Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 12, 2011
Ann Marie Yasin Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean: Architecture, Cult, and Community New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 360 pp.; 82 b/w ills. Cloth $99.00 (9780521767835)

Ann Marie Yasin’s first book, Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean: Architecture, Cult, and Community, “explores the intersection between two key developments of the fourth to seventh centuries C.E.: the construction of monumental churches and the veneration of saints.” While it is not based on original excavation or newly discovered documents, the book successfully imposes order and new meanings on a vast array of material that spans the Mediterranean. Why it appears in a series on “Greek Culture in the Roman World” is unclear, given that some sixty percent of its illustrations pertain to North Africa or to parts of Italy that lack credible links to Greek culture, but regardless of the series’ priorities, the book is an important addition to a burgeoning literature on all aspects of late antiquity. With its expert interweaving of texts, architecture, and archaeology, both specialists and students will find much here to think with and to admire.

In a short introduction, Yasin justifies her geographical and chronological range and explains her methodology and sources. Her focus is on the ritual, social, and commemorative functions of church spaces, in particular those spaces associated with Christian saints via relics, images, or epigraphy. She argues that less attention has been paid to the archaeological evidence for the cult of saints than to literary sources and that such famous monuments as St. Peter’s in Rome or Hagia Sophia in Constantinople are not representative of the period’s church buildings. In this Yasin is certainly correct, and her book successfully shifts the focus to lesser-known sites and their material remains.

The first chapter, “Churches before Architecture: Approaches to Sacred Space in the Early Christian World,” explores theories of space and place and introduces Yasin’s own theoretical perspective. She compares Mircea Eliade’s notion of space being either sacred or profane to Jonathan Z. Smith’s argument that sacred space is more subtly graduated and is spiritually and socially defined. Relying heavily on early Church fathers and the Mishnah (but not, curiously, on the more properly late antique Talmud), Yasin also surveys modern theorists of ritual. She concludes that there were two different kinds of early Christian sacred space: one localized in particular places and objects, which evolved into the idea of a Holy Land and a cult of saints’ remains; and the other defined by the Christian community, by ritual and commemoration, independent of specific locations or architectural forms.

“Commemorative Communities: The Dead in Early Christian Churches” takes up the ways churches were constructed as sacred spaces through prayer and commemoration of the dead. During the Roman era, tombs were sites of family distinction and family ritual; by ca. 200, they could also be organized according to religious affiliation and receive the pious attention of collegia (funerary associations). For Christians, churches became places in which the individual dead were remembered and prayers were uttered on their behalf. This became part of regular liturgical practice in what Yasin calls the “East” after the fourth century, while in the “West” (the terms are never defined) this did not occur for another five centuries. This striking liturgical difference is ignored in the subsequent treatment of Christian commemoration, and in my view the elision of regional differences is one of the book’s few weaknesses.

Yasin argues that the desire to be buried ad sanctos, near a saint’s grave, cannot adequately explain in-church burials in cases where no saint’s relics or tomb are known to have existed; moreover, she rejects the exclusive focus on the relationship between saints and the pious dead at the expense of their living brethren. Churches that contain burials both reify the communal identity of the living and underscore the intimate connection between the living and the dead in a sacred gathering place, a feature unique to Christianity. While interments occurred throughout the church, they were especially common at architectural junctures where their visibility by the Christian community (rather than their proximity to martyrs’ graves) seems to be the goal. This chapter ends with a survey of North African burial churches that contain numerous tombs with repetitive inscriptions and iconography that, for Yasin, underscore communal values in which only clergy were differentiated. The overall message was one of collective Christian identity.

In chapter 3, “Topographies of Honor and Piety: Praying for the Christian Benefactor,” Yasin engages with churches as epigraphic environments. She posits that as euergetism (private benefaction for the public good) in the non-Christian world waned, church surfaces became opportunities to display and perform one’s public identity (“performance” looms large in the text from this point on). The wealthy increasingly gave their money to Christian, rather than civic, establishments, and their actions were memorialized in churches. Yasin’s analysis here is connected to much recent work on gift-giving. In cases of multiple benefaction, textual nuances often reveal the givers’ social standing in relation to other members of the local Christian community. Yet even in such areas as the northern Adriatic, where mosaics indicate the precise extent of pavement donated and differences in materials, titles, and quantity of abbreviations can be easily discerned, the overall homogeneity of the donations underscores an impression of community. Clearly, the aim of this kind of patronage was to ensure collective memory of the donation; the message is directed to the living and often calls forth their prayers, which was quite different from the response expected by non-Christian benefactors. Like the tomb markers studied in chapter 2, donors’ inscriptions were highly visible, whether presented as bands of text or as monograms on architectural elements, and even prayers ostensibly directed to God were conceived with live Christians in mind. In contrast to earlier Greco-Roman gifts, which emphasized the individual relationship between a divinity and a dedicant, Christian contributions to churches were simultaneously euergistic, public, honorific, and more demanding of their viewers. The heavenly reward for pious donation in the Christian context would be activated by the prayers of one’s neighbors.

The succeeding chapter, “At the Center of It All? Framing Space with Saints,” returns to the book’s ostensible focus on the holy dead. By the seventh century, saints’ relics were necessary to consecrate a church altar, but Yasin shows that many churches contained multiple cultic foci that compelled diverse patterns of movement and worship. Indeed, the focus of cultic veneration at any given church might be quite far from the altar, creating a distinct separation between the liturgy and these other sites of veneration. The variety of architectural responses to this fact was vast, but Yasin posits “strategies” by which saints helped to frame liturgical space: relics and altar could be linked by means of movement or by visual correspondence, or a saint’s image or name could mark a liminal architectural space or envelop a whole interior. In each case, making the saints present drew visual and spiritual attention away from the church’s liturgical focus. Yasin illustrates each of these strategies with a careful reading of plans, reconstructions, sculpture, and mosaics. She cites late fourth-century authors who describe (or criticize) the faithful kissing the church doors or columns, eliding the difference between church architecture and the sainted relics housed within. The cross-shaped relic of Golgotha embedded in a column at Dor would have been an appropriate early example of the phenomenon of inserting relics into a church fabric, but there are regrettably few references to churches in late-antique Palestine in Yasin’s book.

The increasing incorporation of saints’ cults in churches at locations removed from the altar sets the stage for two final chapters on how the saints operated within the sacred space. “What Saints Do in Church, Part I: Focusing Communal Prayer” asserts their social roles. By the mid-fourth century there is textual evidence for collective prayer to the saints on behalf of a community’s living and dead; this, combined with the presumed efficacy of the saints’ own prayers, is Yasin’s explanation for the expanded presence of saints in late antique churches. As in chapter 2, she goes beyond the mere conjunction of relics and graves to investigate the social implications of the juxtaposition. She discusses a text little known to art historians, Augustine’s De cura pro mortuis gerenda, which asserts both the agency of prayers of the living on the fate of the dead and the special efficacy of burial near saints as sites of divine intervention and community prayer. While Yasin’s integration of text and social practice is well argued, it is not clear that Augustine’s stance affected or reflected practices in the eastern Mediterranean area.

“What Saints Do in Church, Part II: Community Connections” explores how saints linked Christians with a sacred past and argues that manipulating saints’ images, names, and relics helped reify one’s status in the vertical hierarchy of earthly Christian community, choir of saints, and heavenly realm. Yasin considers the increasing integration of martyr accounts, hagiographies, and miracle collections into Christian worship and argues that listening to these tales’ “performance” was a form of witnessing, and potentially participating in, miracles. This active melding of past and present, in which stories of the past could generate prayers today, helped late antique Christians commemorate and participate in their own collective history of divine intervention. Local identity was further “performed” by the selective commemoration of particular local saints on specific days, making each community calendar distinctive. With its focus on imagery, rather than texts or tombs, this is the most art historical of the book’s chapters, but it shares with them a keen sense of space and place—the saints’ images are at architecturally salient locations and often highlight the privileged status of depicted humans, particularly clerical elites.

A short concluding chapter summarizes Yasin’s ideas about how late antique church space was socially constructed and what role saints and the visible manifestations of their cult played in that construction. She highlights an increasing connection between bishops and saints manifested visually and in processions, as well as the power of saints’ images growing to rival that of their relics. Less satisfactorily, she also introduces comparisons to contemporary synagogues, which, she says, reveal similar modes of constructing local identity by means of epigraphic commemoration of local elites, architectural hierarchization of ritual spaces, and visual representation of the earthly/heavenly order. Similarities and differences between churches and synagogues, particularly in Palestine, have been explored by such scholars as Rina Talgam and others not cited by Yasin, and perhaps it was unwise to introduce this topic so late in the book, especially given its focus on saints who, after all, were absent from synagogues.

Yasin suggests that her “socio-spatial” (289) approach will be useful in analyzing Christian sanctity and sacred space in other places and times, and with this I fully agree. Yet in attempting to “cover” the Mediterranean, she has lost sight of significant regional distinctions in liturgy, architecture, and practice; while she mentions them (e.g., 66, 256), she does not explore the ramifications of these differences. I also take issue with her monolithic East versus West dichotomy and with her insistence on “performance” as a catch-all for what happens in churches; the repetition of this term is rather monotonous.

The volume is handsomely produced, with abundant plans and photographs inserted into the text and footnotes where they belong, at the foot of each page; there is also an admirably comprehensive forty-page bibliography. However, Yasin has not always been well served by her copy editor, who has allowed several unfortunate word errors to sneak past (“forcibly” for “forcefully,” “alternate” for “alternative,” “comprised” for “composed,” “affected” for “effected,” inter alia) in addition to minor spelling and usage gaffes (including loci sancti on p. 1). Despite these minor quibbles, I must end by stressing the sheer usefulness of this volume: it not only amasses a vast amount of material, much of it little known, but it shapes this archaeological, architectural, art-historical, textual, and liturgical evidence into a coherent and stimulating whole. It compels a reader to move beyond generalized assumptions about the cult of saints to consider the multifarious ways that holy figures and others operated in the social space of late antique churches.

Linda Safran
Visiting Fellow, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto