About Robert Darby

Robert Darby

Robert Darby received his graduate education in Greek and Roman Art and Archaeology from the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to joining the University of Tennessee School of Art, he taught at Elon University and North Carolina State University. Before teaching, he spent two years spent abroad as an Educational and Cultural Affairs Fellow at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem and a Samuel H. Kress Fellow at the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman, Jordan. His research areas include Roman baths, iconography, and Roman provincial art particularly that of the Roman Near East, where he co-directs the on-going excavations of the ancient site of ‘Ayn Gharandal in southern Jordan.

Presenter at

St. Olaf College Summer Seminar, July 17 – 23, 2022
Picturing God(s) in Early Judaism and Christianity

1. Gods Aplenty: Divine Imagery in Greek and Roman Art and Its Influence on Ancient Jewish and Christian Iconography
This session will introduce the diverse and complex corpus of divine images from Greco-Roman art. We will discuss the use and reception of these images from the perspective of traditional polytheists or “pagans” as well as Jewish and Christian communities across the Roman Empire. This will allow us to understand better the transmission of “divine” figures from the classical world into the visual language of early Jews and Christians.

2. The Answers (& Questions) Lie Below: Archaeology’s Contribution, Past and Present
This session will “dig” into archaeology’s role in bringing to light images of the divine from the classical and biblical past and how these images shape our knowledge about the people who made them. It will challenge us to think more broadly about the use of “divine” images and their archaeological contexts and, as is often the case with archaeology, it will perhaps leave us with more questions than answers.

3. Searching for God(s) in Ancient Synagogue Art: The Enigma of Helios and the Zodiac
In this session, we will dive into the long-running debate over the identification of what was, based upon its frequent appearance in ancient synagogue mosaics, perhaps the most ubiquitous iconography found in a Jewish context associated with a divine figure, the solar deity Helios (in Greek) or Sol (in Latin). We will consider these images in association with other figural and biblical depictions in synagogue art and ask how or even if they fit together. We will also discuss how this art may relate to traditions of aniconism within the ancient Near East.

4. Imaging Jesus and the Development of Early Christian Art
The emergence of an identifiable “Christian” artistic repertoire distinguishable from ancient Jewish or Roman art did not occur until the late second or early third century C.E. We will explore this development and the reasons why it may have occurred in the manner it did. The lack of earlier portrayals of Jesus meant that artists had to look elsewhere for inspiration, which included the text of the Gospels as well as visual images already familiar to their Christian patrons.

5. Salvation and the Invisible God: Biblical Narrative as Divine Metaphor in Ancient Jewish and Early Christian Art
Examining biblical narrative scenes from ancient Jewish and early Christian art, we will investigate their themes as visual metaphors for an otherwise missing God. In turn, this examination will allow us to engage in a deeper understanding about why certain stories from the Hebrew Bible were used and others left out altogether.

6. Render Unto Caesar? Imperial Iconography and Early Christian Art
In this session, we will delve further into the origins of early Christian art and discuss the influence that Roman imperial iconography exerted, intentionally or not, on its development. From the syncretic adaptation of symbols to outright co-opting of imperial imagery, we will trace the art historical evidence connecting early Christian art with that of the imperial authority in Rome and ask why this occurred.

7. The Miraculous and Magical Messiah: Images of Jesus and the Magic Wand
Among the most prevalent in early Christian art are images drawn from the Gospels depicting Jesus as miracle worker. This fascinating iconography will lead our investigation and challenge us to consider these images from the perspective of their original intended audience. We will discuss how close study of these images can help us better understand how early Christians visualized Jesus’s divinity.

8. Crucifixion and the Empty Tomb: The Missing Images of Jesus’s Death and Resurrection
In this session, we will continue our exploration of early Christian art by examining two themes that would eventually come to be arguably the most recognizable in all of Christian art, the death and resurrection of Jesus. Their relative absence from the visual corpus of Christian art until the later Byzantine period is therefore surprising and worthy of our investigation. We will consider the scholarly arguments for their omission and discuss how early Christian artists and audiences instead turned to allegorical representations of these events.

9. Houses of the Holy: Temples, Synagogues, and the Development of Christian Places of Worship
Using recent archaeological work in Israel and Jordan, this session turns to architectural forms in the Near East during the classical and Late Roman periods to engage in an investigation of early Christian sacred spaces, from prayer halls to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. We will discuss how churches ultimately supplanted tombs as the primary location for the creation and display of images, eventually themselves standing as physical representations of heaven to their communities.

10. The End of Images? The Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy and its Aftermath
Here we will examine the period of Byzantine iconoclasm (c. 730–843 C.E.) that witnessed the intentional destruction and removal of sacred images, particularly in the Byzantine east. At least partially perpetuated by a strict theological interpretation of the biblical prohibition against worship of “graven images,” Byzantine iconoclasm would last nearly a century and result in the loss of life along with countless works of art. At the heart of the debate was the use of personal images of devotion or icons, the most revered of which were Acheiropoieta—images considered to be of divine rather than human origin. We will consider the various arguments of both the iconoclasts (destroyers of images) and iconophiles (protectors of images) and the comprise that was reached. Finally, we will discuss the long-lasting impact that iconoclasm and its eventual defeat had on the art of the later Byzantine world.

Bible & Archaeology Fest XXIV, October 16 – 17, 2021
En Ḥaẓeva (Tamar) at the Cross-Roads: Exploring the Edge of Empire

In this lecture, Robert and Erin Darby will take you on a tour through the Iron Age, Roman, and Byzantine forts at the site of ʽEn Ḥaẓeva in southern Israel. Despite having been excavated over many years, the site has yet to reach final publication, leaving much of the data inaccessible to either a scholarly or lay audience. Nevertheless, the site and an adjacent shrine have featured prominently in discussions of Judean and Edomite control of the Negev, Edomite religion, and ethnic and political identity. In the Roman period, Ḥaẓeva forms part of a chain of forts and bathhouses that dot the Wadi Aravah, controlling trade and troop movement in the region. The Darby’s will introduce you to the site and debates over its significance, while reviewing the current state of knowledge in the field.

Bible & Archaeology Fest XXII, November 22 – 24, 2019
Baptizing Soldiers on the Roman Frontier: The Early Christian Church Complex at ‘Ayn Gharandal, Jordan

In this lecture, Erin and Robert Darby will introduce the audience to the newly-excavated potential baptistry of the fourth century church at ‘Ayn Gharandal (Arieldela), Jordan. Although scholars have discussed the Christianization of the Roman military, no other sites in the region have produced evidence for a purpose-built church in a Roman military base during the fourth century. Evidence for fourth century baptistries is likewise elusive. After describing the church complex, Erin and Robert will discuss several important implications, including the possible ritual uses of the rooms in the church complex, potential sources for ritual officiants, and what the process of baptism at the site may have entailed.

Bible & Archaeology Fest XXI, November 16 – 18, 2018
Excavating the Gharandal Church: Soldiers, Pagans, and Christians in Arabia-Palaestina

In this lecture, Erin and Robert Darby will introduce the audience to the newly-excavated fourth century church at the Roman military site of ‘Ayn Gharandal (Arieldela), Jordan. Although scholars have discussed the Christianization of the Roman military, no other sites in the region have produced evidence for a purpose-built church in a Roman military base during the fourth century. In fact, the Gharandal Church is one of the few fourth century church buildings still standing in the Levant. After describing the church complex, Erin and Robert will discuss several important implications, including when in the fourth century the church may have been constructed, who commissioned the building, the extent of conversion to Christianity at the site, and the nature of Christian practice in this distant province of the Empire.