Adornment: The Mary L. Cornille (GRS’87) 39th Annual Boston University Graduate Symposium in the History of Art & Architecture

by Isabella Dobson

Edo Artist. Head of an Oba (1500s). Brass, 9.3 x 8.6 x 9 in. (23.5 x 21.9 x 22.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979.

Returning to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston for the first time since 2019, the Mary L. Cornille (GRS’87) Boston University Graduate Symposium in the History of Art and Architecture brought scholars together under the theme of “Adornment.” Spanning two days, the symposium featured keynote speaker Dr. Jill Burke and seven graduate student panelists, all of whom presented their recent work on embellishment and decoration in the visual realm to an audience of students, faculty, community members, and generous sponsor, Mary L. Cornille.

Ranging from Mesopotamian floral wreaths to Chinese collars, the graduate student panelists synthesized historical context with visual analysis and showed that adornment is not a benign act; instances of adornment speak to the gender, class, ethnicity, religion, and more of both wearers and makers. Due to its potential for assigning and expressing significance, the practice of adornment spans cultures, time periods, and surfaces. Books, buildings, bodies, clothing, cookware, and canvases are all surfaces enriched with adornment in every type of medium. Adornment is unlimited in its manifestations and multi-faceted in its meanings. Reminding the audience of its continued salience, Dr. Jill Burke commented on the role that adornment plays in our modern world where the decorated body is now more visible than ever in the appearances that people carefully construct online through social media.

Moderated by PhD student Kaylee Kelley, the first group of panelists spoke to what adornment meant to communities across space and time. To start the day, the first panelist Raquel Robbins (University of Toronto) put forth her findings on floral adornments found in mass graves and the Tomb of Queen Pu-Abi from third millennium BCE Mesopotamia in her talk “Pretty Little Things: Floral Adornments and their Implications of the Royal Cemetery of Ur.” Revising the meanings assigned to the floral adornments by the cemetery’s original excavator, C. Leonard Woolley, Robbins suggested that the metallic leaves and rosettes attached to combs, pins, and wreaths would have symbolized abundance and perpetual life to their wearers. The second panelist Cortney Berg (City University of New York) presented “Lucas Cranach the Elder and Judith: Powerful Portraits of Tyrannicidal Women in Reformation Germany,” during which she noted the seriality of half-length paintings by Cranach depicting Judith with the head of Holofernes. Berg proposed that these images are portraits of specific women who don the guise of Judith in order to not only show off their wealth and beauty, but also portray themselves as Protestant resistors to tyranny. To conclude the first panel, Angela Crenshaw (Bard Graduate Center) shared her research on painted and embroidered badges worn by nuns in her talk “Agency in Adornment: Escudos de Monjas in New Spain.” She explained how circular escudos, or shields, which adorned the front of a nun’s habit and often depicted the Virgin Mary or other biblical scenes, represented moments of choice and personal identity.

After a brief yet thought-provoking question and answer session with the panelists, Dr. Jill Burke (University of Edinburgh) capped off the first day of the Symposium by giving an exciting preview of her forthcoming book. In How to Be A Renaissance Woman: The Untold History of Beauty and Female Creativity (expected August 2023), she argues that the jewels, cosmetics, and clothing that women adorned themselves with in the Renaissance were not necessarily indicative of slavish conformity to beauty standards, but could also be tools of expression and empowerment. Burke’s ideas even prompted some audience members to thoughtfully reassess aloud the accessories they had donned for the Symposium.

The next day’s panel, moderated by PhD student Shannon Bewley, featured four graduate students whose talks considered bodily adornment and its connections to colonial projects, global trade, ethnic identity, and respectability politics. Starting the day with her talk “Coral and the Kingly Body: The Peabody’s Coral Apron and the Benin Kingdom,” panelist Morgan Snoap (Boston University) examined what it means for objects to be removed from their original contexts, especially those meant to be worn on the body. She concluded that the coral apron in the Peabody Museum’s collection loses the power and sanctity derived from adorning the king’s body when it languishes, unworn, in the collection at Harvard University. The following panelist Katy Rosenthal (Bryn Mawr College) recentered Chinese makers and Parsi wearers of the jhabla tunic in her talk “Figures in The Clouds: Necklines on Chinese Embroideries for the Parsi Community in 19th Century India,” arguing that the “cloud collars” embroidered on these tunics acted as everyday reminders of the actors involved in contemporary global trade. Rachel Sweeney (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill) was the third panelist to take the podium for her talk titled “Performing ‘Irishness’: The Tara Brooch, Celtic Revival Brooches, and Ethnic Nationalism.” Through her research on the Tara Brooch’s design and its reproductions during the 19th century English Celtic Revival period, Sweeney demonstrated how the English used the original and its copies to establish the ancient Tara Brooch as an item symbolizing a shared lineage between the two nations—and reinforcing English rule in the process. To wrap up day two, Sybil F. Joslyn (Boston University) gave the last talk “Fighting for Prestige: Nineteenth-Century Ceremonial Fire Dress and the Performance of Respectability,” in which she introduced a number of early nineteenth-century painted hats worn by firemen during ceremonial events. Sybil argued that firemen wore these hats, which sported fire company names such as “Hope,” “Good Intent,” and “Vigilant,” to elevate their prestige in a society that had characterized them as raucous, violent, and callous. Presentations concluded with another question and answer session for the day two presenters and were followed by a round of applause for all of the panelists.

Covering an array of embellished artworks and material objects, the breadth of research, thoughtful questions, and camaraderie of the Symposium were a wonderful way to mark the return to an in-person event. This engaging program of Art Historical scholarship would not have been possible without the coordinators, PhD students Hannah Jew and Rachel Kline, as well as all the graduate student volunteers, faculty liaison and department administrative assistance, and the generous support of Mary L. Cornille. If the scholarship of our brilliant panelists is any indication, the theme of adornment will continue to be critically studied as an important visual and material intervention in the field of Art and Architectural History.


Isabella Dobson is a PhD student in the History of Art & Architecture at Boston University interested in the ways that eroticism, desire, and sensuality operate in paintings and prints of the female body from the Early Modern period.

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