This month, Ann Marie Yasin published an important reconsideration of the martyria of Salona in the Journal of Early Christian Studies (20 (2012), 59-112; pdf here?). Martyria are buildings thought to be dedicated to particular Early Christian martyrs and the veneration of their remains. Scholars have long associated the centrally planned martyrium with some of the earliest forms of Early Christian monumental architecture. In fact, they have in some cases seen martyria as the key intermediate step between the veneration of Early Christian ancestors and saints in the catacombs and the explosive spread of basilica style churches in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries. As with so much in the study of Early Christian architecture, the material remains for the “evolution”, as Yasin puts it, from burial to monumental martyrium have not been subjected to particularly rigorous scrutiny, and the archaeology of the type site of Salona which featured three “early” martyr shrines that are central to how we have understood the development of this kind of building is particularly problematic.
Yasin’s article, then, subjects the archaeology of Salona to rigorous critique and suggests that the first step to unpacking the complex history of Early Christian architecture is to determine the viability of longstanding arguments for its development at key type sites like Salona. Yasin casts well-justified doubts over the traditional narrative of Christian architectural development and calls for scholars to focus on three particularly problematic areas:
1. The Regional and the Universal. I am working on a paper on monumental Early Christian architecture of Greece. Following the same lines as my dissertation, I am taking Early Christian architecture in Greece as a more or less unified corpus. To my mind, the most remarkable aspect of Early Christian building is the basic uniformity of Christian architecture. This uniformity reflected the institutional structure of church, reinforced the rising status of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and promoted the universal character of the Christian liturgy.
As Yasin points out in her article, this tendency to generalize has caused issues in the past. Scholars have overlooked the particulars of regional development or, more problematic still, the developments of particular sites or buildings. Yasin’s work at Salona, of course, also shows some problems with this approach as the archaeological records for many Early Christian buildings – not to mention the attention to detail in the excavation itself – are not conducive to the detailed study of phases. Moreover, in many cases the excavations followed the architecture and was more concerned with demonstrating the validity of longstanding arguments than carefully detailing the remains.
Yasin’s restudy of the archaeological reports and publications from Solona suggest considerable ambiguity in the traditional phasing of the buildings casting doubt on the neat narrative that assumed the pre-existence of important tombs which received progressive architectural elaboration.
2. The Trouble with Texts. Yasin points out that part of the difficulty in reading the Early Christian architecture is the tendency to see these buildings in terms of the various martyriological and hagiographical traditions. Yasin has suggested that, first, these textual sources are not only problematic in terms of chronology (and this is compounded by chronological ambiguities in the excavated buildings), but they often owe as much to literary conventions and tropes as local conditions. As a result, these texts do not serve as a reliable guide to the history of the buildings and may, in fact, reflect an imagined past that explains the nature of a standing structure. In short, past communities had as much invested in explaining the nature of the architecture as modern archaeologists, and both have created stories designed to make a useful sacred past.
3. Ambivalence and Ambiguity. A key point seen throughout Yasin’s article is that Christian buildings may not have conformed to the clear evolutionary or ritual outlines supposed by modern scholars. In fact, the ambiguity that characterized the archaeological remains of the martyria in Salona might well reflect the ambiguity and tensions present in the buildings as they stood for their ancient audiences. Buildings could and likely did sustain multiple meanings to their audiences. As a result, inscriptions, floor mosaics, and even hagiographic texts provide little to locate these churches within explicit narratives of development. One is tempted to expand this ambiguity to the architecture itself and note that Early Christian (and later) builders were not above mimicking earlier styles, combining features to create visually discordant and confusing montages, or even fabricating historical inscriptions. The willingness of ancient builders to play with architecture and to engage the viewer in a way that multiple potential narratives become possible and the architecture of the building would actively work to confuse simply interpretations.
The tension between the easy readability of Early Christian architecture in general and the complex features, architectural relationships, and narratives associated with specific sites communicated the tension between the general (perhaps universal) and the local in Christian history. The historical nature of the Incarnation, so central to Christian theology, and the universal power of the Christian God found clear parallels with the general power of the institutional church and the local traditions of the sacred.