  

The summer travel grant administered by the Center for Visual Culture enabled me to conduct preliminary field and archival research for a dissertation on the Dominican patronage of colonial religious structures
in Oaxaca, Mexico. Dominican mendicants played a pivotal role in the sixteenth-century colonization and evangelization of the Zapotec and Mixtec populations of Oaxaca. Within decades of their arrival in New Spain, a small population of friars succeeded in converting nearly all of the region’s indigenous inhabitants to Christianity. To accommodate the spiritual needs of the converts, numerous conventos (missionary complexes) were erected throughout Oaxaca. The typical convento consisted of several elements arranged within a walled atrio (patio): a single-naved church, friars’ residence, cloister, open-air chapel, posas (small chapels) and portería (covered porch).

During the preliminary phase of my dissertation research, I visited many of the colonial religious structures in the Valley of Oaxaca. The following churches were chosen as candidates for additional research:

San Pablo, Mitla (founded 1544)
Virgen de la Asunción, Tlacolula (founded 1552)
San Jeronimo, Tlacochahuaya (founded 1558)
Preciosa Sangre de Cristo, Teotitlán del Valle (founded 1575)

(All four structures are located in the colonial municipo of Tlacolula, approximately thirty kilometers east of the city of Oaxaca).

When constructing these four conventos, Dominican friars and indigenous builders appropriated many native architectural features and sacred symbols. Colonial architecture was undoubtedly an architecture of conquest; the presence of such visual references to local religious and cosmological beliefs (often in a subordinate position) asserted a western dominance over the indigenous populations.
For example, San Pablo (Mitla) was built directly over the foundations of a destroyed Zapotec temple; the church’s dramatic placement among the ruins of the pre-conquest sacred site surely conveyed a forceful message to the conquered populations.

But, as their appearance indicates, the colonial conventos simultaneously facilitated the continuation of the ancient religion. Embedded in the western façade of Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (Teotitlán del Valle) are stones decorated with native religious symbols. By incorporating spolia from pre-conquest temples into the façade, the friars (or indigenous builders) successfully transferred the sacred power of the native site to the colonial church. Such decorative elements linked the new religion to the old faith, thereby expediting the conversion process and preserving ancient beliefs.

My dissertation will examine the patronage history of these four colonial structures to determine how the Dominican friars (and indigenous builders) manipulated architectural forms to create a space which articulated military conquest and advanced spiritual conversion. A recognition of the persistence of pre-conquest imagery is essential to understanding the status of the mendicant friars and indigenous builders in colonial society. By allowing me to examine, photograph and formulate ideas about this imagery, the travel grant has advanced my dissertation research on the motivations and collaborations of the mendicant friars and indigenous builders in colonial Oaxaca.