Devils, The Vulgate And Souls -- Oh My!!New UB Course Will Surf The Abyss And Gambol The Heavens

Release Date: November 11, 1996

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- And why the hell not?

For years, University at Buffalo scholars Dorothy Glass, professor of art history, and Diane Christian, professor of English, have been trolling images and texts for cultural explications of hell, heaven and the in-between.

With some glee, they divulge tales of hell-bent sexual "luxuriants," medieval ghoul braziers and the second-class celestial home of "the good but not very good." There's also visionary marzipan that illustrates the heavenly glory awaiting good monks and nuns (and satires on the same), plus films like "Ghost," "Heaven Can Wait" and one in which RAF pilot David Niven confounds the heavenly host by refusing to shuffle off his mortal coil.

Christian and Glass discovered their mutual affection for the abyss many years ago and have talked often about co-teaching a course to explore its meaning to people throughout time. This year, they decided to take the plunge.

The spring semester will offer the results -- an interdisciplinary romp through the afterlife from 3000 B.C. to the dawn of modernism. The course, "Heaven, Hell & Judgment" (English 375/Art History 318), will run Monday evenings from 5-7:40 p.m. And what a trip it will be -- colorful, complex and exquisitely illustrated by great artists of Western civilization and informed by imaginative works based on lore, literature, popular culture, biblical texts and preachings.

It's also going to be deadly serious. The course will survey the history of ethical ideas about human action and its eternal reward or punishment from many cultural and religious perspectives.

"There are large issues here," Glass said. "I think that the way in which the afterlife is viewed is an important index of a culture. The course will deal with major ethical and philosophical themes, and there is certainly no paucity of literary and artistic tropes to be uncovered."

"And we'll trace the story," said Christian, "by treating verbal and visual texts equally as interpretations and renderings of human thought."

"The road is interesting and varied," Glass pointed out. "In some cultures, when you're dead, you're dead. In others, death is regarded as the beginning of an important journey. In aniconic traditions, like that of the Old Testament, we have literary text but no "graven images" for visual reference. In other cultures, painting, illumination and sculpture depict the pleasures of heaven and the horrors of hell with great relish."

Much of the visionary effluvia to be explored is linked to prophesies about the coming of the first millennium, an event that terrified Europe with promises of Satan's return. Glass notes that Christianity actually began with St. John's apocalyptic vision and that its influence can still be felt as we approach the second millennium.

The course will offer students a two-and-a-half-hour, weekly holiday in the "great below" with the lusty goddess-queen Inanna, a chance to sip blood with the woeful shades of Hades, then tap dance through the moral heroism of the "Book of Daniel."

Book VI of Virgil's "Aneid" is on the menu, as is the Irish "Visions of Tondal," a vastly popular, widely translated visionary text that blew through medieval Europe like a tornado through a trailer court. These two works are particularly significant for the extent to which they informed Dante's "Inferno" and "Paradiso," also required reading.

Tondal's near-death experience offers intriguing possibilities for ultio dei (the revenge of god), Glass said. Catalogs of a brilliantly illuminated 14th-century edition of the book, now held in the collection of the Getty Museum, will allow students to personally visit Tondal's side show of hell. Its fun spots include special containment facilities for "The Perversely Proud and Presumptuous," "Gluttons and Fornicators" and "The Bad But Not So Bad."

It will be a visual carnival, for sure, featuring Egyptian renderings of the weighing of the soul against the Feather of Ma'at, Signorelli's resurrection of the bodies of the just and the unjust; Hieronymous Bosch and his guilty orifices, the paintings of Michelangelo and Giotto, and the mysticism of Joachim di Fiore.

These will be accompanied by an examination of such texts as the "Book of Revelations" and Milton's "Paradise Lost." "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," 19th-century poet/mystic William Blake's "perfect marriage of image and text," also will be studied. It satirizes the visions of Swedish mystic Swedenborg, who described the discrete abodes of heaven and hell in precise detail. Blake, unsympathetic to a religious tradition that so offended reason, mockingly described his own "vision" of an altar below which lies a deep pit behind which stands a stench-filled house of brick in which ex-angels, transmogrified into baboons, gnaw on one another's tails and pick the flesh off one another's bones while reading Aristotle's (Posterior) Analytics.

Both Glass and Christian are award-winning teachers and scholars who hold doctorates from The Johns Hopkins University, where each studied under legendary biblical scholars. Christian says she "sat at the feet" of William Foxwell Albright, the greatest biblical scholar of this century. Glass was recruited to Hopkins by Adolf Katzenellenbogen, perhaps the most famous medieval iconographic scholar of our times.

They cite a number of other ways in which they are frighteningly alike. Both their first names begin with the letter "D," for instance, and both are prone to spontaneous bursts of self-flagellation known as the "sit-up."

Because their fields of study have focused on early Western philosophies, literature, art and religions, Christian and Glass say they regret that the course will not include Sartre ("hell is the Other") or eastern visions of the afterlife in any depth, at least this time around. Although they will cover some aspects of the "Majab Bhuratta," there will be no hike into the Buddah-field or across a field of stars to P'eng Lai. Falak al aflak and kamavachara? Someday, perhaps, along with a breath of wherever it is that good-but-not-that-good Sioux end up.

When the class is over, they said, students will have a literary and iconographic vocabulary with which to explore many other imaginings of heaven or hell, including those that exist right here on earth. Christian said students also will have a much better understanding of how cultures pass on notions of "the right thing" and "the wrong thing" and how people then try to organize their lives in accordance with what they hope or fear will follow the Big Goodbye.

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