BMCR 2018.02.49

The Framing of Sacred Space: The Canopy and the Byzantine Church

, The Framing of Sacred Space: The Canopy and the Byzantine Church. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xxxv, 411. ISBN 9780190465186. $60.00.


With this book, based on a 2008 dissertation from Princeton, Jelena Bogdanović brings much-needed attention to the use and function of canopies inside and outside Byzantine churches. She expands the inquiry to include not only altar ciboria, but also those covering tombs of saints, baptismal fonts, ambos, and other church furnishings. Chapter 1 (“Ciborium or Canopy? Textual Evidence on Canopies in the Byzantine Church”) offers a useful overview of the various terms associated with canopies. The second chapter (“Canopies in the Byzantine Church”) investigates archaeological and architectural evidence for the existence of canopies in Byzantine church buildings. Form, materials, decoration, and inscriptions are also discussed extensively. Chapter 3 (“Place-Making: The Place of the Canopy in the Church”) examines material as disparate as the Christian House in Dura-Europos1 and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople to address the location of canopies within the church building, claiming they promoted a variety of messages and religious beliefs. Chapter 4 (“The Micro-Architectural Framing of Sacred Space”) offers several case studies, including Saint Peter’s in Rome and Saint Euphemia in Constantinople, in which the canopy “carries the essence of the sacred and its experience” (p. 179). Bogdanović’s discussion of the relationship between altar and saint’s grave within the context of a church is interesting, but it would have benefited from a more serious engagement with the important work of Ann-Marie Yasin.2 For Hosios Loukas, Bogdanović follows the long-outdated opinions of Eustathios (here misnamed Eustachios) Stikas and does not take into consideration the most recent study of the complex by the late Paul Mylonas.3 Her suggestion that the “nine-square grid design” of many Byzantine churches is essentially based on the canopy is intriguing, if impossible to prove. Such an interpretation would, however, straightjacket the production of Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture into something unoriginal, predictable, and unimaginative. Chapter 5 (“Nested in Its Own Shape: The Canopy and the Byzantine Church”) returns yet again to Hagia Sophia in Constantinople—with an excursus to the Holy Sepulcher—“[t]o examine how these religious concepts of framing the sacred Presence and sacred space were embodied in church spaces” (p. 267). The short conclusion nicely wraps up the main arguments of this study.

The book is beautifully produced with many good-quality color photographs and fine drawings. It also collects and discusses an immense amount of material ranging from Syria to Italy, and from the third century to the post-Byzantine period. That said, it is littered with factual errors and misreadings that greatly diminish its importance. I restrict my comments to those I was able to identify in the first thirty pages, for example, Bogdanović’s lexicological analysis of the word κιβούριον (pp. 13-20). After an overview of late antique rhetorical practices that lack direct bearing on the subject at hand, Bodganović turns to three “early church leaders” who “were trained in various educational centers of the Classical and late antique world” and who all provide a well-known pseudo-etymology of the word ciborium (κιβ- from κιβωτός, ark; οὖριν means light of God). The first is Germanos I, patriarch of Constantinople, to whom the influential liturgical commentary Historia Ekklesiastike is attributed.4 Since Germanos died in ca. 730, he is hardly an “early church leader.”5 Another text, which Bodganović attributes to Basil of Caesarea is, in fact, a version of the Historia Ekklesiastike.6 The third text, which Bogdanović credits to Sophronios, the seventh-century patriarch of Jerusalem, is, in reality, an eleventh- or thirteenth-century treatise, based in part on the Historia Ekklesiastike.7 In short, we have here, counted as three separate authorities, three variations of the same text, all postdating the eighth century.

Similarly, Bogdanović claims that “[f]ollowing the early Christian and Byzantine rhetorical practice of the importance of sound in delivering a message, when pronounced aloud, the Greek nouns ὁ κιβ ( kib, kiv) and τὸ [sic] κιβωτός ( kibōtos, kivōtos) on the one hand, and the nouns τὸ ὠρίον, τό ὄριον (orion) or ὁ οὐράνος [sic] and the adjective οὐράνιος ( ouranios) on the other, share the sound and the new meaning of the κιβούριον ( kibourion, kivourion).”8 Yet, the texts in question are theological treatises, not homilies, and there is no evidence they were ever “pronounced aloud.” Even if they were, the aural parsing suggested by Bogdanović might work as a false etymology but cannot be extended to the congregation’s perception. In another instance Bogdanović claims that artophoria, containers of the consecrated Eucharistic bread, “were made to hold sufficient Hosts for the Communion of huge congregations, especially during the annual Easter celebration” (p. 27). But the consecrated host was used either in emergencies or, most often, at the presanctified liturgy.9 It was certainly not used during the regular Easter liturgy. Finally, on p. 29, it is claimed that “Athanasius the Theologian spoke of columns as if they were the towers of the church.” The text actually says: “And who might be the towers of the church, if not those who at the time were righteous and its leaders, to whom the apostles described the glories of God?”10

Citation of sources is also lacking. For example, on p. 22, Bogdanović mentions that Nicholas Kabasilas “challenged some of Germanos’ explanations because of the absence of the explicit emphasis on the reception of holy communion,” yet she gives no reference to any of Kabasilas’s works. On p. 38, the author mentions Theophanes the Confessor, the Inventory of the Palace of Botaniates, Anthony of Novgorod, Anna Komnene, and Nikolas [sic] Mesarites, but provides references only to the latter two and that on the previous page. As a result, the reader is required to hunt down the references in Table 2 (“Texts with References to κιβώριον”) at the end of the book, then consult Table 1 (“Texts with References to Ciboria or Canopies”) for the abbreviated citation, then turn to the bibliography for the full title.

Finally, the text would have benefited from copyediting that went beyond spelling mistakes. There are needless repetitions and sections that belabor the obvious (e.g., as with many other church furnishings, canopies have suffered destruction), as well as abrupt transitions (see, e.g., pp. 57–58, where a paragraph on the existence of canopies during the fourth century is followed by a discussion of the middle Byzantine rock-cut churches of Cappadocia).

In short, while this book will likely become a useful reference for the archaeological material it assembles, the author’s interpretations need to be taken with caution.


1. The most recent study on the Christian House is missing from the bibliography: M. Peppard, The World’s Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria (New Haven, 2016).

2. Only one of Yasin’s publications is listed in the bibliography. Her Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean: Architecture, Cult, and Community (Cambridge, 2009), esp. 151–209 would have been a useful addition.

3. Μονὴ τοῦ Ὁσίου Λουκᾶ τοῦ Στειριώτη. Ἡ ἀρχιτεκτονικὴ τῶν τεσσάρων ναῶν (Athens, 2005).

4. P. Meyendorff, trans., St. Germanus of Constantinople: On the Divine Liturgy (Crestwood, NY, 1984), 58.

5. On p. 75, Germanos is erroneously placed in the ninth century.

6. For a discussion of the different versions, see R. Bornert, Les commentaires byzantins de la Divine Liturgie du VIIe au XVe siècle (Paris, 1966), 128–160.

7. Bornert, Les commentaires, 210–211.

8. p. 15.

9. S. Alexopoulos, The Presanctified Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite (Leuven, 2009), 153–157.

10. “Καὶ τίνες ἄν εἶεν οἱ πύργοι τῆς Ἐκκλησίας ἤ οἰ κατὰ καιρὸν αὐτῆς ἡγούμενοι καὶ δίκαιοι, οἶς καὶ διηγοῦνται τὰ μεγαλεῖα τοῦ Θεοῦ οἱ ἀπόστολοι;” PG 27: 221.