Emory Report
April 20, 2009
Volume 61, Number 28


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April 20
, 2009
Shining scholarship


Scholar of stained glass Elizabeth Pastan thinks architecturally: “How does the glass read in space? How did it work with the liturgical and para-liturgical practices going on around it?” in the great cathedrals that are the settings of her admittedly avocational pursuits.

And in the glass the art history professor finds different interpretations, sometimes literary, sometimes historical.

Stained glass, combining color, painting, leading, light, reflects Pastan’s professional and personal endeavors. Each is not just one subject; they often combine and lead to different compositions. Studying the glass in the great cathedrals has taught her that “you can never quite separate sacred and secular the way it sometimes seems easier to do in our culture,” much like separating the various elements of life — scholarship, teaching, parenthood, personal exploration.

For example, having the same graduate students and exploring the same academic area from different viewpoints (“My primary material is visual”) led to team-teaching with Stephen White, Asa G. Candler professor of history, with whom she also developed the Medieval Studies certificate program.

Pastan’s doctoral work was not a lone scholarly experience, either. Sparked by an influential professor “who could have taught me anything,” Pastan did her doctoral work in the small town of Troyes in eastern France, over the course of three summers. “In this small town, people remembered the Americans from World War II very fondly. They kept coming up to my scaffolding and inviting me to dinner. And it became much more than a love of glass but this compassionate, cultural experience,” she notes.

Pastan, who’s been at Emory for 14 years, encourages her own students to get to a country where there are more layers of cultural history, and get out of their routines of thinking about where art occurs and what it looks like. “There’s just not a lot of medieval art in town,” Pastan notes.

But she finds local inspiration. There are the Byzantine mosaics in the Greek Cathedral; Emory’s own Willett windows in the Woodruff Library; casts of medieval sculpture in Carlos Hall and in the Carlos Museum which has a reproduction of the Crown of Thorns; and the Tiffany window of a Decatur church.

To augment her students’ understanding, “I do various stunts in class,” Pastan admits. These include building a cathedral with people (see http://arthistory.emory.edu/faculty/pastan.htm). “In the survey lecture, I cut a cantaloupe to illustrate the architectural principles of the dome,” she says. And pipe cleaners are used to try to understand the logic of the linear system of vaults in building Gothic elevations.

Is she an artist herself? “Not at all, not at all,” she laughs. But she veered that way when she dived seriously into photography in order to photograph stained glass. “Older glass is going to have decay on exterior surface and modulates or mutes the light. And you don’t want to let the restored pieces handicap taking the photograph of the glass.”
Besides scholarship, there’s teaching. Last fall, she taught a class at the High Museum which hosted an exhibition of treasury arts from London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. “Meeting at the High every week — how bad could that be?” Pastan jokes. That was the class for which she was awarded a Crystal Apple and “I thought, ‘I guess I’ll take that as the answer’.”

Pastan has three boys: a student at Reed College, a senior in high school and a 5th-grader. “I think I’ve worked myself into thinking that my being a parent and having children around the age of the students I’m teaching is an advantage — that I get it,” she muses.

Raised in San Diego, she says, “I should be living on the water. I feel that deeply whenever I’m out there, and the ocean kind of embraces you.”

Pastan’s big goal: “I want to write a great book on the Bayeux Tapestry.” The Bayeux Tapestry, for those who missed the Middle Ages in world history class, is a very long, very big embroidered cloth that explains the background and events of the 1066 Norman invasion of England.

In fact, she and White were awarded a grant to begin work on the book next year.

“We know very little about it. So I’m really fired up to write this book.” Not the definitive book, she notes, because the study of it is never finished.