Christendom College

Acclaimed Art Historian Elizabeth Lev Illustrates the History of St. John Lateran

March 23, 2017

Acclaimed art historian Elizabeth Lev delivered a lecture to the Christendom community on Monday, March 20, speaking on “Taking on the Temples: The Development of Christian Sacred Space in St. John Lateran.” The engaging, entertaining talk, which delved into Christian sacred spaces and their beginnings, explained to listeners how Christians first expressed themselves architecturally in Rome and how this architecture can truly speak to the uniqueness of Christianity as a whole.

Lev, who has taught art and architecture courses for Christendom’s Junior Semester in Rome experience, began her talk by speaking about the Christian martyrs and their experiences in Rome. Following the rise of Constantine and after all the years of persecution, they were able to finally build their first churches in Rome. Just as the Romans did with their gods, the Christians expressed their religion through works of architecture, drawing inspiration from the temples that surrounded them.

“The architecture in a world that speaks through architecture tells you what you need to know about a religion,” said Lev. “Christians had been around Roman temples their entire lives. Thousands had been killed for refusing to pray at these temples. After thousands of years of this, they want to build temples that express their differences from these temples.”

While Roman temples intentionally created a distance between men and gods, Christian churches would avoid all the aspects of them, save for the concept of victory. According to Lev, Christians would chiefly take their ideas from synagogues. They were regular, fixed places of worship for a community and welcomed people as a whole. Christians “needed to adapt the synagogue structure for the reinterpretation of Christ’s sacrifice,” said Lev.

Moving forward in time, Lev explained that St. John Lateran become the first consecrated Church in the world — a building that would express the true differences between the Christians and the Romans. While St. John Lateran has a lavish façade now, when it was first constructed it had a simpler one, made to express Jesus, who is the lowly son of a carpenter. This simple, humble exterior was to express that their God was very unlike the other gods, according to Lev.

“The inside of St. John Lateran was enormous. Why? Because it was built to welcome the faithful. Unlike the pagan religion, Christianity was universal. It was intended to invite everyone in,” said Lev. “These Christian Churches are not just spaces — they are descriptions of Christ, the Light, the Way.”

Following her talk, Lev generous gave of her time to answer student questions.

Concluding her discussion of St. John Lateran, Lev remarked on the incredible resilience of the Church and how it speaks to the resilience of the Church as a whole.

“The Lateran has been crumbled by two earthquakes, devastated by fires, but it always comes back. The Lateran truly celebrates the Church in all its scars, its journeys, and its triumphs. St. John Lateran is the illustration of the Christian struggle,” said Lev.

This lecture was part of the college’s Major Speaker’s Program, an important aspect of the academic life at the college that offers the students and community an opportunity for cultural, intellectual, and spiritual enrichment beyond the classroom. Through the program, students are able to gain greater insights and depth of understanding of important issues, and to interact personally with a wide range of men and women who are shapers and critics of our society.

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