Evelien Roels

Anchoring religious change through local place-making

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Coming together to perform sacred rites – whatever form they take – may be considered as the core of religious practice. With the legalisation of Christianity in the fourth century, the Christian places of gathering now could take on a public and monumental form. But how do new religions find their place within existing urban fabrics and monumental landscapes?

Project summary

Following the legalisation of Christianity in the beginning of the fourth century, the new religion gained a prominent public presence by the erection of monumental cult buildings. Under the patronage of the emperor, basilicas were constructed in the imperial capitals of Rome and Constantinople, as well as in the spiritual center of Christian faith, Jerusalem. Looking at the Roman empire at large, however, beyond the imperial centers, Christian religion also acquired a monumental public presence on a local level and did so in a variety of ways. This project investigates how local communities beyond the imperial centers integrated the new religion in the existing urban space imbued with pre-Christian monuments and meaning.

As Christian sacred rites differed substantially from those of polytheistic cult, the question arises how the existing religious topographies and monuments were adapted to the new needs of Christian communities. One of the aspects to consider, as one of the most visible novelties that a new religion or cult brings into shared public space, is that of collective gatherings. Coming together to practice sacred rites – whatever form they take – may even be considered as the core of religious practice. While Christian gatherings had, of course, long taken place in private buildings and in smaller groups, the official occasions during which the faithful could meet now took place in central and large public buildings, visually prominent and recognisable to all inhabitants of a city or town.

This project aims to investigate how collective religious gatherings were able to anchor new religions in existing sacred landscapes through the adoption, adaption and creation of monumental structures and civic venues. What type of monuments were employed or newly erected to house the meetings of the members of new religious groups? What terminology was used to refer to these sacred buildings and by whom? Which strategies of anchoring can be observed in the use of specific building types, architectural motives, decoration, inscriptions and the arrangement of space?

Answers to questions such as these have often been based on material from the grand imperial cities, like Rome, Antioch, and Milan. There is still a wealth of material to consider from cities within the provinces, where several basilicas were built next to a city’s Capitolium (as in Sbeitla, Numidia) or a city’s most prominent temple could be walled in to turn it into a church (as in Diokaisareia, Cilicia). This project will do exactly that, looking at several cities within Asia Minor and North Africa.

Examining how collective gatherings of new religions and cults were monumentally anchored within the existing urban landscape this project contributes to a better understanding of the concept of anchoring through the application of two interpretive models. This is first the concept of localism that helps to study the anchoring of sacred buildings from a local and regional perspective as opposed to the large donations by the emperor in the capital(s). Secondly, the concept of place-making is drawn upon to study the practices involved with the forming, changing, and developing (both transitive and intransitive) of place and how meaning is attached to place.

Source image: Wikimedia Commons. By Yılmaz Kilim, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53881064