(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Contemplating the great Gothic cathedrals of France, nineteenth century French author Victor Hugo called them “books in stone.” Medieval Europeans, from learned theologians to the people in the street, knew how to interpret the language of stained glass windows, stately statues, and gargoyle guardians. People living in the twenty-first century, however, are largely illiterate when it comes to grasping the deeper meanings associated with Christian religious imagery. Margaret Visser revives the art of “reading” sacred places in Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church.

Visser is a classicist by training who has evolved into an “anthropologist of everyday life,” writing about human activities as commonplace as eating a simple meal. In this exhaustively researched “guidebook,” she takes the reader through Sant’ Agnese fuori le Mura, a seemingly ordinary church just outside the walls of Rome. However, Sant’ Agnese is far from typical. Few neighborhood churches are filled with priceless artwork, are one of 123 “tituli,” or Roman churches presided over by a cardinal, or are built over the bones of a martyr, yet it is precisely because of these unique attributes that Visser’s choice of subject is ideal. Sant’ Agnese’s floor plan, Romanesque architecture, and artwork provide a fitting framework for Visser’s wide-ranging discussions of anthropology, folklore, etymology, theology, and early Christian history.

Beginning and ending her exploration of the church with the tomb of Agnes, Visser recounts the events that led up to the saint’s death. Agnes, one of several virgin martyrs who were venerated by the early Church, was born into a wealthy family in the fourth century. By the time she reached marriageable age at twelve, she had many suitors, among them the son of the Roman prefect. The young man asked Agnes to marry him, tempting her with power and riches. She declined his proposal, claiming that she was bound to another lover: Jesus Christ. Since she refused to marry, Agnes was given the choice of being sent to a brothel or becoming a vestal virgin. She chose the brothel but, according to her fifth century passio (a short hagiography), she was saved from rape by divine intervention. She was sentenced to death by the state for her rebelliousness and stabbed to death in the throat. Her family buried her in their plot by the Via Nomentana, along with her foster sister, Emerentiana, also a virgin martyr. Subsequently, the Christian community gathered at the grave to remember their fallen sisters, and a small basilica was constructed over their bones. Eventually the basilica was torn down and replaced by the present edifice around 630, approximately 325 years after Agnes’s death.

Halfway through her book, Visser reports this official account of Agnes’s martyrdom, but she does not necessarily believe that it happened as recorded in Agnes’s passio. Instead, toward the end of the book, Visser entertains a darker, less romanticized possibility. Arguing that ancient Romans felt uncomfortable executing virgins, Visser contends that young women were first raped by their executioners in order to change their virgin status, legalizing their murder in the name of the state. Some readers may find this revelation less palatable than the official story, but Visser does not shrink from truth at the expense of keeping a questionable legend alive. A practicing Catholic, she never allows her insider status to cloud her scholarly judgment.

Visser’s survey of Sant’ Agnese is both a guided tour and a pilgrimage of the soul. Commenting that “the building is turned into a metaphor for a journey; stationary space signifying moving time,” she illuminates both the church’s physical and spiritual structure through her expert knowledge of Christian and art history, and Catholic doctrine. Visser notes that the center aisle, which runs from nave to apse, represents the Christian’s odyssey through life, a journey that eventually finds its fulfillment in eternal life with God. The floor plan also recalls epic biblical journeys, including Abraham’s sojourn from Ur to the Promised Land and the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Visser points out that the word “nave” is derived from the Latin navis, meaning “ship.” The word calls to mind not only the boat and fishing imagery found in the Bible, but also compares the Church (both the spiritual body and the physical structure) to a type of ark which carries Christians...

(The entire section is 1845 words.)