The historic gravestones at an early medieval church outnumber the permanent residents of the Spanish village 13 to 1. Often, the only visitors are those passing through during the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.
But for five weeks each summer, this tiny town in northern Spain becomes a research haven for Central Michigan University art history faculty member Scott de Brestian and a cohort of students.
“This is hands-on research,” said de Brestian. “It allows students to go and work on material firsthand.”
Not a traditional classroom setting
For the past three summers, de Brestian and his students have traveled to the Church of the Assumption in San Vicente del Valle, Spain.
While in Spain, students spend zero time in a traditional classroom. They spend their days in the church or on the mountainside, documenting artifacts to learn more about the transition from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages.
Students practice traditional methods of artifact documentation, including photography and drawing.
“I spent a whole day measuring bricks that were old gravestones to put in a database,” said Eli Cross, an anthropology student from Midland, Michigan.
However, a big part of their research is helping de Brestian photograph artifacts to create digital three-dimensional models.
These models can be used digitally to examine the artifacts or used as a stencil to create physical three-dimensional models on campus using the Makerbot Innovation Center, the CNC Router, or by casting a resin and concrete version.
To create the physical models, de Brestian often collaborates with sculpture faculty member Jeremy Davis. Through many trials, the team has been able to hone their process so the final model depicts the original artifact as closely as possible in its color, texture and physical weight.
Back on campus
On campus, de Brestian uses the materials he and the students collected not only to research and publish, but as a teaching tool.
Last fall, de Brestian taught Western medieval art and included data collected in Spain as part of the curriculum. Students were able to not only construct models from the collected data but do a close study of them.
“Each piece of art has a history – a birth, a life, it goes in and out of use,” de Brestian said.
Next fall, de Brestian plans to teach a digital art history course for students of all disciplines.
Designed as a studio art class, students will be able to learn the same techniques de Brestian uses in Spain, including how to collect proper data using photography equipment, how to use software to process the data and make three-dimensional models, and how to utilize the different models to answer the questions they have.
Students at CMU are not the only ones benefiting from de Brestian’s knowledge of three-dimensional modeling and the use of digitization in art history. Later this semester, de Brestian will be a guest lecturer at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.
“This isn’t just something cool to do,” de Brestian said. “It’s something every student should know.”
See in 3D
Art historians can share digital reconstructions online. See de Brestian’s finds from Spain