Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 18, 2003
Gillian Mackie Early Christian Chapels in the West: Decoration, Function, and Patronage Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. 512 pp.; 114 b/w ills. Cloth $100.00 (0802035043)

Gillian Mackie has written an ambitious study of the early Christian chapel with a focus on the regions of Italy and Istria in the fourth to seventh centuries. Impressive in its breadth of coverage and depth of research, Early Christian Chapels in the West: Decoration, Function, and Patronage should become one of the primary resources for any reader interested in the development of art during this period. This well-illustrated book presents a typological and historical analysis of the early Christian chapel in its various manifestations (part 1) and a series of in-depth case studies of surviving examples (part 2). The appendix contains a brief but valuable catalogue of chapels, with bibliographies and annotations. The book presents a substantial reworking of Mackie’s dissertation and includes a certain amount of research published previously in a number of journal articles. Still, readers will benefit from the single-volume presentation and the overall contextual foundation of the book.

In her introduction, Mackie explores the ambiguity of the appellation “chapel” (cappella/capella). She cites the rather late appearance of the word in seventh-century Gaul, in reference to a relic rather than a discrete structure, and notes that earlier sources attempted to distinguish semantically the various functions of these buildings (oratorium, martyrium, and so on). Despite this, Mackie’s use of such terms throughout the book and her attempts to clarify them can be inconsistent and somewhat confusing. Mackie goes on to suggest that the central theme of death and resurrection in Christian thought and the rise of the cult of saints contributed to the genesis of the independent chapel. The earliest chapels, which she calls cellae memoriae, were found in suburban cemeteries, where they commemorated the burial sites of saints. She concedes, however, that these and later survivors represent a skewed sample: aristocratic examples with costly mosaics are better preserved and continued veneration of certain saints provided the impetus for periodic restoration; rarely do more humble, rural, or nonfunerary examples survive.

Part 1 is divided into four chapters that treat the problems and development of various chapel types: “Martyr Shrine to Funerary Chapel,” “The Mausolea of the Imperial Family in the West,” “The Domestic Oratory: A Mirage,” and “Chapels within the Confines of Churches: A Late Development.” The categories—defined by a number of criteria such as function, patronage, and topography—reflect Mackie’s multifocal approach and broad sample. Despite her attempt to group chapel types in meaningful ways, the potential value of other similarities or differences apparent within or between these sets remains unexplored. For instance, from a functional standpoint imperial mausolea, while impressive in their monumental scale and ornament, are nonetheless merely large versions of the understated funerary chapels of nonimperial early Christians. And, while Mackie does explain the history and function(s) of the many individual chapels considered, the significance of and distinctions suggested by the variety of architectural forms (rectangular hall with apse or centrally planned—triconch, cruciform, polygonal) also remain unclear. Furthermore, in many cases the history of these monuments is complex and far from static. Many chapels were transformed by the addition of an adjacent congregational space for worship or the inclusion of secondary lay or clerical burials. Similarly, chapels designed for prayer or as funerary monuments for important patrons could be augmented by the introduction of contact or corporeal relics, with the latter following the relaxation of extramural burial laws, and thus the overall treatment of corpses, by the seventh century. Though the spotty nature of the evidence makes any attempt at generalization difficult, a more consistent system of classification is merited.

In chapter 1, Mackie examines early cemetery chapels in the imperial capitals of the West (Rome, Milan, and Ravenna) and Istria, with a focus on the role of the cult of saints in their historical development. Designed to serve as cellae memoriae, aristocratic tombs, or both, these monuments are for the most part known only through archaeological excavations and early modern sources that recorded them prior to destruction; S. Vittore in Ciel d’Oro, Milan, is a noted exception. Mackie suggests that catacomb cubicula in Rome may be used to conceptualize the elevations, interior dispositions, and decorative programs of these aboveground structures. She singles out related imperial mausolea for study in chapter 2.

In chapter 3, Mackie considers the short-lived phenomenon of the early domestic chapel or oratory. Following the Edict of Milan in 313, the public nature of Christianity obviated the need for privacy, and many small oratories were likely transformed into large congregational centers, as is the case with the tituli of Rome. Furthermore, she posits that Church legislation of the mid-fourth and fifth centuries against Eucharistic celebrations outside of public locales and without resident clergy explains the dearth of evidence of what was surely once a ubiquitous type. Finally, in chapter 4, Mackie turns to chapels within churches, identifying three types based on their topographical relationship to a larger structure: cubicula (multifunctional chapels adjacent to a church), oratoria (multifunctional chapels built within a church), and sacristies (chapels, generally near the main altar, with utilitarian functions that served the Eucharistic liturgy). In the case of suburban cemetery churches, cubicula may in fact be functionally identical to the chapels Mackie studies in chapter 1. She sees the development of the oratory, as an area set aside for private prayer and the celebration of the Mass, as signifying a change in attitude that parallels the dispersal of relics and the resultant proliferation of subsidiary altars within churches: “The impetus for their appearance appears to be linked to changing perceptions of the nature of the altar. In the early days of the church, the altar was felt to be indivisible, as were the celebrant and the Mass itself…” (74). Sacristies, normally appearing in pairs on either side of the apse, are understood as the direct result of Eastern influence; only a few examples predate the sixth-century return of Byzantine power to the West.

Part 2 is divided into six chapters that explore surviving examples of the types described in part 1, with a focus on their decoration, function, and patronage as promised in the subtitle of the book. Chapter 5 considers an ecclesiastical version of the domestic oratory at the Chapel of the Archbishops of Ravenna, attributed here to Bishop Peter II (494–518/9). As the chapel is a “sole survivor” and fragmentary in its decoration, its iconographic program is characterized generically by Mackie as typical of the early Christian artistic tradition, with its eschatological (heaven, paradise) and liturgical themes derived from biblical sources and pre-Christian symbolism. Her masterful analyses of these programs elucidate the intended meaning and function of each chapel.

In chapter 6, Mackie dates the first phase of S. Vittore in Ciel d’Oro, Milan, to the translation of the relics of Saint Victor under Bishop Maternus (313–43), the present structure to the episcopate of Ambrose (374–97), and its decoration to the period shortly thereafter. The attribution is based on the burial of Satyrus, Ambrose’s brother, in the chapel in 375 or 377, and the portrait of Ambrose himself in the mosaic program. Expanded from a previous article, Mackie’s fascinating and thorough interpretation of the dome mosaic featuring a clipeate bust of Saint Victor infuses the pre-Christian iconography of apotheosis and victory with Christian meaning. Her reading serves to underscore the singularity of the image in the history of early Christian art as an early attempt to visualize the elevation of a martyr saint and to create a visual hierarchy of the cosmos within sacred space. A study of the less well-known and understood chapel of S. Matrona at S. Prisco (fifth century) follows; the apocalyptic theme of the iconographic program and comparison with S. Vittore in Ciel d’Oro lead Mackie to suggest that it was designed as an aristocratic tomb rather than a cella memoria.

Chapter 7 is the most ambitious in Mackie’s book. In it, she presents separate studies of the following: the imperial mausolea of Sta. Costanza in Rome; Centcelles near Tarragona, Spain; S. Gregorio and S. Aquilino in Milan; La Daurade in Toulouse; and Theodoric and Galla Placidia in Ravenna. Importantly, Mackie both affirms and redresses the traditionally accepted patronage of a number of these structures. She outlines the significant changes in both scale and decorative program that reflect the rulers’ evolving attitudes toward Christianity and their own salvation. The combination of secular aristocratic themes (such as the hunt), generic and ambivalent bucolic imagery, and Old Testament typological scenes of salvation seen at Sta. Costanza and Centcelles (mid-fourth century) give way to the blatant Christological and apocalyptic mosaic scenes that adorn the walls and vaults of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (mid-fifth century).

Chapter 8 treats Pope Hilarus’s three chapels dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist, Saint John the Baptist, and the Holy Cross (461–68), while chapter 9 deals with John IV’s S. Venanzio (640–42), all of which surround the Lateran Baptistery in Rome. Regarding Hilarus’s foundations, Mackie calls into question the chapels’ roles as either changing rooms or libraries, in other words, structures subsidiary to the baptistery and the baptismal rite in general. Citing the papal donations recorded in the Liber Pontificalis, treasury inventories of the Lateran, and decorative programs, Mackie argues convincingly that the chapels were built as shrines for contact relics. In the case of S. Venanzio, Mackie traces a sequence of chapel types commemorating a group of Dalmatian saints from a simple cella memoria at Salona to a central collection point for contact relics in Rome. She suggests that we redefine André Grabar’s broad use of the term martyrium to describe only those structures built for the express purpose of housing translated relics.

Chapter 10, “The Chapel Revisited: A Synthesis,” presents an oddly placed, misleadingly titled (it is not a synthesis) but interesting addendum to her study of decoration in which Mackie considers the ephemeral ornamentation of chapels in forms such as church plate, textiles, and lighting. This chapter would have been welcome at the outset of the book, perhaps with a discussion of liturgies, rather than at its conclusion.

Overall, Mackie’s contribution lies in the incredible wealth of material she compiles and in her fresh interpretation of so many crucial sites, both of which set a starting point for future study. However, the most significant issue left unresolved is whether the monuments considered do in fact form a coherent group as presented. Despite marked similarities in form and function, the apparent adaptability and variety seen in the examples suggest otherwise.

Stephen J. Lucey
Associate Professor, Department of Art, Keene State College

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