Lots to write about…

Welcome to Verona! The basilica of San Zeno is on the lower left edge of the map. You might notice the Roman arena (lower center), which is still used for operas and rock concerts today.

I’ve fallen way behind in blogging because I’ve been so busy seeing and traveling! I’ve seen some amazing churches, phenomenal art, and even made a few discoveries. I’m not going to put them all into one blog post, but know that coming up we have Giotto’s magnificent Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (Padova), two churches in the Venetian Lagoon, the paleochristian basilica in Aquileia, and the brilliant mosaics of Ravenna.

But this post is going to deal with some imagery from Verona in the basilica of the city’s patron saint, San Zeno. Western Christians often fail to think of Roman Christianity in the context of the whole Mediterranean, but the influence of Northern Africa in early Christianity is hard to overestimate, spanning from Egypt to Mauritania (modern Algeria and Morocco). Think about it: the church has been shaped profoundly by St. Anthony of the Desert, St. Augustine of Hippo, and St. Anthansius of Alexandria. All of which is to say that the beloved patron saint of Verona, San Zeno, was also from Mauritania. He was born circa 300 and lived into his 70s. He is often pictured with either a fishing rod or a fish on the line hanging from his crozier. Two stories exist: one that he was fond of fishing in the River Adige and another that he was a great “fisher of people.” I like to think he was using dry flies and landing bigger fish than the one pictured below.

16th c. polychrome statue of San Zeno in his basilica in Verona.

The basilica contains wonderful frescoes and a triptych by Andrea Mantegna, but the element that struck me most strongly were the amazing bronze plaques on the great doors of the basilica. (SAYS) There are 48 of them, primarily of biblical scenes, and they are beautiful. They were likely created in two stages from the 10th to 12th century. (A major earthquake in 1117 destroyed the earlier edifice, and the current Romanesque basilica was built afterward.) And at least the first batch was made by a Saxon artisan.

It is always interesting to see what scenes are chosen to be represented in art. (And what is selected by the blogger to show you!) I’ll include some representative samples below (including an image of San Zeno.)

(MEANT) I don’t know much about the intended purpose of the panels, though my guess is that they served some didactic use, telling different biblical stories and also local lore. See what you think! It’s also interesting to consider that around 1000, most of Spain and Portugal were under Islamic control, and that Christianity was just making headway in Scandinavia, Poland, and Russia. And the Holy Roman Empire was absorbing northern Italy.

(MEANS) I found the plaques fascinating because they allow us a brief glimpse into Christianity a thousand years ago. The figures come from an entirely different age than our own, and it shows. There is a rustic beauty and artistic quality in the panels. The figures say something to me as a person of faith, looking back at my own tradition: that story matters, whether factual or metaphoric. What do these panels say to you?

It is difficult to capture the scale of the doors…maybe 30 feet high?
Noah and the Ark
The beheading of John the Baptizer
Crucifixion with angels in the sun and the moon
The Empty Tomb, but that’s not all…
A really odd anastasis, showing Jesus on the right edge, extracting people from Hades. Note the absence of any imagery we often see: keys or broken gates.
And dear San Zeno fishing from his cathedra (bishop’s chair) by the side of the Adige. Not everyone gets a seat while fishing!

En Route

Travel is nearly always an enriching experience, even though it comes with moments of frustration when things don’t go as smoothly as planned. (Travel writer Cameron Hewitt’s apt phrase is “Jams are fun!”) Back in my undergraduate years, while studying at the University of St. Andrews, I spent some time on European railways to see as much as I could. (One memorable “jam” was spending a cold winter’s night on the floor of the Florence train station.) But there were, of course, enlightening moments as well.

One of the great epiphanies of that trip was being in a train compartment with my young, American traveling companions, a compartment we shared with a middle-aged German man who spoke no English. At that point, I’d had a few years of high school German, and so I piped up and offered him an orange. “Möchten Sie ein Apfelsine?” I asked. And I was absolutely gobsmacked when he understood and accepted the orange.

I think one of the things Europeans may not understand about Americans is that it isn’t that we don’t want to speak their language, but that we have so little chance to use it. Simply asking a traveler if he’d like an orange in another language and being stunned by the fact that my German worked was a watershed moment for me. It connected me with someone from another nation, and it did so on their terms. (The possible exception to this is studying Spanish and using it both at home and in nearby nations. )

I know that it is a privilege to travel. I’m even more aware of that because I’m sitting in a business class seat. Hurrah for MileagePlus! I’m also aware of the rare privilege of having sabbatical time to decompress, study, travel, and explore. I am grateful to have this opportunity, and I hope to share some interesting insights.

I’ve also thought that history is somewhat like foreign translation: one has to try and speak another’s language in order to understand. (Certainly, historical figures, art, architecture, and archaeology are not going to speak our language!)

One of the paradigms I’m going to try on Christian art and architecture is one that I learned many years ago from a wise and wonderful professor, Ed Everding. In studying the New Testament, Ed proposed that we use a simple approach in examining a text:


Nice, contemporary Greek calligraphy of the Prologue of John’s Gospel, Basilica of San Zeno, Verona, Italy.

SAYS: In other words, what does the text actually say? What words are on the page? What is its genre? What can we learn from the writing style?
MEANT: What might this writing have meant to the person who wrote it and to those were were its intended audience? What was the purpose of the text?
MEANS: What, if anything, might the text say to us, given that we actually aren’t the intended audience? There is still much to be mined in many, but certainly not all, scriptural writings.

So, here is what I propose to do: Look at Christian art and architecture using that same type of lens.

If I’m looking at a mosaic in Ravenna from the 5th century what does it say, what did it mean, and what might it mean? SAYS Well, we know it is a mosaic, that it was created by amazing artisans, perhaps from Byzantium, that a given panel illustrates the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality to travelers. MEANS At a time when Ravenna was controlled first by Rome and then by Arian peoples coming into the Italian peninsula from the north, we see that they took the Old Testament seriously, which was not a given. The glory of the mosaic means that the creators were willing to invest much time and money in creating this beautiful representation of a biblical story about hospitality. To them, the three visitors may have presaged the idea of the Trinity (an alien concept in the Old and maybe even the New Testaments). MEANS Every mosaic in the sacred spaces of Ravenna tell us that those who created them took their faith much more seriously than many Christians do today. The tremendous investment of capital, both material and human, was phenomenal. Their beauty may move us to tears. They may give us the feeling of connectedness to ancient people who shared our faith, and they might even cause us to consider that ours is one generation in the line of hundreds, and that someday, we may be the ancestors of Christians in another age far in the future.

I invite you to join me, and perhaps do some Google searches for Christian art from any age and try out the SAYS – MEANT – MEANS paradigm and see what you might uncover.

Sarah and Abraham offering hospitality to three “strangers.” A photo from Ravenna, Italy.

Time for a Sabbatical… 2022 version!

This summer I’ve been taking some time out (a month of vacation) to rehab a brand-new knee and decompress from several deeply challenging years of parish ministry in the time of pandemic. And now, I’m getting ready to head back to Italy for a six-week stay, beginning September 16. Yes, there will be sumptuous food. Yes, there will be fabulous wine. And there will also be some exploration of paleochristian sites and imagery. I’m also planning to look at some later Christian art and to introduce a paradigm for considering what it might say to 21st-century Christians. (Stay tuned!)

In the meantime, here is a peek at where I’ll be traveling. The first stop (after a day of jet-lag recovery on Lake Como), is Verona, so stay tuned to see what I turn up.

Of course, I’ll also be looking at the ways the Roman Empire (then) and the American Empire (now) exchange in dialogue with Christianity. The acknowledgement of American Christian Nationalism provides a clearer lens to observe ways that church and state relate to one another.

One of the places I’m most looking forward to visiting is Aquileia (at the top of the Adriatic), which was one of the largest cities in the Empire and a major paleochristian site. It has the dubious distinction of being the first city on the Italian peninsula to have been attacked by Attila the Hun in 452 AD.

A question that I begin with is what Christianity then can say to us, as Christians, now. I’ll be searching for meanings and sharing them with you as I unearth and consider them.

Basilica in Aquileia, attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=607926