the Archive
By Andrew Shaughnessy

Dr. Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt has a special talent for digging up the ugly truth behind beautiful artworks. 

A specialist in modern and contemporary art, the Covenant College art history professor teaches courses on “Contemporary Art and Criticism,” “Art and the Church,” “Race in American Art and Visual Culture,” “Women, Art, and Culture,” and more. Name a beloved period or artistic movement — from ancient Greece to the Renaissance masters to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — and she can enumerate the ways that art reflects, and often perpetuates, human brokenness, sin, and oppression. More than once, I’ve heard her jokingly muse that she could rename most of her classes: “Dr. Weichbrodt ruins everything.”

The Siesta, Paul Gauguin, c. 1892

For art lovers blissfully unaware of the deep-rooted misogyny, racism, and inequality chronicled in paint and marble throughout history, this can be kind of a buzzkill. Yet, at its core, Weichbrodt’s teaching is solidly biblical and redemptive. Grounded in the gospel narrative and armed with a healthy dose of nerdy enthusiasm, she challenges the church and individual Christians to embrace contemporary art as a catalyst for faithful knowing: a means of mourning history’s horrors, confessing sins, and discovering the image of God stamped on stories not our own. 

It’s not always pretty, but art can help us learn to love both God and our neighbor better. 

A Mental Shelving System

Central to Weichbrodt’s philosophy of “faithful looking” is the idea of expanding our “archive,” which she defines as “the mental shelving system that tells us how to understand what we’ve seen around us based on what we’ve seen before.” 

The images that we see over time, and how we understand them, become a part of us — a web of accumulated experience, perception, and knowledge that contributes to the lens through which we see the world.

“Images are never made or viewed in a vacuum,” Weichbrodt said. “They’re always living in context and conversation with other images.”

This is true even of artists and artworks famous for their originality: Michelangelo’s David, for example, references classical Greek and Roman sculpture, drawing a purposeful connection between Renaissance Florence and the “glorious classical past.”

David (detail), Michelangelo Buonarroti,  c. 1501-04

“He’s self-consciously referencing an archive of what the beautiful and the noble and the rational look like,” said Weichbrodt.

We, as viewers of images and as human beings, unconsciously reference our personal archives all the time, and not just in how we look at and understand “high art.” According to Weichbrodt, this even influences how we judge the photographs we take. When deciding whether or not a photo is worth posting to Facebook or Instagram, we unconsciously compare it to the accumulation of other images that we’ve seen before to see if ours measures up. Our archive tells us, “This is what a happy mother looks like,” “This is what a beautiful wedding looks like,” and we judge our and others’ photos accordingly.

Shaping Expectations

Our acquired archive ultimately influences not only how we look at images, but what we think of the world. It shapes and naturalizes our expectations, telling us: This is what a hero looks like, or a leader, a criminal, or a crazy person. This is nobility; that is desirable femininity.

“I think it’s valuable for us as Christians to recognize that all of us have an archive, whether we know it or not,” Weichbrodt said. “And that archive is [not only] shaping how we look at images and artworks but also how we understand actual people that we interact with.”

One of Weichbrodt’s favorite examples of this is Dorothea Lange’s iconic 1936 photograph “Migrant Mother.” The black-and-white photo is tightly framed around a world-weary-looking woman staring past the camera. Two children in ragged clothes hide their faces. The photo became the iconic photo of the Great Depression, an image of American resilience and a mother’s care for her children. But why do we view the woman in the photo in this light?

Migrant Mother, Dorothea Lange, 1936. Rijks Museum

“Dorothea Lange makes a photograph of this anonymous woman that looks so much like images we’ve seen before of the Virgin Mary, and we’re encouraged to apply all the things that we know to be true about the Virgin Mary to this nameless poor woman,” said Weichbrodt. “She becomes an image of the noble, deserving poor.”

Viewers of “Migrant Mother” unconsciously pull from their archive and form conclusions accordingly: Like the “Madonna and Child” artworks she resembles, the subject of the photograph must be a good mother, morally upright, dependable. None of that information is provided in the photo itself, but nevertheless the conclusion is formed.

Madonna and Child, Giovanni Bellini, c. 1500

And here is where things can take a darker turn. “Migrant Mother,” interpreted through our archive’s lens, now itself becomes a part of the archive, shaping our expectations about a particular kind of person: the noble, deserving poor. Now, when we see a photograph or encounter in real life a person who doesn’t line up with this acquired archetype, we give ourselves license to look the other way, to replace compassion with judgment.

“It sets expectations for who we think is worthy,” said Weichbrodt. “Who are the poor that we should care about versus the poor that we can ignore? … Think about how a welfare queen might be imaged: She’s dressed incorrectly. She has a fancy bag. She has too many kids. She’s not following our idea of what a good poor person should look like. And so instead of giving her dignity, instead of caring about her story, instead of thinking that we might help her, we instead feel totally entitled to criticize her. I don’t want to say this is exclusively from images, but I think part of it comes from images.”

Expanding Our Archive

Yet, just as images can contribute to prejudice and sin, they can also serve as gateways to sanctification. The way Weichbrodt sees it, one of the greatest strengths of art history as a discipline is that it gives us access to archives that are not our own. 

“When it comes to interacting with artworks, the Reformed tradition has typically focused on the role of the artist,” she said. “We ask questions about what the artist believed and how that manifests itself visually in the artwork. I think this is important, particularly when it comes to teaching young Christian artists about how belief shapes their work beyond merely content choices. But what I’m really interested in is the responsibility of the viewer, which hasn’t been explored as much. What does it mean to look faithfully and humbly? Can we recognize truth, can we love our neighbor, can we interrogate our own responses, can we be called to repentance when necessary?”

One of the works that served as a catalyst for empathy in Weichbrodt’s own life was African American artist Carrie Mae Weems’ “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried.” The installation piece is made up of 33 historical photographs of black men and women, many of them portraits of slaves taken by a 19th-century Swiss naturalist in the American South, part of an anthropological project intended to prove their racial inferiority. Most of the photos are set behind blood-red, tinted glass, and on the glass the artist has etched words — a kind of poetic narrative chronicling the horrific and complex struggles of the black American experience and exploring the constructed nature of history. 

“You became a scientific profile,” reads one frame. And others: “A negroid type,” “An anthropological debate.”

Bookending the red-tinted photos, Weems places black-and-white images of an African woman. “From here I saw what happened …” reads the first. “And I cried,” says the last.

“Carrie Mae Weems invites the viewer to become a witness to this historical narrative, regardless of your own racial or ethnic background,” Weichbrodt said. “She gives you this pronoun: ‘From here I saw what happened and I cried.’ She gives you this opportunity to mourn over a history that might not be your own. Certainly a black viewer engaging with this work is going to have a different experience than a white viewer, particularly a white viewer who might not recognize some of these images or for whom the narrative might be particularly disruptive or unfamiliar, but I find it to be so generous that at the end of all of this she allows you to say ‘and I cried.’”

Weems’ work gave Weichbrodt, and offers us, access to an archive that is not our own — a doorway to lament a broken history, repent, and perhaps better love our image-bearing neighbors by seeing, valuing, and participating in their stories. Weichbrodt describes the piece’s function as almost like a liturgy: “You might not believe it when you say it out loud, but there’s something powerful in speaking it, and that could change you.”

Disruption As an Entry Point for Knowing

Art, as a medium, has the capacity to change your perspective in a way that books and arguments and head knowledge simply don’t and can’t. 

“Art isn’t a replacement for historical research or fostering real-life relationships, but it can serve as an entry point to knowledge through disruption.”

“While art is not a sacrament, the fact that Jesus gives us sacraments as a way of knowing something of His grace and love for us through our bodies suggests something about the way we know as image-bearers,” Weichbrodt said. “We can gain cerebral knowledge from reading a text, but there’s something significant about this bodily experience of water poured over heads, or bread and wine coming into our bodies — that’s part of how we know.”

Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, c. 1470

Art isn’t a replacement for historical research or fostering real-life relationships, but it can serve as a hook, an entry point to knowledge through disruption. Weichbrodt experienced this when she first encountered the work of Colombian artist Doris Salcedo. In Salcedo’s “A Flor de Piel,” the artist sewed together a fragile, skinlike shroud of rose petals. Salcedo used the piece to respond to the violence of Colombia’s brutal civil war, and the horrific story of a Colombian nurse kidnapped and tortured to death. Slowly decaying, yet still holding onto a tenuous beauty, the piece serves as a tangible, visceral metaphor of the delicate nature of life.

“It was strange,” said Weichbrodt. “I had this very emotional and physical response to her work, and then I realized: ‘Oh, I am attached to this now. I need to go [learn] more about it.’

“Our default position tends to be that we have to know the facts about something in order to care about it,” Weichbrodt added. “Artworks provide the opportunity to invert that, to make you care about something and then say, ‘Well, now that you care you need to go know.”

In Florence, Italy’s Galleris degli Uffizi, Elissa Weichbrodt talks with students about “The Portinari Altarpiece” by Hugo van der Goes.

Before seeing “A Flor de Piel,” Weichbrodt knew virtually nothing about the Colombian civil war. The art itself told her little in terms of facts, data, or information — but it caught hold of her heart. In the ensuing months she did her research and learned more; as she absorbed the stories of women impacted by Colombia’s violence, she could see them a bit more clearly as image bearers, not ideas. Art generated empathy, lament, and love.


When Weichbrodt teaches her students at Covenant, she doesn’t shy away from the difficult, dark histories and experiences behind the art. It’s all there — American slavery, millennia of sexual objectification of women, civil war, and torture and violence. When she was a lecturer at Washington University during grad school, whenever she and her students would explore critical history about violence or inequality in the context of an artwork, she could end the lecture only with something like: “Don’t let it bum you out too much!” 

At Covenant, she can be honest about the total effects of the Fall, the horror of sin, and the brutal weight of history. And then she can bring the hope of the gospel to bear.

“I tell my students, ‘You need to know this because it makes Jesus bigger,’” she said. “‘If you believe that Jesus is coming back to make the sad things untrue, then this is one more thing that He is going to roll back, and He is going to become necessarily bigger in order to do that.’”

To study art history, to faithfully view art, often means exposing ourselves to the darkness of history and the human soul. But it also means exposing ourselves to stories that are not our own — stories of men and women made in the image of God. It means finding new tragedies to mourn, more wonders to behold, and learning to love people better by seeing them more clearly. For a Christian, it also means grasping more firmly to hope. 

“I love that I can use art history in a way that’s encouraging to students in the fullness of the Gospel, and every part of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation,” she added. “[We] know the end of the story, so let’s not be afraid right now. That’s an emboldening thing.”

This piece was first published in the Fall 2019 issue of byFaith.

Andrew Shaughnessy is a freelance writer and a graduate of Covenant College. 


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