Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 28, 2001
John Crook The Architectural Setting of the Cult of Saints in the Early Christian West: c. 300–c. 1200 Oxford University Press, 1999. 308 pp.; 111 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (0198207948)

John Crook’s study, The Architectural Setting of the Cult of the Saints in the Early Christian West c. 300-1200, represents a remarkable synthesis of more than a decade of research spent in pursuit of a laudably ambitious goal: to provide an overview of the architectural setting of the cult of the saints in the West between the beginnings of the cult and 1200. Given the many factors that complicate the project, the results are much to be admired. Work on a similar, but much narrower, topic allowed me unwonted familiarity with the difficulties Crook certainly encountered (Cynthia Hahn, “Seeing and Believing: the Construction of Sanctity in Early-Medieval Saints’ Shrines,” Speculum, special vol. 72, 1997: 1079-1106). Most of the buildings or building parts that Crook studies exist only as archaeological sites. Furthermore, bibliography on cults and the crypts in which they are often celebrated tends to be local, difficult of access, buried in technical reports, and woefully incomplete. Few scholars with expertise in the cult of the saints have attempted to interpret the material. Moreover, the scholarship that does exist is often more concerned with architectural typology and classification than function and cult use. Last, but surely not least, the major primary sources for the study of the cult of saints—hagiographic texts—are only partially reliable as an origin of information for dating or other varieties of architectural evidence.

Crook begins his study by acknowledging André Grabar’s Martyrium: Recherches sur le culte des reliques et l’art chrétien antique (Paris, 1946), as his predecessor in the endeavor, and proposes to take up the task where the great French scholar left off, indeed, to cover ground that Grabar treated only minimally. Crook is, however, a very different scholar than was Grabar. He is more careful about sorting evidence but also much more reluctant to interpret and synthesize on both the small and the grand scale. Furthermore, he also shows a British skepticism about relic practices, finding them odd “to the Anglican eye,” and marveling that they prevailed “even in England.” As a result, taking a somewhat positivist approach, he is at times ill-prepared to sort through the conflicts of cult evidence to determine what might be fact and what might be purely hagiographic construction. His discussion of three sites with which I am familiar is thus marred with misunderstandings or misplaced confidence. Crook accepts without demur a dedication to the two eponymous saints in the case of the confessio at Ss. Giovanni e Paolo, while the frescoes clearly represent a saint and two companions (45-46). Other scholars have suggested the introduction of an extramural cult, obscured by a later dedication. In another case, that of Limoges, No evidence supports St. Valerie’s existence before the ninth century, and it seems unlikely that she was buried with Saint Martial in his church as the legends claim (52). Finally, the underground chamber at St-Maximin of Var may be of some antiquity, but its present disposition (fig. 9) is a creative fiction, using early Christian sarcophagi to make a claim for the antiquity of the Magdalene cult there. In spite of the author’s tentative language, the inclusion of the chamber as a possible example of an early Christian shrine is finally misleading.

Such are the many pitfalls of this material. Nevertheless, Crook is to be praised for his courage in undertaking the project as well as for many of the particular features of his book. For example, his use of primary texts is exemplary. He supplies both the Latin and careful, sensitive translations. As a result, these texts are highly useful to anyone interested in the history of early medieval architecture or the cult of the saints, and they supply a fascinating means whereby the reader can evaluate Crook’s conclusions. In addition, the many illustrations gather together a valuable visual archive of the architectural material. Crook’s plans, redrawn with his observations clearly noted, are easy to read and a particularly commendable addition to scholarship. The first chapter on aspects of relic cults is clear and well written; it might serve as a useful reading for a class in medieval architecture. Other beginning chapters on early medieval material and Carolingian architecture are equally readable and condensed.

As the author moves into the material he knows best—the monuments of England—the tone of the prose alters significantly. The change is both good and bad. Virtue lies in Crook’s knowledge of English history, archaeology, and texts, clearly much superior to his knowledge of continental evidence. As a result, more material is presented and the assessments of the evidence seem consistently trustworthy. Crook’s treatments of Winchester, Bury St. Edmunds, and Durham are particularly fascinating and full. A drawback, however, of this more dense portion of the book is that the prose changes to a specialist’s language that is not accessible to the average reader or even most students, tailing off into long, detailed archaeological and/or architectural descriptions.

In this portion of the book, although the individual analyses are excellent, some of the interpretive synthesis seems erroneous or misleading. Crook’s exclusive attention to full-body shrines seems to lead him to conclude that if there are no remaining traces of architectural adjustment to the celebration of a cult, then no cult existed. He generally follows the thesis that postconquest England was little interested in the cult of saints, and when architectural forms such as crypts appeared, they were merely present as a foundation or to accommodate sloping ground (185, 188). Given the nature of the cult of saints, such an approach must be called into question. From the outset of devotion to the saints, little differentiation was made theologically between the smallest fragment of a relic and the whole body of a saint. There may have been many believers who calculated a difference, but there were also many clerics who obscured through elaborate presentation exactly how much of a saintly body was enshrined.

A last chapter on just that—the presentation of the holy body in a shrine—is of great interest although the author opines justifiably that “it is not possible to establish a meaningful evolutionary sequence” (244). Most of the chapter seems to lead inevitably to a culmination in the very interesting late English shrine bases with “portholes.” It is no surprise that the book ends with praise for the remarkable shrine and environment of the Trinity chapel at Canterbury.

Although this book falls far short of the sort of grand intellectual synthesis that Grabar achieved in Martyrium (but which now has rightfully been challenged on many details), it does work well as a catalogue and introduction to the many shrines of Western Europe. If a scholar is looking for Spanish or later Italian material, there will be disappointment. Nevertheless, the careful evaluation of evidence, and the accumulation of bibliography, imagery, and textual references on early Roman, French, German, and English shrines will make this book essential for consultation by scholars and students for many years to come.

Cynthia Hahn
Florida State University