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  • The Notion of Liminality and the Medieval Sacred Space ed. by Klára Doležalová and Ivan Foletti
  • Uwe Michael Lang
Klára Doležalová and Ivan Foletti, eds.
The Notion of Liminality and the Medieval Sacred Space
Convivium Supplementum 3
Turnhout: Brepols, 2020
162 pages. Paperback. €75.00 (excl. tax)

The work of social anthropologists, such as Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner, has brought into relief the concept of liminality, which literally means being on a threshold (limen). This state [End Page 316] “betwixt and between” can be fruitfully applied to liturgy as a spatial, temporal, and ritual category. Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church highlights the liminal nature of the church building: “To enter into the house of God, we must cross a threshold, which symbolizes passing from the world wounded by sin to the world of the new Life to which all men are called” (no. 1186). The church entrance separates the sacred space from its surroundings, but at the same time allows communication and passage between the two worlds. The interior of medieval churches was not conceived as unified space, such as in Renaissance and Baroque architecture, but had many “liminal zones” into which one entered by means of a particular ritual. The articles in this volume originate from a conference on liminality and medieval art held in Brno, Czech Republic in October 2018. Most contributions are co-authored by two scholars to facilitate an inter-disciplinary methodology.

Ivan Foletti and Katarína Kravčíková examine “Closed Doors as Bearers and Constructors of Images: Santa Sabina in Rome and Notre Dame du Puy,” two churches that were built at considerable spatial and temporal distance from each other (fifth-century Rome and twelfth-century France). The imagery that adorns the doors of these churches constructs a narrative of salvation and so prepares the beholder to enter into the liturgical mysteries that are celebrated inside the sacred space.

Sible De Blaauw’s and Klára Doležalová’s contribution “Constructing Liminal Space? Curtains in Late Antique and Early Medieval Churches” explores the literary and artistic evidence for textile furnishings, which had no liturgical function in Western tradition but served to conceal and reveal distinct sacred spaces within the church building. Moreover, decorated curtains had their own iconography and thus offered forms of visual participation to the faithful.

In “Liturgical Screens, East and West: Liminality and Spiritual Experience” Vlad Bedros and Elisabetta Scirocco analyse the complex effects of spatial limits and barriers in churches, which culminated in the Byzantine iconostasis. On the one hand, they separated clergy and laity and barred the latter from direct participation in the rites. On the other hand, screens and ciboria emphasize the sacredness [End Page 317] of the altar and thus engaged the devotion of the laity by appealing to a mystical reality.

“The Depiction of the Acta Martyrum During the Early Middle Ages: Hints from a Liminal Space, the Transept of Santa Prassede in Rome (817–824)” by Chiara Croci (the only article in the volume by a single author) studies the painted narrative cycles in the transept of Santa Prassede, which are poorly preserved and have received less scholarly attention than the famous mosaics of the same church.

Jan Klípa and Eliška Poláčková in “Tabulae cum portis, vela, cortinae and sudaria: Remarks on the Liminal Zones in the Liturgical and Para-Liturgical Contexts in the Late Middle Ages” focus on the altar and its retable. The opening and closing of the winged altarpiece, as well as its veiling with lateral curtains or with a Lenten cloth, highlight the altar as the liminal sphere par excellence that creates a passage between heaven and earth by means of the Eucharistic sacrifice.

In “‘Blessed Are the Eyes Which See Divine Spirit Through the Letter’s Veil’: The Book as Object and Idea,” John Mitchell and Nicholas Pickwoad treat artistic representations of books, both as material objects (their shape, binding, decoration etc.) and as signs that allow passage into the presence of God, especially in the context of the liturgy.

Each contribution contains many illustrations (in color), which help the reader to visualise the argument. While the book...


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