Ashmolean Art School Experience Essays

On By In 1

By Stefanie Lenk, current research student in the History of Art Department

Doing a doctorate in a research project is still fairly rare in the humanities at Oxford. The idea polarizes people. Being part of a research project helps connect students to others with similar interests quickly. Getting feedback on your work, a fresh eye on an old problem, or simply a little bit of moral support, are some of the perks that come with project work. If your project is functional, that is. If it isn’t, a research project soon can become exhausting.

The Empires of Faith team

Empires of Faith, my research project, has taught me a lesson. I know now for sure that collaborative work during your PhD can be done successfully, for everyone involved. And I know how much impact it can have on you as a researcher, in ways that you couldn’t imagine at the outset. The key to making it work, I think, is the goodwill of each to be part of a group. For me, this meant putting my energy into group projects, besides my daily DPhil work, and being open to my colleagues’ ideas and suggestions, which often led to research avenues I had not originally contemplated.

I embarked on this journey four years ago, together with most of my DPhil and Postdoc colleagues, simply by responding to a call for applications. EoF is a collaboration between Oxford University and the British Museum, so we also have a BM curator on board, and of course the head of the project, Jas’ Elsner, professor of classics at Oxford. This makes for a jolly team of ten. We all work on religious art in late antiquity (c. 200-800 AD), but from different religious and geographical vantage points. From day 1, we immersed ourselves in the art and material culture of the early Islamic empire, the Sasanian empire, the Kushan empire, and the Roman empire – the latter tackled through Roman religions, the British Isles, East and West Rome. Only a fraction of my colleagues are trained as art historians. The others have backgrounds in history, classics, archaeology and the social sciences.

Empires of Faith at the Kosmos Summer School 2015 in Berlin © Stefanie Lenk

My own DPhil project looks at pre-Christian imagery and architecture used in 5th and 6th century Christian baptisteries in the Western Mediterranean. Many of the issues that I focus on in my DPhil, like questions of religious identity in late antiquity, what material culture can tell us about religion, how important iconographic readings are for the meaning of art, or how we can compare the evidence of different sites to one another, are also of interest to my colleagues. To some extent, this has to do with the similarity of our research fields. Some topics lend themselves more to some questions than to others. But my suspicion is that most of what interests me today is a product of our continuous conversations and the work we did together.

Choosing wall colours for Imagining the Divine with our designer Byung Kim and my EoF colleague Rachel Wood © Stefanie Lenk

We started by meeting up militantly for at least three hours a week during term. This was in October 2013. At the time, few of us were truly engaged with any other fields of religious art beyond our own research areas. Most had not worked collaboratively or across disciplines before. Now, four years later, Empires of Faith has curated two exhibitions, Imagining the Divine. Art and the Rise of World Religions, the Ashmolean Museum’s current lead exhibition, and Those Who Follow, a cooperation with contemporary artist Arturo Soto, also currently up in the Classics Centre of the university. Four of my colleagues and I have co-written Images of Mithra, the first volume of a new OUP book series called Visual Conversations, which OUP offered to run, as they liked the first book so much. Moreover, we have written a historiographical volume altogether on how the different ways of art history writing in our respective disciplines developed over the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the exhibition catalogue for Imagining the Divine. To arrive at this point, we gathered much input from fellow researchers on numerous occasions in Oxford, London, Edinburgh, Berlin and Chicago.

Public workshop in Those Who Follow at the Ioannou Centre, run together with my EoF colleague Dominic Dalglish © Stefanie Lenk

In our final year, 2017, we opened up Empires of Faith’ research to wider audiences, both in academia and to the general public. My two DPhil colleagues on the programme, Philippa Adrych and Dominic Dalglish, and myself, launched a graduate student workshop series called Talking Religion for ten DPhil students in the humanities. In a series of seminars, held at Wolfson, the Ashmolean and the British Museum, we discussed the question of how to write religious history from objects. The Talking Religion group gives collaborative and interdisciplinary student tours on a regular basis through Imagining the Divine. Currently, we are running weekend workshops for Oxford’s religious communities on Those Who Follow and Imagining the Divine. In Michaelmas term, we held an Empires of Faith academic seminar series, and from 11th to 13th of January 2018 we celebrated our immensely productive time together with the Empires of Faith conference.

Talking Religion student Hugo Shakeshaft at work in Imagining the Divine © Stefanie Lenk

You might wonder how all of this relates back to my DPhil work. Well, I will be finishing this year, my fifth year as a DPhil student (having deferred last year), and cannot pretend that Empires of Faith expedited the progress I have made on my dissertation in terms of getting the words down on paper. I am not sad about this, though, because I consider my work to have become so much better thanks to my colleagues. I have also been involved in terrific publications, and worked as the lead curator of Imagining the Divine.

Most importantly, however, I have experienced the tremendous benefits collaborative work can bring to academia. None of what we have achieved would have been possible, or even enjoyable, on our own. True, not every PhD student has the luck of participating in a project like Empires of Faith. I don’t think, though, that this is necessary for similar experiences. All it takes is a little leap of faith. Under the pressure of DPhil work, it can easily seem too challenging to dedicate energy to experiments with others. But at least in my experience, it works the other way around: collaborative work gives you more energy than it takes.

We made it! Imagining the Divine up and running at the Ashmolean museum! © Stefanie Lenk

Stefanie is working on Baptismal Art in the Late Antique and Early Medieval Western Mediterranean (400-800 A.D.)

DPhil is the Oxford term for a PhD. For more information about the History of Art DPhil, please see the Department’s Research Degrees page.

Imagining the Divine is currently on at the Ashmolean Museum.

For more information about the Empires of Faith project, please see the project page.

Programme details

Term Starts: 18th April

Half Term: 30th May

Week 1: Ewert House - An introductory session with slides to gain a general overview of the art to be covered by the course.

Week 2: Christ Church Picture Gallery - Painting Techniques.

Week 3: Ashmolean Museum - Religious Images.

Week 4: Christ Church Picture Gallery - The Painter as Storyteller.

Week 5: Ashmolean Museum - The Development of Space.

Week 6: Christ Church Picture Gallery - The Style, Form and Function of Images.

Week 7: Ashmolean Museum - Genre and Narrative Images.

Week 8: Ashmolean Museum - Landscape painting.

Week 9: Ashmolean Museum - Portraiture.

Week 10: Ashmolean Museum - Conclusion

Background Reading:

Acton, M., Learning to Look at Paintings

Clark, K., Looking at Pictures

Gombrich, E.H., The Story of Art

Woodford, S., Looking at Pictures

Editors - Casley C et al., The Ashmolean Museum, Complete Illustrated Catalogue of Paintings

Byam Shaw, J., Paintings by Old Masters at Christ Church Oxford.

If you are planning to purchase books, remember that courses with too few students enrolled will be cancelled. The Department accepts no responsibility for books bought in anticipation of a course.

If you have enrolled on a course starting in the autumn, you can become a borrowing member of the Rewley House library from 1st September. If you are enrolled on a course starting in other terms, you can become a borrowing member once the previous term has ended.

Recommended reading

All weekly class students may become borrowing members of the Rewley House Continuing Education Library for the duration of their course. Prospective students whose courses have not yet started are welcome to use the Library for reference. More information can be found on the Library website.

There is a Guide for Weekly Class students which will give you further information. 

Availability of titles on the reading list (below) can be checked on SOLO, the library catalogue.

Recommended Reading List



Coursework is an integral part of all weekly classes and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework, but only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee.

If you do not register when you enrol, you have up until the course start date to do so.

Course aims

To introduce students to original works of art and allow them to experience for themselves what artists have achieved over six centuries of production. To enablbe them to develop the ability to appreciate and enjoy visual images and the skill to communicate their understanding to others.

Course Objectives:
1. To encourage students to voice individual opinions in front of original works of art and to allow them to develop their own opinions about the images. By the end of the ten-week course it is hoped that each student will feel optimistic about his or her ability to discuss an image.
2. To enable participants to investigate the development of painting styles and techniques throughout the centuries and to help them to compare the portrayal of similar subjects by artists working at different periods in history.
3. To help them begin to understand the variety of stylistic lables used in art historical texts and to make them aware of the potential for individual works of art to be understood in variety of ways.

Teaching methods

After the first session, to be held, with slides, at Ewert House, classes will be conducted in the Oxford galleries, where students will find themselves in direct contact with works of art. Students will work in small groups, and, with the guidance of an open question sheet, will discuss together a single image. The tutor will be present to offer advice and encouragement and to help with any queries that arise from the discussion. After the small groups have worked their way through the question sheet the full group will reconvene. Students will then visit the images studied and individual groups will have the opportunity to convey, to the remainder of the class, the conclusions they have reached. Other class members will then be able to raise any ideas they may have. Classes will be mainly discussion based and active participation will be expected of all students.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course students will be expected to be able to:

1. Give an informed and articulate verbal response to an image using the correct technical and critical vocabulary.
2. Make connections between visual images and their cultural and historical contexts.
3. Enjoy the experiece of visiting a museum or art gallery and feel encouraged to extend this experience by travelling futher afield.

Assessment methods

Students will be expected to write a minimum of three short pieces presenting their responses to the images discussed in class and based upon the question sheets covered each week.

Alternatively, students may wish to submit an essay which compares two of the images covered in the class sessions. They must consider the following; composition, form and function, technique, space and subject matter.

Each student must also prepare a five-minute oral presentation on an image, or two comparative images, in the Ashmolean Museum, to be presented to the rest of the class. This will take place at the end of the course and may also be written up and submitted for assessment.

Students must submit a completed Declaration of Authorship form at the end of term when submitting your final piece of work. CATS points cannot be awarded without the aforementioned form.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *