Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1845
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 through the storms of life to safe harbor in Christ.
Visser’s knowledge of etymology is impressive. Her discussion concerning the pallium worn by Catholic clergy is a wonderful example of how the connections she draws between words’ concrete meanings and their symbolic usages reveals their deeper cultural and religious significance. The woolen pallium, a garment worn over the shoulders, has been part of the ecclesiastical dress of bishops since the fourth century. Mosaic representations of two popes in the apse of Sant’ Agnese show them wearing the pallium. Harkening back to John 21:15-17, where Jesus asks Peter three times to “feed my sheep,” the pallium symbolizes the bishop’s role as shepherd to the faithful. New pallia are woven annually from the wool of a flock of sheep kept at Castel Gandolfo, one of the pope’s residences. Special lambs are selected every year for inclusion in the pope’s flock, but before they are transported to their new home, they are part of a blessing ceremony held at Sant’ Agnese on January 21, the saint’s feast day. The pallia are white, which represents purity. Visser explains that the Greek word for “pure” is hagnes, and the Latin word for “lamb” is agnus. Both words play on Agnes’s name, and emphasize not only her innocence and chastity, but also reflect her martyrdom, as well as her role as a sacrificial lamb in the tradition of the crucified Christ.
Moving on to the apse, Visser delights in describing the mosaic that arches over the altar, depicting Agnes flanked by the two pallium-clad popes. She covers in depth the technique of creating a mosaic from glittering sheets of glass cut into jewel-like cubes called tesserae. The mosaic shows Agnes wearing a purple robe embroidered with the figure of a phoenix. No detail in any work of art in Sant’ Agnese is superfluous. Instead, every decoration is “intentionally meaningful,” and the phoenix is no exception. Visser carefully explains the significance the pagans, as well as the early Christians, attached to the mythical bird. She notes that the phoenix first appeared in the folklore of ancient Egypt and then was appropriated by the Greeks. Because the red and gold bird burned and then was reborn from its own ashes, it came to symbolize resurrection to both pagans and Christians. Christians also connected the bird’s color to the baptism of fire which the martyr suffered, and also to Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples and crowned each of them with tongues of flame.
The side chapels give Visser an opportunity to address some aspects of Catholic tradition that may mystify modern Catholics as well as outsiders. One chapel is dedicated to the Sacred Hearts of Mary and Jesus. Acknowledging that “devotion to the Sacred Heart could look, especially to intellectuals, increasingly like a lamentable breach of taste,” Visser sensitively explores the history of devotion to the Sacred Heart, its theological underpinnings, and the reasons why, after meditating on the Sacred Heart, many Catholics have been inspired to work for the benefit of the poor and suffering. In considering the importance of the Sacred Heart to some Catholics, Visser emphasizes that Christianity is a “bodily religion,” where two opposites, Creator and creature, became one being in Christ. Throughout her book, Visser frequently focuses on similar paradoxes within Christian theology, such as how the Eucharist can be both the physical and spiritual body of Christ, or the relationship between the Church, the group of believers, and the church, the physical building. She does not try to explain these apparent contradictions away, preferring instead to allow them to remain mysteries of faith.
The outside of Sant’Agnese proves to be just as fertile for Visser’s ruminations as the inside. Diverting a while from her tour of Sant’Agnese, she turns to Santa Costanza, a small round church that stands on the grounds of the Sant’ Agnese complex. Originally built as a mausoleum for the daughter of the Roman emperor Constantine, the church is now used by the congregation of Sant’ Agnese for special ceremonies. The round shape of the church causes Visser to “read” it differently than she does the linear design of Sant’ Agnese. She compares the ambulatory to a nave wrapped around a central space, which, in the case of Santa Costanza, surrounds Constantina’s tomb. The circular pattern reflects the notion that the beginning and the end of life are inextricably linked. The tomb at the center of the ambulatory is like the hub of a wheel, a place symbolizing in physical form eternal rest and peace for a soul whose life is now complete.
Although Visser offers meticulous descriptions of the exterior and interior of Sant’ Agnese, it is sometimes difficult for the reader to visualize the specific areas and artworks she is talking about. Visser explains that photographs would be a distraction for readers. However, the inclusion of a floor plan, as well as photographs of some of the major artworks, would only complement and enhance the text. The sole photograph, depicting the altar and apse of Sant’ Agnese, appears on the front of the dust jacket, and only whets the reader’s appetite for more representations of other parts of the church. Some photographs appear on Visser’s World Wide Web site, http://www.margaretvisser.com, but many are too small to be useful, and the images are unavailable to those readers who do not have access to the Internet.
In her introduction, Visser talks about the time she was visiting a small church located in the Spanish countryside. A Japanese tourist and a guide were also touring the church. As the guide was reviewing the architecture, the tourist stood horrified when he glimpsed a painted, life-sized carving of a bleeding man nailed to two pieces of wood. The tourist looked at the guide, who simply told him how old the carving was and moved on to other artifacts. Obviously the tourist would have benefited from a more elaborate explanation. Visser claims that it was that experience that motivated her to write The Geometry of Love. Her goal was to “make this church—and at the same time any other church—accessible to visitors” and to “give readers an inkling of the spiritual, cultural, and historical riches that any church offers.” She succeeds admirably. In fact, her book could be used as a model for people of other faiths to help curious outsiders experience the richness of belief systems other than their own.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic Monthly 288 (July/August, 2001): 162.
Christian Century 118 (May 23, 2001): 28.
The Christian Science Monitor, May 24, 2001, p. 20.
Commonweal 138 (May 24, 2001): 32.
Entertainment Weekly, May 4, 2001, p. 63
Library Journal 126 (February 1, 2001): 102.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (June 3, 2001): 48.