Christianization and Churches in the Peloponnese

I was pretty excited to see Rebecca Sweetman’s new article, “The Christianization of the Peloponnese: The Topography and Function of Late Antique Churches” in the Journal of Late Antiquity 3 (2010), 203-261 yesterday afternoon.  The article is a sweeping and careful consideration of the 130-odd Early Christian churches in the Peloponnesus.  This is a topic near and dear to my heart as these churches made up the majority of buildings that I studied in my dissertation.  In fact, I think Sweetman’s article represents the most significant contribution to our study of these buildings as participants in the Christianization process since my dissertation appeared in 2003.

In almost every way (as one might suspect), Sweetman’s article is a more refined, if more conservative perspective, on the role of churches in the spread of Christianity throughout southern Greece. She begins with the observation that scholars have tended to approach churches from the perspective of architectural development rather than with an eye toward their socio-political significance.  When scholars have turned to social or political considerations, they have tended to see churches as evidence for the large scale contraction of Late Antique society in the 6th and 7th century usually as a result of the Slavic invasions documented in the Chronicle of Monemvasia.  Sweetman argues that we need to free our interpretations from the constraints of “hindsight bias” or “creeping determinism” to reveal the interpretative potential for these buildings.  This was a reassuring paragraph to read in part because I have offered similar (but by no means identical) arguments in a recent publication in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology.

With her arguments grounded in something of a theoretical foundation, Sweetman goes on to offer observations on the relationship between the spread of Christian architecture and the spread of Christianity.  She argued, plausibly, that the dates of Christian churches show that Christianity spread from north to south in the Peloponnese and from coastal areas to more remote inland areas.  While we should always be cautious in accepting the published dates of these Early Christian buildings (if we’ve learned anything from folks like the Director of Corinth Excavations, Guy Sander, who has relentless questioned of established chronologies), the general pattern of gradual expansion from the more densely populated and “important” coastal centers in along the northern coast of the Peloponnese (Corinth, Patras, Argos, et c.) to the less densely populated and less well-connected regions of the southern coast of Greece seems almost intuitive.  In fact, we know that Byzantines made the same assumptions about the spread of Christianity; in the Life of St. Nikon, we learn that the Mani in the far southwestern corner of the Peloponnese, was still un-Christianized in the 10th century.  It is difficult to know whether this is true or not, but it conforms to a long-standing trope that more remote areas remained pagan longer.  Of course, remote areas tend to have less monumental architecture almost be definition. So, if there is a rough equivalence between monumental architecture and the spread of Christianity, remote areas will always present less evidence for religious change.  Finally, scholars have spent less time looking for monuments in remote areas of Greece so there might be another kind of bias present in Sweetman’s work related to the priorities of archaeological investigation.  Despite these potentially problematic issues in her analysis, her general point stands as plausible.  Urban areas and their territories likely manifest Christianity earlier than rural areas.

(Her arguments for the relationship between pagan monuments and Early Christian monuments likewise represents a plausible and well-considered interpretations.  There is little evidence for the large scale conversion of temples to churches across all of Greece. It is likely that the relationship between the two religious perspectives was, as Sweetman argues, “inconsistent” and highly localized.)

Sweetman’s arguments for how churches actually spread Christianity were somehow less satisfying.  On the one hand, her work shows a strong command over the architectural and archaeological evidence for churches in the Peloponnese.  The greatest weakness of my dissertation is that I let theory (at best, and imagination, at worst) dictate my interpretation to a significant extent.  Sweetman’s work remains firmly grounded in the archaeological evidence and takes few speculative leaps.  Her discussion of baptisteries, for example, emphasizes how the baptistery buildings tend to have  structured relationships with the main sacramental areas of the churches allowing the newly baptized to move, probably in a highly-ritualized way, from baptism to the more sacred space of the church itself.  (She also makes the interesting observation that baptisteries are less common in the southern Peloponnese and suggests that this may reflect a different ritual or type of baptismal architecture there.  As an alternative consistent with Sweetman’s general arguments, it may be that by the later date of conversion in the southern Peloponnesus, baptism had come to occupy a somewhat less ritually-central place to the life of the community).  The interior arrangement of space within the churches was likewise treated with the same careful, if conservative, approach.  Sweetman argued that the diversity of interior arrangement may well reflect the different ritual needs and tastes of local communities responsible for constructing the church buildings.  The variations between churches ensured that these buildings could represent the unique character of each community and stand out as distinct markers of identity.

A catalogue of Peloponnesian churches dating to between the late-4th and late-7th centuries takes up the final twelve pages of her article. This catalogue will be a boon to anyone interested in these buildings. The catalogue is necessarily brief, but nevertheless presents a nice summary of the features and setting of each church and provides some basic references.  Yiannis Varalis catalogue remains the gold standard for basic descriptions of churches in Illyricum Orientalis (although it is a dissertation at the University of Thessaloniki rather than the University of Athens as in footnote 40) and, in a pinch, my dissertation catalogue provides an English language alternative (although, it has too many little mistakes to be used without a critical eye).

I do have a few little issues with the article.  One is not the author’s fault at all. For some reason some of the footnotes “appeared” behind some of the images.  I’ll admit to being vain.  I discovered this as I was searching for any reference to my dissertation only to find it behind figure 5!!

I also was disappointed to see so relatively little Greek scholarship in the footnotes.  For example, Orlandos’ massive contribution to the study of Early Christian architecture did not appear (from what I could tell) in the footnotes.  Very little of Demetrios Pallas’ later work appeared. These sometimes obscure articles make a significant contribution to how we understand the relationship between liturgy and space within Early Christian churches.  I do not always accept his arguments, but these articles are the point of departure for any study of ritual in the context of Early Christian Greece.  Volanakis nice, if now slightly outdated catalogue of Early Christian baptisteries in Greece was also omitted.  Some of these oversights probably relate to the nature of the publication – after all, it was an article – but I would have liked to see more of my familiar Greek “friends” in the footnotes and the texts.  When so many western archaeologists were digging through Byzantine and Late Roman layers looking for the Classical foundations of Western culture, Greek scholars were doing the tough work of excavating, documenting, and curating Early Christian and Byzantine monuments.

4 Comments

  1. Kostis Kourelis January 4, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Sweet!!! Time for some GIS mapping.

    Reply

  2. That’s a really good critique on Rebecca’s article. I read it also waiting for a stricter application of the initial theoretic desiderata of the article as stated in the introduction, and also there seems to be an awful lot of errors and mispellings in the greek footnotes.

    Reply

  3. Hi all. Thanks so much for constructive feedback. I am in Greece now hoping to expand this project and do some geo-tagging work on the churches for an image database…
    I am attempting a more refined study and many of the points you all make above, particularly about the Greek bibliography, I will be able to improve significantly as I will be writing while in Athens as opposed to St Andrews where the Greek resources are not so plentiful!!
    Bill, any chance we will run into you in Greece over the next few months?
    All the best
    Rebecca

    Reply

  4. Rebecca,

    Unfortunately, I won’t be in Greece in the foreseeable future. My research interests (and job) have led me off in other directions. Most of my fieldwork these-a-days is in Cyprus and I am teaching full time in the U.S. No rest for the …

    But I look forward to your ongoing work.

    Bill

    Reply

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