Retirement, sort of

Eclectic scholar follows a new path

Madeline Caviness has a cold that she can’t quite shake off. She had only four hours of sleep the night before, and during the previous week was up late grading papers. “I think that’s the reason I couldn’t throw this cold off,” she says.

Madeline Caviness was named the Mary Richardson Professor of Art History Emerita during commencement ceremonies in May. © MELODY KO

She speaks softly, with a pleasant English accent. For years, she worked 9 to 5 at Tufts, teaching and working in her office before going home to cook supper for her children and a second meal for herself and her husband. She would nap briefly and work again from 9 at night to 5 in the morning. “I write best at night. I would nap a little in the morning and get the kids off to school. At age 69, I can’t do that anymore.”

And so, after 35 years at Tufts, Caviness, the Mary Richardson Professor of Art History, is retiring. She jokes in her quiet way: “It’s the only time in my life when I can be retiring and outgoing at the same time.”

But retirement for Caviness means simply not teaching full time anymore. She will continue working on the many projects that interest her. She is currently doing research with Charles Nelson, professor emeritus in the Department of German, Russian and Asian Languages and Literatures. They are examining illustrated German law books from the 14th century to determine how the legal system treated Jews and women.

A world-renowned scholar of medieval stained glass, Caviness’ interests have never been confined to one area. A discussion with her can jump from how to tell if a piece of medieval stained glass is fake (run your finger along the back of the glass to see if it’s smooth; if it is, it’s probably a fake because glass wears down over time, creating pits) to scuba diving (she and her husband have provided specimens for the New England Aquarium) to child rearing (she has two grown daughters) and feminist theory. She learned to read at age 4, spoke French at age 5 and studied Latin at age 7, eventually skipping two grades in school. She continues to study theology, history and philosophy. In recognition of her scholarly achievement, this year she was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Caviness also found time for pursuits outside of academia. For years she ran the Tufts 10K road race, training after she dropped her children off at the local ice skating rink. She switched to swimming after two hip replacements. The range of activities is exhilarating, and sometimes exhausting, to follow.

She has published numerous books and dozens of articles on her first love, stained glass. While her work is considered a hallmark of erudition and scholarship, in recent years she has shifted her focus and is known not only as an art historian, but for her work in gender studies. “In some ways I didn’t have the courage yet as a woman to do what was more innately interesting to me,” she says of her earlier career. “I really do multidisciplinary work now, and I work backwards and forwards to the contemporary scene and the Middle Ages. One of the things that allows me to do that is feminist theory. I’ve been applying this to medieval times for quite awhile; it’s kind of my second career.”

Mental gymnastics
Caviness has become interested in how a work of art is created, who the artist is and how it is received by its audience. “I became totally fascinated by the [audience] reception aspect,” she says. “That’s where feminism can engage with medieval work. Very little is made by or for women, but generally in the culture, one can ask how does the cultural production operate for women or other groups? It’s a kind of mental gymnastics. I make connections, and sometimes they seem far out to people who are narrowly trained, but I want to make leaps.

“If you only look at the work in its immediate context, you’re always affirming everything you know. It’s cyclical. You find a shift in theology and say that’s in the work of art, so you constantly confirm, and it can feel very good. But it’s totally predictable.”

Human nature, Caviness says, has not changed so much that viewers of hundreds of years ago would have very different reactions and responses than viewers of today.

Caviness studies artwork in manuscripts, books and drawings of the Middle Ages as well as stained glass. “Many of the representations of the female saints being tortured and martyred, having their breasts cut off, were sado-erotic. That doesn’t fit within the discourse of the time. People say, ‘We have no medieval texts that talk about that; it’s a modern concept.’ But I think it was there on the part of the viewership, nonetheless. If I look at the way some contemporary artists have looked at the body and the fragmentation of the body, the objectification of the female body, it makes sense to me that there was always a viewership that made negative things of the female body.”

Genesis of the dual degree
After first studying painting, Caviness eventually gravitated to art history: “I was too much of an egghead to go to art school.” She has long thought it unfortunate that a university education is separate from art school, so it was her idea to combine the two, and that resulted in a popular dual-degree program between Tufts and Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts. She worked with T.J. Anderson, now Fletcher Professor of Music Emeritus at Tufts, on a similar program for music students who can earn degrees at Tufts and the New England Conservatory.

Her own education was at Cambridge University, which had no art history program, so she studied archaeology and literature instead. When she graduated, she wanted to go to Africa, where many countries were becoming independent. “I’d always been fascinated by Africa and felt kind of guilty about colonialism.” But at a recruiting session for a program that would have allowed her to work there, she was told Africans wouldn’t accept women in positions of authority. The rejection sent her in another direction, the one that began her career as an art historian. “I looked for something else to do and applied for a scholarship to go to Paris to study stained glass. They were making an inventory of all stained glass that had survived the war, so I trained with a good French team.”

She serves on a number of boards, some focused on art and art history and others involving politics and society, including anti-war activities.

She plans to continue teaching one course a year at Tufts. She will also plant shallots, corn and asparagus at her house in Rockport, Mass., and spend more time with her grandchildren, with whom she gardens. “We hold hands in the morning and go out in the garden and see what we’re going to cook. I taught my granddaughter the word ‘ratatouille,’ ” she said, smiling at the memory, “and the next day she said, ‘What new word are we going to cook today?’ ”

Marjorie Howard is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at This story ran in the July issue of the Tufts Journal.