Iconology Classes Study Early Christian Artifacts at NYC Museums

March 23, 2012 • Off-campus Event • Faculty News • Deborah (Malacky) Belonick

Professor Richard Schneider explicates an icon in the permanent Byzantine Art gallery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.Professor Richard Schneider explicates an icon in the permanent Byzantine Art gallery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.Students enrolled in the Liturgical Arts course at St. Vladimir's took a field trip to New York City this past Friday to view two special exhibits of early Christian artifacts: "Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd–7th Century AD" at the Onassis Cultural Center NY; and “Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, under the tutelage of their teacher, Richard Schneider, visiting professor of Liturgical Arts at the seminary, they explored the early cultures in which Christianity grew, and they examined the stunning artifacts that emerged from them.

As they viewed coins, crosses, bracelets, earrings, statuary, dishware, fragments from Christian temples, andStudents viewed hundreds of early Christian artifacts.Students viewed hundreds of early Christian artifacts. even household floor tiles, the students began to understand how early believers “interpreted” and “reinterpreted” common objects to proclaim their faith in Jesus Christ. Thus, they saw how the pagan statue of the Protective Shepherd began to be viewed instead as Jesus, the Good Shepherd (John 10:11) and how the icon of Christ usurped the place of the emperor’s visage on Byzantine coins. In short, Christian began to “re-read” everyday objects around them in the light of Christ and to re-purpose material objects to exhibit their beliefs.

“St. Vladimir’s Seminary is highly privileged to be in a location so near the great metropolis, where such outstanding special exhibitions are a relatively frequent occurrence,” said Professor Schneider. “This outing allowed our community to have some contact with the ‘real things’ of our Christian material culture, and to understand the way we use that materiality to create powerful expressions of the faith.

“ ‘Understanding’ means ‘grasp,’ and in many ways what we construct and the objects in whose midst we conduct our prayer have a lot to do with molding that grasp—our art tells us what we understand,” he explained.

“Rather than the word ‘transition’ in the title of these exhibits,” he concluded, “I would substitute the word ‘interpretation’ for the first exhibit, and ‘interaction’ for the second. Indeed, the material world is not evil, but is a goodly canvas which we must re-make through using our inventive minds, seeing through ‘the eyes of our heart,’ as it says in Ephesians 1:18, in order to be Orthodox co-creators with God.”

Joining the group for a time was Dr. Helen C. Evans, the Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator of Byzantine Art, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The group was privileged with her presence for a while in the “Byzantium and Islam” exhibit. Also joining the group were several members of the seminary campus community, and Dn. Evan Freeman, an alumnus (’09) currently enrolled in the seminary’s Th.M. program, who has studied under Professor Schneider and who helped guide the group through the exhibits.Dr. Helen C. Evans (center right, with scarf), the Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator of Byzantine Art at The Metropolitan Museum, joined the group at the special exhibit.Dr. Helen C. Evans (center right, with scarf), the Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator of Byzantine Art at The Metropolitan Museum, joined the group at the special exhibit.

St. Vladimir’s remains almost unique among major Orthodox seminaries in having a very full calendar of offerings in Orthodox “iconology,” the field of study grounded in Christ’s Incarnation and referring to the material world turned into theological vision. Besides students enrolled in the seminary degree programs, Professor Schneider's courses attract many people from surrounding areas.

Each year, the seminary offers a basic course—Liturgical Art—which introduces the fundamentals of iconological “visual reading,” that is, how to acquire skills in seeing and interpreting with nuance and depth. Each year also, an advanceDn. Evan Freeman (left), who studies under Professor Schneider, also guided group members through the exhibits.Dn. Evan Freeman (left), who studies under Professor Schneider, also guided group members through the exhibits.d iconology course is offered; this spring the topic is “The Iconology of Orthodox Architecture: Designing Buildings and Iconography for Liturgy.” In spring 2013 the advanced course will be “Orthodox Iconology in the Context of General Culture.” In that course students will have the opportunity to evaluate many para-liturgical uses of Orthodox iconography in situations and contexts not limited to church and liturgy: placed in houses (and cars), worn on persons, kept as souvenirs of pilgrimage, even used in conjunction with state and military symbols (Byzantine coinage, for example); and a major topic will be the role(s) the church building plays in the total city-scape.

“As always, students will be encouraged to see Orthodox iconography as a living, creative art-language, which, upon observation, certainly has manifested itself in different ways in different cultures, instead of as a static, fossilized form,” stated Professor Schneider.

View details about Professor Richard Schneider's courses in our 2011–2012 Academic Catalog, here.
View details about the "Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd-7th Century AD" special exhibit at the Onassis Cultural Center NY, running December 7, 2011–May 14, 2012, here.
View details about the "Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition" exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, running March 14–July 8, 2012, here.