Wellesley Club UK Travel/Research Award Winner
Megan Ruppel, Wellesley Class of 2020
Each year Club awards a travel research grants (£500) to juniors studying abroad in the UK. Applicants are offered the opportunity to expand their research to another city, enroll in a special class, attend a conference or accept an internship. The 2019 grant was won by then-Wellesley junior Megan Ruppel. Here she describes how she used the grant for a marathon visit to museums across Europe.
This spring, thanks to the Wellesley Club UK’s travel grant for juniors studying abroad, I was able to spend the six weeks between Oxford’s Hilary and Trinity terms visiting museums across continental Europe, studying religious art. I started in Spain and traveled east: from the Prado in Madrid to the Kuntshistorisches Museum in Vienna. In those six weeks I visited 20 museums and churches for their religious art collections.
Rain in the middle of the Pantheon!
I am a philosophy and religion double-major at Wellesley, and my research focuses on the body, on representations of the body in art and writing; I specialize in biblical studies. But I came to the religion major by way of an art history class, my first year at Wellesley, and so the art-historical influence persists in my current research. This spring, because of the grant, I had the chance to finally see in person Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, on which I wrote my very first seminar paper, at the end of that first-year class. That triptych is so utterly unlike anything else that’s ever been painted; and I’m not exaggerating. It is so worth it to see in person. During my time in Madrid (I went to see it every day I was there), I took pages and pages of notes. My ideas from first year renewed and expanded in a burst of creative energy, there in the presence of the actual painting. Let me see if I can convey some of what I learned.
One of the recurring motifs in The Garden of Earthly Delights is the breaking-open of shells, spheres, fruits, and other objects in the garden; basically, things being pierced or punctured by other things. I hadn’t realized how overwhelming the motif is until I saw the painting in person; it’s everywhere you look. It is Bosch’s way of rendering visually the experience of religious revelation, that is, the “piercing” into the unknown world of the divine. And now, this fall, I am taking up the notes I made in the Prado in a senior seminar on religion and violence, and writing about exactly this, about the relationship between violent acts (the breaking-open and piercing of bodies) and religious revelation. If I hadn’t been to Madrid in the spring, I wouldn’t be working with these ideas now.
Morning at the Uffizi
Other traces of the travel grant’s impact on my present research abound. In some cases the influences of different museums have combined. Seeing Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures of prisoners in Florence (more on that later) got me thinking about unfinished and fragmentary art, and that led me to study the German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno, who wrote in fragments, later that spring at Oxford. Then I went to the Marc Chagall Museum in Nice. Marc Chagall was a 20th century expressionist, and he was Jewish. From a totally different tradition than Michelangelo. But my time in his museum got me thinking about the dialogue between modern art movements and Jewish philosophy in the 20th century, and that too led me to Adorno. Now, back at Wellesley, I am continuing the research from Oxford in an independent study on Adorno and thinkers like him, fusing the sensibilities of Michelangelo and Chagall.
As an undergraduate, my learning is like the swift-moving current of a river. I can barely keep up with the leaps and connections and transitions. But it is my privilege to follow them where they go: to let the current carry me. I receive whatever my surroundings have to offer me, and I let it change me. And I must say, I learn best when my surroundings are the best museum collections in the world.
The Wellesley Club UK travel grant gave me six weeks in which to freely think and make connections, across times and traditions, in my area of study. But having proposed a project when I applied for the grant also meant that my thinking had focus and direction. Instead of passing through six weeks of disconnected experiences, I was actively searching for what they had in common. As I strung together my museum adventures, I was developing a thesis.
I have shared how some of my specific encounters had specific impacts on what I’m studying at Wellesley: but more generally, over those six weeks I came to see that religious art of any kind has a common trend. Art, because of what it is, allows you to represent things not as they are in reality. You can put together figures from history who never overlapped: Raphael, for example, puts Aristotle and Augustine in the same room in his frescoes at the Vatican. Chagall paints scenes of the Crucifixion while gesturing towards the Holocaust, linking across time the suffering of Jewish communities worldwide. In this way, art collapses time; it makes us feel the coincidence of eternity. And there is something sacred in that. Whether it is medieval or modern, religious art works on us by inviting us into the past.
It worked on me. I am so very grateful for what I saw, what I felt, those six weeks.
The money from the travel grant mattered because it enabled me to reach collections I wouldn’t otherwise have reached. It was in the smaller-scale, financial decision-making moments, that having the grant counted. In Zürich, I was choosing between two trains, the more expensive of which would give me time to stop over in Bern and visit the Paul Klee museum. Paul Klee was a contemporary of Marc Chagall’s and I wanted to look at their works in conversation; besides which he is one of my favorite artists and to visit the museum in Bern would fulfill a lifelong dream. With the grant, I could afford to take the more expensive train. The grant told me that what I was doing had value. That it was worth it to take the more expensive train.
In the Moroccan city of Tangier, where Paul Klee, visiting for the first time in 1914, wrote: “Color has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me forever... Color and I are one. I am a painter.”
Another example: I came to the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, which houses Michelangelo’s David, and found out that it cost $12 to enter. I didn’t have long to decide because I had arrived only an hour before the museum closed. I wasn’t sure if $12 was worth it for an hour, but it was my last day in Florence, so if I didn’t go then I wouldn’t go at all. Because I had the Wellesley Club UK at my back, I went for it; and yes, it was worth it. What I didn’t know, wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t gone, is that Michelangelo’s David is set in front of his unfinished sculptures of prisoners. They are called unfinished because they are half-trapped in the chunks of stone from which they are carved; each prisoner pushing and pulling and wresting with the rock. This is held in contrast with the perfection of the David, smooth and shapely, discrete from his surroundings, perfectly solitary.
Standing there I started to cry. The sight was too powerful. I looked at David’s hand and saw that it was curved against his thigh, as he prepared to slingshot the stone into the eye of Goliath; looking there, I felt present with him in his moment of potential. His moment of readiness.
Boboli Gardens, Florence
Thank you to the Wellesley Club UK for giving me that day at the museum.
-Contributed by Megan Ruppel ’20