Loyola Magazine

Of Renaissance art and cyclocross

Q&A with Barnaby Nygren, Ph.D., associate professor of fine arts

Barnaby Nygren, Ph.D., associate professor of fine arts, began teaching at Loyola in the fall of 2004. And ever since, the students who have taken his art history courses have never been the same (in a good way). Nygren provides a challenging discourse on the history of art and printmaking, focusing on Renaissance and Baroque art. His exuberance in the classroom makes art accessible and understandable for students, from the senior completing her capstone to the first-year student fulfilling his fine arts core requirement. 

Loyola magazine recently spoke to Nygren about teaching at Loyola, his research, and his love for bicycle racing and 1960s rock music.

What do you like about teaching at Loyola?

There is so much that I love about teaching here. The art history survey is always a lot of fun to teach because it’s a great opportunity to introduce students to the history of art both in the classroom and at Baltimore’s two wonderful museums (the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art). I love using those same museums in my upper-level classes, particularly my course on the history of prints. Over half the course meetings are in the print room of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Digital images are fine, but it’s an amazing privilege for the students and for me to get up close and personal with important works of art.

Ultimately, what I like most about Loyola are the students. I get to know all of our art history majors and minors, and I think they’re pretty great people. It’s impressive how seriously they take their studies; I really enjoy helping them mature as thinkers and writers.

What is the focus of your research?

I study Italian Renaissance art and I’m particularly interested in the invention of scientific perspective. The expressive implications of this new way of representing space are intriguing. However, I often find myself getting drawn away to other projects. Lately, I’ve become very interested in the global Renaissance and the cultural relationships between the New World and Europe.

Why is your research/scholarship so important to you?

What I really love about research in art history is that I never know where it will take me and what I will learn in the process. In art history we usually begin with a work of art and the basic question, “Why does this work look like it does?” In answering this question we draw on a wide range of contextual information and make connections that are exciting and often unexpected.

Recently I’ve become fascinated with a painting by Michelangelo in which two angels are reading a scroll that they appear to have taken from St. John the Baptist. In trying to answer the “why” question associated with this unusual detail, I have been reading Michelangelo’s poetry, Neo-Platonic texts on prophetic inspiration, and scholastic texts about the knowledge of angels, while also looking at comparative works by Michelangelo and other artists. Drawing all of these threads together is proving to be a challenge, but the journey has been wonderfully fulfilling.

Can you describe an “aha!” moment in your research?

I find the “aha” moments often happen at the start of the research process when I notice something in a work of art that I or others have overlooked. When successful, this initial “aha” is then supported by additional moments of insight and serendipity along the way.

One recent example is when I noticed the presence of what appeared to be an ear of corn in a Renaissance sculpture of the temptation of Adam and Eve from 1515, just a few years after corn came to Europe from the New World. From that one unexpected observation a whole series of insights resulted as I kept searching for and then finding material linking both the subject matter of the work and the presence of the corn to Pope Leo X and his interest in the New World as a sign of the renewal of the Church. One key “aha” moment in this research was when I discovered that Leo had been reading a book extolling the paradisaical nature of the New World in the presence of his sister—the wife of one of the work’s patrons—shortly before the work was commissioned.

How are Loyola’s Jesuit values reflected in your teaching or your scholarship?

I think of myself as a mentor as much as a teacher, and I try to be very mindful of the Jesuit concern with care for the whole person. One of the most important things I can do is to assist students with their lives both at Loyola and afterward, whether it is helping them by reading an internship or graduate school application, or simply talking about the search for their first job. Similarly, in my teaching I try to emphasize the transferable nature of the skills that I teach and the way that they can be applied both to other classes and to the workplace.

What is something your students don’t know about you?

I often fear that my students know more about me than they should, in part because I have this (hopefully entertaining) habit of arbitrarily introducing as analogies references to my latest pop cultural obsessions—currently Kanye West and Taylor Swift. I think they are often surprised that I even know about such things, and maybe more surprised when they learn that I was involved in the post-punk music scene in Boston in the late 1980s.

What are some of your hobbies or interests outside of teaching?

Travel and food always, but in the fall and early winter I spend a lot of time riding and racing my bicycle in an obscure, exhausting, and often muddy sport known as cyclocross.

Do you have a favorite book, movie, or quote?

I seem to have a predilection for stories that are both entertaining in their own right and deeply metaphorical, if not eschatological. So Melville’s Moby Dick, Mann’s Magic Mountain, and Richard Linklater’s Before series of films. I’m also a huge fan of the Stooges (the late 1960s rock band, not the film comedians).