Michael Davis

Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

The faculty office hallway on the second floor of the Art Building is generally a pretty sedate place—except for the space in front of office number 206. As if exploding out from the office, the floor is covered with architectural models, poster board presentations, and at least two students waiting in line to talk with the professor, Michael Davis. As professor of Art History and founder of the wildly successful Architectural Studies program at Mount Holyoke, Michael is in demand from first thing in the morning until long after classes are over in the evening. But today we are not honoring Michael for his inspired teaching and leadership, but for his research contributions, which combine computer graphics for geometrical study and visualization of medieval architecture.

Michael came to the College in 1982 with degrees in Art History from the University of Michigan. His Ph.D. research on the Cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand was the starting point for studies of other cathedrals including Altenberg Abbey, the Cathedral of Limoges, Saint-Urbain in Troyes, and Notre-Dame in Paris, among many others.  He has been a pioneer in combining his vast knowledge of medieval architecture with modern surveying methods, using digital programs to recreate medieval Paris and various cathedrals in France.  He used support from the National Endowment for the Humanities to acquire exhaustive measurements of two French Gothic structures—the church of Saint-Urbain in Troyes and the abbey of Saint-Ouen in Rouen, France. After compiling those measurements into ground plans, Davis used CAD to uncover geometric relationships, religiously significant design elements, and architectural plans previously hidden to art historians. His peers praise him as one of the “early pioneers in the use of high-technology survey methods in the study of medieval buildings” though he remains “committed to studying architecture in its urban, devotional, and liturgical context.” [from the introduction to New Approaches to Medieval Architecture.]

Although this award is for research excellence, Michael is also much-loved in the classroom for sharing his passion for architecture at every level.  Students call him a “wonderfully dynamic” and “incredible professor” who “loves the subject” and whose “language is poetic.” They say he is “wildly entertaining and a brilliant man” who is also “always patient and encouraging.” One student summed it up well in saying “He truly loves his subject and as a result, inspires his students to love it as well.” An alumna wrote that “Michael Davis has always been an inspirational figure in my life.” He is a clear example of what happens when research excellence empowers informed, effective, and (in his case) truly inspirational teaching.

Michael’s chapter in the 2011 book New Approaches to Medieval Architecture considers “the implications of scanning and visualization technology for the study of medieval architecture as a whole.” To quote from that chapter “the current arsenal of digital tools as the latest chapter in an unfolding historical search for effective means to translate and communicate ideas of structure and space.” He writes that “the ability of the digital image to slip away from the grip of language and to overcome the stasis of the page… promises to broaden our engagement with ‘alternative forms of intelligence’,” allowing us to “take another step across the threshold of historical time.” Mount Holyoke is proud to be the portal on that threshold, and we are honored to have Michael Davis as a colleague. It is a great pleasure to present Michael Davis with the Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship.