Getting to Know Dr Rossitza Schroeder

Dr. Rossitza B. Schroeder headline

In this Faculty Spotlight Interview, we get to know Dr Rossitza Schroeder, Associate Professor of Art History and Assistant Director of the Institute of Sacred Arts at St Vladimir’s Seminary. Dr Schroeder is teaching the third online course offered by St Vladimir’s Online School of Theology, Sacred Artistry: The Living Tradition of Orthodox Church Art, and graciously agreed to share more of her story with us in this interview piece.

Dr Schroeder, please tell us about your family background and early life in the Church. What were some early influences that led you to dedicate your life to studying and teaching Byzantine art history?

I was born and raised in Bulgaria in a working-class family. At the time I was growing up access to the church while not prohibited was not encouraged. We were supposed to be first and foremost followers of the communist party and its ideology. My father had a bible but hid it so as not to be reported to authorities by ‘well-meaning’ visitors. 

My personal relationship with the church began only in my early 20s after the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and while I was pursuing a degree in history at Sofia University. I was baptized primarily because my friends were. While I understood the seriousness of the Faith and the long tradition behind it, I could not sincerely relate to it. I feared it more than I loved it. Twenty years later, when I found myself on a tenure track position in California, I began a different journey in which the Church and its teaching became an inextricable part of my life. I owe this to the former director of the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley Archbishop Nikitas Loulias, who generously provided me with the space to be both a church-goer and a Byzantine art historian all at once. I got to sing, read the epistle, and discuss icons with the community in the Institute and in churches all around the Bay Area. 


Dr Schroeder moderates a panel discussion hosted by the Institute of Sacred Arts at St Vladimir’s Seminary


I had encountered Byzantium in all its complexity since I was in middle school. The now-lost empire is closely tied to Bulgarian history for apparent geographical and cultural reasons. In middle and high school we studied it primarily as a negative presence that oppressed, invaded, and stole from us. But, when at university, thanks to my Byzantine history professors Georgi Bakalov and Anetta Ilieva, my understanding of the empire and itsheritage shifted profoundly. My actual intellectual ‘conversion’ happened while reading an article on Byzantine aesthetics. It is here that I first encountered the arguments for icon veneration provided by theologians like John of Damascus and Theodore the Studite. I found the sophistication of their writing not simply convincing but exhilarating. This was why I decided to pursue degrees in Byzantine art history in the United States where I was fortunate to have two exemplary teachers—Annemarie Carr and Henry Maguire. Their excellence and innate humility will always inform my teaching and scholarship. 

How did you come to St Vladimir's Seminary and to the Institute of Sacred Arts?

Academic Dean, Dr Ionuț-Alexandru Tudorie contacted me in the Fall of 2019 and offered me to teach a course on Byzantine art. I realized that this was my best chance to be a teacher as well as a practitioner of the Orthodox Faith. At that point, I had already come to the conclusion that a deep understanding of Byzantine art is impossible without a meaningful engagement with the life of the Church. St Vladimir’s is the place where I can do both.

Why is it important to learn about the sacred arts? 

This is a complicated question. Can one imagine an Orthodox church without its distinct iconographic program? Without images of saints and scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary? I assume the answers to these questions will be in the negative. In light of the realities of our church buildings, it is very important that we know what we are looking at. Given the levels of literacy in our society, it cannot be said anymore that icons are the Bible for the poor and unlettered. What are they then? I believe that they are dialogic systems that allow communication with the holy. Icons are oriented not away from but toward the faithful. Just like texts, they allow identification with sainted exemplars of faithfulness and worship. They do not simply inform but also form the Orthodox Christians.


Dr Schroeder giving an overview of her upcoming online course with St Vladimir’s Online School of Theology, Sacred Artistry: The Living Tradition of Orthodox Church Art


How have you seen students learn and grow through learning about the sacred arts at St Vladimir's Seminary?

I can only hope that the students at St Vladimir’s have grown through the study of icons. I can say for certain that I have. 

What are your hopes for the Institute of Sacred Arts and the future of the M.A. concentration in Sacred Arts at St Vladimir's Seminary?

The Institute of Sacred Arts offers unique opportunities to academics, students, and laypeople to deepen their understanding of and relationship with the arts of the Orthodox Church. The MA degree is grounded in true and, in my opinion, edgy interdisciplinarity. Through course offerings in art history, theology, liturgics, and musicology the students in the program receive a well-rounded, holistic education. What makes the program particularly attractive is the opportunity to experience the effects of icons, music and poetry both in the classroom and in church. Indeed, theory and practice interact or even mix perfectly at St Vladimir’s Seminary.

You will be teaching the next online course offered by St Vladimir's Online School of Theology, Sacred Artistry: The Living Tradition of Orthodox Church Art. Can you give us a glimpse?

The class introduces the audience to the origins and meaning of icons. It bridges the gap between past and present and demonstrates how the art and architecture of 21st-century Orthodox churches have deep roots in Byzantium. It makes an argument for perceiving icons not as mere backdrops for sacred actions but as visual inputs for theologizing and, ultimately, as meaningful conduits to holiness.