The Department of Art History is mourning the untimely loss of Professor Barbara Abou-El-Haj––a dear friend and colleague to us all. For almost thirty years, with her open house and her open heart, Barbara made colleagues and students of the department an extension of her own family. And, in that period, an entire generation of students passed through her lectures and seminars, while her teaching and research added immeasurably to the national and international visibility of the program. It was in 1985 that Barbara came to Binghamton from UCLA, where she had completed her doctorate working with the renowned historian of medieval and modern art, Karl Werckmeister. The dissertation she wrote under Werckmeister’s supervision became her 1994 book, The Medieval Cult of Saints: Formations and Transformations, which exposed the fierce competition between cults that characterized the political struggle to preserve property and privilege, especially in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. There were also path-breaking articles on Bury St. Edmunds Abbey, Santiago de Compostela, and Reims and its cathedral that appeared in leading publications such as Art History, The Art Bulletin, and Gesta, extending her examination of feudal conflicts, art production, building programs and the suppression of social dissent. These writings decisively shifted the field of medieval art history away from its long established comfort zone of ritual, liturgy and the sumptuous expression of spirituality. This made her a leader of the field and in the 1980s when she regularly organized panels at the College Art Association Annual Meeting her sessions would be packed. The summation of her radical revisionist perspective was her manuscript, Lordship and Commune: A Comparative Study of Building in Reims and Amiens, long in preparation and nearing completion when illness cut short her work on it. Exacting in its reading of the historiography, scrupulous in its use of primary sources, and trenchantly committed in its analyses, Barbara’s work kept alive a tradition of the social history of art in the United States that traced its origins back to the 1930s but burst into life again in the 1970s when Barbara was a doctoral student grappling with the challenges of graduate study and the care of her two daughters, Marriam and Sarra. Active as she was in the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies as well as the Fernand Braudel Center, Barbara’s death leaves a hole in the heart of the department. We miss her every day and send our sympathy to her family and especially to her husband, Rifa’at Abou-El-Haj, Emeritus Professor of History at Binghamton University. In lieu of flowers, Barbara’s family requests that donations be sent in her memory to Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders.
We encourage you to leave your remembrances of Barbara in the comments here.