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Saints and Church Spaces

I just finished reading Ann Marie Yasin’s new book, Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean, and it is the best recent book on Early Christian architecture in the Mediterranean. I can only admire her breadth of knowledge and ability to synthesize trends across the entire Mediterranean basin without getting mired in the chronological, liturgical, or regional quagmires that can doom large scale analyses like hers. I think the effort to focus the book around the role of saints and commemoration in the architecture and decoration of Early Christian churches was really smart.

I won’t review the book because if you’re interested in Early Christian architecture, or Late Antiquity more broadly, you’ll want to go and read it for yourself. Instead, I’ll offer 7 observations that I had as I read the book.

  1. I thought that the book got stronger as it went along. I did not think that the early chapters on pre-Constantinean churches or on commemorative practices carried through the rest of the text particularly well, and most of her observations in these chapters depended upon the work of earlier scholars. This isn’t a bad thing, but they stand in contrast to her really creative interpretative work later in the book.
  2. Chapter 3 is really good. In it, she argues that churches functioned as places of commemoration largely replacing earlier practices of civic commemoration, while carrying on many of the basic attitudes of euergetism in the Roman world. In other words, people began to commemorate themselves in churches rather than in the civic fabric. While I generally agree with her argument that donors in Early Christian space sought to position inscriptions commemorating their donations in visible places, I am not sure that she adequately explained anonymous donor texts which are not uncommon in early Christian spaces. At the same time, I am not sure that her argument for commemoration accommodated the broader practice of Christian euergetism which could include things like silver objects which contained inscriptions that we too small to be easily read by an audience. In other words, I would have emphasized texts that had seem to be directed at a divine audience (like inscribed prayers) or a more specific lay or clerical audience (depending upon the location of the text and its relation to the liturgy). These texts depended upon the church as sacred space as much a social space for the community. This doesn’t necessary contradict her argument, but perhaps offers a somewhat more subtle reading of the Christian commemorative impulse which separated it a bit more from traditional Roman practices and placed it more fully in an Early Christian context.
  3. Following on from point 2, I wonder whether the economics of Christian euergetism was fundamentally different from the economics of earlier Roman euergetism. In particular, I still wonder whether it pulled in a more economically and socially diverse cross-section of the population than earlier Roman practices that were bound up in specifically elite forms of expression. Can we see, in dedications to Early Christian architecture examples of the widow’s mite?
  4. Regional Variation. I kept thinking throughout the book that it would have been great to get a better understanding of regional variation in Early Christian architecture. While I recognize that this could be a can of worms, I found the differences between practices in the East, in say Syria, and in Italy and North Africa fascinating. Are these to be explained by variation in liturgical practices? Or do they represent long standing differences in social practices?
  5. Ritual. In my dissertation I was distracted by the siren-song of Early Christian liturgy. I probably still feel its pull to some extent. I’d have liked to understand more about the interaction between architecture and liturgical practices or even just ritual practices in Late Antiquity — even if it was speculative. The discussion of the positioning of martyr’s shrines and the main axis of the church, for example, would have been even stronger if we knew how the clergy and congregation would have moved in these spaces. Now, the reason why the Early Christian liturgy is a siren song is that in most cases, we don’t know how the clergy and congregation moved in liturgical space. At the same time, we can likely explain the off-axis location of the ciborium in the church of St. Demetrios in Thessaloniki as the need to keep the main axis of the church open for liturgical processions; amboes also tended to be offset to the left or right of the main axis in Greek churches suggesting that processions up the axis of the church has a particularly important place in local liturgical practice. Moreover, its position next to the north aisle rail may have allowed the congregation easy access t the shrine from the aisles where they may stood while the liturgy took place.
  6. I liked how forcefully she makes the point that relics were necessary for the founding of churches tying saints to liturgical space. In general, her treatment of the intersection of the community of saints and the liturgy was interesting and good.
  7. Churches and Pagans. One thing I was surprised not to see in the book was any discussion of Christian and Pagan interaction particularly over the matter of martyrs tombs and sacred space. The most obvious incident involving this was remains of St. Babylas and the temple of Apollo at Daphne. The bones of the saint apparently disrupted the oracle at the temple causing Julian to remove them.
  8. I loved her section on Augustine’s De cura pro mortuis gerenda (pp. 213-222). I need to check this text out, particular Augustine’s discussion of dreams and visions. I don’t know how I missed this! I thought that her dealing with Augustine’s text in the context of Paulinus’ own building campaign was useful for her argument and our understanding of the subtle differences between Paulinus’s and Augustine’s understanding of the popular veneration of saints.

So, if you’re interested in Late Antique religious history and architecture, this is a must read book!

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