ARTS IN ACTION: ETHICS // Friday, Sept 29  1:15-2:25pm (Rm 210)

Francis & Dominic and the Arts of Devotion
John Skillen

Few of us have reason to notice how a sizeable proportion of canonical masterworks of European art were commissioned for the churches and monasteries of the two new orders founded almost simultaneously by saints Francis and Dominic in the early 13th century.

While living in the traditional manner in small communities obedient to a shared rule of life, these mendicant orders cultivated a socially-engaged outward focus towards serving the needs of those in the world around them. The rapid spread of their off-shoot communities brought spiritual renewal to church and society.

Their missions were different but compatible (two sides of the same coin, as Dante underlines in cantos 11 and 12 of Paradiso). Francis, the preacher-evangelist, embodied the Good News of God’s love in his tireless care for the poor, the sick, the discouraged. Dominic, the preacher-teacher, defended the faithful from the wounds of heresies, building up the body with the meat of sound doctrine.

My presentation explores why and how the visual arts (as well as the arts of theater, song and poetry) found a welcome place in the preaching, teaching, and devotional practices of the Franciscan and Dominican movements. 

I distinguish the differing features and purposes of the arts of devotion in Franciscan and Dominican traditions, especially as illustrated in artworks still in situ in Dominican and Franciscan monasteries in central Italy. The Dominicans typically used the arts to give visual form to ideas and to cultivate intellectually rigorous forms of meditation. The Franciscans appreciated the power of the arts to arouse emotion and to strengthen the affective side of knowing and loving God and our neighbors.

My few concluding comments will suggest that these older “arts of devotion” provide a still-lively framework for putting art in action in our spiritual life and missional practice.


Dr. John Skillen (PhD, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Duke University) taught medieval-Renaissance literature at Gordon College before founding the College’s arts-oriented semester program in Orvieto (Italy), where he has spent much of the past 20 years. Orvieto provided the inspirational setting for his own recent book Putting Art (back) in its Place, a study for the general reader of the role of art inside the life of communities in medieval-Renaissance Italy – a study in which the monastic communities figure prominently.