Monasticism and the Arts: A Course for All Interests

by Megan Haugh


Monasticism and the Arts is a 200-level religious studies and fine arts course that focuses on the artistic achievements of monks and monastic communities from 300 AD – 1400 AD.

Maria Lucca, the course instructor, has been teaching the class for three semesters so far and describes the class as, “looking at Monasticism through the lenses of art objects, architecture, and paintings.”

By placing an emphasis on these forms of expression, Lucca opens a new doorway to studying monasticism as opposed to how a pure religion class may approach the subject.

During the semester, the course moves from studying early Monasticism in the east to later forms in the west.

Starting with Constantine the Great’s founding of Constantinople, the lessons focus on the rise of the Christian church and the basic premise of monasticism, which is to follow the life of Christ and live similarly to him.

For example, Christ went into the desert and fasted for forty days, so the early monks went into the desert, fasted for many days and subjected themselves to self-punishment in order to feel the pain of what Christ went through. They aimed to be crucified on earth as Christ was; they were mirroring his life.

Although these monks went into the desert alone, they eventually wound up with a following of individuals who also wished to follow in the life of Christ. From this, two strains of monasticism were developed: Eremitic monasticism, monks who lived by themselves, and Cenobitic monasticism, monastic communities.

The course then reroutes towards Benedictine monasticism. Started by the rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia, the rules of Benedictine monasticism parallel the development of monasteries and architecture. The way Saint Benedict wanted the monks to live was the way monasteries were built: cloisters for gathering, refectories for eating, and dorms for living. Here, monks made richly decorated and illustrated manuscripts, Bibles, choir books, and psalms.

Finally ending with the different European architecture of monasticism, the class goes on to study relics that were housed at monasteries and monks as artists.

From these teachings, Lucca wants her students to gain an appreciation for the art and architecture that the monks were responsible for. The monks sacrificed their lives, but also made a large contribution to the arts; without them we would not have a lot of ancient texts. Additionally, Lucca also wants her students to grasp the meaning of devotion.

The course studies relics because people still go on pilgrimages today to visit monasteries and see these relics. The beauty of these places and objects came out of the devotion of the religious men and women who dedicated their lives to following the life of Christ.

During the semester, students work together in groups to discuss the materials covered in class and create presentations. Some topics that students have to do research on include a trip to The Met Cloisters and the archives in Manhattan College’s O’Malley Library.

The class ties up at the end of the semester with a final presentation, where students speaks individually in front of their peers.

Monasticism and the Arts will be offered on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday schedule from 10-10:50 a.m. in the spring semester. The class is a good option if anyone is interested in an artistic spin on a religion class.