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Elizabeth den Hartog: ‘I always knew I wanted to go into academia’

Art historian Elizabeth den Hartog has been studying medieval sculpture at Leiden University for 32 years. Like a detective, she searches buildings, books and archives in the hunt for the cultural meaning of unique sculptures.

Monsters and crypts

‘I always knew I wanted to go into academia. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a biologist like my father, although the subject changed later: I opted for art history rather than biology. It was when I was studying the English city of Canterbury for my degree in art history that it became clear that my subject would be the Middle Ages.

‘It was in Canterbury Cathedral that I lost my heart to the Middle Ages. I noticed monsters had been carved into the capitals in the crypt. I thought this was beautiful and wanted to know what it meant.’

Humans and evil

‘I began to investigate, and learnt that in the Middle Ages monsters were used to represent evil. Life was very black and white then: something was either good or bad. Later on, this view became nuanced, and people were more often depicted on the capitals. Our ideas about evil had evolved: evil is inside of us and we must fight our dark sides.’

We are our architecture

‘So architecture teaches us a great deal about ourselves and our culture. Medieval architecture is still part of our landscape, and it has a cultural and societal role. That’s what makes it so interesting. I find churches particularly intriguing because of the role they played in the community. The Middle Ages also had a huge influence on our society. Almost all cities in the Netherlands have a medieval centre.

‘We shouldn’t forget that, alongside teaching us about ourselves and our history,  art history research also has economic value. Art and architecture are the most important tourist attractions in a country, and tourists want to hear the stories about the buildings they are visiting. If we want to tell these stories and interpret artworks, we first have to conduct research. And we are always learning. Now, for instance, with dendrochronology - the study of the tree rings in wood used in artefacts - we can say much more about the date of a building.’

From books to the allotment

‘For my work I pore over books, but in my free time what I like to do most of all is to garden. I really love it. I’ve got two big allotments where I grow my own produce. I love watching things grow. My husband and I try to grow as much of our own food as possible. We are now 95% self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. We had to get used to only being able to eat local produce, and our diet has consequently changed, but after all, that’s how they lived in the Middle Ages.’

Want to learn more about art and architecture in the Middle Ages? Elizabeth den Hartog is working with the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands on a series of books on interesting architectural sculpture in Dutch buildings. See, for example: Pieterskerk in Leiden, Domkerk in Utrecht and the lost church of Kerkdriel.

In the Humans of Humanities series, we will do a portrait of one of our researchers, staff members or students, every other week. Who are they, and what do they do? You can find more portraits and information on this page.

Julia Nolet
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