Last semester, one student at the University of Dallas took her Senior Thesis project to a whole new level. Virginia Kendall, a senior art history major, traveled to Gotland, Sweden, during her Thanksgiving break for thesis research, a unique experience of history and religion as discovered by art and archeology.
This research trip came about quite unexpectedly last fall. Upon her showing interest in several churches found on a small island, the late Dr. Catherine Caesar, assistant professor of art history, suggested that Kendall take a trip to Gotland to experience for herself what few others have gotten to experience and research.
Kendall’s thesis focuses on Romanesque and Gothic churches, specifically the churches on the island of Gotland of which there are almost 100. In the early Renaissance, according to Kendall, Gotland was an important trade route in the Baltic Sea, resulting in its becoming a center of economics, culture and different societies all interacting and mixing with each other.
“It’s just really fascinating to me that such a place would become an artistic hub as well [as an economic hub], a place where there would be the money, the impetus, the resources for 100 churches to be built within 100 years of one another,” said Kendall.
The economic centrality of Gotland left the island with a rich history. “[The churches] went from Romanesque to Gothic so quickly,” said Kendall. “It’s fascinating to me the economic, political, social conditions that would allow for such a thing to happen on an island in the middle of nowhere.”
While on Gotland, Kendall was able to meet museum curators, archeologists and even experts in ancient runes. But despite this island being so historically and culturally abundant, there are few people who have done research on it. Kendall herself professed an appreciation for the opportunity to get close to the very things she was so interested in and to see beautiful things that are often overlooked.
As a stop on a historically major trade route, Gotland was influenced by Nordic and Anglo-Saxon culture, as well as Italian and French culture later in its history. “The churches are the most concrete evidence we have of all of those different interactions,” said Kendall. “There aren’t a lot of written records or at least a lot of written records that have been translated.”
Every religious and cultural subtlety was of great interest to Kendall. However, this specific trip was far more personal to Kendall than any other research trip.
Kendall’s ancestors are from the island of Gotland, and while in Gotland, she was able to find her great-grandfather’s home. Initially, Kendall was interested in Gotland for its unique and rich history, but she was astonished to discover the personal connection she had with this island.
“My home island, technically,” said Kendall, “is exactly the thing I am interested in for my thesis research.” While in Gotland, Kendall was able to stay in the same city of Visby that her great-grandfather once lived in.
This experience was life-changing for Kendall, who said it opened a realm of career paths and future plans for her. This was a truly unique experience. In the world of academia we sometimes take for granted the scholarship we utilize and build upon, but for Kendall the lack of scholarship on her thesis topic was both a struggle and an inspiring challenge.
“There are a lot of things I can’t even make definitive conclusions about,” said Kendall. “But that’s a part of what I’m doing: trying to craft a narrative or at least present the different theories.”
Kendall has certainly crafted a mysterious and intriguing narrative. Personally experiencing a historical wellspring, recognizing the impact of different cultures and Christianity upon the art and architecture of a small, overlooked island, Kendall has taken an admirable extra step in her research to create a better understanding of beauty, of the world and its interconnectedness, and of herself.
Kendall will present the results of her research on May 5 at 5:30 p.m. in the Art History Auditorium. UD students will have to keep an eye out for this spring art exhibition that provides a glimpse into Kendall’s religiously, artistically and mysteriously rich experience of history and ancestry.