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Becca Morgan (left) discusses her thesis project with Willamette professor Wendy Petersen-Boring and Dante expert Peter Hawkins from Yale Divinity School.

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Artist Sandow Birk (left) and Hawkins, a Dante expert, visited the class to answer questions on "The Divine Comedy."

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Prints from Sandow Birk's "Inferno" were on display at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, including "The Minotaur" from Canto XII, 11-12.

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Bringing Dante’s Work to Life

A museum exhibition and a visit from an artist and a Dante expert helped a class gain unique insight into the “Divine Comedy.”

The 16 undergraduates in history professor Wendy Petersen-Boring's humanities senior seminar on Dante's "Divine Comedy" went way beyond reading and discussing the text.

They examined a modern visual interpretation that portrays Dante as a California surfer heading through "Hell" on the streets of Los Angeles. They talked with Sandow Birk, the artist who created the modern version, and viewed his prints a block away in Willamette's Hallie Ford Museum of Art. 

And they met in small groups with Birk and a respected Dante scholar from Yale Divinity School to get advice on their senior thesis projects.

The experiences helped them discover how an epic Italian poem from the 14th century could still apply to their lives today — while giving them the rare chance to query renowned experts.

"Interacting with a professor who is one of the leading minds on Dante, and an artist from Los Angeles who is known internationally for his work, turned my project into something more meaningful than just writing a paper," English major Brent Jones says. "It gave me a greater appreciation for Dante's work and made it much more personal."

Gaining Outside Perspectives

Willamette offers the humanities senior seminar several times a year for students majoring in humanities-related fields. A different professor teaches each seminar, focusing on a single work of literature.

For the Dante class, a Yale professor who has studied Dante since the 1970s and knows the “Divine Comedy” inside and out visited campus to meet with the students and help them develop their theses.

The class also benefited from the Hallie Ford Museum of Art hosting an exhibition of prints from Sandow Birk's version of "Inferno," the first and most famous of the three parts of the "Divine Comedy."

New Insights

Becca Morgan, a history and American ethnic studies major, appreciated that the exhibition allowed her to explore Dante’s work in a visual way.

"I was able to think about the ‘Inferno' in new ways by seeing those prints on the wall and setting down the text to work my way through the story with just the pictures," she says.

Religious studies and classical studies major Anna Zimmerman says that meeting with the outside scholars gave her new insights for her senior theses.

"It was helpful to hear from Birk and Hawkins about the places in the ‘Divine Comedy' that we could use to our advantage in our projects," she says. "They showed me how to add to the ideas I already had to make them better."

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