Tallon makes gothic art tangible

daily, virtual field trips to the great gothic structures of France, England and more thanks to his hard work virtually recreating the experience of visiting these gothic structures. Photo: Jacob Gorski
daily, virtual field trips to the great gothic structures of France, England and more thanks to his hard work virtually recreating the experience of visiting these gothic structures. Photo: Jacob Gorski
Art History Professor Andrew Tallon brings his students on daily, virtual field trips to the great gothic structures of France, England and more thanks to his hard work virtually recreating the experience of visiting these gothic structures. Photo: Jacob Gorski

On the first day of Professor Andrew Tallon’s Medieval Architecture class, students studied Chartres Cathedral from a flying buttress hoisted hundreds of feet up in the air. The students had neither taken a field trip across the Atlantic, nor were they in any sort of danger. Instead, they were touring Chartres from the comfort of their classroom in Taylor—a product of Professor Tallon’s work creating virtual and exact representations of gothic architecture.

Taking virtual tours of monumental architecture thousands of miles away is business as usual for those enrolled in Professor Tallon’s classes. Tallon joined Vassar’s faculty in 2007 as a professor of medieval art and architecture. But while his area of expertise is classified as “medieval,” his style of teaching is anything but that. Through the use of technology, Tallon incorporates many sensory elements into his teaching. He takes students on visual and acoustic journeys through gothic structures, using 3D projections as well as sound clips to replicate the visual and acoustic experiences of being a pilgrim in these structures.

“I took Art 105 and Art 221 with Professor Tallon, and I really appreciated the image resources he worked into both courses,” said Joseph Bettman ’17, who is working as Tallon’s research assistance this semester. “It’s challenging to interact with objects firmly planted on the other side of the planet, but panoramic and spherical photographs of complex buildings like San Vitale in Ravenna capture architecture and the decorative program from every angle, reconstituting the space in an experience that can be relived and studied over and over.”

The tools he brings to the classroom—from 3D projections of abbey churches to videos taken from the edge of a flying buttress—are entirely of his own creation. Along with Art History Professor Stephen Murray of Columbia University, Tallon began a project titled “Mapping Gothic France,” where students can gather understanding of these structures’ space, time and narrative. Students can now visit Gothic France from the comfort of their computer screens. But for Tallon, gathering this information was anything but comfortable, as the professor often has to perch himself hundreds of feet in the air and on not-always stable surfaces in order to gather images and information for his project. “It’s always a mix in me of exhilaration—from being in a medieval building and wanting to see everything—with an attempt at being cautious,” he said. “I have no problem with heights, but I’ve been warned.”

For mapping gothic architecture, Tallon creates 360-degree interactive panoramas, 3-D representations as well as highly-detailed laser scans of gothic structures including Notre Dame de Paris, the cathedral of Chartres and the cathedral of Bourges. His research has also expanded to gothic structures in Great Britain and Spain.

This past summer, however, Tallon spent his time not mapping gothic France but, rather, mapping gothic America. He split his time between the Bryn Athyn Cathedral in Pennsylvania and the Washington National Cathedral, where Tallon used his laser scanner in order to closely analyze these two historic structures. “This neo-Medieval stuff in the United States was a question I posed in this article I wrote and published in the JSAH recently, so I knew that someday I was going to have to do this,” he said.

In Washington, it was a particularly big deal that Tallon would study the National Cathedral, as the monumental structure underwent a considerable amount of damage after a 2011 earthquake—of which Tallon saw the effects firsthand through his data: “Most of the things were simply unseated, generally at the extremities—the flying buttresses—anything that could move or oscillate did so.” Though Tallon’s research takes place miles away, he is always sure to bring it back to the classroom with enthusiasm and wonder. “Every time I have the chance to learn something new about a building, it ends up nourishing the way I teach in one way or another,” he said. “It makes me think in terms of the architecture we have here on campus which is officially unrefined and it looks as much. I think it will work its way in on that sense.”

A few students had the ability to collaborate with Tallon through the Ford Scholar Program in gathering laser data of these structures this summer. “Professor Tallon has been a joy to work with this past summer, as he is so evidently passionate about what he does. Capitalizing on today’s technological possibilities, he goes to great lengths to improve the understandability and representational quality of his subject matter, giving a new life to the realm of art historical gothic architecture,” said Destin McMurry ’16, who worked with Tallon on creating digital plans of Chartres and Bourges. “From his professional work to his Art-105 lectures, where students are given a captivating experience of spatial comprehension through three-dimensional imagery, he highlights material with an excitement that one absolutely cannot miss.”

Tallon will be delivering his faculty presentation, “The Cathedral of Notre-Dame,” on Saturday, September 20 from 3:45 to 4:30 pm in Taylor Hall, Auditorium 203, where he will transform the auditorium into one of the worlds most famed cathedrals.

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