Dr. Dawn Cunningham

title.none: Gerstel, Thresholds (Dr. Dawn Cunningham)

identifier.other: baj9928.0803.014 08.03.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dr. Dawn Cunningham, University of St Michael's College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Gerstel, Sharon E. J., ed. Thresholds of the Sacred: Architectural, Art Historical, Liturgical, and Theological Perspectives on Religious Screens, East and West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. Pp. 245, 165 b/w illus.. $65.00 (hb) ISBN-13: 978-0-88402-311-1, ISBN-10: 0-88402-311-7. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.03.14

Gerstel, Sharon E. J., ed. Thresholds of the Sacred: Architectural, Art Historical, Liturgical, and Theological Perspectives on Religious Screens, East and West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. Pp. 245, 165 b/w illus.. $65.00 (hb) ISBN-13: 978-0-88402-311-1, ISBN-10: 0-88402-311-7. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Dr. Dawn Cunningham
University of St Michael's College

Thresholds of the Sacred is a rich compilation of essays presenting a rare opportunity to read a wide variety of scholarship on an often overlooked historical phenomenon: screens. The papers were originally presented during a Dumbarton Oaks Symposium in May of 2003, and, as editor and contributor Sharon E. J. Gerstal notes in her introduction, they seek to explore "the material expression of a critical limit, divid[ing] sacred from profane" and the liminal quality of thresholds (1). The resulting volume addresses the complexity of issues surrounding our attempts to understand the paradox of screens as both barriers and integrating features of worshippers' experiences within sacred precincts, resulting in a shifting paradigm that derives from the liminal placement of screens at the thresholds of their buildings. Unlike other compilations in which the individual contributions stray from the central idea or become so diverse in topic as to stretch one's ability to make a coherent whole, all of these essays adhere to the overall theme while utilizing a variety of methodological approaches. Because the scholars had worked together in a seminar format, they were aware of each other's projects and, when appropriate, reference that research in their own papers in order to create some, albeit minimal, cohesion. The scholarship within the volume is as multi-layered as the topic even in its presentation for one must "pass through" introductory photographs of screens or thresholds in order to obtain the knowledge stored within each essay. My only reservation about the content stems from my own research biases; as a scholar studying western screens, the preponderance of papers focused on Eastern examples (seven out of nine) almost belies the title's assertion of "East and West," especially considering so much work still needs to be done in western locales. Although scholars of both geographical regions face similar issues, such as fragmentary remains, other factors, like differing liturgical and religious practices, warrant equal representation of both areas within such a book. Yet, the approaches and results of these studies, aided by copious footnotes and illustrations, are both intriguing and stimulating for the information and suggestions they provide to any reader. The range of research is so varied and meaningful that a brief summary of each paper is justified. Joan Branham's "Penetrating the Sacred: Breaches and Barriers in the Jerusalem Temple" is the sole contribution centered on a Judaic monument. Using literary topoi as well as archaeological and textual evidence, she gives a clear and erudite examination of the funnel-like effect of the Herodian Temple's thresholds. Further, she relates these sites of transition and their barriers of varying heights to the presence of a ritually-charged substance: blood. The result is a complex and enlightening analysis of a now lost monument through a Jewish lens.

"The Decline of Communion in Byzantium and the Distancing of the Congregation from the Liturgical Action: Cause, Effect, or Neither?" marks the shift from Judaic to Byzantine monuments. Here, Robert Taft struggles to define the relationship between the templon, or the predecessor of the iconostasis, and the decline in lay participation in the liturgy. Relying primarily on textual sources, he examines three contributing factors: the fourth-century penitential crisis, the increased awe of the Eucharist, and the motives behind the closure of the sanctuary. By focusing on the patriarch of Constantinople, he discards liturgical evidence from areas beyond its borders, such as Syria, on account of the different practices; this restriction is appropriate, but makes his use of Syrian architectural evidence somewhat confusing, especially when examples exist within Constantinople itself. His essay, however, probes an interesting question, especially considering later debates on the "interference" of liturgical furnishings in religious experiences.

Urs Peschlow provides a very different and insightful view of the church by slipping into an area not often considered in relation to screens: the aisles. In "Dividing Interior Space in Early Byzantine Churches: The Barriers between the Nave and Aisles," Peschlow examines the laity's section of the building which is separated into areas by barriers erected between columns of the nave and ambulatory arcades. Due to the fragmentary state of the remains, he relies on traces of structures found on stylobates and column bases in basilican churches. Not only does this paper constitute an incredibly interesting survey of material, but he raises a number of questions that will provide fruitful areas for further research.

In "Veiling Sanctity in Christian Egypt: Visual and Spatial Solutions," Elizabeth Bolman presents valuable archaeological evidence for medieval Egyptian sanctuary arrangements. Particularly exciting is her evidence for wooden screens, a medium likely used for liturgical furnishings throughout the medieval world, but lost due to its ephemeral quality. Not only is this essay a useful, methodical presentation of a large body of physical remains, but Bolman also situates her findings in the conceptual framework of the screen as veil of the tabernacle using Coptic textual sources. Her deduction that screens participate in rites both before and behind them lending them adaptability and multiple meanings is a poignant conclusion which can be applied to all liturgical furnishings.

Sophie Kalopissi-Verti's paper, "The Proskynetaria of the Templon and Narthex: Form, Imagery, Spatial Connections, and Reception," is a beautiful reading of the activated image on a threshold. By examining the frames as well as the content and gestures of the icons of the templon and then the narthex in relation to the liturgy, she traces the development of these special devotional images from the tenth century through the end of Byzantium. Furthermore, she links the proskynetaria and narthex images exposing a network of connections between pictures located in and beyond the sanctuary.

Gerstel's "An Alternate View of the Late Byzantine Sanctuary Screen" attempts to move beyond the quagmire of studies which use written and visual sources to chronologically situate the closing of the chancel barrier. Instead, she focuses masonry screens both with and without painted panels in order to understand their overlooked relationship to later monuments. Her use of an appended catalogue of the various remains of masonry screens that were plastered and then painted not only gives scholars a handy reference, but also allows her to concentrate on her theoretical and visual analysis of this evidence in her text. She presents a fascinating discussion of the many layers of meaning attached to these images depending on their physical and liturgical context as well as in relation to bilateral icons.

Nicholas P. Constas engages in a complex philosophical and theological discussion of screens in the Late Byzantine period. As indicated in the title of his essay, "Symeon of Thessalonike and the Theology of the Icon Screen," he relies primarily on texts written by hesychast Symeon concluding that the iconostasis did not denote or create a binary system; instead, akin to their comprehension of the invisible God, the Byzantines viewed the screen as a mediator of opposites. Such theological papers can often become mired in technical readings and complex philosophies which make the subtle argument difficult for the uninitiated to follow; Constas, however, presents his material in an organized and easily understandable manner, making for a stimulating read.

With her contribution to this volume, Jacqueline E. Jung continues her valiant efforts to debunk archaic functional and aesthetic evaluations of liturgical furnishings in the West. "Seeing through Screens: The Gothic Choir Enclosure" is a study of the choir screen as a frame for visual experience that values both the negative space of doorways and the positive art surrounding the openings. By examining Northern European screens in relation to later panel paintings she tries to recapture the laity's layered visual experience of the screen in relation to its surroundings. She concludes that the screens were integral monuments bound to the entire landscape of the building. Her reading of the western choir screen in Naumburg Cathedral in relation to the founder sculptures from various viewpoints in the laity's area is particularly fascinating.

In "The Tramezzo in the Italian Renaissance, Revisited," Marcia B. Hall returns to her research topic of the 1970's in order to examine more recent scholarship on Renaissance Italian rood screens and address some questions left unresolved in her previous publications. She is to be commended in this endeavour for her ability to synthesize the latest research and for her openness about questions that need to be addressed in order to truly understand this phenomenon on the Italian peninsula.

Overall, these papers present much food for thought. I would not hesitate to use this volume as the means of engaging upper level students in discussions of liturgical furnishings, philosophies of thresholds, or even as an example of how various methodologies can be applied to a single topic. In addition, I will personally return to the volume time and again as a means of stimulating my own research interests, using it both for information, ideas and approaches.