Top right: Dr. Efrat El-Hanany. Main image and bottom right inset:
The Annunciation, c. 1490-95, Sandro Botticelli (and possibly assistant)
oil, tempera, and gold leaf on walnut panel
Glasgow Museums; Bequeathed by Archibald McLellan, 1856 (174)
© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection, Courtesy American Federation of Arts


Remember Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code, the ‘symbologist’ who could look into paintings and see hidden signs? Dr. Efrat El-Hanany is pretty much like him, only cooler and real.

Dr. El-Hanany is an instructor of Art History at Capilano University who specializes in the visual culture of the Italian Renaissance. Thanks to her expertise in the field, she will be giving a July 28 talk at the Vancouver Art Gallery on the changing social roles of women as depicted in Italian art.

Dr. El-Hanany will be speaking on women featured in paintings from the current Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit Of Heaven and Earth: 500 Years of Italian Painting from Glasgow Museums. The exhibit showcases 40 works of Italian art spanning 500 years, including paintings by greats Giovanni Bellini, Sandro Botticelli, Domenichino, Francesco Guardi and Titian, among others.

Not just ‘saints and more saints’   

“One reaction I have encountered many times, especially in regard to Renaissance art, is that potentially it can be rather dull—endless images of saints and more saints,” says Dr. El-Hanany.

She points to the fact that during the periods the paintings were created, many people could not read or write. Images thus became an important tool to disseminate religious lessons.

“In order to allow people to distinguish one saint from another, a conventional system of symbols and attributes developed into a recognized visual language,” says Dr. El-Hanany. These include the Virgin Mary in her red and blue dress (representing Heaven and Earth) and Saint John the Baptist wearing his camel skin, an indication that he lived in the desert.

She compares two works on display at the show: The Annunciation by Botticelli (c.1490) and Virgin and Child with Saints by Paris Bordone (c.1522). “In both works, we immediately recognize the lovely image of the Virgin,” says Dr. El-Hanany. But, she adds, “we find a wonderful contrast in the artistic approaches of two leading centers of the arts in Italy at this time: the calculated Florentine approach versus the colorful and lush Venetian one.”

The art of teaching art

Art has always been a huge part of Dr. El-Hanany’s life. She remembers being introduced to museums by her parents and was fortunate enough to visit and live near museums around the world. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris remains a favourite of hers to this day.

When she studied art history in high school, it was the beginning of a life-long relationship, thanks to an inspiring teacher who made the subject “so interesting that it just felt right to continue.”

Dr. El-Hanany, who teaches both introductory and upper-level courses in Art History at Capilano, says that teachers make “a huge impact on your life—this is something I try to remember when dealing with my own students.”

Her most cherished times with her students are class visits to the Art Gallery, where she says students have the opportunity to see original works in person and to explore spaces they may not have experienced previously. “To see a sense of excitement and eagerness in my students’ eyes is really priceless.” 

Slowing down to see

While teaching art history in the classroom is one matter, learning to appreciate it in galleries and museums is another. Dr. El-Hanany says it’s a skill we’re quickly forgetting. “We’re so used to consuming images at high speed these days, it takes a real effort to give some time to works of art,” she says. She recommends that gallery-goers slow down and look closely at the works.

“Try to appreciate the varied materials and techniques on display,” she suggests. “There are such interesting contrasts of media and scale—from small panel paintings that used to be part of large altarpieces to large canvases.”

“Think what each work might have been used for, why it might have been commissioned, what social role it might have fulfilled. Think about the scale, the composition, the use of colors and dramatic lighting, and try to understand and follow the narratives on display.”

In order to fully take in the visuals, Dr. El-Hanany recommends using emotional empathy to really understand paintings. “The figures are wonderfully expressive in terms of their facial expressions and postures—these still images were the ‘movies’ of their period, so try to imagine these scenes as part of a living drama that would have captivated their original audiences, providing them with a huge amount of narrative interest, spirituality and emotion.”

As an art historian, Dr. El-Hanany says she enjoys overhearing the conversation of fellow gallery-goers as they engage with the various works. But if that’s not your cup of tea, she suggests choosing a relaxing musical track on your smart phone. “Classical, New Age, or at least something Italian—why not Andrea Boccelli?”

Submitted by Marketing & Communications, written by Abeer Yusuf

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Find out more about Dr. El-Hanany’s talk, Virtue and Vice: Women in Italian Art, on July 28 at the Vancouver Art Gallery here.

Dr. Efrat El-Hanany teaches a wide range of Art History courses. This coming fall she will be teaching Introduction to Women and Gender Studies, and in the near future she will be offering a new 400-level course she developed, Outcasts and Others in Western Art.

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