The edition: North Point Press hardback, 325 pages, with notes and bibliography
What it is about: using the Roman church of Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura, Visser goes on a journey to explain all the different layers of meaning present in a church: architecture represents spiritual life, art derives from history and reflects on myth, words in several languages create a network of cross-references, and everything can be read as through a glass, on a number of levels.
My experience with the book & my thoughts: I came across a mention of this book while I was looking for books set in Italy for last year’s Italy in Books reading challenge. I wasn’t able to finish it in time, but I am so glad that I discovered it, because I would never have found out about it elsewhere. And it’s a great book! I knew many of the things it is about, religious meanings and art history things… but they are masterfully woven together with so many other things and detail. It is a labour of love, and as such it is a masterpiece: I rarely read so good a non-fiction book. But I cannot really explain what’s so good about it, so just scroll down and read some of it in the author’s own words!
What I liked: the way so many different levels are interwoven. And of course all the etymological insight.
What I didn’t like: if I had to find a fault, that would be a couple of references to the author previous work (which was about food and had nothing to share, apart from the author’s own intent of analysing things on so many different levels).
In the author’s own words: the best way to tell you about this book is to share some parts. I loved this train of connections (it’s a bit longish, but please bear with me, it’s a perfect example of all the different layers of meaning that the author weaves together in the book):
The preliminary section of many early churches was an enclosed area outside the front doors, a courtyard before the temple, often with greenery and flowers and a fountain. In Latin the name for it was atrium (as the courtyard of a Roman house was called), or porticus, because it was a pillared enclosures; or it was called a paradisus, a garden, but one with biblical connotations. “Paradise” comes from a Persian word meaning a “walled-in enclosure,” often a deer park. The word came to denote more vaguely a “pleasure garden.” For this reason “paradise” was used to translate the Hebrew word gan, or garden, in the Book of Genesis: the place where Adam and Eve lived in delightful innocence before they disobeyed God. […] The first disobedience was the end of innocence — but still it is seen as standing at the beginning of the story of the human race. And similarly, to enter a church we step out of the narthex, or “paradise.”
Now the next stage of the journey can begin. The “road,” the church’s central aisle, lies ahead, its length representing the time humanity has before it, the span each person has to live. […]
In the children’s game of hopscotch, the origins of which are very old, a pattern of squares is scratched on a bald patch of ground, or drawn in chalk on a city sidewalk. […] Some hopscotch patterns are spiral, with the goal in the middle, like a labyrinth. There the player is said to be “reborn”: the next stage of the game is to turn and hop back out. This hopscotch design can be interpreted as a figure of the “journey” of life, as well as a static picture of the soul: of the truth — God — to be found at the heart of every self. Round churches are built in part to evoke such ideas. A different hopscotch pattern resembles the ground plan of a basilical church with a transverse section, or transept. This shape expresses, as we shall see, the spiritual life in time. […] The normally rounded hopscotch end-piece is known in many languages as “paradise,” or by a word such as “crown” or “glory.”
And a shorter one:
The lamb is Agnes’ attribute or identifying symbol; she was one of the first Christian saints to have one. The lamb (agnus in Latin) is a visual pun on the girl’s name. In Greek (her name is, in fact, Greek) hagne means “full of religious awe” (hagos). In ancient Greek religion, sacred people, places, or objects — those that were considered untouchable and “fenced-off” — had, and aroused, hagos. […] It is not surprising that the myth of Agnes should have endowed her with sacred virginity, for such a quality was suggested by her name.
Book connection: the same truths about the catacombs I read recently in The Last Cato.
Read this if: if you want to know more about art history, Catholicism, religious history; if you are passionate about word etymology… if you ever plan to visit Rome!
Counts as: Reading Round Rome #1; Travel with Books (Rome)