Q&A: Art professor de Brestian discusses Fragments of the Past exhibit

A mold of an artifact from Church of the Assumption located in San Vicente Valle, Spain on Nov. 13 in the University Art Gallery.

For almost five years, art and design faculty member Scott de Brestian has co-directed an investigation of the Church of the Assumption in San Vicente del Valle, Spain. 

The project launched in 2013, and the CMU team of researchers began studying the history of a nearby town called Nájera in 2014. The second study is called the Najerilla Valley Research Project, and it focuses on studying the remains and history of Jewish settlement in the area. De Brestian brings a small group of undergraduates to San Vincente del Valle every summer. 

The church was built in part from reused gravestones and sculptures ranging in date from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages. The church an important part of the area’s history. 

De Brestian said there has been a lot of construction and growth in Nájera that obliterated a lot of old historical buildings.

“We want to help the people living there to understand their own history and help them appreciate it,” de Brestian said.

His Fragments of the Past exhibit consisted of 3D-printed models of the gravestones found in the church. The project was supposed to show how fragments of the past can help with constructing buildings of the future. The sculpture was made by digital and physical reconstructions of what was found in the church.

The exhibit was displayed in the Central Michigan University Art Gallery Oct. 26 to Nov. 17.

De Brestian sat down with Central Michigan Life to talk about his research and the exhibit he created.

CM Life: How would you describe the projects you have been working on?

We have two projects: one in the city of Nájera, studying the remains of the medieval city to better understand its history; the other, in San Vicente del Valle, two valleys over, which is studying reused Roman and Medieval architecture and sculpture in the Church of the Assumption. The project looks at how a city changes through different political rule, such as new kings or rulers and what that meant for the people.

How old is the city and the church?

The city has its origins in the Islamic period eighth century, although there are few traces of that period. The church’s date is disputed. Broadly, it is Early Medieval seventh to tenth centuries CE. 

What is your favorite part of the project?

My favorite part is working with students and exposing them to Spanish food and culture. My favorite findings include uncovering the history of the Jewish quarter of Nájera, pinning down its location and researching the figural medieval gravestones from San Vicente.

What do the students get out of the research? 

Students learn how we come up with questions about the past, and how we use a combination of art history, written sources and logic to come up with solutions. They get to see art history and archaeology "in the raw" before it is packaged into a textbook.

How does the 3D printing works?

A PLA (biodegradable plastic) filament is heated until it is at melting temperature, then applied in layers onto a base plate following the shape of the model. The inside, usually, is mostly hollow but has some supports to keep the whole thing together during and after the process. The object is then built up of thousands of thin layers of the melted PLA.