New arts faculty: Rossitza Schroeder

In 1995, as Rossitza Roussanova was handed her diploma in Byzantine and Balkan history from Sofia University in Bulgaria, the chair of her department said: “I’ve got to tell you something. The best time of your life is over.”  Rossitza agreed. “I had just had five years of free education, with a stipend from the government,” she recalls. “It was a great indulgence, an extraordinary pleasure to learn.” She then went to work for a company that sold mufflers and fan belts.

“I had fun. I loved the mufflers. But one day a former professor, as we were walking, said: ‘I have a friend who teaches Byzantine art history in Dallas, Texas. Would you consider going there?’ I said, ‘Sure.’” Rossitza thought little more about Dallas, but decided she did want something in her life besides mufflers. She applied, and was accepted, into the PhD program at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. She also applied to that school in Texas, which sent her an English exam, which she passed.

A month later, still working in the muffler company, her roommate called and said a very large package had arrived from the United States. “Shall I open it for you?” “Please do.” “You’ve been accepted at Southern Methodist University! Not only that, you’ve got a stipend.” “Okay,” said Rossitza. “I guess I’m going to go.”

The first airplane ride of her life took her to Dallas, about which she knew two things: the television show named for the city—which she had watched in Bulgaria—and the fact that President Kennedy had been killed there. She was overwhelmed by the beauty of the SMU campus—“there were water fountains everywhere!”—and by the woman who became her mentor, Byzantine art historian Annemarie Carr. “If it weren’t for her, I would never have survived,” Rossitza says in one of her typical energetic bursts. “She’s one of those nurturing, beautiful people that you have to be stupid not to realize how incredible she is as a human being as well as a scholar. It’s hard to see: she doesn’t step  on the ground as she walks.” She floats? “Absolutely!”

“Because of her, the material and I just clicked. Before, I had no idea of art history. How am I going to do this? I had the background, but I didn’t have the mechanisms necessary to really construct an argument. And that’s what she gave me. Already, the first semester, I sort of shot up. My brain went haywire because I realized I could think—that I could put together facts and make an argument that was original, that was different. That I could contribute.”

Following her master’s degree at SMU, with a thesis on the images of Christ in Karnalik Kilise (“Dark Church”), an 11th-century monastic compound in Turkey, Rossitza went to the University of Maryland for her PhD. Her dissertation was entitled “Painted Messages of Salvation: Monumental Programs of the Subsidiary Spaces of Late Byzantine Monastic Churches in Macedonia.”

Is art history now a passion for her? “Oh, it’s more than a passion. It’s what I am. Without it, I could not be.” She calls art history a way of figuring out the past through images and pictures. “It’s also putting together a puzzle. For instance, in one painting: Why is Moses next to a Christ that has wings? And why is this Christ that has wings young—and yet has the wounds of the crucifixion? What does all of this mean? We just have to put all of this together  and fill in the blanks, and filling in the blanks is so much fun!”

While she was a doctoral candidate, in 2003, Rossitza met Chad Schroeder, while both had fellowships at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece. They married, and she accompanied him to the University of Michigan, where he finished his PhD in classics. Her first regular teaching job was in 2007 at the University of Virginia. “It was incredible. It was just dizzying at some points. I found that I thrive on the performative aspect of teaching. I don’t like being the center of attention otherwise—I don’t like being interviewed. But when I’m in front of students, everything else disappears. No worries or cares. I have had intellectual epiphanies while I’m teaching—just suddenly realizing things that have never come to me before. The first time that happened, I thought I was going to fly!”

She heard about the faculty position in art and religion at PSR from her mentor, Annemarie Carr. Now professor emerita at SMU, the teacher remembers her student from Bulgaria: “I guess I just had the good fortune to be the one who gave Rossitza the space and confidence to explore her very alive mind. It was cramped enough space—as a foreign student, she had pretty much to accomplish the impossible to complete her MA within the severe limitations of time and funds that her fellowship at SMU gave her. But she did it, with daunting determination and with a joy in learning the material that were utterly compelling. She worked very hard, but with a freshness of insight that made it thrilling, like play. She remains an intense and keenly imaginative learner. All that determination—and all that delight—will be there for her students now. I am  so pleased she is at PSR.”

Rossitza Schroeder comes to PSR to fill the position inaugurated by the late Doug Adams, who pioneered the teaching of art and religion in this country. Schroeder says: “I’m very grateful for what Doug Adams did here: to suggest—no, to prove—that art is important in a seminary context. I think art is important whether in a seminary or not. Art history allows us to learn about the past in a way different from texts. It tells us what people thought, how they felt. I think it also prompts us to think about things different from our own contemporary problems; it helps us relate to their problems. It also develops a sense of inquisitiveness. It keeps our minds agile. It’s important.”

Schroeder is currently at work on a book, “On the Margins of the Bzyantine Church,” about monastic images in the spaces that frame 14th-century churches in northern Greece and Istanbul (Constantinople). In her first semester at PSR, she is teaching a survey on visual arts in religion and a seminar in Crusader art. She will teach Islamic art next semester.

Looking back at the changes in her life since she received her diploma in Bulgaria, she says: “It could not have been more dramatic, the change from then to now. I think I’ve gotten more from life than I have ever anticipated or expected. If I died now, I’d say: I had it all. Please say in this article how lucky I am.”