The Church at Merbaka

Guy Sanders’ recent article in the most recent issue of Hesperia reconsiders “William of Moerbeke’s Church at Merbaka,” and completes my week of commentary on articles associated with my colleagues in the Corinthia. To say this article is new or recent is perhaps a bit misleading. Guy Sanders, the director of the Corinth Excavations, has talked about the ideas contained in this article for quite some time, and a preprint was available on his page for a couple of years. In fact, I’ve been using this preprint in preparation for taking students to see this building on the Western Argolid Regional Project.

Sanders’ arguments are some of the best examples for how traditional archaeological and architectural analysis can continue to produce provocative, meaningful, and far-reaching contributions to how we understand the ancient and Medieval worlds. Over the last few months, I’ve immersed myself in a series of books that explore conceptually and theoretically edges of the discipline of archaeology, and I have found them invigorating and exciting. In this context Guy’s work, which focuses more on careful chronological and iconographic arguments than appeals to overarching theory, was a welcome break.

I’ll make just a few observations here. To get the full impact of the article, go and read the preprint (for free) or the article

1. Chronology. Perhaps the most important contribution of this article is Sanders’ re-dating of the church from the final third of the 12th century to the end of the 13th century based in large part on the date of the bowls immured in its wall. This Sanders then supports with an intriguing interpretation of the buildings’ use of spolia and the name of the village where it stands (Merbaka) to suggest that William of Moerbeke was it patron. William of Moerbeke was a well educated Frankish cleric who became Archbishop of Corinth in 1277 shortly after the brief and uneven reunification of the Eastern and Orthodox church at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274.  

2. Architecture as Assemblage. Sanders’ bases his argument on the complex and expansive range of spolia built into the church at Merbaka. Without spoiling (see what I did there?) some of the fun of the article, Sanders’ saw in this spolia references to William of Moerbeke’s learning (including a clever, if a bit strained play on the word spolia), his friendship with the Argives, and the Second Council of Lyons.

Sanders’ reading of the church demands that we recognize the use of spolia as both a unified narrative holding the disparate fragments of reused material (both literally and figuratively) together in the church, as well as reading each piece of spolia as relating to a wider context. The spolia both draws the viewer both to the building and asks them to understand the meaning of these stones through a series of plausible links to events outside of the style and architecture of the monument. In this way, the church at Merbaka may be best understood as an assemblage, and Guy Sanders’ is good at understand assemblages.

3. A Global Greece. Finally, Sanders’ revised dating and interpretation of this church reframes an important monument in the Medieval architecture of Greece not as an example of local genius, or a regional understanding of larger Mediterranean styles, or an indigenous (or worse provincial) style, but as the product of a global Greece permeated with Eastern and Western influences that stretch from the capital to the Scholasticism of France and the Low Countries. William of Moerbeke experience as Archbishop and recognition of the local community offered the key opportunity of this expression of a global Greece to emerge.

When set against recent events, Sanders’ positive reading of this church and its patron takes on a slight shadow. While there is no doubt that the Corinthia and Argolid have long been engaged in global networks, at the same time, the role of powerful extra-regional forces like those that brought William of Moerbeke to the Peloponnesus have typically resulted in the loss of some local political, economic, and social autonomy. This needn’t always be the case. After all, Guy Sanders is the director of a foreign excavation in Greece, but maintains a close relationship with the community in Corinth, lives in the village, and has advocated for, celebrated, and recognized many of the positive things about Greek society. At the same time, any reading of the assemblage from William of Moerbeke’s church today must remind the viewer of the more negative impacts of direct foreign involvement in the region.

When recognized as part of the modern landscapes, the church continues to ask provocative and compelling questions of the viewer. 

One Comment

  1. I was heard Guy speak on site about this church, so it’s great to see a publication on it. Thanks for highlighting an interesting bit of history/architecture and its connection to broader scholarly trends.


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