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June 25, 2015

Obituary: John Wesley Williams

johnwesleywilliamsJohn Wesley Williams, distinguished service professor emeritus in the Department of History of Art and Architecture (HAA), died June 6, 2015, at his home in Point Breeze. He was 87.

Williams served in the Marines and attended Duke on the G.I. Bill, then earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1952 at Yale. He undertook graduate studies at Michigan, where he earned a master’s degree in history in 1953 and a PhD in art history in 1959.

Williams came to Pitt’s fine arts department from a faculty position at Swarthmore in 1972 and served as chair of the fine arts department 1979-84.

Following his retirement in 1996, Williams was appointed a visiting Andrew Mellon professor in HAA for 1997-2000.

Among many professional honors, Williams received Fulbright-Hays awards for work in Madrid in 1963-64 and 1968-69 and received two National Endowment for the Humanities grants. He was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1984 and was elected a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America in 2008.

An expert on manuscript illumination and Spanish medieval art and architecture, Williams was best known for his study of the work of 8th-century Spanish monk Beatus of Liebana.

He played a key role in the 2014 documentary, “Beatus: The Spanish Apocalypse,” which focused on the medieval monk’s illuminated manuscripts, “Commentary on the Apocalypse.”

The film premiered at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City and was screened on the Pitt campus in April.

Although ill, Williams, who had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer in December, was able to make an appearance at the gathering here that included family, friends and students, said HAA department chair Barbara McCloskey.

Williams continued his academic work even as his illness progressed, completing a forthcoming book, “Visions of the End in Medieval Spain: Tradition and Context of the Beatus Commentary on the Apocalypse, With a Census of Illustrated Manuscripts and Study of the Geneva Beatus,” in conjunction with Therese Martin, one of four former graduate students whose dissertations he supervised.

In a tribute to Williams, Martin wrote: “Alternately imposing and approachable, irascible and generous, dismissive and supportive, demanding and encouraging, but always enthusiastic about Spanish medieval art, John set high standards for himself, other scholars and his students.”

In another tribute, former student Julie Harris noted that Williams’ interests and research “were not limited to manuscript studies; he also was an authority on the major Romanesque monuments of Spain, such as San Isidoro in León, Santo Domingo de Silos, and Santiago de Compostela, participating in rigorous international debates over their dating, patronage and the meaning of their decoration in all media. …

“Both as his student and in later years, I found John’s authoritative writing and speaking style made me believe that what he was doing — and by extension what I was doing — was important. John was a demanding and thorough adviser who became a delightful friend.  He had little sympathy for trendy jargon but plenty of interest in new ideas. I never stopped sending him my work or seeking his approval,” Harris wrote.

David Raizman, Williams’ first PhD student, paid honor to his professor in a tribute posted on the HAA department website: “John held strong opinions, was skeptical by nature, and yet willing, even excited when presented with convincing visual or textual evidence that led him to change his mind or to see things in a new light. …

“He welcomed controversy, but seemed to believe that scholarly debate in his field was always edging toward solving problems rather than creating them. … John considered art history a shared endeavor: the more who contributed, the more problems solved.”

McCloskey, who became acquainted with Williams when she arrived on campus in 1990 as a newly minted PhD, remembered him as a “scholar’s scholar” with a probing intellect and a passion for his research.

“He didn’t settle for facile conclusions,” she said. He approached his research with integrity, always focusing on the generation of new knowledge as the goal, she said.

“He took his scholarship very seriously,” a quality he instilled in his students. “He believed in it as important work and pursued it with rigor,” she said, adding that he was highly respected internationally — tellingly among scholars in Spain.

McCloskey recalled Williams as a man who loved to laugh and who enjoyed the good things in life, including good conversation, good food, dancing and good Spanish wines.

He also was a devoted family man. “He had two great loves: His research and his family,” McCloskey said.

Williams is survived by his wife of 60 years, Mary Ellen; sons Max Williams and Cy Williams; daughters Kate Williams Radkoff, Sarah Williams, Elena Cox and Amelia Williams, and 13 grandchildren.

—Kimberly K. Barlow