How St. Francis Has Helped My Dissertation

Before I launch into today’s post, I have to admit that the title is a bit of a misnomer. St. Francis hasn’t directly interceded on behalf of my dissertation (I’m a lapsed Catholic at best), but the writing I did about him in college has definitely had an impact. But hey, the title got your attention, right?

Anyway, on to the post.

It feels like I’m always in some kind of reflective mood, but thanks to some upcoming anniversaries and commemorative posts it’s been more pronounced recently. In 2024, it will have been 20 years since I graduated high school and started college. A few weeks ago, a post on LinkedIn got me thinking about my first experience as a presenter at an academic conference environment. Attending CAA and the Williams College reunion site there prompted reflections about my time in that program, as did my brief return to Roswell.

But most recently, I’ve been ruminating on an old project. Long before I decided to write a dissertation, I undertook another massive research and writing initiative, my senior thesis.


As an overachieving undergraduate at Lake Forest College, I’d decided by the end of my freshman year that I was going to write a senior thesis. It wasn’t necessary for graduation, but again, I was an overachiever at the time. The thesis I eventually wrote was about St. Francis, or rather, an altarpiece featuring him. While I’ve always been interested in the movement of ideas through art, back then I was more focused on the art rather than the infrastructures and relationships underpinning it. My favorite classes focused on medieval and Renaissance-era Europe, and my interest in medieval history was so serious that I considered becoming a medievalist at one point. In my classes, I took an interest in the lives and afterlives of saints, and during the semester I spent in Europe I became interested in the sites and spaces of monastic life. To be fair, it’s hard not to get compelled by it when you get to see the cells that Fra Angelico decorated at the Convent of San Marco first-hand.

Although I knew I wanted to write a thesis, I didn’t settle on the actual topic until the fall of my senior year. Initially, I’d considered writing about gardens and landscape history, as I’d developed an interest in them during the two months I spent in London. Our hostel/hotel/dorm was located about a block from Kensington Gardens (no way I could afford that now), and I spent so much time there that I eventually wrote a paper about its children’s gardens and their changing landscape architecture through time.

Once I got back to the United States though, I became interested in Saint Francis. Or rather, how he was depicted in the US. During my time in Italy, we spent a lot of time at religious sites as well as museums, and I got to see a lot of different renderings of St. Francis, among other religious figures. Some hagiographic illustrations, like the Sermon to the Birds, I knew, but I also saw a lot of stories I didn’t recognize. I saw wild illustrations showing Francis driving fiery chariots across the sky (that was a vision), single-handedly holding up crumbling churches (that was also a vision), creating the first Nativity scene and having the doll depicting the Christ child miraculously come to life (that, if you’re a believer, happened) and partaking in naked snowman-building sessions in an attempt to literally freeze out lust (that also happened, apparently). In short, the life of St. Francis was full of different stories, their veracity debatable, but tales that nonetheless highlighted different facets of the saint’s life and personality. Once I got home though, I noticed that St. Francis’s depiction was significantly more one-dimensional. From garden statues to religious cards, all I saw was Francis as the animal lover preaching love and peace. In American popular culture, Francis had been distilled into a proto-hippie/conservationist type, the other stories being stripped away to focus on this singular incident.

The central panel of the Saint Francis Altarpiece, ca. 1500. For about a year of my life, this piece was an obsession.

If I were studying St. Francis now, I would have focused on this transformation, but since I was an undergraduate more interested in medieval history, I went a different route. I started by comparing different renderings of the Sermon to the Birds across time, focusing on depictions from the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries. That eventually led me to the central panel of a work known as the St. Francis Altarpiece, painted in Cologne, Germany, at the turn of the sixteenth century and attributed to two anonymous masters, the Master of St. Severin and the Master of the Life of St. Ursula. Located in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, the piece existed in fragments until the early twentieth century, when the panels comprising its exterior and interior wings were rediscovered and reassembled. It’s not a particularly well-known piece, so it took me a few months to find images of the entire altarpiece.

For my thesis, I did a panel-by-panel interpretation, beginning with the exterior panels and working my way to the central one. I’ll spare you the details but it was basically a work of spatial analysis. Within the altarpiece itself, I discussed the placement of each saint rendered in the exterior and interior wings in relation to Francis in the central panel, arguing that their locations carried specific, politicized meanings in relation to sixteenth-century Cologne and its Franciscan culture. Following this analysis, I then speculated on the altarpiece’s original location, ultimately concluding that it was kept in the Chapterhouse in the Franciscan monastery in Cologne.

At the end of the year, I had a 100+ page thesis of which I was very proud. Then I went to Williams and got too swept up in my assignments there to give it much thought. But it remains the longest piece of finished writing I’ve done to date (the dissertation, while significantly longer, is incomplete as of now) and I still have a copy of it on my bookshelf somewhere.


A lot has changed since I finished that thesis. Like my symposium project on Hans Memling, the research methods I used were also somewhat different from what I use now. I never saw the altarpiece in person while I was writing it (though I would see it in 2010 while visiting a friend in Germany), and I relied mostly on secondary sources, or in the case of primary documents about Franciscan life, translations. Probably the most impressive aspect of the project was the amount of translation I personally did. Since the altarpiece was German, nearly everything written about it was in German, so I spent a lot of time reading German scholarship.

More significantly, my interests have shifted. When I wrote my thesis, I imagined myself becoming a specialist in German Franciscan art. Like many of my undertakings, that proved to be a passing fancy more than a sustained interest. But even though I no longer study German Franciscan art, there’s no denying that my thesis has indelibly impacted my dissertation. The influence is indirect, but it’s undeniable. Let’s consider the ways:

  1. Project management: I’ve talked about how my curating experience has helped me manage the dissertation as a long-term project, but the senior thesis was also an important training ground in project management. While I wrote my thesis, I continued taking a full course load, worked two afternoons a week in the Library’s Archives and Special Collections for work-study, and applied to graduate school. And I did all this while taking advantage of living near Chicago, going to art exhibitions, the symphony, the opera, or whatever else I felt like attending. Writing the thesis showed me that I can complete a big project while working on other things. By doing a little bit every day, I get things done.
  2. Your research isn’t everything, and your life is more than any one project: When I worked on my thesis, I was pretty damn obsessed with it. Being the inexperienced 21/22-year-old I was, I felt like I was working on what would become the defining project of my life. Time, of course, has shown that wasn’t the case, and as much as I loved that thesis, I moved on once it was finished. The same is true with every other major research undertaking I’ve done, whether it’s an exhibition, an article, a DH project, or something else. Even the Federal Community Art Center Project, the initiative that’s held my interest longer than anything else by far, is no longer the sole focus of my dissertation, and I know I’ll be working on other things even if I do keep researching it in the future. No one project has ever fully defined my life, and it’s okay to move on to other interests as they come up. It’s also important to have other interests to mitigate that sense of letdown that comes with finishing anything.
  3. Researching and producing in a finite amount of time: From start to finish, my senior thesis only took about eight or nine months to complete. Taking into account that the first semester was spent basically writing one chapter as my senior seminar assignment, I really wrote most of it in about four months. But the research I did was good. Knowing that I could produce something worthwhile in a finite amount of time has helped keep me moving throughout the dissertation process, enabling me to research, write, and move forward consistently rather than worry about perfection. The dissertation isn’t the culmination of my work, but another step in an ongoing process, so it’s okay, critical really, to keep moving.
  4. Share it or perish: When I finished my thesis, my supervisor at the Library encouraged me to publish it as a monograph or article. I didn’t because I felt that as a recent undergraduate, I wasn’t ready for a publication like that. In hindsight, I should have followed his advice, because the thesis and the research I did for it has had a limited impact. Unless someone is willing to either visit the Lake Forest library or my house (call me first if you ever do that, no surprise visits please), they’re not going to see this work beyond a brief reference on Worldcat. Fortunately, I’ve learned from this past mistake by sharing my research. Whether I’m presenting chapters at conferences, adapting those same chapters into journal articles (stay tuned this fall for that), or even posting updates on this blog, I’m sharing my work.

So will I ever revisit St. Francis? Maybe, but if I do, it’d probably be in an American context. But even if I don’t, my first sustained foray into research and writing will continue to shape my practice, as the lessons I learned from that experience have indelibly shaped me.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *