The image of the divine in ancient Judaism and Christianity developed across nearly two millennia, amid the competing religions, beliefs, and worldviews of the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world. In this week-long seminar, two leading scholars in the archaeology of religion—Erin and Robert Darby of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville—explore the myriad, diverse, and often unexpected ways the divine was depicted (or not) in biblical art and iconography and how these representations inform our understanding of ancient religious thought.
Join us as we host this thought-provoking summer seminar in the beautiful and restorative setting of St. Olaf College. The campus boasts award-winning architecture nestled in a 350-acre woodland, set on a hilltop overlooking historic Northfield, Minnesota, a charming, two-college town with a welcoming community. St. Olaf College’s picturesque campus is located just 35 miles south of St. Paul and Minneapolis in Northfield and offers the best of two worlds: the quiet charm of a rural community and the convenience and excitement of the nearby Twin Cities.
The seminar’s subject matter and the presenters’ level of expertise were excellent. So nice to go deeply into a subject!
The presenters were so clear, knowledgeable, and humorous. A wonderful combination!
Erin Darby’s Lectures: Picturing God(s) in Ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible
1. The Missing Images of Ancient Israel: Scholars and the Popular Imagination
This session will explore the many reasons why people have assumed ancient Israel banned images. We will discuss how the supposed lack of images has been connected with monotheism, and we will interrogate the accuracy of that interpretation, asking whether this presumption says more about us than it does about the ancient Israelites.
2. The Bible Tells Me So? Monotheism and Aniconism in the Hebrew Bible
In this session, we will learn more about the biblical passages that have led many interpreters to connect bans against images with monotheism. As we examine key passages, we will ask how their date of composition, socio-historical setting, literary themes, and vocabulary might better inform the way
we reconstruct the role of images in ancient Israel.
3. It’s Complicated! Pantheons in the Ancient Levant
Using archaeology and the textual record, we will investigate our own assumptions about pantheons in the Iron Age Levant, including in ancient Israel. Images, inscriptions, and texts will help us better recognize the complexity of ancient religious belief, which will, in turn, require us to reimagine the role images might have played in a religiously diverse landscape.
4. Playing Hide and Seek with Aniconism in Ancient Near Eastern Art
This exploration of ancient Near Eastern art will focus on how gods are depicted…or not. Together, we will investigate how different levels of the pantheon are represented in objects across various cultures, with particular attention to the depiction of anthropomorphic features, miniaturization, abstraction, and negative space.
5. When Is an Idol Not an Idol? The Role of Material and Production in Ancient Israelite Images
Using the Bible and ritual texts from the ancient Near East, we will investigate the definition of the term “idol” and the way this term has been associated with excavated images in ancient Israel. By focusing on the materials from which “idols” are made and common production processes for elite cult objects, we will reconsider how we label images from ancient Israel.
6. Gods, Shrines, and Temples, Oh My!
Returning to the question of Israelite aniconic monotheism, we will use methods from the archaeology of ritual to examine the cultic infrastructure of ancient Israel and Judah. Beyond introductions to the various cultic sites, we will ask how archaeology can shed light on the level of religion to which these sites belong, the pantheons venerated at these sites, and how to compare these data with biblical depictions of Israelite religion.
7. Images and Popular Religion: The Curious Case of Judahite Pillar Figurines
In this session, we will examine modern concepts of “popular religion” in ancient Israel. Drawing upon all we have learned thus far, we will use the case of Judahite Pillar Figurines to test our assumptions about Judahite popular religion and its role in Judahite religious life as a whole. In so doing, we will investigate the way modern assumptions about women and depictions of the body have influenced our understanding of the past.
8. Everyday Ritual: Images on the Ground in Ancient Israel
Moving further into everyday practices, we will learn more about the use of images in the household religion of ancient Israel. Texts and artifacts will help us imagine the range of rituals taking place in the home, whether they are accepted our frowned upon in the public cult, and the larger rituals in which images may have played a role.
9. Images after Exile?
Until recently, reconstructions of Israelite monotheism emphasized the importance of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the exile in accelerating the development of image bans and monotheism in Israelite religion. We will review the archaeology and texts that have featured in this model, as well as mounting criticisms that complicate this picture.
10. Iconography Idolatry: Images, Ethics, and the Market Today
We will close our investigation by asking how our imagining of divine images and their role in ancient Israel and the Levant might have ethical implications. As we will see, not only do our reconstructions predetermine our depictions of peoples and cultures, but they also impact the modern antiquities trade and cultural resource management.
Robert Darby’s Lectures: 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.
St. Olaf College sits atop Manitou Hill at the edge of historic Northfield, Minnesota. Northfield is known for its historic downtown district along the scenic Cannon River.
All Residence hall rooms are AIR-CONDITIONED, DORMITORY-STYLE, equipped with ONE OR TWO beds, extra long twin mattresses, dressers, desks, desk chairs.
Bon Appetit is the exclusive caterer for St. Olaf College. Cafeteria style dining. They offer full meals that feature a variety of fresh, wholesome selections .
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Biblical Archaeology Society
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