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students in art history class

A visit to History Instructor Emily Snyder’s classroom is a window into the world of art and our place in it. Emma alums look back on the experience as pivotal in their educational development.

On one particular day, Ms. Snyder’s AS Art History class was preparing to write essays on humanism. The day’s lecture explored the artwork of the Sistine Chapel, its significance in establishing papal supremacy, and where a transition to humanist thought could be seen in the work. Beginning by placing the art itself in time and space with a bird’s eye view of the chapel’s placement within the Vatican, Ms. Snyder shared her own experience of visiting as a young art history student. Recalling how she stopped short upon entering the chapel, wanting to stand still and absorb the moment, she humorously shares her encounter with a security guard who was intent on keeping the considerable crowd moving. 

Showing slides of various scenes and explaining their meaning, Ms. Snyder led the students through reflections on what they were seeing. Who were the artists whose work covered the walls of this space? Why were they chosen over all others? How does the artists’ view of religion and society color their work? Were they rebelling, or were they bowing to the whims of those in power? How does all of this tie in with what students have previously learned? 

Ms. Snyder’s blend of humor, personal experience, and historical insight is clearly working. Her art history classes at Emma have inspired numerous students to pursue further study in college and beyond. 

Recently, a few Emma grads gathered in Kellas Commons to share insight with faculty regarding what prepared them most for their transitions to college. Among the participants was Cordelia Padovan ’23, who now attends Trinity College. When Cordelia signed up for AS Art History, she had no idea what to expect from the course. Based on what she’d heard from her peers, she thought it would be fun and interesting but had no idea what to expect—certainly not that it would end up being her focus in college. 

“Ms. Snyder was such an incredible teacher, and we learned many things that I'd never really heard of before,” Cordelia recalls. The experience opened Cordelia’s eyes to something she has become passionate about. “Art history wasn't something that was really on my radar at all,” she says. “After that class, realizing how much I loved it, when I was looking at colleges, programs, and majors, I realized it was something I was actually really interested in. Now I'm an art history major, and I love it so much!” 

For Roux Colacino ’22, a technical theatre major at Wagner College, Ms. Snyder’s class built onto the legacy of previous history teachers who deepened Roux’s love of the subject. “An effectively taught history class is one that engages students creatively and challenges them to think not just about how things were in the far past but how the far past led us to the present moment,” Roux shares. “In the case of art history, what can we find in art from long ago that connects us to the artists? Ms. Snyder does an exceptional job of presenting this question to her students and helping them work through it.” 

One facet of Ms. Snyder’s class that stood out to both Roux and Cordelia was a series of sketchbook assignments. Cordelia, who doesn’t consider herself an artist, explains the challenge and the deep appreciation the assignments fostered: “It pushed me out of my comfort zone and really helped me learn the material better. You're really being taught how the artists make these pieces…I've learned about the time it takes and all of the materials that they would use. You're still learning about the materials, the processes, the techniques, even though you're not actually making the art.”

Roux recalls being assigned a style of architecture (ancient Greek temples, Roman courtyards and basilicas, and Byzantine pilgrimage churches, to name a few) and told to use them as inspiration to make that building in their own style. “These got progressively more challenging as time went on, but they were also quite fun, and it was always a delight to come into class on the day they were due and see everyone's unique interpretations of the prompt,” Roux recalls. “The experience I got from those assignments continues to be a gift and useful in ways I couldn't have anticipated.”

The beauty of an art history class is that it brings together many disciplines that students have covered over their time at Emma—visual art (painting, sculpture, architecture), literature, history, languages—and gives students the opportunity to see the connections and apply them. Back in the classroom, Ms. Snyder shows comparisons of the Sistine Chapel walls before and after a restoration project that began in the 1980s. “If you love creating art, and you love history, and you love chemistry, art conservation may be the career for you,” Ms. Snyder explains, noting how conservators must understand the use of materials that will be historically accurate and not harm priceless masterpieces. Imagining themselves combining disciplines to craft a lifetime pursuit is one of the ways that Ms. Snyder draws her students into the relevance of what they are learning. 

Cordelia remembers Ms. Snyder sharing a similar example in her own class. She was studying Latin at the time and appreciated the ties between disciplines. “We talked a lot about classical art and much of the history behind it in AS Latin. That's the kind of interesting intersection I found at Emma,” Cordelia says. 

Having started her own academic journey as a visual artist, then shifting to a humanities focus, gives Ms. Snyder a different perspective than what other history classes might offer. “It really is an opportunity to put many different aspects of history and other subject areas together. You're looking at psychology, at straight history for context, at cultural history, at sociology, at language.” With a background in religious studies, late antique cultures, and religious art, with a particular interest in class and the experience of “regular people,” Ms. Snyder’s eclectic interests translate into how she teaches. 

“There was never a day I felt bored or uninterested in the material,” Roux recalls. “I credit that both to class chemistry—the people in my class were all friends, or became friends quickly—and to Ms. Snyder's engagement with our (and her own) interests as they pertained to what we were studying. It was the generous trade of ideas back and forth between teacher and student that made everyone in the class feel valued as individuals, which in turn helped propel our discussions about the art we studied.”

Ms. Snyder credits her students with much of the class's atmosphere. “They're really fantastic. Always. I really appreciate how hard they're willing to work and how curious they are about stuff that can be a little bit weird. It's really fun.”

As for what’s next for our alums, Roux is currently working on a novella told in the style of a comic book using iconography from a specific time period and culture, as well as designing and illustrating 2D top-down and 3D elevation plans of theatre sets. Cordelia is looking for internships and would love to work in a museum or gallery, possibly in fundraising or communications. 


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