Learning from each other

By Melissa Miller
M.Div. Student, Richmond Campus

We’ve had wonderful guides each day in Italy, but there’s something special about hearing from our fellow students on particular works! Thus far, Linda Fox has shared about Ghiberti’s Bronze Doors, Pam Fusting about Brunelleschi’s Dome/Duomo, and Jen Rowe about Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes.

Padua & Ravenna: Part 2

Photos by Beth Olker (M.Div.’15)


Statues of actors and actresses in a square in Padua.


A statue of the Elena Cornaro Piscopia, the first female who graduated with an academic degree from a university. She graduated from the University of Padua in 1678.


Beans in the outdoor market of Padua.


The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. This building was originally constructed in the 6th century.


From the mosaics within the Basilica of San Vitale. This one depicts the gifts offered to God by Abel in Genesis 4 and Melchizedek who can be found in Genesis 14 and Hebrews 7.


The mosaic on the ceiling of the Arian Baptistery in Ravenna. It depicts the Baptism of Christ.


The bell tower of the Church of San Apollinaire outside of Ravenna.

De-stressing, the Italian Way

By Melissa Miller
M.Div. Student, Richmond Campus

Buon giorno! After 5 days in Italy, the good coffee, pasta, wine, gelati, awe-inspiring art and great companions, I am feeling my stress level lower So very thankful this seminar trip is acting as the capstone of my 3-yr, full-time student seminary journey (even while working). As we see, hear and experience the intersection of faith, art and science, I am soaking it in blissfully. Venice, Padova, Ravenna, Florence…

Padua and Ravenna

By Pamela Fusting
M.A.C.E. student, Blending Learning Program

After saying “ciao” to Venice, the Italy Travel Seminar group moved on to Padua to visit the University, where we entered the oldest anatomical theater (1594). This provided a clear illustration of the intersection between the development of the sciences and arts.

From there, we walked to the Cappella degli Scrovegni to see the amazing collection of Giotto’s frescos. They were commissioned by the son of Scrovegni but arguably served as a visual catechism for all once the chapel was opened to the public. From Padua, we continued on to the town of Ravenna. Here we were shown a glimpse of antiquity in some of the oldest mosaics in Italy.

We stopped at the Basilica di San Vitale (526) and the nearby sarcophagus. We took a moment to read and sing an a capella version of Psalm 42 together, after which our local guide exclaimed, “This was a beautiful, intimate moment. They usually give me only five minutes here, but this has been a miracle.” After the Battistero degli Ariani, we briefly stopped at Dante’s tomb and then drove to the Basilica di S Apollinare in Classe. This structure was erected during the first century, funded by Christians in Constantinople. It boasts another set of incredible mosaics pictured below.

Our lunch break was made complete with another gelato, and we boarded the bus for Florence!

Italy Travel Seminar Begins!

By Pamela Fusting
M.A.C.E. student, Blending Learning Program

The Italy Travel Seminar group arrived in Venice this week to kick off a 2-week walk through Renaissance history and study of the interplay of art, science, and religion.

Day 1 began at the Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica), where we took time to study the five domes of a building architecture and interior that reflect a Middle Eastern look of Greek-Byzantine origins.

Thousands of gold-leafed glass tiles form mosaics of Old and New Testament stories. The afternoon continued at the ornate and Gothic-style Doge’s Palace, filled with paintings by Tintoretto (his Paradise covers the wall behind the seats of the highest officials) and Veronese. Many of us were surprised to learn the dungeonous cells were used as a prison until 1922!

We ended the evening with a group meal of traditional Italian fare and headed for the hotel to catch up on sleep and fight off jet lag. Day 2 found us on the Island of Murano in the Venetian Lagoon, watching a glass-blowing demonstration at the oldest Venetian glass factory. Here Venetian masters have created glass works of art since the late 1200s. We continued onto the beautiful Scuola Grande di San Rocco, exploring the depiction of Biblical scenes in several more impressive works by Tintoretto. We then headed to the Accademia for a survey of multiple works including Giovanni Bellini’s Pala di San Giobbe, Andrea Mantegna’s San Giorgio, and Titian’s last painting, Pietá. A stroll through the various village squares and a scoop of gelato completed the day, and the group looks forward to continuing its survey tomorrow morning at the Frari Church.

We’re Home!

The UPSem travel seminar to the Middle East has returned home safely, with many stories to share of our whirlwind visit to Egypt, Jordan, and Israel-Palestine!  Our final days in Jerusalem were filled with visits to amazing ancient, and living, sites (e.g., the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, Yad Vashem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem) as well as inspiring conversations with folk engaged on the ground in extraordinary ministries (e.g., The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel [EAPPI] of the WWC, which supports Palestinians and Israelis in their non-violent actions and advocacy efforts for a just peace to the Holy Land and provides a protective international presence in the occupied Palestinian territories; the Diyar Consortium in Bethlehem, a church-based, ecumenically-oriented organization that offers an array of educational, development, and capacity-building opportunities to the entire Palestinian community in Bethlehem and beyond; and ROOTS, a unique network of local Palestinians and Israelis who have come to see each other as partners, based on a mutual recognition of each People’s connection to the Land, and whose work is aimed at building a grassroots model for co-existence through non-violent means that can affect larger change in the conflict).  We return exhausted and exhilarated by all we have seen and heard, and deeply grateful for our collective learning experience!

Dome of the Rock-group pic
The whole group in front of the Dome of the Rock.

Frances Taylor Gench is Herbert Worth and Annie H. Jackson Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Union Presbyterian Seminary.


Sepphoris, Nazareth, Megiddo, Caesarea Maritima… Today was a day filled with beautiful mosaics at every place we stopped.  Some of them were thousands of years old at the archaeological sites.   In an ancient synagogue we saw a blending of Canaanite, Jewish, and Hellenistic images in the floor of the place of worship.  In Nazareth at the Church of the Annunciation we saw modern depictions of Mary, mother of our Lord, from all over the world. The level of detail in those works of art was staggering.

A mosaic is made with different materials with different colors and textures.  Some pieces of the mosaics we viewed were imported and traveled many leagues to find their place in those masterpieces.  Some of the pieces were made from common gravel, some were simply broken pieces of tiles, glass, or pottery… Art created from the cast off refuse, the garbage of thousands of years ago.


We looked at the Dionysius mosaic which is called the Mona Lisa of the Galilee.  Centered at the bottom is a portrait of a beautiful woman with a wispy look about her that draws your eye and makes you wonder who she was.  Carefully shaded, her portrait is so detailed that it doesn’t seem to be a mosaic at all. Someone pointed out that to achieve that level of detail, to approximate reality that closely, the artist would have to make the fragments smaller and smaller.  Big pieces would be shattered into mere specks for eyelashes and lips.

Our group here is like those mosaic pieces.  We have been brought together from far and wide. Almost six decades separate the youngest and the oldest.  We are a rarity here.  We are a minority.  The Artist has brought us here to become a part of something beautiful.  We find ourselves mixed in with the people of this side of the world and we find that, in spite of differences in language and dress, we are far more alike than different.  Each one of us adds a new color to the palette for the Artist to create a new masterpiece.  Sometimes in order to see the picture more clearly, the Artist must reduce us, already broken and fragmented, to the humblest of specks.

The good news is that even the refuse, even the smallest, most humble speck, will play a vital part in the masterpiece of God’s creation.  No one is left out of God’s plan.  I realized today looking at those mosaics that there are no insignificant specks… There are no insignificant people.  Every single one is a critical part of the masterpiece being recreated from the shattered refuse of this world.  Even the least among us have a vital part to play.  In fact, it turns out that it is the smallest specks that provide the exceptional details that bring a mosaic to life.  It is the seemingly most humble pieces of this world that God uses in the transformation that takes broken, fragmented people and, through Christ, recreates something miraculous from our shattered lives.  Looking at the guns, the guard towers, and the miles of razor wire trying to keep each piece separate, I find my hope and peace in the assurance that the Artist is here with us, making even the smallest, even the most isolated piece fit right where it belongs in this unfolding masterpiece.

Charlie Pratt is a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Sights from Jesus’ Ministry

So far on our Middle East Travel Seminar we have seen and done a lot: pyramids, ancient temples, historic Roman and Greek cities, and beautiful natural vistas; but today has been the most meaningful day for me.  We began the morning by boarding a boat for a cruise on the Sea of Galilee.  Once we were underway, Charlotte student Sally Herlong led us in a devotion and song.  Then Professor Rodney Sadler served us the Lord’s Supper—in the middle of the Galilee!

Pic 1
Rodney Sadler administering the Lord’s Supper
Pic 2
The group on a boat in the Sea of Galilee

Our next stop was the Mount of the Beatitudes.  Once we arrived here, Keat Wiles read us portions of the Sermon on the Mount and Professor Frances Taylor Gench led us in the Lord’s Prayer—in the spot that Jesus is believed to have said it! After this stop, we headed to the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha.  At this site Jesus performed the feeding of the five thousand miracle.  The church has beautiful floor mosaics that date from the 5th century.   Unfortunately, arsonist burned portions of the church in 2015 and evidence of the destruction is still visible.

Pic 3
Keat Wiley and Frances Taylor Gench at the Mount of the Beatitudes
Pic 4
The alter and 5th century mosaic at the Church of the Multiplication

A short five-minute bus ride delivered us to our next stop: The Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter.  It as at this location where Jesus asked Peter three times: “Do you love me?” and Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep.”  Inside the church is a large rock where tradition holds that Jesus and the disciples ate breakfast.  It was moving to see so many Christians come kneel, touch, kiss, and pray at this rock—where Jesus and the disciples ate after the resurrection!

Pic 5
The Mensa Christi (Table of Christ) where Jesus laid out breakfast for the disciples

Our last stop of the day was Capernaum, the town where Jesus spent much of his ministry.  Before viewing the sites, Frances Taylor Gench talked to us about Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. Then we were free to examine the church built above Peter’s house (where this miracle took place) and the synagogue where Jesus performed an exorcism on the Sabbath (Mark 1:21-28 and Luke 4:31-37).

Pic 6
Marina Ghaly and Bruce McVey at the Synagogue in Capernaum

Believe it or not, we actually made a few other stops today!  But, I chose to share these specific experiences with you, our dear reader, because they appear to have made the most impact on our group.  Seeing these places where Jesus and his disciples conducted their ministry has brought tears to many of our eyes today.  Think about it for a second: communion on the Galilee, followed by saying the Lord’s Prayer on the Mount of the Beatitudes, followed by touching the place where Jesus and the disciples ate, followed by walking in the synagogue where Jesus conducted miracles.  In one day!  Experiencing these real-life places, about which we have read and studied most of our lives, has been life-changing for many of us.  As this amazing day draws to a close, the pull of Jerusalem—and the cross—is palpable.

Bruce McVey is an M.Div. student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Joy, Awe, and Grandeur

Today was Petra…need I say more? It is not without good reason that this is one of the seven wonders of the world! We left at 8:30 in the morning and by the time I came home after 6:30pm I had walked more that 12 miles. We traversed the Siq, a natural fissure between two mountains that led into the heart of Petra. The joy and awe of the group was palpable when we reached the spot where the Treasury first became visible through a cleft in the rocks. Then we saw the Treasury in all of its glory…and could almost imagine Indiana Jones riding his horse past its entrance. Actually the Treasury was not a treasury at all, but a tomb for a wealthy and well positioned man…but that in no way diminishes its grandeur.

After the Treasury we continued the tour with our able guide Naiem telling us about the various aqueducts, cisterns, and dams used to bring an ample supply of water to this desert city.  We also saw the hooks that hung the streetlights, the tombs with steps down from and up to the heavens, and even a carved camel caravan on the wall of the Siq that is evidenced now only by the merchant and the camels’ feet.

After lunch, we made our way up to the Monastery at the “Top,” another tomb that had been converted into a Byzantine church.  That was a hike that took a few hours up and down the highest mountains in the region and provided great views of a Grand Canyon that though not “the” Grand Canyon, it was a grand canyon anyway. We could even see into Israel to the places where we will be traveling tomorrow.

After the Monastery we visited a 6th century Byzantine church and a series of elaborate and ostentatious tombs one of which had been converted into a church. By the time we made it home I had more than 33,300 steps for the day and very sore legs.


Dinner was filled with tales of Bruce McIntyre jumping off his donkey in fear and then seeing a boy and his donkey fall off a cliff (both were alright because apparently the boy broke the donkey’s fall), our 84 year old Joyce Tipton who out ran everyone on the climbs up the mountains, and a host of other stories of interest. Our two casualties were Sally Herlong who had a tumble down the descent from the Monastery and bruised her foot and Bruce who slipped and fell bruising his pride.  They are both well.

After dinner and a wonderful few moments on the roof in fellowship in the cold evening breezes sipping warm mint tea, I went downstairs and with Marina Ghaly met a wonderful artist, Hussein Amarat who made art in bottles using sand as his medium.  His works were stellar. I even bought one for my Bird. Marina even made a piece of sand art under Hussein’s careful guidance.

Pray for us as tomorrow we cross into a land divided not just along class and status lines, but by religion, and oppression, and hatred, because of differences of ethnicity and religion. The conflict in Israel and Palestine is one of the most significant factors hindering world peace. This hundred year old crisis, the product not of biblical enmity, but of colonialist power struggles shapes the politics of the world and we are entering into that realm tomorrow to seek to find a deeper understanding of peace, and Love, and God in this hotbed of political intrigue. Pray that we are safe, that all goes well, and that the magic  of this trip will persist into Jesus’ homeland. Please, please pray for us…

Dr. Rodney Sadler is Associate Professor of Bible.

(Photos by Rodney Sadler and Amanda Kathryn Hill)