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Unearthing Ancient Christian Divisions


Kimberly Bowes, Ph.D., explores the rift between public and private Christian worship during late antiquity.
Photo by Michael Dames

As a 10-year-old girl standing amidst the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá on the Yucatan Peninsula, Kimberly Bowes was astounded. “It was my first encounter with the ancient world. This was a world I never knew existed,” said the Fordham assistant professor of art history and music. “I was climbing up temples and looking at carvings…it was an epiphany to me.” She went on to double-major in art history and chemistry at Williams College, and although she envisioned a future as a hydrologist, the ruins of ancient civilizations won out in the end. “I just could never get art history out of my blood,” she said.

After a year as a carpenter and another working for Sony Music in New York, Bowes enrolled in London’s Courtauld Institute, where the independent, individualistic approach to master’s work and the influence of mentor Jas Elsner turned her mind to the classical world. She also credits Peter Brown’s seminal works on antiquity, including The World of Late Antiquity (W.W. Norton and Company, 1989). “The story he weaves is so evocative and transporting…it made me want to live in that world,” she said. Brown was one of her teachers at Princeton, where Bowes earned her Ph.D.

To immerse herself in the world of antiquity, Bowes had to master several languages: she now speaks Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and German, and reads French, Latin and Greek, which is “pretty typical for people who do what I do,” she said. A Ph.D. thesis that initially focused on late antiquity Spain, much of whose history had been hidden during the years of Franco’s dictatorship, led to two years living on the Iberian peninsula, in both Portugal and Spain.

It was in Spain that she began to explore an area which will be the topic of her forthcoming book: the division between public and private Christianity in late antiquity, roughly 250 A.D. to 600 A.D., as the Roman Empire crumbled and Christianity took hold in Europe. “I’m trying to discover what happened to private religion when public Christianity came about. What did Christian buildings look like, and what relationship did they have to a pagan past,” she said.

In the fourth century, said Bowes, the concept of “church” was not yet defined—many people still worshipped in private home chapels or in estate churches which served both their owners and local peasantry. “There was no consensus on what the church was,” said Bowes. Once the Christian church became established, the bishops, who often called such worship heresy, condemned private gatherings. “You’ll find some really angry texts [written by bishops]from this period,” said Bowes.

In the Roman mindset, the home was a fundamental center of worship, Bowes said, be it pre-Christian pagan gods or those that followed. The early Christians were sometimes ascetics, whose worship was purely private and removed from the public arena. She is fascinated by this tension and debate between public and private religion, and summed up the conflict as: “What constituted the ‘right way’ to be a Christian?”

Bowes has spent the past decade digging around the Roman Empire, from Turkey to Brittany, trying to reconstruct what these private places of worship were like. One interesting site was an old Roman amphitheater in Albania, where Christians had built funerary chapels inside the remains of a building in where their spiritual predecessors were thrown to the lions.

Her experience in Albania was eye opening in many ways. She calls the country a “glorious, diverse place,” unlike much publicity it receives, and said that Durres, the port city, looks like an old Italian town, with gelato stands and the cuisine of its neighbor across the Adriatic Sea.

Bowes said she hasn’t had any epiphanies since her childhood moment among the Mayan stones. “I have never found any loot,” she said. But she’s learned “archeology is such a slow process, that requires months and months of painful excavation.” Her involvement in the slow unearthing of a church in Israel painted an interesting picture of a structure that “had been completely engulfed by the desert” despite the best efforts of its worshippers. “You wonder, what were they thinking?” said Bowes.

That sentiment is what she tries to convey to her Fordham students (she teaches at both Fordham College at Lincoln Center and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences)—to get in the mindset of the people living in times of antiquity. “I try to encourage historical empathy,” she said. “What house would you live in? What would it smell like? What would you do in your spare time?”

Bowes said that there is a fine line between art history and archeology, and one can hardly practice one without doing some of the other. “If you’re working in the ancient world, you’re always doing both. What I love about Fordham is that it really encourages the discussion of art history to be taught as a multidisciplinary topic—including archeology and history,” she said. “It’s a smorgasbord of all three disciplines.”

Bowes has used that ‘smorgasbord’ of expertise to her advantage. “Fordham’s biggest resource is its people,” said Bowes. She credits her colleagues in the Medieval Studies and Theology Departments, among others, for furthering her knowledge of antiquity.

Bowes’ forthcoming book, Possessing the Holy: Private Worship in Late Antiquity (Cambridge University Press, 2007) “tries to unearth that great debate; what is the relationship between home and church?” said Bowes.


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