While acting as a teaching assistant for a large art appreciation course, Caroline Jones witnessed a student’s curiosity about a painting of the Madonna. Such symbols, so pervasive and recognizable in Western culture, she realized, are not as simple and self-contained as they may seem to some of us. The experience helped her to see that even familiar objects are best considered through multiple frames, and that all parts of the humanities—including art history, religion, and history—are made more robust when put into a dialogue with one another.
My name is Caroline Jones and I’m a professor of art history at a technical university known as MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’ve really enjoyed my time at the National Humanities Center because it’s given me an opportunity to think about the humanities, which I don’t always get every day at MIT.
I think for me, a really powerful moment in my thinking about the humanities came when I began my teaching career. I was just a lowly TA and we had a course on the books that was essentially a kind of art appreciation class, and people from the West, from America, might have seen this as a bit of a finishing school or something like that. But one of my students, who was not from this background, said, “Okay, I get all this stuff about the Madonna, but what’s that plate behind her head?”
I realized, in a kind of shimmering cascade, that my cultural upbringing had closed off for me some very deep questions in the humanities that could only be answered by history, by a study of religion, by a question of, where does that plate come from behind the Madonna’s head? What is the mandorla? What is the halo? How much of this is coming from the East? What does it bring with it as a kind of iconography? So the humanities, for me, are a dialogue with all that we have taken for granted, and a way of opening that up to renewed inquiry and a kind of wonder.