November 17, 2019
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Understanding Early Christian Art and Architecture – Robin Jensen, Professor of Theology


It’s my conviction that the best way to
know about how early Christians worshipped, even what they believed, is to
try to get as much information as we can about where they lived, what they saw, not just what they wrote and what they
read. So I’ve been trying to look at the design of early built spaces for
Christian worship, the ways those were decorated, to see if we can actually
reimagine what it would have concretely and physically and materially been like
to be a Christian at that time. What was the kind of ordinary Christian experiencing, the people who didn’t read and write. Awareness of the design of the spaces in which this took
place gives us a richer and more robust understanding of everybody’s
experience. The things that we think are so dominant in our understanding of a
Christian art is, and does, and shows, wasn’t always that way. So even an image of
Christ with a beard and halo isn’t something you see at the beginning. And
that actually is a very illuminating piece of information. You know, then, something
more about what they wanted to show you about who Jesus was. I work at the
intersection of several fields: Christian art and architecture, Christian worship
and liturgy, and Christian thought and theology. I teach a class in Christian
architecture and one of my favorite things to do with students is to take
them to a variety of different sorts of worship spaces — and spaces have character,
spaces have personality — and to think about how one’s body works in these spaces, how
we take in information about God or about prayer, it can be very different if
it’s brilliantly lit or if it’s very dark. In ancient times people didn’t have
a lot of choices. They couldn’t have a variety of experiences, so they maybe
only had one village church that they ever went to from birth until death and
so they were formed by these spaces. One of my favorite
assignments for my graduate students is: choose three major museums and seek out
works and study them and photograph them and then they start to build their own
database of images and they’ve also spent time really examining real
objects of art and I think those are the skills that my students need as much as they
need skills in library research. So a lot of what I want my students to do is to
do what I always do which is to get out there and really look at things and really
attend to the visual world. When I first came to visit Notre Dame, I was bowled over
by what I saw as an absolute commitment to interdisciplinary research
and I can’t think of any place that has as many resources for someone who does
what I do as this institution with its school of architecture, with its art history department, with its fine arts department, with its vibrant theology department, a medieval institute,
an incredible research library, support and funding for interdisciplinary research, I mean this is an amazing place for someone like me.

Otis Rodgers

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