The Pontifical North American College

Dr. Lev’s Lecture

The text below is taken from the Pontifical North American College Magazine, Winter Issue, 2012, page 22 & 28. By Paul Solomon ’15, Diocese of Joliet, and Sheldon Momaney ’14, Diocese of Burlington.


“Listen to Learn, See to Believe”

Each year, the Pontifical North American College invites a guest lecturer to address the seminary community and guests from Rome on some topic related to preaching. The presentation, known as the Carl J. Peter Lecture, is given in honor of Rev. Carl J. Peter ’57, who served on faculty at the College from 1960-1964. Rev. Peter was a beloved member of the College community, and was revered as a great theologian, teacher, and preacher, proceeding to become professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. after his service at the College. His family established the Fr. Carl J. Peter Chair of Homiletics at the College in his honor.

Rev. Jeffrey Burrill ’98, the current Carl J. Peter Chair of Homiletics, invited Dr. Elizabeth Lev to give this year’s lecture. Dr. Lev is one of Rome’s premiere art historians, and has lived in Italy for over twenty years. AS an undergraduate, she studied art at the University of Chicago, and then pursued her doctorate at the University of Bologna in Italy. She currently teaches art history at the Roman campuses of both Duquesne University and the University of St. Thomas. Dr. Lev recently published her first book, and has written for many journals and magazines. She has even appeared on EWTN and contributed to the Magnificat daily missal.

This year’s lecture began with a fascinating overview of the state of Christian art in the Byzantine period and the early Middle Ages, along with an explanation of the essential role that Christian art, accompanied by preaching, has always played in the transmission of the faith. Dr. Lev’s entire presentation was very effectively accompanied by large, projected photographs of specific works of art, which bought to life the developments to which she referred, and seamlessly tied together the discussion of preaching and the arts.

Dr. Lev explained that as the new Mendicant Orders – especially the Dominicans and Franciscans – rose in prominence in the Middle Ages, so too did their emphasis upon spreading the Lord’s message through a Gospel life. Their effective preaching began to have a revolutionary influence upon art, to such a degree that art at the service of the Gospel came to be viewed as the “handmaid” of preaching. “The greatest hour,” Dr. Lev argued, “of this alliance between art and faith was in the Middle Ages, when a couple of saints and a few revolutionary spiritualities transformed both art and preaching forever.” The spirituality of these Mendicant Orders influenced such great artists as Giotto (himself a third-order Franciscan) and Pietro Cavallini, and led to several crucial innovations in Christian art. Among these breakthroughs were: the change in the forms of crucifixes, influenced by the Franciscan emphasis upon the suffering and the resurrection of Christ; the rise of naturalism; and the development of the one-point linear perspective, a product of a desire to engage the faithful in a more dynamic way, and to allow them to truly place themselves within the scenes of salvation history that were being illustrated.

Dr. Lev cast light upon the fact that many of the most famous works in the history of art are the result of the influence and patronage of the preaching orders. The Niccoline and Sistine Chapels in the Vatican Palace, the Arena Chapel in Padua, and the great Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi all bear witness to this influence. Viewing this revolutionary history, Dr. Lev concluded, we too should be inspired and challenged to renew the deep bond that once existed between preaching and the arts for the sake of better proclaiming the truth of Our Lord in the world today.


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