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John Wesley William: In Memoriam

posted by CAA — Jul 20, 2015

Julie Harris earned her PhD in art history at the University of Pittsburgh in 1989. She teaches at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

There was little in John Williams’s early life to suggest that he would eventually become the world’s authority on Spanish medieval art—unless one considers a boundless energy and curiosity that propelled him from an athletic childhood in Memphis, through a canoe trip down the Mississippi, service in the Marines, and eventually led him to study at Duke, Yale, and University of Michigan—where he discovered Spanish medieval art and earned a PhD in 1962. A scholar of international reputation, inspiring teacher, and family man, Williams died on June 6, 2015. He was 87 years old.

Williams taught first at Swarthmore College from 1960 until 1972. He then joined the Fine Arts Department of the University of Pittsburgh, where he remained for thirty-five years. At Pitt, Williams served as chair for five years, was named Distinguished Service Professor in 1993, and was Andrew W. Mellon Professor of History of Art and Architecture from 1997 to 2000. Among the many honors he received in his career were two Fulbrights to Spain, two NEH grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a visiting membership at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and an appointment as a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America.

Best known for his work on the Beatus Commentaries, Williams’s work evolved from searching for models for these manuscripts’ rich and enigmatic imagery to recognizing the individuals responsible for their creation and a careful reading of their reception. His five-volume series, The Illustrated Apocalypse: A Corpus of the Illustrations of the Commentary on the Apocalypse (Harvey Miller, 1994–2003), won the Eleanor Tufts Award from the American Society for Hispanic Art Historical Studies. Williams’s interests and research were not limited to manuscript studies; he also was an authority on the major Romanesque monuments of Spain, such as San Isidoro in León, Santo Domingo de Silos, and Santiago de Compostela. He participated in rigorous international debates over their dating, patronage, and the meaning of their decoration in all media. This work generated groundbreaking and authoritative publications in such journals as The Art Bulletin and Gesta and in collaborative volumes, some of which he edited or coedited.

John’s life-long interest in Spain did not end with his retirement from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. In addition to ongoing work in medieval art, he recently turned his attention to securing the attribution of a neglected Goya in the Carnegie Institute. A documentary project on the Beatus manuscripts, directed and produced by Murray Grigor and the cinematographer Hamid Shams with commentary by Williams, premiered in New York at the Morgan Library and Museum last October. Even as his illness progressed, he remained engaged in academic pursuits. Determined to complete his book, he enlisted the help of a former student, Therese Martin of Madrid (CCHS-CSIC). The resulting work, Visions of the End in Medieval Spain: Tradition and Context of the Beatus Commentary on the Apocalypse, with a Census of Illustrated Manuscripts and Study of the Geneva Beatus (forthcoming from Amsterdam University Press, 2016), both introduces a recently discovered manuscript and offers Williams an opportunity to update and reassess his earlier work on the Beatus corpus.

Williams had a gift for synthetic scholarship, revealing connections across the Pyrenees and across disciplines in a way that made his art-historical analysis deep and utterly unique. Four students—Martin, David Raizman, Ann Boylan, and myself—wrote their dissertations on Spanish medieval topics under his supervision. Both as his student and in later years, I found that John’s authoritative writing and speaking style made me believe that what he was doing—and by extension what I doing—was important. John was a demanding and thorough adviser who became a delightful friend. He had little sympathy for trendy jargon but plenty of interest in new ideas. I never stopped sending him my work or seeking his approval.

A relentlessly productive scholar, Williams will also be remembered as a person of varied interests, including but not limited to fine books and martinis, music of many genres, good conversation, and the dance at Kalamazoo. He is survived by his wife, Mary; their six children; and thirteen grandchildren.

Filed under: Obituaries