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Dividing the indivisible: The monastery space – secular and sacred

Dividing the indivisible: The monastery space – secular and sacred

By Svetlana Popović

Zbornik radova Vizantoloskog instituta, Issue 44 (2007)

Abstract: The spatial dualism, secular – sacred, reflected deeply on the creation of the Byzantine monastery space. My investigation focused on the dualism of monastic spaces and buildings, especially on their secular aspects in Byzantine cenobitic monasteries.

Introduction: For Byzantine men and women, space was not homogeneous. There existed a sacred space with its ultimate earthly manifestation — the Christian church — and a secular space that represented all other spatial levels within a designated terrestrial part of its Christian universe. Thus the secular space provides the ambiance in which the sacred becomes possible. This spatial dualism, typical for homo religiosus, reflected deeply on the creation of the monastery space too.

I have argued elsewhere that the meaning and perception of the physical features of a monastery in Byzantium represented a passage to heaven, an intermediate zone between heaven and earth. A monastery settlement reflects the pronounced spatial hierarchy: its enclosure provides otherness, individual cells may become a path to heaven and thus acquire a higher status in the hierarchy of sacredness, while the church represented the ultimate sacred spot — the gate of heaven or even heaven on earth. Thus a monastery represents, at its final stage of development, a symbolic spatial image in which secular and sacred meet.

My further investigation will focus on the dualism of monastic spaces and buildings, especially on their secular aspects. Probably the first question to pose is what is secular and what is sacred in the monastery, and how does one distinguish its dual nature? I have to stress at the outset that spatial ambivalence between the secular and sacred existed, on a much wider scale, in both Christian and non-Christian societies. The symbolic sanctification of the Roman town and its pomerium — the sacred line around the city — that was accompanied by special rites, represents one of the numerous examples that antedated Christianity. The well-known fact that the earliest structural forms of the church are found within Roman houses (domus aeclesiae) and later basilicas, only confirms that the appropriation line between secular and sacred has a very long history.

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