History of Art and Architecture

John Williams †


We are deeply saddened by the passing of our dear friend and colleague, John Williams, on June 6.  Many lovely tributes have come to us from his students and scholarly contacts in the United States and Spain, including this one from Professor David Raizman, John's first PhD student.

"John W. Williams (1928 -2015) will be remembered for a lifetime of contributions to the study of medieval art in Spain, not only through a massive body of published work but also for the enthusiasm and energy with which he pursued his investigation of the archeological, aesthetic, and contextual meaning of his subject up to the time of his death at the age of 87. Perhaps best-known for his five-volume corpus The Illustrated Beatus (1994-2003), John’s interests encompassed manuscript illumination, monumental sculpture and wall painting, and architecture from the Visigothic era through the twelfth century. His books and articles demonstrated the significance of Spain in the broader context of medieval art history, whether in relation to the Pilgrimage Roads, to court, monastery, and crusade, but finally and perhaps most importantly in its own right and on its own terms.

John held strong opinions, was skeptical by nature, and yet willing, even excited when presented with convincing visual or textual evidence that led him to change his mind or to see things in a new light. One of many notable examples was Imaging the Medieval Bible (1999), stemming from a symposium held at the University of Pittsburgh, in which his own essay and those of other scholars challenged the commonly-held theories of the transmission of picture cycles, arguing for the uniqueness of individual manuscripts and a fresh examination of the choice and interpretation of their picture cycles. He welcomed controversy, but seemed to believe that scholarly debate in his field was always edging toward solving problems rather than creating them. It was my enduring good fortune to be John’s first Ph.D student, followed by more than thirty years of a deepening friendship that extended to his wife Mary and their six children. During my time in graduate school (1973-1980) John brought Peter Klein and Serafin Moralejo Alvarez as year-long post-doctoral fellows in the Frick Fine Arts Department at the University of Pittsburgh; along with Mellon Professor Carl Nordenfalk on the faculty, it made for the liveliest of atmospheres for the study of medieval art and the airing of differences of opinion.

In addition to his published work, John’s knowledge, energy, and generosity will be remembered by countless colleagues and students on both sides of the Atlantic. While his work was informed by traditional methods of stylistic analysis and connoisseurship, his close attention to objects led to an admiration of the unique work of individual artists and their achievements as well as the lives of patrons both secular and religious. His training as an historian played a strong role in the rigor of his scholarship and his commitment to locating workshops for manuscript production, working to resolve the mysteries of where and when things were made and to discover the local circumstances surrounding their production and meaning.

John considered art history a shared endeavor: the more who contributed, the more problems solved. He helped to make the study of medieval Spain a viable area of art historical investigation for American students, whether they specialized in it or simply were made aware of it, and whether they were his own Ph.D students or others at home or abroad who knew his reputation and networked with him via correspondence and lively “shop-talk” at conferences and symposia. His efforts were rewarded by a symposium organized by Pamela Patton at Southern Methodist University and subsequent Festschrift in his honor (2005), being named a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America (2008), and other honors too numerous to mention.

While our many conversations and correspondence over the years usually focused upon new discoveries and projects related to his ongoing research in medieval art, I was frequently surprised by the breadth of his knowledge. After his retirement in 2000, John presented a series of adult classes on old master paintings in the Prado, and as he was completing an addendum volume to his Illustrated Beatus series (University of Amsterdam, in press), he found time to make a convincing case, based upon a careful review of documentation and an analysis of style, for attributing to Goya an oil sketch of the dome frescos in the church of San Antonio de la Florida (Madrid) in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. Purchased in 1965 and long held in storage as a workshop product, the painting now hangs proudly in the museum’s galleries with its new attribution.

Over the past several years John collaborated with filmmakers Murray Grigor and Hamid Shams to create a documentary film about the Commentary on the Apocalpyse composed by the 8th-century Asturian monk Beatus of Liébena. The film premiered in the auditorium at the Morgan Library in October, 2014. John was the lens through which medieval Spain came to life in a series of stunning sequences shot in remote locations all over the peninsula in which he re-visited churches and examined manuscripts, conversed with old friends, and re-kindled his enthusiasm for monuments of medieval Spanish art in the glory and excitement of their natural setting. The film was in every way a shared labor of love: John took advice from the filmmakers rather than impose his own ideas, and the result was deeply satisfying, creating deep bonds of affection among the three collaborators.

An ICMA (International Center of Medieval Art)-sponsored session on “new studies” in Spanish medieval manuscripts in honor of John Williams will convene in Kalamazoo in 2016 at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, along with a screening of the film “Beatus: The Spanish Apocalypse."

Donations in honor of Professor Williams may be made to the John Williams Graduate Student Resource Fund. Please send your donation to:

Linda Hicks
History of Art and Architecture Department
104 Frick Fine Arts Building
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA

Professor David Raizman

John Williams

Selected Publications

The Illustrated Beatus: A Corpus of the Illustrations of the Commentary on the Apocalypse, 5 vols. London: Harvey Miller, 1994–2003.

"Meyer Schapiro in Silos: Pursuing the Iconography of Style," Art Bulletin 85 (2003), 442–468 (winner of the Bishko Prize for the best article on medieval Iberian history written by a North American scholar).

(Ed.) Imaging the Early Medieval Bible. College Station: Penn State University Press, 1999.

"Leon: the Iconography of a Capital", in Cultures of Power, ed. T. Bisson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

The Art of Medieval Spain. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993.

(Ed.) The Codex Calixtinus and the Shrine of St. James: Papers of the Colloquium held at the University of Pittsburgh, November 3-5 , 1988. Tubingen: Gunter Narr, 1992.

A Spanish Apocalypse; The Morgan Beatus Manuscript. New York: Braziller in association with the Pierpont Morgan Library, 1991.

Early Spanish Manuscript Illumination. New York: Braziller, 1977.