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Two professors named Guggenheim Fellows

Ann Marie Jakubowski | Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In early April, 181 U.S. scholars, artists and scientists were named 2012 Guggenheim Fellows, including two Notre Dame faculty members. Both professors Margot Fassler and Olivia Remie Constable are faculty in the Medieval Studies program.

According to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation’s website, the award is commonly thought of as a “midcareer” award for candidates who demonstrate notable prior achievement as well as exceptional promise for the future. Recipients this year were selected from a pool of almost 3,000 applicants.

Constable, director of Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute, said her work is centered on the interactions between Christians and Muslims in southern Europe between the 12th and 16th centuries.

“Next year, I will be writing a book on Christian perceptions of Muslims living under Christian rule in southern Europe in a period when Christians had conquered large areas that had once been under Muslim control,” Constable said.

The research itself will focus on the relationships between the Christians and Muslims, she said.

“I am looking at how this relationship worked, and at Christian understandings of what was needed for Muslim neighbors to remain Muslim,” Constable said. “This includes studying Christian attitudes toward Muslim dress, whether Muslims could continue the call to prayer and have public religious processions, etc.”

Constable said her work focuses on the shifts in attitudes and the increasing discord between the Christian and Muslim communities during this time.

“At first, in the century or so after the [Christian] conquests, none of these aspects of Muslim life presented a major problem for the Christians … over time, however, the continuation of these distinctive Muslim ways of life and religious practice became an increasing problem for Christians,” she said. “Eventually, in Spain, the Christian administration decided that it was no longer possible for Muslims and Christians to live together, and all Muslims were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. I’m studying how and why this change in attitude took place.”

Fassler’s work is also in the 12th century, centering on the figure of Hildegard of Bingen, a prominent Catholic nun who is in the process of being named one of the four female Doctors of the Church.

“Hildegard of Bingen was a brilliant theologian, but unlike any other theologian ever, she was also a composer, author, artist and monastic reformer,” Fassler said. “I’m especially interested in her enormous treatise titled ‘Scivias’ and its depiction of the 12th-century view of the cosmos.”

Fassler said the “cosmic egg” structure of Hildegard’s painting of the universe is remarkably similar to Aristotle’s earlier secular visions and even bears some resemblance to the modern scientific images of Big Bang expansion digitally created by scientists like George Smoot.

“With the money from the Guggenheim Fellowship, I should be able to complete a book about Hildegard’s treatise as well as a digital model of her cosmic vision complete with music she composed,” Fassler said.

She said she plans to project the model in the Notre Dame Digital Visualization Theater located in the Jordan Hall of Science.

“With the model, I can show the layers of the painting and zoom in on different aspects as we go through,” Fassler said. “It will be incredible to go through her vision with her music, seeing the cosmos as she described them.”

Fassler said among her favorite parts of the work is the many

fields of inquiry it draws upon.

“Study of the cosmos blends the sciences and the humanities,” Fassler said. “This project involves physics, astronomy, history of science, theology, music, drama, and the visual arts.”

Constable and Fassler said they find it remarkable that two colleagues at Notre Dame received the fellowship in the same year.

“I think that it is testimony to the strength of Medieval Studies at Notre Dame, and to the strength of our medievalist faculty, that we both won a Guggenheim fellowship in the same year,” Constable said. “We really have some amazing scholars working on the Middle Ages at Notre Dame who are doing innovative and fascinating work in many different fields.”

Fassler said the support of the Notre Dame academic community as a major factor for her success. “I owe it all to the wonderful people who wrote for me [for the fellowship] and supported me,” Fassler said. “I love the way that Notre Dame truly encourages its faculty to be entrepreneurial.”

Contact Ann Marie Jakubowski at [email protected]