Home > Byzantium, Late Antiquity > Icons and Space (and Dreams) in Late Antiquity

Icons and Space (and Dreams) in Late Antiquity

This week I received my annual copy of the Journal of Roman Archaeology.  It always arrives in the mid-fall when the weather has just begun to turn, and it gives me a good excuse to curl up in a comfortable chair and review the archaeology of the Roman world.  This year’s volume included a nice article by Paul Dilley entitled “Christian icon practice in apocryphal literature: the consecration and the conversion of synagogues into churches” JRA 23 (2010), 285-302 (notice no hyperlink!).

The article focuses less on the conversion of synagogues to churches and more on the role of icons in creating sacred space. Dilley draws his evidence from the oft-neglected body of apocyphal literature from Late Antiquity. These texts are typically ascribed to a Biblical figure or major bishop, but tend to be later, and generally speaking popular texts that often sought to give a contemporary tradition an august pedigree.  So when the use of icons to sanctify places begins to appear in these texts, there is real reason to think that this represents a shift in practice in the era in which they were written.  A classic example of the role of these apocryphal texts in legitimizing practices is the 6th century Laudatio Barnabae from Cyprus.  This text describes the discovery of Paul’s companion, Barnabas’s body, on Cyprus about a century earlier.  The story features the Bishop Anthemius of Salamais who has a series of dreams that lead him to the place where Barnabas was buried.  When he exhumes the body, he finds it clutching a copy of the Gospel of Matthew.  Ultimately this text comes to explain the construction of the church dedicated to St. Barnabas in Salamis, as well as explain the special privileges that the church of Cyprus held which emerged over the course of the later 5th century. Barnabas’s apostolic pedigree, the timely appearance of his body, and the presence of an autograph of the Gospel of Matthew, all helped to legitimize the church of Cyprus as an autonomous apostolic foundation.

Dilley highlights a series of similar stories which place relics or icons at the center of the founding of churches.  He also stresses that these foundation stories often include important liturgical elements which suggests that the stories do more than simply legitimize the founding of the church as a building, but link the founding of a church to annual rites celebrated to commemorate the event.  So the stories of the inventio (the discovery) of a relic, icon, or the body of a saint, has key liturgical elements that are reinforced through the rituals of commemoration in which the text plays a key role.  Processions, acclamations (kyrie eleison!), and the key role of the clergy all mark these texts as liturgical as well as simply devotional or “historical” texts.

The role of liturgy in the discovery of icons or relics is something that scholars have not necessarily fully realized.  In fact, some scholars have followed Peter Brown’s lead (.pdf) and seen icons as almost anti-clerical in that they allow for access to holiness outside of the control of the institutional church and the clergy.  In other words, there are ways that the veneration of icons and relics represent paths to holiness that end-run the clergy.  Dilley, however, has argued that stories in seemingly popular apocryphal literature not only commemorate the key role of icons and relics in creating sacred, liturgical space, but also embed this tradition within liturgical practices that tie the deeply personal holiness of the icon to the institutional holiness of the church.

As for the conversion of synagogues, I’ll admit to being less compelled by the final pages of Dilley’s article where he offers a very basic typology for the archaeological evidence relating to the conversion of synagogues to churches, but does not really bring it back to his far more provocative and exciting arguments about icons, liturgy, and the creation of Christian sacred space.  That being said, he makes a good point that the presence of icons in buildings newly converted to Churches – like the synagogue at Cagliara on Sardinia, the synagogue at Lydda, and the Pantheon in Rome – seems to be a key aspect in their consecration for Christian use by the 7th century.  This reminds me of a Coptic church I visited for Easter Vigil in Columbus, Ohio. The church had been converted from a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall to a Coptic church. While the unabashedly Protestant architecture of the building remained, the presence of Coptic icons on almost every flat surface marked out the repurposing of the space.

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Categories: Byzantium, Late Antiquity
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