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Barbara Fahy's "gelato moment" was learning about the Jesuit Church in Antwerp, Belgium.
As Fahy describes it, a "gelato moment" is an intellectual epiphany. The phrase is adopted from Jesuit historian John O'Malley, who, while tasting gelato in Florence declared, "This is a great country!" and changed his research interest to Italy.
Fahy, who will retire after the fall semester, was instantly hooked by the Church of St. Charles Borromeo and its treasure trove of art. Completed in 1621, the church originally had 39 ceiling paintings by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. Fahy found it an irresistible opportunity to combine her interdisciplinary interests in history, art history and Latin.
A believer in both "gelato moments" and serendipity, Fahy is a historian, art historian, and walking encyclopedia on all things medieval and Renaissance. She is a master teacher and mentor, fluent in Latin and a world traveler. She is also a devoted friend to the four-legged, an equestrian, a Philadelphia girl, a proponent of all things Irish, and a fan of Johnny Walker Red. She is, we might argue, a true Renaissance woman.
It is unusual to find a historian and art historian combined in a single scholar, but Fahy believes in stretching. Originally hired by
Her attraction to the Antwerp church stems from her work on Jesuit interpretation of the Catholic Reformation. A disastrous fire destroyed Rubens' paintings in 1718, so Fahy works from drawings. However, it was not her love of Rubens that attracted her. "Even from the start I wanted to link the 39 lost Rubens' paintings and the theology the scenes implied from the Old and New Testament to the Jesuit mission and the Catholic Reformation movement of the 17th century," she says. A book is in progress, and her article "Jesuit Ideals and Catholic Reformation Orthodoxy: a Reading of the Early Church Fathers in the Ceiling Panels of the Jesuit Church at Antwerp" was published in Themes in European History: Essays from the 2nd International Conference on
Most of her research is done in Latin, although Fahy has facility in French and Spanish, as well as Italian, German and some Flemish. She does research almost every year at the Catholic University of Louvain (Leuven) and in Antwerp and Brussels.
But, Fahy says, "I would not put Rubens among my first three favorite artists." Caravaggio, Rembrandt, van Eyck and da Vinci are at the top of her list. While she notes that it's hard to choose one, the work she lists as her favorite is Rembrandt's "Portrait of Jan Six."
Biology and French major Kara Lucas '11 credits an independent study with Fahy on the French Impressionists with being her own "gelato moment," which compelled her to change her career plans to art history. "There was never a question that someone asked that she didn't have an answer for. Never a piece of art that she couldn't talk about. Names. Dates. I want to be like that someday," Lucas says.
Fahy's scholarly interests also include the trials of the Molly Maguires, a 19th century secret society of Irish-American miners in
Fahy and Will Smith, Ph.D. '02, undertook a Creative Undergraduate Research (CUR) project on the Mollies. Smith, now an academic adviser at Indiana University, recalls with delight their trips to Schuylkill County mines and villages. Smith says Fahy encouraged him to consider a master's degree, which he earned from Harvard and was followed by a doctorate from Indiana University. As a teacher, he calls her as being "interactive and down to earth."
For such a beloved instructor, it is ironic that Fahy says, "I really didn't want to teach. I wanted to be a newspaper writer." With her typical selfdeprecating humor, she recalls, "I fell into a master's program" to defer a career commitment.
She also cheerfully admits her mistakes. As she remarked in a 2011 Opening Convocation address, she once invented a king. "There are three classes of 'Ancient World History' out there somewhere who believe there was an Akkadian king by the name of Sargon III," she says. "I think admitting one's mistakes is valuable in any career," she adds,"but I think it is paramount in academia."
Today, she still loves learning something for the first time and bringing it to the classroom. And despite her command of her subjects, she still carefully prepares for every lecture. Ye Yuan '14, who has taken every Fahy course she could, cites Fahy's encyclopedia-like knowledge and her favorite anecdotes, such as "the lost St. Anthony" or "the cardinal who's been depicted as devil by Michelangelo on the fresco in the Sistine Chapel. Sometimes she would even invite the student to retell the stories for her in front of the class."
Albright President Lex McMillan is auditing Fahy's "Medieval History" course for pure pleasure. "I'm hopelessly behind in the reading," McMillan laughs, but he enjoys "the great way she engages students. She'll ask, 'Who can tell me something about chivalry?' and finally when nobody volunteers, she says, 'Well, it's a good thing I know.'"
McMillan notes, "Everything Barbara does is motivated by a deep love of Albright. She wants what is best for the College."
This includes taking on tough jobs like serving (twice) as chair of the faculty, and fun jobs like appearing at a Founder's Day celebration as a Pennsylvania-German "Mother Albright," a character invented by Professor of English Dick Androne to help solicit campus support for The Fund for Albright. Fahy brought down the house in a red academic gown and laurel crown, with an
Born in West Philadelphia, Fahy still considers herself a Philadelphian, although she has lived in Reading for 40-plus years. A graduate of Immaculata College, she earned advanced degrees at Temple, and she loves the Philadelphia Zoo, where she sponsors Kira, an Amur tiger.
Fahy also has a consuming love of animals. At five, she threw her arms around a milk-wagon horse, "to the horror of my mother." Fahy's mother finally bought her a horse "for $65." Fahy and her last horse, McKenna, shown in a photo in her office with a white blaze down his face, earned a shelf full of trophies and ribbons.
"If you're a stray cat, make a beeline to her house," Will Smith says. "And the dogs are royalty. Because who else would go to the Belgian royal pet store and get collars for their dog?"
Sadly, her beloved German Shepherd, Valentino, died last year. But she has eight cats, some named after Irish saints: Brendan Patrick, Kevin Ryan, Colleen Marie, Katie Ann, Theresa Jean, Bernard Aloysius, Douglas Arthur and Benjamin Franklin.
Fahy is also known for her love of tombs, crypts and cemeteries, her affection for rogues, knaves, obscure saints and eccentrics, and her drink of choice, Johnny Walker Red Label.
"She's adorable and eccentric," Lucas laughs. "I love that."
"She is forthright and direct. She dislikes stuffed shirts, moralists, busybodies and those who presume to dictate to others. On the other hand, she is highly sociable and adaptable, and she is very sympathetic to the sufferings of others," says Androne.
"Though she will definitely be missed once she's retired," says Yuan, "I'd like to think that she will enjoy focusing on her research and her traveling after she leaves."
In that 2011 Convocation address, Fahy's final advice to students was "Avoid the pitfall of Sargon III but embrace the 'gelato moment' and do not rule the role of serendipity out of your life."
Good advice for all of us.
Learning to Appreciate Art: A Tribute to Barbara Fahy
As a kid who grew up on the streets of Philadelphia, the only artists that I was familiar with in the 60s and 70s had names like Spuck, Cool Mike and Jazz. Their works of art could be seen, for free, on the sides of abandoned buildings, overpasses and on busses and trolleys. In those days of my “yute,” I didn’t even know that there was a place called the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I blame that on the fact that back then I was considered “underprivileged.” In the 1960s and early 70s, my parents couldn’t afford to buy me a computer so that I could access Google, Yahoo or Trip Advisor. They couldn’t even afford to get me an IPad, or at the very least, a Smartphone to help me plan my activities for the day. If I had had one of those devices, perhaps I would have discovered the Art Museum.
My first real encounter with Professor Barbara Fahy was in my junior year at Albright. It wasn’t until the fall of 1977 that I realized there was no way that I could talk myself out of the academic requirement of completing an art/music course in order to graduate. I was someone who had no interest in art classes. Things went downhill with me and art after I received an “F” in finger painting class in kindergarten. I searched through the catalog of courses and found a course titled “Art History,” which was taught by Professor Fahy. I figured that all I had to do to earn a passing grade was to memorize a few slides of famous works of art and pass a test.
I decided on my first day of class that I was going to hate the course. Dr. Fahy lectured in the old theater and clicked through slides of famous pieces of artwork and began lecturing about the Renaissance period. I saw hundreds of slides of artwork painted and sculpted by some of the greatest artists of the time, DaVinci, Michaelangelo, Donatello, Raphael and many others. I watched and listened to Dr. Fahy and memorized the works of art. I assumed that my interest in the works of art would end as soon as I completed the final exam. Surprisingly, I found myself interested in Dr. Fahy’s lectures. She had a magical way of transporting her students back to the time that the art was created. She made the world of art interesting for someone who had never before been exposed to real art.
Thanks to a decent grade in the class, I was able to graduate on time in May of 1979. That summer, my buddy, Buzz Beard and I backpacked through Europe for seven weeks. Strangely, along with our failed attempts to meet beautiful European women and sample as much beer and wine as we could afford, we found ourselves visiting the world class art museums throughout Britain, France, Spain and Italy. Amazingly, I was transformed back to Dr. Fahy’s class and could actually speak, intelligently about the works of art. My knowledge didn’t help us meet any beautiful European women, but I did develop a real appreciation for the magnificent works of art.
I contacted Dr. Fahy many years later to tell her how much I appreciated her class and her teaching style. I have been fortunate over the last 33 years since I graduated to visit with Dr. Fahy on campus. She is as bright, enthusiastic, funny and friendly as ever and I thank her for her wisdom and teachings, which enhanced my education both in and out of the classroom. She was an awesome professor and is a wonderful person.
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