The Medieval Review 16.01.13

Marinis, Vasileios. Architecture and Ritual in the Churches of Constantinople, Ninth to Fifteenth Centuries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. xvii, 243. $99.99 (hardback). ISBN: 978-110-7040-168 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Glenn Peers
University of Texas at Austin

Any scholar wanting an accessible entry point to the forbidding realm of the Middle- and Late-Byzantine architecture of Constantinople/Istanbul will need to consult this book. The author has organized the treatment of the buildings largely into architectural units: chapters two through five, respectively, sanctuary and templon, naos, narthex and exonarthex, and subsidiary spaces. The framing chapters deal with the buildings' two primary functions, as the author defines them: chapter one and chapter six, again respectively, on liturgical and non-liturgical functions. The book also contains a very convenient catalogue of the extant churches, a strikingly small number of twenty-nine. Textual testimony is a crucial aspect of reconstructions of plans and meanings here, and even though the author claims texts "amply compensate" for the great losses in the material record, one cannot help but feel the fragmentary character of that record, is a serious detriment to our knowledge. (3) The black-and-white photographs and plans, however numerous, are no real compensation and neither is a primary-source description, however rich qua text. With so much lost then, the architectural record of church building in a major medieval capital is made richer by this clear, concise and thorough treatment.

As the title indicates, this book examines how buildings work in their functional contexts. The title does not give away any qualitative or evaluative leads about that work, and the book likewise keeps to a moderately self-reflective path. "Interchange" between architecture and ritual designates the ways in which architecture responds to the exigencies of liturgy and activities outside of ritual (1). Liturgical rituals were the fundamental means by which ecclesiastical buildings developed and changed. That position may not seem very innovative to most, but some promise is held out in the following for some progressive analysis on churches and Byzantine society: "Thus, rather than viewing church buildings as static structures, frozen in time by laying of last brick or tesserae, I argue that Byzantine churches were material, as well as open-ended social constructs and so were never finished, but they were continually in the process of becoming" (2). That statement holds a lot of promise, and yet methodological insights are not a primary benefit of this study. The interchange, mentioned above, is not simple, but it appears somewhat resistant to an answer. The "social constructs" do not have a role to play in explaining churches, and models of social interaction with buildings are not deployed here. Unlike Annabel Wharton's recent book Architectural Agents (2015), for example, churches are not given a very clear role in the unfolding of social meaning in Constantinople.

How to explain the individual churches within a system, with patterns and analogies, is an elusive goal here. The author recognizes and describes the limitations of liturgical texts, and he asserts regularly the problems of relying overmuch on liturgy to explain the forms and meanings of churches. He does excellent work detailing the extra-liturgical lives of these buildings in the catalogue. But how those lives were lived is still unclear. Some points needed clarification or better unpacking along these lines (one example: the congregants engaged with ritual through acts of contemplation [56], a very striking statement). And perhaps a comprehensive and coherent model is simply not possible (despite his claim to be looking for this position, 5). The basic adaptability of this building type is ultimately clear. Since practical and aesthetic concerns cover most eventualities (cf. e.g. 50), the reasons given are sometimes not entirely unexpected. But perhaps this kind of study is necessary to show the limits of a certain kind of analysis and the possibilities of gains to come, once this work is performed.

Copyright (c) 2016 Glenn Peers

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