Students Engage with Christian Faith through Art in Rome Study Abroad

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This summer, students enrolled in the course “Christian Faith & Visual Culture in Rome” traveled to Rome for 12 days for an intensive study abroad experience. On the trip, they explored first-hand the rich culture and history of Christian art in Rome with the guidance of art history professor Kirstin Noreen and theological studies professor Marc Reeves, SJ. The course, which is cross-listed in art history, theological studies and Catholic studies, is designed to immerse students in Rome’s culture, art, society and faith, encouraging students to reflect on the role that Christianity played in shaping the city and its culture.

Students visited locations relevant to the traditions of Christianity like St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel as well as some related specifically to the Society of Jesus, like the Jesuit mother church, Il Gesù, and the rooms where St. Ignatius of Loyola lived. They studied ancient structures as well as works of art like frescoes and mosaics that adorned the churches and other buildings. The locations that students visited functioned both as their classrooms and spaces to directly engage with the lessons of the day.

“Rome’s status as a city filled with relics of different periods in the past helped students to understand how the city evolved and changed over time and the role that Christianity had in that process,” said Noreen. “From early Christian catacombs and medieval churches to the Gesu’s role in the Catholic Reformation and the rooms where St. Ignatius lived, each piece of Roman art and architecture represents a different moment in history.”

A particularly memorable experience for students was visiting the Scala Santa, or Holy Staircase, which Jesus is said to have climbed at the Palace of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, where he was sentenced to death. As an important site for Christian pilgrims, they would climb the marble staircase on their hands and knees for centuries until 1723 when the stairs were covered in wood to preserve them. But this year, in a restoration project undertaken by the Vatican Museums, the wood was removed so the stairs could be cleaned and re-covered with fresh wood.

“For a brief time, during this year’s Easter Season, pilgrims to Rome had the opportunity to climb up the original marble stairs that have been severely worn down over the centuries by knees of pious pilgrims,” said Reeves. “The misshapen marble steps make for a painful climb, but those of us who made the climb on our hands and knees found it to be a very prayerful and moving experience that we will never forget.”

Aside from becoming immersed in the visual identity and history of Rome, students were challenged to reflect on their experiences and draw their own conclusions about their own faith and those of the Christians that had made Rome their home in the past. While students of Christian faith were able to connect more closely to their faith and historic traditions, students of other faiths or those that did not embrace any specific faith were able to appreciate the role of Christianity in the development of the city and left the program better able to engage in sophisticated inter-religious dialogue. All were able to interact meaningfully with the Christian art, architecture, history and theology, and reflected deeply on matters of faith, transcendence, and the existence of a God.

One student who participated on the trip, summed up her experience in a reflection. She wrote, “I was able to come to LMU without any sense of faith, and still be moved by this university’s commitment to Jesuit tradition and education. Meeting people from around the world, I have been able to discuss, and be exposed to, a variety of inter-religious views with my friends and professors. The openness and dedication that LMU has to religion comes from the values of St. Ignatius. I am grateful to have chosen a university that has enriched my life in ways that I did not expect.”