by Deidre Good
My first sabbatical was very exciting. I’d never had a sabbatical so I wasn’t sure what to expect but I knew that I didn’t want to waste time: I wanted to be across the world in a different place exactly when I would normally be teaching in the fall semester. So, I flew to Bari in Italy, rented a car, drove it madly down the autostrada, and arrived on a warm early September evening at a hotel in the town of Lecce in Apulia, Italy. For the next two weeks, archaeological guide in hand, I spent each day clambering in and out of Byzantine churches, grottoes, and caves of Southern Italy, some completely intact, others in ruins overgrown with moss and vegetation. Only a few were locked behind fences and inaccessible.
September in southern Italy is perfect; the days are full of sunshine, and olive groves everywhere are at their peak because the olive harvest is in November and December. My goals were to photograph the murals and frescoes inside Byzantine churches of southern Italy and to learn from as many examples as possible the context in which these frescoes existed which could well make them particular to and this place and time of Byzantine history. Having worked on Wisdom figures in several Nag Hammadi texts for my dissertation, I became interested in later Christian renderings of Jesus as Wisdom, particularly in Byzantine tradition, and especially in the 13th-century frescoes of the little Byzantine church of Santo Stefano in Soleto, which had not yet been studied extensively, as far as I could ascertain.
About a year later, I was able to present the results of my research to a Byzantine studies conference back in the US, arguing that Byzantine frescoes in the 13th and 14th centuries display Christ as Wisdom apparently in gender binaries and sometimes inversions of gender and office. On the one hand, large frescoes of Christos Pantokrator in Byzantine churches depict a bearded Christ holding wisdom texts such as Matthew 11: 28-30. On the other, in the little church of Santo Stefano in southern Italy, in ancient Magna Graeca, Christ, identified in Greek as the Wisdom of God, is dressed as a deacon with a figured alb and a stole wrapped crosswise around the body. In contrast to the surrounding Bishops, Christ Wisdom is a less-important deacon.
After my presentation, there was silence. Finally, a scholar of Byzantine history stood up and said, “You have shown us an anomaly in Byzantine tradition.” Then she sat down. No one else spoke. I understood her to mean that the anomaly I had “discovered,” was not important, and I was disappointed, embarrassed, and sad. It seemed as though I had wasted my sabbatical.
For a couple of decades after that experience, although I continued to work on wisdom materials and Wisdom Christology in Christian tradition of the east and west, I was unsure how to promote the work of my first sabbatical. Although publication seemed unlikely, I kept up with Byzantine studies as best as I could over the years.
But not long ago, something extraordinary happened: I received an invitation to write an article for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Bible and Gender Studies on Deity in the New Testament, and I read an article on Byzantine art in post-Byzantine south Italy the very existence of which meant that scholarship had now reached all parts of the Byzantine world, and that Byzantine art in southern Italy had come into its own as a subject worthy of study.
In a section on Christ as Wisdom for the article, in which my photograph of the fresco was published as the only picture in the volume (thanks to the editor), I concluded that the fresco inscribed, “Sophia the Logos of God” in the east wall of the church in Soleto, is not an anomaly but “a Byzantine regional type with unusual iconographic features.”
May we all have patience, health, and opportunities to make sense of our failures.
Deirdre Good is a lay preacher in the Diocese of Maine and a faculty member of the Stevenson School for Ministry in the Diocese of Central PA. She is co-editor with Katie Day of Courage Beyond Fear: Re Formation in Theological Education (Wipf & Stock, 2019).