Teaching ‘The Sacred’ as An Art Historian

by Marguerite Mayhall*, Kean University.

The carved relief lintel showing Lady Xok performing a bloodletting ritual for her husband Shield Jaguar’s accession to the throne of the Maya site of Yaxchilan is a startling image (top left image, Lintel 24). Xok, dressed in an elaborate huipil, or woven dress, kneels while she draws a barbed rope through her tongue and piles it in a bowl in front of her. Her husband, the king-to-be, stands over her, holding a torch and wearing a headdress accessorized with a decapitated head. The next image (top right, Lintel 25) in the series shows the results of the ceremony, where Xok conjures up the Vision Serpent and an ancestor god out of the smoke made by burning the bloody ropes and paper from her act of self-sacrifice.

These were some of the first images that made the study of ‘the sacred’ more than just an art historical description of subject matter for me (which it usually is – think of medieval Christian images, the stereotypical use case for art historians). In a 1993 graduate seminar on shamanism in Mesoamerican art with the late epigrapher and art historian Linda Schele, David Lewis Williams’s article “The Signs of All Times: Entoptic Phenomena in Upper Paleolithic Art” (1988) was a bombshell for those of us working on pre-modern cultures. (I need to mention here that I am trained as a modern Latin American art historian, however.) In my case, it sparked a 20 year interest in those landscape features and human built sites that you find in coffee table books on ‘sacred sites around the world.’

Since 2009 I’ve been teaching a course on sacred space and sacred landscape at Kean University, a comprehensive regional university in New Jersey, with a student population that contains a lot of first generation, working class, and immigrant students. Over the years, I’ve experimented with a number of different pedagogical approaches and techniques, and remote teaching only added to them. In the case of the sacred space class, I drew on both new and old pedagogical approaches.

I knew when I designed this class originally that content would change every time I taught it, because my own knowledge of the subject matter was constantly evolving. What I soon learned was that the subject matter is eternally fascinating to students, and so their commitment to the class has really never been in question. That helps. But the students who take the class have no formal background in religious studies (neither do I), and most of them are not even fine arts or art history minors, so I work hard to establish a context for the topics we explore.

I think I need to say here that initially I was highly influenced by Mircea Eliade’s ideas of ‘the sacred,’ which led me to Rudolf Otto, and early iterations of the class focused on Eliadean constructs of sacred space as context for our exploration of specific sites (which are very familiar to religious studies scholars, I know). Because I was only able to teach the class every 3 years, my research for the class happened in spurts.

In the last few years, though, as part of work I’m doing on a related book, my research into sacred space and sacred landscape has deepened, and once I discovered the work of religious studies scholars on Eliade, and physicalist (philosophy) and neuroscience studies on consciousness, my approach to teaching the class changed substantially, both topically and pedagogically.

I’ll start with pedagogy. Remote teaching accelerated my interest in leveraging online resources and digital technologies in the classroom, and I haven’t used a textbook in any class I teach in years. (I wrote Open Education Resource [OER] chapters for the art history survey class I teach in Fall 2020, the first full semester of remote teaching, for example.) Upper division courses are based around websites I put together with readings and videos, and the sacred space class website is no different. (You can see it here.) I like using Google sites because it allows me to easily update readings and resources, which I did midway through the semester when students started to protest that we weren’t looking at the sacred sites they expected to learn about when they signed up for the class.

Equally important to the pedagogical approach I take these days is creating a sense of community in the classroom, especially relevant given our recent return to teaching in person and the attendance issues we face. I knew that in a class like this, with sometimes difficult readings from multiple disciplines, that students needed to be comfortable with me and each other, and to view their classmates as resources. Some techniques I used were ones I had planned, but one that I pulled out of my back pocket on the spur of the moment, the second class of the semester, proved to be foundational for community building. (I tweeted about this.)

The class meets once a week, and the first day of class is always a big one for me in terms of creating community and introducing the subject matter. (I published an article in Insidehighered.com in 2018 on this.) So the first day of the sacred space class we discussed students’ definitions of the term ‘sacred,’ and whether calling it ‘the sacred’ changed what they thought. We also viewed and discussed the video of Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk called My Stroke of Insight so they could see we wouldn’t be confirming their pre-conceived notions, but instead, exploring far beyond them.

But the second week of class we had two new students. They’d missed all that. And I just didn’t see myself summarizing that rich and chaotic first week in a few words, so instead, I just . . . left. I asked the students who’d been there the first week to find the two new students, and then to fill them in on what we’d done in that first session. They talked for over half an hour, and one of the ‘new’ students told me afterwards that they had never experienced anything like it – that everyone was talking, everyone was engaged, and they felt included.

I can honestly say that this class, unlike the 3 surveys I also taught this spring, never had an attendance problem (enrollment was 24 students). It probably helped that I used the ‘ungrading’ approach (more on the website), which demonstrated to students that I was more serious about their learning and engagement than their grade. We did small and large group discussions, students made slideshows, I had them do research on authors whose pieces they read (Eliade, Sacks, Harner, and Mizrach), and towards the end of the semester they chose a chapter from two books, one on pilgrimage and one on teaching ritual, to do a slide for in-class discussion. They also did a mid-semester and a final reflection, and met with me for at least 30 minutes toward the end of the semester to discuss their final grade. All of this was in service of the goal of individual and communal learning, and I learned a lot from all of it.

In terms of the content, students’ reactions varied. My goal was to introduce them to various approaches to ‘the sacred,’ from sociological studies of the origin of religion, to shamanism and the neuroscience behind it, work on ‘90s rave culture and ecstatic states, as well as very recent research and writing on ‘hot spots’ and embodied approaches to ‘the sacred,’ in addition to more traditional work on landscape features and sacred sites. Early conversations with some students showed me that they were uncomfortable with the difficulty of some of the readings, and the focus on topics other than the sacred sites they were expecting, but by the end of the semester most students understood what the class was trying to do. What I was trying to get them to see is that ‘the sacred’ is almost impossible to define, or prove, and that it’s not even that useful as a term, given the specific historical and social contexts in which it arose, especially when applied to situations where a society didn’t have that concept. (A key reading for this was Michael Scott’s entry on sacred space in Greece and Rome in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia.) It was hard! Students coming from Christian backgrounds had an especially hard time letting go of the sacred, and some students weren’t happy that we weren’t ‘covering’ all of each reading each class period. In the future, I plan to use Perusall (a social annotation tool) as a way to have a conversation about the readings before class so that we can focus on the big ideas during class time. I hadn’t mandated its use because some students don’t like it, but I think it would have helped with the issue of coverage.

Like many traditional academic disciplines, art history has invisible parameters, although I like to think of it as what I call an amoeba discipline – it gathers up a lot of others in its scope, at least in my own work. Students expecting a traditional art history class, with images to memorize and facts to know, were initially confused by both the content and the format, but their final presentations demonstrated the breadth of how they’d come to think about the issues we’d covered and how they applied it to topics that interested them. Presentations included discussions of the game of lacrosse as a sacred ritual (student athlete majoring in accounting), the indigenous site of Uluru in Australia (graphic design student), Graceland as a pilgrimage site (history honors student), Alpinism as pilgrimage (bilingual education student), a comparison of two articles under the rubric of ‘religion’ in translation – perspectives on the untranslatability of the sacred (art education student), a paper on Islamic sacred geometry (history student), a study of sacred dance (interior design student), and more.

In the future, I want to add material on biophilia and ‘thin places,’ wonder and awe, and more on the neuroscience and philosophy of consciousness, including artifical intelligence, since the scholarly conversations around those topics are growing, and relate closely to perceptions of ‘the sacred’ as well as architectural concerns about sacred spaces, both historical and contemporary. I will, as always, give precedence to student interest, but the overall scope will remain broad.

The hardest part of teaching a class like this is helping students understand that there are no right answers, and that scholars in different disciplines aren’t talking to each other (many times) about similar topics, so it’s up to them to make the connections. Weaning them off lecture-based approaches (and traditional grading, honestly) takes time, patience, and a lot of explanation. Having a class based around such a compelling topic was key in maintaining their engagement.

Please take a look at the website for the course. I welcome comments, questions, and suggestions on topics and readings; I am an auto-didact in these areas and am interested in refining both the way I teach the class, and the subjects we discuss.

* Marguerite Mayhall has taught in the art history program/Fine Arts Department at Kean University since 2002. Before earning her Ph.D. in Latin American Art History at The University of Texas at Austin, she worked as a photo conservator at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, and did graduate work in molecular biology after graduating from Austin College, a small liberal arts college in north Texas. Her specialization is 20th century Venezuela and art and architecture of pre-Columbian and modern Latin America. Sacred space and sacred landscape is a late-career interest.