Roberta Green Ahmanson is a writer and philanthropist whose public activities are focused on deepening awareness and understanding of the role of religion in public life, the importance of knowing history to understand the present, and the vital role the arts play in shaping human experience. Since 1986, she has worked with her husband, Howard, in shaping the granting priorities of his private philanthropy, Fieldstead and Company. In that time, the Ahmansons have sponsored a number of art exhibitions in the United States and Great Britain and commissioned various works of art and music. They have also worked closely with the Orange County Rescue Mission to create the Village of Hope, a vibrant housing facility for homeless families. A former schoolteacher and journalist, she has lectured for Image and the International Arts Movement and served as board chair for the Museum of Biblical Arts and on the collectors’ committee of the National Gallery of Art. She was interviewed by Gregory Wolfe.
Image: I want to start at the beginning. I wonder if you could tell me about growing up in Perry, Iowa.
Roberta Ahmanson: I grew up in a lot of space and had a lot of physical freedom. I had a bike and I had the run of the town. We never lived more than a couple blocks from a sea of green space. I didn’t learn how important that was to me until I moved to Southern California, where I lived in endless suburbia, and sometimes at night I would drive to the desert or the ocean because I had to see space. In her book Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East, Susan Allen Toth, who grew up not far from where I did and went to college at Sarah Lawrence, has a glorious passage about how claustrophobic she felt in the East. When I read that, I thought she nailed it.
My parents were not interested in the arts, although my mother’s mother recited poetry to me, and she could draw and cut things out of paper and make amazing cookies. As a child, I was always arranging things. When I was fourteen months old, a couple of weeks before Christmas, my mother suddenly realized that I wasn’t at her feet in the kitchen, and it was very quiet. She found me in the living room, where I had pulled all the presents out from under the tree and was rearranging them because the balance was off. I arranged all the pictures on the walls of our home.
In eighth grade, at my public school, we had a class called Heritage. It was nine weeks of art history, music appreciation, world religion, and American literature. I fell in love with the pictures in art history, reproductions from the National Gallery that were projected onto the wall with some kind of horrible machine I can’t recall the name of—so what I first saw of Breughel…well, never mind. But I fell in love with it. That class isn’t done anymore, so kids don’t get the opportunity I had, which is a shame.
One summer I got to go to Washington, DC, by myself on the train, to stay with my aunt and uncle. I would not have let my child do that, but in 1963 it seemed doable, and my father was a railroad engineer, so I could ride free. All I wanted to do was go to the National Gallery of Art, and they thought I was the strangest thirteen-year-old. They took me twice, and I got to see the real pictures, and I was in love. Then in 1967 when I graduated from high school, I got a job in Washington as an intern through this same uncle, and I spent all my lunch hours at the National Gallery. It went on from there. I took art history in college and always loved it. I ended up living in Toronto, where I hung out at art galleries and art museums. Then, when I married Howard, who came from a family that collected art, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
I grew up in a socially conservative Baptist church, so I couldn’t go to movies or dances, and I felt odd because of it. Looking back now, I think I would have been odd anyway. I wasn’t interested in the things other kids were interested in. But at least I had the Baptist church to blame, and that was helpful. I did make some friends who are still friends to this very day. It was painful at the time—that feeling of not belonging. It took me some years to work that through.
Image: At the National Gallery, were there any first loves? Do you recall any specific works, or was it just glorious to be there?
RA: There was a painting, The Lady in Purple—for years I thought it was by Manet, but it’s Renoir, and in fact I just visited it again—a portrait of a woman in a purple dress with black trim. I loved it. Another one sticks in my mind, too, a portrait of a woman all in beige. I don’t even remember who painted it. At that time I was taken with the impressionists, which is an easy entrée to loving art, because they are beautiful. And I was drawn to their interest in light. The National Gallery has at least two of the Rouen Cathedral paintings that Monet did at different times of day, and I thought that was quite wonderful. I also loved Breughel and the Dutch golden age. There are a fair number of Rembrandts at the National Gallery, and I thought those were pretty good, too. I thought he knew what he was doing.
Image: You lived in Canada for a while. What took you there, and does anything stay with you from that time that you feel is a permanent part of you now?
RA: I graduated from Calvin College, then got a master’s degree from the University of Michigan in English. If I had thought there were jobs in art, I might have become an art historian, but it wasn’t in my consciousness. To me, there were only two things I could possibly do: be a journalist, which I was terrified of failing at, or be a teacher, because everyone was a teacher. I’m a Baby Boomer, and everyone was getting a teaching degree—more women than men, but a lot of men, too. So I got a teaching certificate. Then it was me and 12 million other Baby Boomers who were looking for jobs, and so there weren’t any. I sent out 250 letters and got one offer for a part-time job in Dubuque, Iowa, for $2,500 a year.
But a friend of mine saw a job listing in a Christian Reformed magazine from a school in Canada for a first-grade and a sixth-grade teacher. We both had certificates in teaching high school English; however, these people were desperate—they’d had two teachers drop out in July—and so there we were. So I went off to Canada. The year after that I left for journalism school at the University of Missouri, because teaching sixth grade wasn’t quite fitting. Then, when I got offered a sixth-grade teaching job back in Toronto at an experimental Christian school, I went back for another three years because I had fallen in love with the city. I have often thought I’d have loved to be in New York in my twenties in the 1950s. And being in Toronto in the seventies was a lot like New York in the fifties. A lot was going on culturally, and Canada is a huge mosaic—they call it a mosaic, not a melting pot—of people from all over the world. I had an evangelical Anglican church that I loved. The art scene was hot. After I was mercifully let go from teaching, ending everyone’s misery—mine, the school’s, the students’—and setting me free, I became a freelance writer for two years. I lived on unemployment insurance until I was making enough to support myself, and after two years I came to California to take a job at a newspaper.
Image: So you did go on to journalism after all.
RA: Failing at teaching didn’t really matter, because I didn’t want to do it in the first place. But failing at journalism would matter, I felt. I was scared. But what else was I going to do? You’re supposed to get established working for a publication and then freelance, but I did it backwards. I had no choice, because in Canada having gone to the University of Missouri didn’t open doors the way it would in the United States. I hadn’t been to Carlton or McGill, so I was low on the totem pole. But I eventually became a journalist, and after I came to California, I became a religion writer. I look at those as great days.
Image: Do you recall the first piece of art you ever purchased for yourself? Or, alternatively, which early acquisition felt like a watershed moment for you?
RA: One of the first pieces I bought and paid for is hanging in my closet—a pastel by an artist in the Christian Reformed community in Toronto named Matt Cupido. I think I paid three hundred dollars for that pastel. I also bought four wood-block prints of his, and paid for them all in installments. It took me a while.
Image: What did it feel like, having these pieces and living with them?
RA: It was real art. For me, everything had to be real. I am from the hippie generation. For my vegetables and cheese I went to the great Kensington Market in Toronto, where you could get fresh everything. Real food meant food that was back-to-the-earth organic. And this was real art. I also had a quilt hanging on a wall that my grandmother had set together, and women in a nursing home in Iowa had quilted, and I had embroidered. For me, having real things was important. They may not have been great, but they were real.
Image: So from the beginning you had both the high art and the folk art, which are both passions of yours. You’ve never seemed to have any problem having them in juxtaposition.
RA: No. They are both wonderful, though they are different. I love folk art. My grandmother was a great seamstress and made incredible clown dolls, and I have a watercolor that a friend made of one of these clowns. That was real, too. Real is very important to me.
For my fourth Christmas I was given a Mary Hoyer doll, and my grandmother crocheted a skating outfit for her—a hat and little tiny gloves, and somewhere they found ice skates that fit the doll. Over the next five or six years, every time she made a dress—my grandmother made clothes for us—she made a dress for the doll. They are perfect. I consider them works of art, and I have them framed on the wall of my guest house. It’s folk art, yes, but it’s art.
All types of art take skill, insight, eye, thought. They all make connections to reality outside yourself. They all have the potential for great beauty, which is a word I would like to rehabilitate, beauty being that thing that gives you a window into eternity. Beauty: that look of something, the appearance of it. Dietrich von Hildebrand says that beauty of form is tangible evidence of the glory of God, and I think that is available in all kinds of things, in art, in design—it’s all part of the same enterprise. In the arts and crafts movement in the late nineteenth century, the Pre-Raphaelites painted paintings, but they also did designs for décor. William Morris made the famous statement, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” And then the Bible says, “Yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.”
For the twelve hundredth anniversary of the death of Charlemagne, the city of Aachen in Germany, which was his main capital, held a number of exhibitions of art he commissioned during his reign. Charlemagne quite consciously brought together the brightest and best, commissioning artists and copyists and architects and work of all kinds, beautiful things made of gold and silver and textiles. When Howard and I visited these exhibitions, I had been reading the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, and asking what it says about beauty. You read in Exodus that the first people filled with the Holy Spirit were Bezalel and Oholiab, the chief artisans of the tabernacle. Then in Solomon’s time there was Hiram, who made furnishings for the temple, and who was a mixed breed—his mother was a Jew, but his father was not—which tells you something about God, it seems to me. They made beautiful things.
One of the struggles in the Protestant world since the Reformation has been to do with the place of the work of our hands, of objects of beauty, of art. It strikes me that to deny the place of art in the church is to say to people who have those skills and gifts that there is no place for them in the kingdom of God. And I don’t think that’s what God wants to say. I think skills like Oholiab’s revealed the glory of God, and it was through the image of God that is in the human being that he was able to make those things. I think the Protestant church has told people that their gifts aren’t worthy of God. On the church vestments we saw in Aachen, the weaving and embroidery Charlemagne commissioned were extraordinary, all in gold and silver and fine thread, and those things bear witness to this day to the glory of God.
Image: Collecting has been called an art form in its own right. Like artists, some collectors can be more intuitive and seemingly random, and others are more linear and planned. Where would you say that you fall on that spectrum? And how do you feel about this notion of collecting as an art form?
RA: I’d have to think about that. There have obviously been great collectors, and they have had enormous influence. Francis Haskell, for instance, wrote an important book about the role of collectors. But I don’t know if it’s an art form. For me, it’s simply what I love. I collect what I love—but I have to think my choices through carefully, because I’m bipolar, and when I’m manic I could go out and buy everything. My husband has more money than most people, but there’s a limit, of course. There are leagues I can’t play in.
My husband inherited some old master work. There’s a Eugène Boudin on the wall over there that was his mother’s. There are some gems—a Pierre Bonnard that is lovely, and a Gabriël Metsu, and a very late Pieter de Hooch which has its weaknesses, but you can also see the greatness in it. Even when he was old, drunk, and sick, the guy had something. Then we added to what Howard inherited: We have a deep collection of Millard Sheets’s work, which we loan out a lot, because in California where he painted and taught there are a lot of shows of his work. He was also Howard’s father’s best friend and designed all the buildings for Home Savings. And then I loved William Kurelek because of my years in Canada, and we have a very deep collection of his work, mostly religious images.
I collected a lot, and I sold things and made money—sometimes five times what I paid for things, which made our accountants say I ought to have an art budget, because clearly I knew what I was doing. Maybe I do. Along the way, we got involved in a Stanley Spencer show and began collecting his work. And then I started collecting other British work from the first half of the twentieth century—Eric Gill, a maquette of Jacob Epstein’s Virgin and Child—and we are just buying a Henry Moore Madonna and Child. I want to add to and deepen that.
And then I have collected young artists whom I have met, Christians who I think are good enough to be in the real art world. I’m not interested in ghetto art. I’m interested in fostering artists who share my faith and who can provide imagery for the world at large that speaks to life. I have a number of works by Lynn Aldrich, Linnea Spransy, Anna Freeman Bentley, Alastair John Gordon. And I have a lot of work by my friend Ale Groen. He’s not a young artist but he’s not old. He and I have pushed each other. He is pushing me now to get to my writing again.
I’ve started looking at galleries in LA, and I’ve just bought my first California art—two pieces by older artists and others by young ones. I would like to add to that collection, especially with art by young artists. The young ones I’ve been finding are not Christians, and I have mixed feelings about that. I want to use my money to support young Christians, but I haven’t found that many who are good enough and play in the art world, though I know many would like to. Undoubtedly there are more than I know.
I did buy a couple pieces at Art Basel by internationally known artists—an Isa Genzken, and an Antoni Tapies, an artist I knew from Barcelona. Genzken I got exposed to because I’m on the collectors’ committee of the National Gallery, and I saw a piece of hers that I wanted us to buy, but I couldn’t convince enough of the others. I still think it was the best piece on offer. I want to go back to Art Basel because I think it’s important to understand, and I want to take some of these young artists with me, though I’m not sure that’s where I want to spend my money. I’m still thinking that through.
Image: I’ve heard you quote Jean Baudrillard: “What we collect when we are collecting is ourselves.”
RA: And it’s true. You are collecting these pieces of yourself. It’s all an image of how God keeps us afloat. The ark was a flotation device, not a ship made to go somewhere. It was just supposed to keep everyone high and dry. It’s like that old gospel song, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” That’s what the ark is about. It’s a reminder.
Image: Faith is essential to your life. Would you say you have a theology of collecting? For instance, do you think about balancing personal acquisitiveness with the common good or the good of the kingdom?
RA: Yes, I have. I mentioned I’ve been reading the history books of the Bible and asking, “What does this have to do with beauty?” It strikes me that every time the people of Israel are theologically sound, they make beautiful things. When things fall apart, those things are looted and taken away. The godly kings like Josiah restore the temple—this three-dimensional icon of the glory of God. They replace the things that are broken; they take care of them. The kings who don’t follow God destroy them. They put up Asherah poles and Baals. Ahaz actually boarded the temple up—lest any piece of God manage to escape.
God understood something about human beings, both their being created in his image to create glory, and also their need for what von Hildebrand calls tangible evidence of the glory of God. Beauty opens a door to hope. It tells you there is something more, something beyond. It takes you out of yourself. The temple was God saying, “Yes, there is something else out there, and you can engage with it—because you made these beautiful things that give me glory. And these things bear witness to your gifts and talents, which mean you were created in my image. We’re in this together.” To me, art objects bear witness to the image of God in whoever made them. I see this in all the things that I collect.
Image: Is the idea of collecting living artists important to you? Do you make long-term commitments to individual artists? Are there artists you want to stay with?
RA: I haven’t made formal long-term commitments, but I do keep buying work by young people who I think have potential. It’s important that I not be the only person buying them. They can’t be houseplants. In the Baroque era, Nicolas Poussin was hardly selling in Rome, where the main patron was the church, but he sold very well in France, where he had a couple patrons, and because of that Poussin was able to go a different direction from what was mostly selling in his time, and because of that, we know him now.
I have been reading Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes, which I highly recommend. There were artists in Russia who patrons stuck with who have come to be known. Yesterday I just went to the show Van Gogh to Kandinsky at the LA County Museum of Art, which is instructive in lots of ways. It’s about the relationship between artists and collectors in France and Germany right before the first World War, and it plays into what I’ve been reading about Russia. That period from 1880 to 1914, when everything came to a dead stop, was an extraordinarily productive one for art. One of the stories that hasn’t been told is the role of Christian thought in that era, because it wasn’t a popular theme for twentieth-century art historians. There was something going on in poetry, but also in visual art. The poet Paul Verlaine died a Roman Catholic, as did Joris-Karl Huysmans, who wrote Against Nature, a takeoff on Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. A lot of poets and a lot of former lovers of Oscar Wilde became Catholics. In fact, Oscar Wilde on his deathbed became a Catholic, and I’m in the camp who thinks he meant it. The painter Maurice Denis, who was a Catholic, had great acclaim in the first half of the twentieth century and now is out of favor because he painted so many religious objects. Georges Braque grows out of that tradition. Sacré-Cœur was built in Paris during that time, and the sacred art movement grew out of that period. Harry Graf Kessler was an influential collector because he worked with certain artists who eventually came to be considered part of the canon, but who at the time were not. Matisse was one.
There are risks that you take. In order to be up to speed, you have to look a lot. I do ask myself, “How much of my time do I want to spend doing that, to be a good collector?” I’ve started visiting studios and galleries in New York and LA—and LA is a major hub of the art world now. I think even in the Greco-Roman world there were art dealers, so it goes way back, this relationship about which a lot is written and agonized over. Some people say the day of the dealer is done because an artist can go online and get the images out. I don’t know if that is going to be true or not. The art fair, the online presence, will that do away with galleries? We live in a time when all that is up for grabs, and I don’t know the answer. But there has to be some source for finding people and knowing where to look.
One of the fascinating things about Van Gogh to Kandinsky is that it shows the mechanism of seeing art during that time. In Bohemian Paris, artists mostly lived together in particular areas, Montmartre or Montparnasse. They would get spaces to show their art in, and they would also work with dealers. There was a nexus of people who came together, and the arts and crafts and art nouveau movements brought together all these crafts and skills and art forms. Collectors worked with all these people. Kessler brought artists and architects together. Whistler did panels for a dining room which are in the Freer Gallery in Washington. Fleming did a kind of knobby art nouveau stuff that was designed for dining rooms, but it’s not just decorative (which is a whole other conversation, because I’m not sure “decorative” is necessarily pejorative). But the collector and the mechanism of seeing are central. More attention needs to be paid to it. Francis Haskell wrote about it in his famous book Patrons and Painters, but it has ever been thus, at least since Greco-Roman times.
Image: What are the pitfalls and the glories of the artist-patron relationship? I think you’ve said a patron can be too controlling, but having a patron is also presumably a deeply encouraging thing to artists who take risks all the time and don’t know the outcome of their actions.
RA: You have to be careful. I have commissioned art, usually without telling a person what I wanted. The stained glass in this house is all by Peter Brandes. I did tell him what I wanted to happen in some of the rooms. I thought I told him I wanted the chapel to have to do with the Resurrection, but he claims I didn’t, and that’s fine with me. Maybe the idea was general enough that he felt he had freedom. I have asked for a work on a particular theme in cases where I knew the artist, but I had nothing to say once they did the designs. Albert Paley did several designs for sconces and fire surrounds and let me choose between them, but you don’t tell Albert what to do. He was in control of his images, and he let me choose, which was kind of him.
Image: It seems like you have a healthy respect for the artist’s space. An artist friend once told me of a patron who wanted not only to acquire a work, but wanted a lot in return, emotionally and practically.
RA: It’s not fair. Support is understanding to some degree. It’s conversing if you are asked. It’s going to shows. It’s buying work from time to time. Anna Freeman Bentley and her husband, Philip, have become good friends of ours. I’ve bought a fair bit of her work, and we are helping her put out a book, but I’m not telling her what the book has to look like. It’s none of my business. If she wants to ask me something, she will. A patron can’t look to the artists she supports for affirmation or meaning, or vice versa. It’s a boundary that you shouldn’t cross. You need to have respect for the work and for the person. To me that’s true in any kind of relationship.
Image: Why do you think that the idea of patronage comes with so much baggage? Why do people, even people with the means to be patrons, feel intimidated by it, or feel that it’s beyond their capacity or something that other people do?
RA: I think in the Christian world there are two pitfalls to do with art: one is worshipping the art, and that’s dangerous; the other is what my husband calls “as-long-as-ism”: As long as there is one person who hasn’t heard about Jesus, or as long as there is one starving person on the planet, or as long as they are crucifying our brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq, do I have any business buying art?
But there is always something. You need to be there for the hurting. If you’re not, well then, you haven’t read the Book. If you’re not supporting the creators of beauty, you haven’t read the Book either. That’s where Protestantism threw the baby out with the bathwater. At the Village of Hope we commissioned Peter Brandes to do stained-glass windows for the chapel and Albert Paley to do gates, and the director, Jim Palmer, got some area artists to decorate the daycare and the afterschool program rooms. Peter also made a huge vase, eighteen feet high, for the courtyard, which has become a gathering place for the families that live there.
I didn’t tell Peter to make the vase, or even what to do in the stained-glass windows. I know Peter well enough to know he could figure it out. For the vase he used unconventional symbols of the twelve apostles. Peter’s is the ear cut off. Thomas’s is the wound in Christ’s side with Thomas’s hand in it. Simon’s symbol is his knees, because in the Golden Legend he prayed so much he had calluses on his knees. He shows us the suffering of the apostles. Some people say it’s hard, it’s painful, and others, usually those who have been there awhile, say, “It’s what we’ve been through.”
I think people might say the Village of Hope doesn’t need stained-glass windows—they need food, job training, tutoring, beds for the babies—but Jim intuitively understood that the spaces you bring people to speak to them about their own value. When you are trying to teach people who are at the bottom how to do life, and you put them in a box like a prison cell, you’ve just said, “We think you’re a prisoner.” He built the House of Hope, a shelter for abused women and their children. It’s a big house built in the arts and crafts style, with nineteen bedroom suites, and it opened his eyes to something. As he was developing the idea of the Village of Hope, he was already thinking about how to make something more beautiful. Then I came alongside him and we went for it. It is probably the only homeless shelter in the world that has stained-glass windows and an eighteen-foot vase and Albert Paley gates, and they are all very proud of it.
Image: A lot of well-intentioned people of faith seem to equate godliness with commercial success, or at least they seem to say that if art isn’t making its way in the marketplace, that is probably a sign that it doesn’t deserve to be supported. I’m not sure that you quite agree.
RA: No, I don’t. Too many people wouldn’t have been supported. The most obvious and startling example is Vincent Van Gogh, who never sold a painting in his lifetime, and who was one of the great artists of the nineteenth century, maybe of all time. He was also a believer. Being troubled doesn’t make him not a believer in my opinion. Elijah was troubled. If Theo Van Gogh hadn’t thought his brother had something, we wouldn’t have those paintings. We wouldn’t have his witness.
I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about the fourth century, because the fourth-century Christians created a world. They had the deeply held idea that church was like an embassy, in that the ground under an embassy is the property of the country it represents. They saw churches as embassies of the New Jerusalem. When you were at church on Sunday you were in the territory of New Jerusalem. You were there to glorify God, to be refreshed, restored, and taught how to live. That is, you were taught how to make the life to come in the New Jerusalem more a part of life every day. You were part of that restoration project. And so, near this beautiful church would be the almshouse, the hospital, and the school, with the marketplace not far away.
The image of the New Jerusalem dominated the Christian imagination for Christianity’s first fifteen hundred years. It was informed by Augustine’s idea of the City of God and the City of Man. Even Lewis Mumford would tell you that the European city was shaped by Augustine. Charlemagne’s cathedral at Aachen was a three-dimensional icon of the New Jerusalem, and people created smaller replicas of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, another icon of the New Jerusalem, inside cathedrals all over Europe. Jerusalem was very much a part of consciousness, and the church was full of it—paintings of it, pilgrimages. But this was not an otherworldly place, in the sense that being a believer was fire insurance, to use the old Baptist phrase. No, being a believer meant you had a mission here, and your model was this glorious city to come which is described in great detail in Isaiah and the prophets, and in the book of Revelation, from its beauty to its feasts to the absence of sickness and darkness. That was the vision for how you were supposed to live in the world, and in the fourth century they built their buildings with that consciousness. And you can see it!
In the Gothic period, people got it, too, though in a different form. The Romanesque got it. They all applied their skill, craft, and intelligence to creating these objects and buildings that are still witnesses. I think somehow in the furor of the Reformation, Protestantism lost that. And then it got picked up later by wealthy Presbyterians and Episcopalians as a way of showing their largesse by building beautiful churches. I’m thinking of Saint Bart’s and others in New York. I thank God for those buildings, and they do bear witness, but to me they are diminished by a sense of looking back at somebody else who had the vision rather than really having it themselves. At the same time, I don’t want to fault it too much, because Saint Bart’s tells the story on its walls. It’s in the windows and the mosaics and the very structure of the building. You can’t escape it. In that sense, the stones cry out.
In the past, the church has spoken into a cultural void in a strong, visual, powerful way. We can do it again. But it’s got to be full-orbed. In a visual world, you can’t ignore the visual and hope to communicate your message. You also have to live it in every way.
Image: I know you never may have intended it, but willy-nilly you have become a leader in the art and faith community, as a patron of the living artists and as chair of the Museum of Biblical Art, for example. A lot has changed since you’ve begun. There are institutions that did not exist before. Do you feel like we still have a ways to go? Are others catching the vision? Do you ever get frustrated?
RA: I think there is a growing awareness. At the same time, recently when a major denomination built their first church in a certain area in fifty years, they did not even talk to the artists in their own community about how to build it. When I asked why, the answer was, “It would cost another $15 million to include art,” and I asked, “Well, why didn’t you try?” Christians in the fourth century would not have built a church without art. You couldn’t, you see, because the emperor had such glory, and a church had to show the glory of God. If you lived in Rome, you knew what glory looked like. Rome built its glory; if we believe in a living God, we need to bear witness to the glory of God.
Those fourth-century Christians weren’t perfect, but it was a pretty wonderful vision which we’ve lost. It shaped Europe for twelve hundred years, and the places people still love to go are the places created by that vision. These buildings are part of our witness, and people traipse to them to this day. In Santa Pudenziana in Rome you can see a glorious mosaic from around 400 AD of Christ as ruler of the heavenly city. You can go a few blocks away to Santa Praesede, built in the ninth century, with a mosaic of the New Jerusalem on its arch. These early Christians understood that their art communicated the glory of God to the Roman people, who knew from glory, and they convinced the world that Jesus Christ was Lord. They did it with their lives, and they did it with their bodies.
In the Greco-Roman world, they changed the paradigm of human dignity. I just read a book on this by Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin, from Harvard University Press. He describes the way that in a culture that was very sexually free for wealthy men, based on the exploitation of poor and enslaved women, Christianity gave these women their bodies back. It allowed them to see and believe that even if they had been used by their masters, raped, or sold into prostitution, everything that had happened to them was under the blood of Jesus. It said: your body is yours, it belongs to God, and you do not have to be someone’s property; even if you are living in the state of a slave, by God, you are free.
We need to visit these buildings these early Christians built, because our world today also needs a better vision. Into the moral void of our time, we need to speak with the voices of our brothers and sisters in the fourth century.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.