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In Memoriam: Kathleen M. J. Openshaw (1945-1995)


A Remembrance by Robert Deshman, University of Toronto

Kathleen M.J. Openshaw, assistant professor in the Department of Fine Art at Erindale College, the Univ. of Toronto, died on January 3, 1995, at the age of fifty Her premature and unexpected death cut short what promised to be a brilliant scholarly and teaching career.

Kay discovered her passion for medieval art and culture after a first career as registered nurse. She then undertook a second academic career at the Univ. of Toronto. Completing her B.A. with a history major in 1982, she continued in the Centre for Medieval Studies which awarded her an M. A. in 1983 and a Ph.D. in 1990. It is a measure of her remarkable determination and ability that she accomplished all this while raising two young children and battling recurrent major illness.

Her doctoral thesis, "Images, Texts and Contexts: the Iconography of the Tiberius Psalter, London, British Library, Cotton MS. Tiberius C. vi," was a ground-breaking study of an Anglo-Saxon psalter famous for its enigmatic prefatory cycle of Old and New Testament pictures. She succeeded in showing the devotional function of these images within the specific manuscript context while also elucidating the origins of what would become a major scheme of medieval psalter illustration. At the time of her death she was revising her thesis for publication by Princeton University Press, and there is some optimism that others might be able to complete the project on her behalf. Kay did have time to publish facets of her research in several significant articles. In "The Battle between Christ and Satan in the Tiberius Psalter" (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 52 [1989]) she demonstrated how the theme of the fight against sin linked the manuscript's miniatures in a penitential program. "The Symbolic Illustration of the Psalter: an Insular Tradition" (Arte medievale, ser II, 6 [1992]) analyzed the symbolic topological schemes of early Insular psalters and their influence on later systems of psalter illustration. Most recently, in "Weapons in the Daily Battle: Images of the Conquest of Evil in the Early Medieval Psalter" (Art Bulletin, 75 [1993]) she traced the impact of changes in the intellectual, social, and religious climate from the eighth to the twelfth century on developments in psalter imagery.

Kay frequently contributed to conferences, both as an organizer and a speaker. She instituted annual sessions on the psalter and on medieval ruler portraits at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, as well as Toronto conferences on "New Approaches in Medieval Studies" and "Italy in the Age of the City State." In the past two years alone she lectured at the Medieval Academy of America, The Canadian Learned Societies, Kalamazoo, and a Binghamton meeting on "Contextualizing the Renaissance." Her intellectual interests extended far beyond her published works, as is clear from some of the topics of her recent papers: the origin and function of an usual psalter prefatory text, an image of St. Michael in an eleventh-century Italian prayerbook, the influence of metaphor theory and ruminatio on picture cycles, and a feminist, contextual interpretation of fifteenth-century representations of Bathsheba. Kay had become increasingly interested in critical theory and new methodologies, while retaining a healthy regard for the value and utility of more traditional approaches to art history and Medieval Studies.

Although she only assumed a full-time position this past September, Kay had previously taught numerous courses as an adjunct lecturer at the Univ. of Toronto. She was widely recognized as a sympathetic and gifted teacher, who was able to bring to life medieval art and civilization to diverse student audiences with little or no previous knowledge of the period.

To honor the memory of this outstanding scholar and teacher, a fellowship to support the graduate study of medieval art has been established in her name. Contributions made out to the "University of Toronto" and annotated "The Kathleen M.J. Openshaw Memorial Fellowship" can be sent to The Department of Fine Art, Univ. of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5S 1A1.