Researching AUM: Laura Whatley, the traveling art historian

Laura Whatley looks at an image of the Great Seal of King John from one of the few surviving copies of the Magna Carta from the 13th Century, in the British Library which she visited in 2016 .

A specialist in medieval art and architecture in the Auburn University Montgomery Fine Arts Department, Dr. Laura Whatley has a particular interest in crusade and pilgrimage visual culture in Gothic England.

Early in her academic career, Whatley realized international travel would be essential for her research.

“My undergraduate advisor – a Classical archaeologist – took me to Cyprus with her to work on excavations,” she recalled. “Then I did an undergraduate exchange program at St. Catherine’s College Cambridge in medieval art and architecture and became immediately obsessed with Gothic structure.”

Later a Fellow at the University of York before joining the Auburn Montgomery faculty in 2016, she was able to return to the UK with a group of AUM students the following year.

“I had the unique opportunity to introduce them to all my favorite medieval sites from York Minster to King’s College Chapel and even managed to get them punting on the River Cam!”

Whatley has written about medieval cartography and Byzantine icon painting, as well as sacred topography and pilgrimage in twelfth-century England at Winchester Cathedral.

Currently, she is developing a new book project that focuses on iconography – a branch of art history that studies ancient images and symbols.

“Specifically, it will examine the production, social functions, and antiquarian collecting of English medieval seals – those blobs of wax impressed with an image, sometimes from a signet ring, used to close or ‘sign’ documents that we see in historical films and television series,” she explained.

She says the project will be one of the first art history books on medieval seals and sealing culture.

“It’s a topic very much dominated by historians,” she said. “But after nearly 15 years working on the Crusades, I’m looking forward to turning my full attention to one of the most pervasive yet elusive aspects of medieval visual culture.”

Whatley’s travels have also taken her to Jerusalem.

“I presented a paper at the Hebrew University and was able to spend days exploring the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” she recalled. “The walled city of Jerusalem almost defies description: it was overwhelming, ancient, holy, confounding, bustling, noisy, quiet, diverse, labyrinthine, mysterious, and familiar all at once.”

But wherever her work takes her, Whatley is content to bury herself in any archive or library to examine seals, documents, and manuscripts.

“I just want to be around medieval stuff as often as possible!”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery (aum.edu) and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 700 newspapers and magazines (getnickt.com).