Why should you care about medieval art history?

Adam Cohen wearing white gloves looking at an old book from the Middle Ages.
Dr. Adam Cohen is an expert in medieval art history who studies handwritten manuscripts from the Middle Ages. (Photo credit: Adam Cohen)

These days, conversations around art seem to be dominated by questions about whether AI-generated art will render artists obsolete and who turned their art into a non-fungible token (NFT). In a world that is constantly pushing up against the limits of its ever-changing technologies, looking to our past can help give us clarity and meaning for our present and guidance for our future.

That’s why today we’re talking to Dr. Adam Cohen, an associate professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Toronto. Dr. Cohen is an expert in medieval art history who received his PhD in art history from Johns Hopkins University. His new book, Art and Architecture of the Middle Ages: Exploring a Connected World, was cowritten with Jill Caskey and Linda Safran and published earlier this year.

BZ: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Can you start by telling me how you became interested in medieval art history?

AC: It started during my undergraduate education at university when I took a required course called Art Humanities. It was so interesting and I loved it. My homework was going to the museum, which just seemed a lot of fun. I kept taking more and more courses and finally I took one about the art of the Middle Ages, and I said this is what I want to do and went off to grad school.

One of the things I really liked about art history was that it seemed like a fun way to study history, because to understand a work of art or a building or a monument, you need to know the history. You need to know something about the literature of the time, the religion, the philosophy, the economics and so on. We didn’t ask a lot about these questions when I was an undergraduate but today you would also want to know about the environment at the time or the gender and sexuality of the people involved. For example, we tend to think Rembrandt was a genius and his paintings are great. But why? Where did Rembrandt live? What was he looking at? What was he thinking about? Who was his audience? What was the religious context? What was the social context? There are so many questions we can ask.

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