What's in a shoe? A story of the people who walked the streets of Dura-Europos

Medieval Art Professor Charles McClendon pairs course with local exhibit

Looking back on his spring semester course "The Formation of Jewish, Christian and Islamic Art," it's a child's sandal that has left an indelible mark in Charles McClendon's mind.

Small, delicate and behind glass, the sandal was displayed in the exhibit, "Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity," at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College. The exhibit partially reconstructed the religious spaces of an ancient city above the Euphrates River that dates back to 300 BCE. McClendon paired the exhibit with his course.

The sandal was one of about 75 pieces that McClendon, the Sidney and Ellen Wien Professor in the History of Art, helped select for the exhibit from the massive Dura-Europos collection at Yale University. The artifacts were first discovered by archaeologists from Yale and the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettresin the 1920s and 1930s, and have long been in storage at Yale.

This latest version of the religious art course "was much more personalized" than when he's taught it previously, says McClendon.

"They weren't such abstract objects. It's about art and artifacts, but you also have a little sandal," he says.

With some funding from the dean of arts and science's office, McClendon was able to make several visits with his students to the museum, where he occasionally teamed up with Boston College Professor and Museum Director Nancy Netzer to teach both classes the material.

"I'm the only one I'm aware of in the Boston area who made this unique material the centerpiece of a course," says McClendon.

McClendon, an expert on medieval art and architecture, was familiar with some of the 12,000-piece Dura-Europos collection from his early teaching days at Yale. He was asked two years ago to consult on the exhibit as it was being conceived. Among his contributions was advice on which objects to include, an essay for the exhibit catalogue and suggestions on how to recreate sacred space in the museum.

"Dura-Europos is very well-known, but completely out of context," says Gail Hoffman, an assistant professor of classical studies at Boston College and a co-curator of the exhibit. McClendon got us "thinking about sacred space, how they moved through it."

The exhibit included recreations of an ancient synagogue wall featuring Biblical scenes, one of the earliest Christian house churches and baptistery, and a place of worship for the mysterious religion Mithraism, all of which were uncovered on a single street during excavation.

His suggestion that the Christian building be arranged in such a way that recreated the line of movement for the baptism rite, for example, may have helped students better understand the original purpose of the art and architecture. But it was McClendon's assignment for the class – to choose an object in the exhibit and conduct an independent study on it – that may make the most difference in the way he teaches it next time around.

"Personal items were found at Dura. Toys that belonged to children, the well-preserved sandal, incense-burners," McClendon says. "It was fascinating – they picked a whole range of objects."

McClendon established and taught the class in 2004 and 2007. Its goal is to help students appreciate how closely interconnected the three religions are and how this is given visual expression. Though he won't be teaching it again for several semesters, the insights he gained from this pairing may carry over into "History of Art: Antiquity to the Middle Age" and "Methods and Approaches in the History of Art," which he's teaching in the upcoming school year.

Not only were students and the public able to see reconstructions on the ground floor, and a number of maps and objects below, but the exhibit also offered touch screen computer kiosks, where visitors could get additional information about objects not included, the restoration process and more.

Students eventually wrote and presented to the class eight- to 10-page papers on the objects they chose.

"We went into a lot more of the sociological questions beyond style of art and what does it symbolize," McClendon says. "What was life like behind it?"

Looking at the remains that way – as clues about people who lived down the street from one another – makes it easier to imagine how they may have been "neighbors who interacted daily and met the same fate at the same time. Jews living on one block, Christians on another. Probably, they shared the same artist.

"For me, and I think for a number of students," he says, "it made these ancient things much more direct and personal."

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