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  • Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean: Architecture, Cult and Community by Ann Marie Yasin
  • Susan T. Stevens
Ann Marie Yasin Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean: Architecture, Cult and Community Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009 Pp. xxi + 337. $99.

This is a substantive, original, thought-provoking, and dense book that employs the author's technique of socio-spatial analysis, developed under the influence of archaeological evidence and anthropological theory, to explore the role of saints in elaborating the social function of spaces in fourth- to seventh-century churches. The strengths of the book are many. It shows how a socio-spatial perspective moves away from a consideration of church architecture per se, toward an understanding of the social and communal function of churches. It is learned, demonstrating an enviable command of trends in scholarship. It is ambitious in scope because it is both interdisciplinary in approach—using literary and material evidence—and pan-Mediterranean in coverage. It puts early Christian practice into context by emphasizing its Roman roots, effectively bridging the frequently observed Roman and early Christian scholarly divide. Finally, throughout the book, the author makes new use of oft-cited inscriptions, by demonstrating the interaction of their texts, images, locations and even materials, which too often are considered separately.

The book's organization into two parts, chapters 1-3 (14-150) and chapters 4-6 (151-285) clearly reflects its origin in the exploration of two questions (286). The first, discussed at length in part one, is how church spaces functioned as settings for the sacred, communal and commemorative action of their communities. The purpose of part one, in fact, is to demonstrate how the author's socio-spatial readings, particularly of funerary and euergetic inscriptions, both fit into contemporary scholarship and yield results different from other scholars. After a persuasive introduction about the new perspectives offered by socio-spatial analysis, chapter one consists exclusively of a discussion of the about-face of the mid-fourth century when Christian sacred space first became materially manifested in the joining of relics and altars. As a result Yasin gives an early impression that the socio-spatial approach is least enlightening when discussing the sacred dimension of churches. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the analysis of the interior arrangement, decoration, and furnishing of churches do not figure in this chapter as evidence for the hierarchical sacrality of church spaces because that [End Page 137] discussion is somewhat artificially withheld until chapter four in part two. In fact, aside from reliquary-altars, the author does not consider those large areas of the church inaccessible to the lay community, where the action of the clergy took place. Yasin's focus throughout the book remains firmly on the lower end of the spectrum of hierarchical sacrality.

The second question, discussed in part two, concerns how and where the saints, visually, textually and aurally represented in churches, bridged the divide between the Christian lay community and its clerical officiants. Thus, the saints—the primary topic of the book's title—except for a discussion of relics in chapter 1, appear only in the second part of the book, where their role is expressed (one might almost say downplayed) as reinforcers of the churches' sacred, communal, and commemorative functions. This is unfortunate, because the methodological frame in part one overpowers the more original picture it encloses in part one. In fact, chapters four through six are the meatier part of the book, a more free-flowing and masterful socio-spatial analysis of inscriptions, images and prayers invoking the saints that need not have followed the sacred-communal-commemorative structure of part one.

In the end, while the book's two questions are definitely related, the work of interweaving them is left mostly to the reader since the brief conclusion (286-91) is a reiteration rather than an enlargement upon earlier material. The volume's stubbornly bipartite structure and absence of a unifying argument gives it a kind of a split personality. Part one seems designed for a more general audience while part two speaks specifically to early Christian specialists. Likewise two consistent stylistic choices seem...


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