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Memorials Transformed: Funerary Monuments, Church Space and Saints’ Cults in Late Antiquity

Ann Marie Yasin, University of Southern California, Fellow 2005–2006, Spring

Early Christian writers frequently denied the possibility of containing God within physical structures. By contrast, the construction of monumental churches, relic veneration, and pilgrimage journeys, all of which begin in earnest only in the fourth century, appear to be manifestations of a drastically new notion of sacred space. These observations have led many scholars to associate the “invention” of early Christian sacred space with the explosion of saint veneration in the post-Constantinian era.

My book project, Saints and Church Spaces: The Sacred and the Community in Late Antiquity, posits that such arguments risk misinterpreting the archaeological record by limiting the definition of holy space to a narrow point, or locus, for the meeting of heaven and earth—a model generated largely through study of literary sources. This project investigates the impact of saints’ cults on ecclesiastical space as a whole, looking not only at evidence of saints’ tombs and relics proper, but also at that of funerary monuments, liturgical installations, votive and dedicatory inscriptions, and visual imagery. I contend that the impact of saints’ cults on the sacred geography of early Christian churches is more pervasive and diverse, but perhaps less novel, than has been previously supposed. Specifically, I see manipulations of saints’ cults as powerful means of shaping corporate identity and reinforcing social hierarchies within local Christian communities.

During my semester at Dumbarton Oaks, I wrote the book’s first chapter, “Churches before Architecture: Approaches to Sacred Space in the Early Christian World.” Through an anthropologically informed reading of patristic sources, I suggested that the places in which Christians gathered to worship had become symbolically loaded sacred spaces well before the era of monumental churches. I also conducted research on church sites in the early Byzantine Near East (especially modern Israel, Jordan, and Syria). These form more important counterpoints to my earlier work on monuments in Italy and North Africa than I had previously recognized. My regional comparison of saint veneration at “alternate focal points” (i.e., not the church’s primary altar), as well as the location and rhetoric of inscriptions invoking saints has productively changed the shape of the book’s remaining chapters, which I am currently in the process of writing.