BMCR 2011.08.40

Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean: Architecture, Cult, and Community

, Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean: Architecture, Cult, and Community. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xx, 338. ISBN 978521767835. $102.00.

This book is about early Christian hierotopy, or the process of creating sacred space, between the fourth and seventh century.1 Ann Marie Yasin convincingly demonstrates that the making of sacred spaces involved the dead and the living, laity and clergy alike. The author pays equal attention to the Christian church building as an architectural configuration and as a place where the formation of communal identity occurred. She considers themes which have preoccupied students of late Antiquity for a long time, and which she successfully reinvigorates through the creative use of methodologies from various disciplines such as anthropology, art history, and social geography.

In the first chapter on the “Church before Architecture: Approaches to Sacred Space in the Early Christian World” Yasin looks into the question of ‘placeness’ of sacred space. She reveals that rather than being tied to a specific site, as was the case for the pagans, for the early Christians it was the group of people and their prayers that sanctified a place; in a sense, it was not the presence of a god through his statue, but of a human community that made the space sacred. The association of a place with the ritual performed in it then indicates that sacred space should be perceived as continuously performed and thus constantly in the making. Even though very early on there were fixed places where Christians would gather, it was still the presence of the community that made the space holy and not vice verse. Yasin looks into different primary sources that indicate the physicality of the church. Among those are various prescriptions for moral and physical decency, and exclusion of sinners, all of which suggest a clear differentiation between exterior and interior, and through it, of the place of Christian gathering from the rest of the world.

In chapter two “Commemorative Communities: the Dead in the Early Christian Church” Yasin considers the church building as a site for identity formation. She first looks into the ways in which commemorative rites fostered the relationship among the living in the pagan world. Marshaling an impressive amount of archaeological and epigraphic evidence, Yasin contends that it was not the individual but rather his or her relationship with a family that was commonly highlighted. By the late second early third century however not only family but also religious affiliation began to matter when it came to the dead and their remembering. Thus the care for the dead was essential in forming collective Christian identity. By the late fourth to early fifth century the church building, just like the tomb, became a site for commemorations, which led to the development of special prayers and elaborate liturgies for the departed. One literally could not escape the dead as they were physically present within the church, having been interred under the building’s pavement. In a sense, the community was expanded to include the dead in an apparent and a tangible manner, which appears to have been quite new in comparison with pagan and Jewish funerary practices.

The third chapter “Topographies of Honor and Piety: Praying for the Christian Benefactor” considers the significance of writing within the church, which had become an important setting for the display and viewing (and reading) of inscriptions. Yasin notes a shift in patronizing public works: the wealthy local members of society redirected their resources to the relatively new, yet rising in importance, institution of the Christian church. The church building, just like the Roman forum, became a vehicle for communal identity formation. Dedicatory inscriptions frequently were incorporated within the church floor decoration and the design and various patterns used for the mosaics indicated the collective nature of the enterprise. The epigraphic material however reveals a certain level of stratification as more important donors took up greater prominence within the overall program, both in terms of placement and formal appearance of the inscriptions. Social hierarchies, as well as ecclesiastical ones seem to have influenced the placement of inscriptions—for example, in the church of S Eufemia in Grado bishop Elias’ inscription was placed in close proximity to the apse, indicating not only his substantial contribution, but also his privileged access into the altar area.

Church inscriptions would have commemorated the beneficent deeds and also incited prayers on behalf of the donors. Yasin’s research poses a question about the placement of the donor inscriptions: while it seems that the viewer would have been able to recognize those on the floor as pertaining to the donor, would that have been true for inscriptions like those in Hagios Polyeuktos or SS Sergios and Bacchos in Constantinople that wrap around the church interior, creating a very different viewing experience? In general, Yasin’s interpretation of the visual prominence of dedicatory inscriptions does not take into account illiterate audience for whom the mere appearance of letters would have been enough to convey authority and invoke prayer on others’ behalf.2 In a sense, the space of the Christian church established the mutual dependence between donors and their audience. On one hand it allowed benefactors to have their deeds preserved for posterity, and on another to express their hopes for eternal salvation, which could be realized only through the prayers of the congregation.

In the fourth chapter “At the Center of it All? Framing Space with Saints,” the author pursues the question whether the church building has a singular spatial center. While the altar could be considered the ritual focus of the early Christian church, how do saints and their relics in locations other than the altar function? Yasin argues for the existence of multiple cultic points within the late antique church complex. Saints’ memorials frame the liturgical action, but remain distinct from the altar and provide an additional focus for venerations. Occasionally saints’ names and inscribed praises of their powers could be included in close proximity to the church entrance differentiating the outdoors from indoors, the secular from the sacred. Those were not always connected to the saints’ physical remains and were intended to engage the visitor indicating to him or her that that they were being transported into a different realm. Has the church become a center in the Eliadian sense then?

Chapter five and six are dedicated to the role of saints in the church interior. In “What Saints Do in Church, Part I: Focusing Communal Prayer” Yasin considers the role of holy figures in prayer, and explores how they both pray for and encourage the prayer of the worshipping community. At the beginning of this chapter Yasin looks into various written sources that define prayer as an essential feature of the Christian community, and that parallel the prayers of the saints with those of the community. She pays particular attention to Augustine’s ideas about the relationship between church burial and prayer, and the importance he assigns to the living in the salvation of the souls of the dead. Yasin notes that the physical memorials for the dead became powerful reminders of, if not even substitutes for, the body snatched away by death. The encounter with the memorial led to prayer. It was not that much the proximity to the sainted tomb that mattered; it was the visibility of the new burials that was of greater importance. The placement of tombs in the early Christian basilicas was meant to benefit from the movement of and attention paid to them by both common folk and clergy. Physical memorials as well as inscriptions and visual images would have focused the attention of the audience, inciting it to pray on behalf of the departed members of the community.

In “What Saints Do in Church, Part II: Community Connections” the author carries on the ideas of the previous chapter about the relationship between the verbal and visual images of saints and the worshipers. Entering the church through readings, inscriptions or painted and mosaic portraits, saints were capable of providing a tangible link between past and present. They were also very important, Yasin reminds us, in formulating local identities and demonstrating political and ecclesiastical preferences. Thus the mosaic saints that wrap around the naos of the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna reveal clear affiliation with the Milanese liturgical calendar. Images of saints could also articulate architectural divisions within the church and show connections with the clergy. This is evidence for the increased differentiation between clerics and laity, and a sign of how saints and their images helped maintain the social hierarchies in and outside of the church. The discussion perhaps would have benefitted from integrating examples of the specialization of the saints—thus bishops appeared in the sanctuary, warriors at the doors. This type of division further highlighted the social structures, and the importance of the priest as a mediator between ordinary humans and the sacred.

The conclusion reiterates some of the important points rehearsed by Yasin throughout the book. Already before Christianity became one of the empire’s official religions, the church building was recognized as a special place; however, this was not because the divinity dwelled in it, as in pagan temples, but because the Christian community gathered in it to pray and perform the Eucharistic liturgy. The church turned into an important setting for inscriptions that commemorated various benefactors, making the dead an inextricable part of the community of the living. Burials were frequently placed not in close proximity to sainted relics, but rather in prominently visible sites within the church assuring the living audience’s remembrance. Saints, through their relics, inscribed names and images were an important facet in the interpretations of the church as a sacred space. Their presence, together with that of the dead and the living contributed to the creation of communal identity. The book concludes with an important observation about the rising prominence of images in defining the church topography—not only relics, but also sainted portraits were considered of significance in channeling the relationship of the worshipper with the sacred.

In general, the book is remarkably well-written and well-structured, the main points of the single chapters cleverly repeated without redundancy. The language is precise, and easy to follow, but also rich and sophisticated. The strength of the book lies in balancing the literary and archaeological sources, and letting the latter paint a distinct picture that has remained outside of the scope of early Christian writing. Not only that, but Yasin looks into sites that have not been in wide scholarly circulation, enriching and even challenging conclusions made solely on the investigation of exceptional sites such as the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or Saint Peter’s in Rome.


1. A. Lidov, “Hierotopy: The Creation of Sacred Spaces as a Form of Creativity and Subject of Cultural History,” in Hierotopy: The Creation of Sacred Spaces in Byzantium and Medieval Russia, ed. A. Lidov (Moscow, 2006), 32-58.

2. Cf. L. James, “‘And Shall These Mute Stones Speak?’ Text as Art,” in Art and Text in Byzantine Culture, ed. L. James (Cambridge, 2007), 188-206.