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Yasin Review Oct2010

Yasin Review Oct2010

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Published by billcaraher
A short book review of Ann Marie Yasin's Saints and Church Space in the Late Antique Mediterranean (New York: Cambridge UP 2009).
A short book review of Ann Marie Yasin's Saints and Church Space in the Late Antique Mediterranean (New York: Cambridge UP 2009).

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Published by: billcaraher on Nov 03, 2010
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 WORKING PAPER DO NOT CITE WITHOUT PERMISSION OF AUTHOR © 2010
Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean: Architecture, Cult,and Community.
By Ann Marie Yasin. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 360pages. $99.00. Ann Marie Yasin’s
Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean 
is the first systematic study of the architectural context for saintsthat takes into account evidence from the entire Mediterranean basin. This workgoes far beyond a traditional architectural analysis and argues for the centralrole of saints at the intersection of architecture, commemoration, ritual life, andcommunity organization in the Late Antique church. Yasin framed herdiscussion amidst theoretical perspectives ranging from the work of P. Bourdieuand M. de Certeau on practice to M. Eliade’s well-known meditations on thenature of sacred space. These theorists provided the backdrop for argumentsgrounded in archaeological, epigraphic, and to a lesser extent, literary evidence with a particular emphasis on the important corpus of ecclesiastical architecturefrom North Africa. The book represents an important synthetic study on thefunction of sacred space within an Early Christian context.The greatest challenge in facing any work on churches across theMediterranean is the uneven condition of the archaeological evidence for these buildings. The poor condition of the buildings and the problematic excavationrecords often makes it difficult to assign these churches definite dates orspecialized functions. The author sidestepped this difficulty in part by interpreting the architecture in a synchronic way in all but the first chapter of the book where she reviewed the emergence of Christian sacred space in the pre-Constantinean period. Chapters two through four advanced her thesis by approaching the role of saints in church space topically. Chapter two examinedcommemorative and burial practices in churches, chapter three considered therole of the veneration of saints and eurgetism, and chapter four took up the role of relics, ritual, and decoration in creating holy space in the church.These three chapters argued that the Late Antique manifestations of Christian architecture, piety, and the cult of the saints developed from earlierRoman and pre-Christian contexts. In general, these chapters were substantialand avoided the simplistic appeals to syncretism. For example, Yasin argued that
 
 WORKING PAPER DO NOT CITE WITHOUT PERMISSION OF AUTHOR © 2010
 burials in churches served to demonstrate membership in the Christiancommunity in much the same way that earlier burial practices linked individualsto household groups. The main difference in these two forms of commemorativepractice is that Christians embedded collective burial practices in the public andcommunal space of worship thereby placing this method of community building inthe context of Christian ritual. She also linked practices of Christian euergetismto older modes of expression rooted in the ancient “gift economy”. While thisexplanation could not quite accommodate the common practice of anonymousdonations or the Christian tendency to commemorate exceedingly humble ex-votoofferings, she probably captured the main current that motivated Christiangiving. Taken together chapters two through four successfully ground the basiccharacter of the Early Christian architectural discourse in longstanding Mediterranean practices. Traditional Roman practices became Christian throughthe regular appearance of the bodies or images of saints in Christian architecture.This process saw the transference of commemorative practices, euergetism, andthe functioning of the gift-economy from public space of the Roman world to theritual space of the church. This transformation also paralleled the expansion of Christian ecclesiastical institutions and conceptions of sacred space at theexpense of the traditional public institutions and cult centers of the ancient world.In chapters five and six, Yasin explored the way in which saints createdand transformed Christian space. These two chapters provided a clear andsynthetic conclusion to her earlier arguments by focusing exclusively on thequestion: “what do saints do in church”. She argued that saints reminded thecongregation that the church was commemorative space, and commemorationproduced a kind of social cohesion that reified the Christian practice of communalprayer. The presence of saints in church buildings, however, did not simply evokehistorical memory, but also invoked Christian holiness in distinctly historical,spatial, and physical ways. The real or imagined bodies of saints among believershelped to articulate the relationship between the Christian community and theheavenly realm. Saints within the church made the proximate spiritual, social,and ritual hierarchy part of a cosmological continuum of authority and power. If Peter Brown’s landmark,
Cult of the Saints 
(Chicago 1981) introduced the idea 
 
 WORKING PAPER DO NOT CITE WITHOUT PERMISSION OF AUTHOR © 2010
that saints were the heavenly patrons for the Christian community, Yasin hasshown that Christian architecture played a key role in communicating these new relationships to the community. Although Yasin’s argument drew upon evidence from across theMediterranean, her strongest case studies derived from the well-preservedcorpus of churches in the west, and particularly, North Africa. Yasin reinforcedher careful study of this corpus of architecture, epigraphy, and decoration with a similar, if less pronounced, preference for western textual sources. Perhaps themost important sustained discussion of texts in her work centers on St. Augustine’s
De cura pro mortuis gerenda 
(
Care to be had for the Dead 
). Her western emphasis grounded Augustine’s arguments in a cohesive and well-documented body of architectural and archaeological material. On the otherhand, this decision may leave scholars of the east questioning whether Yasin’s work represents practices common across the entire Mediterranean. Theoccasional forays to the east were largely bereft of textual sources, and this madeher sustained discussions of the church of St. Demetrius in Thessaoniki, St.Catherine’s in Sinai, Qal’at Sem’an and some of the churches in Syria seemincidental. Textual evidence from the East and particularly hagiographic sourcessuggest that the relationship between saints, church architecture, and ritualmight have significant regional variations. More importantly, perhaps, it wouldhave been valuable to understand how Yasin’s arguments relate to the emerging cult of the saints in Constantinople which began toward the end of the time periodstudied in this book.The western focus of Yasin’s book does help her work avoid one of the more vexing problems associated with any synthetic study of Early Christianarchitecture: the incomplete knowledge of the liturgy. While few scholarsconsider liturgy to be the sole influence on a buildings form, liturgical influences,as well as local traditions and ecclesiastical structure, did shape the relationship between the clergy, the congregation, and sacred space. In fact, this is clear in theidiosyncratic architecture present in pilgrimage churches like St. Demetrios orQal’at Sem’an. It seems almost certain that the life of these buildings embodiedthe dynamic relationship between locally developed cults to saints and theinstitutional authority vested in liturgical practices. Yasin highlighted such

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