A Study Abroad Experience: Christian Faith and Visual Culture in Rome

Rome is known and constantly depicted for its ancient beauty that reflects its past. For those lucky enough to have been able to experience it, it leaves a special place in one’s heart. This is certainly true for the LMU students who are participating in the study abroad program this summer alongside Dr. Kirstin Noreen, Professor of Art History, and Fr. Marc Reeves, Director of Catholic Studies and Campus Minister.

Christian Faith and Visual Culture in Rome is an intensive and immersive interdisciplinary course offered to LMU students for the summer term. In addition to being offered through CFA’s Department of Art History, it is cross-listed with Catholic Studies, European Studies, and Theological Studies. The course explores the artistic and visual traditions of Late Antique and Ancient Rome while also considering the Christian history of the city. An upper division class, students will first read and learn the history before being fully engaged in the sites themselves.

Classes are held in Rome, giving the group opportunities to explore famous sites like the Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel, and countless other artistic and sacred spots in Rome. “Studying the city and being able to experience it first-hand creates a very eye-opening experience for students to fully understand the art and history behind Christianity,” said Reeves. “Students will examine the influence of Christianity throughout architectural and artistic vocabulary; investigating the culture, art, society, and faith of Rome as they share a close relationship with early Christian thought and practice.”

Although a summer course, students prepare as early as winter break, reading one of their required texts and attending three pre-classes in the Spring to help prepare. This is crucial, because as soon as they arrive in Italy, they should be ready to learn. “From the day the students land in Italy, we begin conducting our class,” said Noreen. “Our initial visit is to the Roman Pantheon, so we don’t waste any time. Rather than simply being a ‘tour’ of the city, all site visits are carefully integrated into the course content, with readings and discussions that require students to consider the religious, social, historical, and artistic context in which specific works/structures were created.” As one of the final projects for the class, students complete a research paper related to the sites visited in Rome.

Given that Rome is of central importance for Catholicism, students will have opportunities to deepen and expand their faith in the city, such as attending daily masses and writing site reflections. The main focus of the course is for students to be able to tie their own experience of Jesuit higher education at LMU with the beginnings of Christianity and its development in Rome. On the culminating day of the course in Rome, students learn about the early origins of the Society of Jesus by visiting the Church of the Gesù, the Church of Sant’Ignazio and the rooms where Saint Ignatius lived and worked in Rome during the last twelve years of his life. Students have been fortunate to be able to attend mass in St. Peter’s basilica, and attend papal audiences with Pope Francis as well as canonization ceremonies. During this summer, students were able to celebrate Mass with Fr. Reeves in Santa Maria Maggiore, in the same chapel where St. Ignatius celebrated his first Mass. Every year, the program changes slightly to take advantage of the pope’s schedule and special events that take place in the city.

One intention of the course is to focus on the joy for learning outside textbooks. Students are encouraged to immerse themselves in cultural experiences to see all that Rome has to offer. One popular activity is conducting independent “research” on the gelato shops in the city. According to Noreen, “We enlist students to seek out and perform various taste tests during their time in Italy; students are then required to share their findings and to report back to the group on the top gelato spots.”

Once the students return back home, they keep their experience with them forever. Some even continue to study the work they learned from the city and expand on their research with the assistance of their professors. Reeves notes that “the combined disciplines of theology, history, art and art history inspire exemplary student research projects. Each year, our students have presented the fruits of their research at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in the spring semester.”

The students also had a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with the Pope during this summer’s trip. View the video here!