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Lawrence Nees is the H. Fletcher Brown Chair of Humanities and professor of art history at the University of Delaware.
Nees has been teaching University of Delaware students for 40 years,
and lecturing around the world about art history for even longer than
that, but hes about to deliver what he calls probably the most
significant lecture of my career.
The H. Fletcher Brown Chair of
Humanities and professor and chair of art history at UD will be the
opening keynote speaker on Thursday, Dec. 13, at an international
conference at the British Library in London. The conference, attended by senior scholars of medieval art and
English literature, is being held in conjunction with the librarys
blockbuster exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.
The exhibition, which has been called a once-in-a-generation
opportunity to view treasures from numerous collections, showcases some
of the earliest surviving words ever written in English and many
lavishly decorated hand-written books from the 5th to 11th centuries.
Works such as an original Beowulf manuscript and the Codex Amiatinus the earliest complete Latin Bible, which was returned to Britain from Italy for the first
time in 1,300 years in order to be part of the exhibit are on display,
telling the history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the periods
literature, art and culture.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
The Lindisfarne Gospels is an Anglo-Saxon book created in the early eighth century and part of
the collection of the British Library, which considers it among its
Nees is a noted scholar of early medieval art, but as an American, he
said he was taken by surprise when he was contacted two years ago and
invited to deliver the keynote lecture at the conference on manuscripts
in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
I was shocked, he said. Thrilled, of course, but shocked that they asked me.
His lecture is titled The European Context of Manuscript
Illumination in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, 600-900, and Nees said the
word European is key.
While the term Anglo-Saxon may
have popular connotations, especially in America, of ethnic privilege
and elitism, Nees said the British Library was particularly interested
in emphasizing the cross-cultural aspects of the period covered by the
exhibition. That perspective fit perfectly with Nees own scholarship
and teaching, which explores the way art and ideas traveled throughout
continental Europe and Britain in the Middle Ages.
Ethnicity in the medieval period is a big issue of study, Nees
said. Scholars are increasingly interested in understanding the
migration that occurred and the way various cultures contributed to art
and to knowledge in general.
For example, he said, books that were created by monks in seemingly
isolated British monasteries were distributed to monasteries throughout
continental Europe, just as European monks took part in the same kind of
distribution in reverse. Irish artists studied in Rome, brought new
techniques back home with them and remained in contact with their
The cover art of Lawrence Nees' 2002 book, "Early Medieval Art," is a plate from the Codex Amiatinus showing the scribe Ezra at work.
Even new ways of writing the introduction of punctuation and of
using spaces to separate words occurred during this period in Old
English were once thought to have been invented by the Irish or
Germans, but actually appeared in many cultures around the same time,
There was a lot of cross-cultural movement in the Anglo-Saxon
kingdoms, he said. Its almost impossible to look at a painting and
tell if an Irish or Italian or French artist painted it.
With such contemporary issues as migration and Brexit, the move for
the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, in the news in recent
years, those planning the British Library exhibition wanted to make sure
to include a wider European perspective.
The cultures of the U.K. and the
European continent are very entangled, with links and networks
developing constantly, Nees said. A major part of my scholarship and
my teaching concerns this.
The University of Delawares Department of Art History
is known for a focus on American art, but faculty members work in many
geographic areas and have established numerous professional connections
with institutions, scholars and students internationally, Nees said.
Indeed, it was a lecture he gave about race and ethnicity a couple of
years ago at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, attended by a
British Library curator, that led to his current lecture invitation at
Our faculty have many personal contacts, but our program itself is
quite well-known also, Nees said. When European institutions are
looking for a partner to study American art, they come to UD.
Of course, at this [British Library] conference, there will also be
people who wont have heard of UD, so its a good opportunity for them
to learn about us.
Article by Ann Manser; photos courtesy of the British Library