Art History

Art History Professor’s Research Brought Together SMU Students Across Campus for Groundbreaking Work

The Meadows Museum was home base for acoustical research
The Meadows Museum was home base for acoustical research

Associate Professor of Art History Lisa Pon was recently published in The Art Bulletin, a leading journal among art historians. Her work, Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles Tapestries for Leo X: Sight, Sound and Space in the Sistine Chapel, called for collaboration. SMU Meadows Music and Art History students joined forces with Electrical Engineering and Physics for innovative and groundbreaking research into the acoustical effect of tapestries.

We spoke with Associate Professor Lisa Pon about her findings, the campus-spanning collaboration, and why it’s exciting. See more at The SMU Division of Art History, and apply now to join our Meadows community.

What was one of the most exciting findings or results from your research?

Everyone can imagine that hanging tapestries would change acoustics in a space—but our research demonstrated for the first time that the presence of a Renaissance tapestry actually does so, and does so differently for song and spoken word.

What roles did Meadows students play in your research?

Meadows music students sang pieces of Renaissance music by Josquin des Prez used in the Sistine Chapel, the Missa Pange Lingua.  They were recorded and the recordings played in the Meadows Museum gallery with the fifteenth-century Pastrana tapestries hanging there on display, and again after the exhibition closed and the Pastrana tapestries had been removed.  More than 70 SMU undergraduate students in art history, music history, and and musical acoustics classes, as well as some thirty staff and faculty members, took surveys about their subjective responses to the recordings.  So we were able to discuss both changes in the sounds themselves and also how the sounds were perceived.

How did Meadows students collaborate with other students across campus?

Meadows faculty from ARHS and Music and World Languages and Literatures participated in the preparation of the recordings and development of the surveys; faculty from Physics and Engineering assisted in the acoustical analysis of the music played in the Meadows Museum gallery; Meadows Museum staff helped give all of us access to the gallery during the Pastrana tapestry exhibition and after it had closed.

How did the cross-collaboration benefit your research?

This groundbreaking research in which scientific acoustical analysis is brought to bear on Renaissance music and spoken text would not have been possible without the expertise of musicians, a music educator, an electrical engineer, a physicist, a statistician, and an art historian.

I also drew parallels between the scientific results that were obtained and the types of problems regarding bad acoustics in the Sistine Chapel that are documented in the historical record of the early sixteenth century.  The cross-collaboration allowed me to argue that the famous tapestries designed by Raphael for the Sistine Chapel not only added to the visual decoration, but also affected the acoustical environment, which was very important to Raphael’s patron, Pope Leo X.  This pope loved polyphonic music such as that by Josquin des Pres (used in our experiments) and had Swiss guards going around shushing the cardinals so he could hear better!

See the full published work from Lisa Pon: Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles Tapestries for Leo X: Sight, Sound and Space in the Sistine Chapel

By Nick Rallo