Nicolas Poussin. “The Baptism of Christ” (1641/1642), oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection at National Gallery of Art. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art)

After a slumber of about a thousand years, Europe woke up during the Renaissance, discovered its roots of ancient learning, and proceeded directly to the age of science and enlightenment, which brought us the iPhone, Netflix and bike share. Never mind a few genocidal hiccups and other distractions; history is a marvel.

That’s not history as Anthony Grafton practices it. Grafton, who will deliver the 63rd annual Mellon Lectures beginning Sunday and continuing through May 11, is a skeptic, and never more skeptical than when looking into the details of what really happened during the Renaissance. His lectures will focus on the way in which Europe reinvented its sense of early Christianity, during an epic struggle to determine the future of the Catholic Church during the Renaissance and Reformation.

The Mellon Lectures are one of the highest academic and intellectual honors in the United States, usually delivered by art historians of international importance. Presented every Sunday (with Easter excepted) for six weeks, they often result in published books of lasting significance. E. H. Gombrich’s Mellon Lectures became a seminal text of art history, “Art and Illusion,” Kenneth Clark’s yielded “The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form.” Other Mellon laureates include Isaiah Berlin, T.J. Clark and Jacques Barzun.

But Grafton is a slightly different sort of scholar. He is a student of intellectual history more than a specialist in art history, someone who studies footnotes more than brush strokes. That’s not unprecedented, says Elizabeth Cropper, dean of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, the academic institution embedded in the National Gallery of Art, which hosts the lectures. Previous Mellon lecturers have included the composer Lukas Foss, poets and scholars of poetry, Anthony Hecht and Helen Vendler, and generalists of sweeping breadth, notably Berlin.

And while Grafton studies the history of how history is told, he draws heavily on visual culture for his data.

Princeton professor Anthony Grafton will present the 63rd A.W. Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art with a series called “Past Belief: Visions of Early Christianity in Renaissance and Reformation Europe.” (Courtesy National Gallery of Art)

“Tony has always done a lot of work on the interstices of history and art history,” says Peter Miller, dean of the Bard Graduate Center and a scholar of design and visual culture. Miller puts Grafton at the forefront of a shift in art history, over the past 30 or 40 years, toward a broader sense of mission, a wider appetite for historical, sociological and trans-national questions, an interest in documents, objects and scientific illustrations, and “a sensitivity to art history in a global context, art objects and images [that] are mobile and in between cultures.”

Grafton will focus on the contest for the soul of Catholicism during the Renaissance and the epochal challenge to Catholic dogma of the Reformation. The thumbnail view of history locates much of what matters about modernity — skepticism, scientific thought, evidence-based approaches to history — in the great awakening of the Renaissance. And the tendency is to see the world divided into two basic camps: The benighted Catholic Church, determined to roll back intellectual progress, and the scholars, humanists and enlightened thinkers who challenged the church’s hegemony. Galileo is its hero, and Bruno Giordano, burned at the stake in Rome for heretical views, one of its many martyrs.

That caricature doesn’t account for the church’s own desperate need to reinterpret, refresh, reform and rethink its origins in response to the Reformation. To fight back against its greatest challenge, the church essentially branded itself as the one, true, unchanging church, with an impeccable pedigree in the ancient past.

“I was brought up to believe that the arrows of modernity point entirely to secularism,” says Grafton, who is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton. But the evidence shows a robust internal Catholic devotion to researching its own history during the same period, and that intellectual fervor looks a lot like the secular academic world we know today. Determined to prove that Catholicism had a consistent history dating back to the Apostles and beyond, Catholic scholars dug into the archives, unearthing a sometimes vexing history, replete with fabrication and bad faith and all manner of intellectual chicanery. The process helped form scholarly communities and created an academic infrastructure similar to our think tanks, institutes and international, collaborative scientific endeavors.

“There is a tradition of collaboration, a republic of letters working across confessional lines,” says Grafton. “And there is the development of techniques on which people can agree. They can have a very informed peaceful discussion.”

All of this is counterintuitive to our accustomed sense that the Renaissance and Reformation were a long slog of religious war and recrimination. And Grafton isn’t arguing that there was some kind of utopia of goodwill that we’ve forgotten. But it was a far more complicated time than is ordinarily acknowledged, and Grafton, a “nonobservant Jew,” seems to enjoy the eyebrow-raising jolts his scholarship inevitably provokes.

“One of the points of these lectures is to try to take people into a very alien world,” he says.

Miller says, “Tony doesn’t have a wicked side, but he is very attracted to the ironic. His whole career is focused on these people who, to modern taste, seem very marginal figures.” By “these people,” Miller means men like Lorenzo Valla, Poliziano and Isaac Casaubon, the last of whom was permanently slandered by the 19th-century novelist George Eliot, who, in her novel “Middlemarch,” named one of literature’s greatest pedants after him.

“The actual Casaubon had a wonderful marriage, 21 children, and they loved him dearly,” says Grafton. “It is quite unfair, he was a wonderful and brilliant scholar, as I will show in my lectures.”

Grafton’s larger argument is that not only were these men not pedants, their approach to history created the fundamental techniques that remain essential to historical scholarship.

His Mellon Lectures will bring that perspective to how they, and their descendants and followers, represented Christianity. The lecture titles include “How Jesus Celebrated Passover: The Jewish Origins of Christianity,” and “Martyrdom and Persecution: The Uses of Early Christian Suffering.”

As an example of how these topics intersect with the visual arts, Grafton cites two cycles of paintings by Nicolas Poussin, a 17th-century French painter who spent much of his career working in Rome. Poussin, who was drawn to classical, pagan and secular subjects from antiquity, also painted “The Sacraments,” which imagine the basic rites of the Catholic Church (from baptism to matrimony and anointing of the sick) as they might have been performed at the time of Christ’s life.

The act of imagining the sacraments and representing them on canvas wasn’t just a question of visual invention. Poussin wanted historical accuracy, as far as that could be determined at the time.

“He is a profoundly historical artist, and in his two series of the sacraments, he makes a very systematic effort [to incorporate] the most recent results, to imagine a consistent early Christian world,” says Grafton.

Grafton is beloved in the field. He was a student of the great Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano, and carries on Momigliano’s wide-ranging, deeply bookish, erudite interest in historiography, or the study of how history is written. Grafton remains deeply committed to both scholarship and teaching and has taken a public role in furthering the study of the humanities at a time when they are widely seen to be in danger of decline. He also publishes in the New York Review of Books and other periodicals that give him a voice beyond the scholarly world of academia.

Cropper anticipates a lively series of talks.

“He is one of the most articulate spokespeople for the humanities today,” says Cropper, who sees Grafton not just as a scholar of the humanities, but as embodying the basic suspicion and trenchant need for evidence that makes the humanities still relevant today. “He wants to keep reminding us that we should be careful, because we could get things wrong.”

The A.W. Mellon Lecturesin the Fine Arts

are held Sundays , March 30 — May 11, except Easter (April 20), at the National Gallery of Art. More information: visit and look under Calendar.