Professor John Skillen (Ph.D., Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Duke University) served for 15 years as the specialist in medieval and Renaissance literature in Gordon College’s English Department. He led a number of month-long summer seminars in Florence studying the art and culture of the Italian Renaissance, and in 1993 was the diarist for a group of artists who worked together in Florence to create a portfolio of etchings on the theme of Sacrifice, an experience recounted as “An Experiment in Artistic Community” for IMAGE journal (1994).
In 1998 Skillen launched Gordon College’s highly regarded arts-oriented program in Orvieto, now in its 33rd semester. Students are selected from a variety of Christian colleges and universities (building up a strong relation with a number of Lilly Fellows Program institutions). Guest teachers are artists and scholars and poets of Christian faith and high accomplishment in their fields. The program was featured in a book on Best Practices among study abroad programs in an essay entitled “New Monasticism meets Renaissance Bottega” (Transformations at the Edge of the World, Abilene Christian University Press, 2010). Professor Skillen’s signature course used the fresco cycles as a guiding thread to understand the broader social, religious, cultural contexts of the Renaissance in Italy.
In 2004 Skillen started the Studio for Art, Faith & History to provide the framework for regular special projects in Orvieto outside the semester program itself. These have included an international conference on “Eucharist and Eschatology: Art and Theology in the Orvieto Duomo,” with 18 theologians, historians and art historians from Europe and the States including Nicholas Wolterstorff (Yale), William Dyrness (Fuller), Mons. Timothy Verdon, Jaime Lara (Yale), Fr. Keith Pecklers (Gregorian); a version of the medieval mystery plays performed in Orvieto several years running; an ecumenical conference on the figure of Mary with scholars from Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions; and the creation of the annual Festival Arte Fede (Festival of Art and Faith), now in its tenth year, that addresses, via seminars, performances and exhibitions, issues of faith and the arts facing the contemporary church in Italy.
In 2013 Gordon’s semester program moved into fine long-term facilities in a renovated 13th century monastery in Orvieto, guided by its second director, Matthew Doll. Skillen still spends several months each year in Orvieto, teaching regular courses on the fresco cycles and Renaissance narrative and Dante’s Divine Comedy while developing programming for the Studio for Art, Faith & History during the summer and winter months between semesters, including annual programs for high-school students in classical-Christian academies; for friends and members of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), and a graduate-level summer seminar in Theology and the Arts developed with the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto—as well as this Lilly Summer Seminar for College Teachers.
Skillen is completing a book on the places of art in the early Italian Renaissance (scheduled for publication in 2016 by Hendrickson Publishers), germane to the themes of the Lilly Summer Seminar.