Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Hugo Brandenburg, Stefan Heid, Christoph Markschies (ed.), Salute e guarigione nella tarda antichità: atti della giornata tematica dei Seminari di archeologia cristiana (Roma - 20 maggio 2004). Città del Vaticano: Pontificio istituto di archeologia cristiana, 2007. Pp. 286. ISBN 9788885991453. €40.00.

Reviewed by Ildikó Csepregi, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library (

Version at BMCR home site

This volume is exceptional both in its parts and in its entirety, and a major contribution to the understanding of ritual healing in Late Antiquity. The majority of the papers handle archaeological and iconographic sources, providing a valuable addition to recent publications on incubation texts. Incubation is, indeed, the focus of many of the papers, and, together with the rest of the religious healing practices outlined in the volume, they present a colourful picture of miraculous healing rituals in Early Christianity set against the light of its Greek predecessors.

Hugo Brandendurg, in "Esculapio e S. Bartolomeo nell'Isola Tiberina. La fine dei sacrari pagani e il problema della continuità del culto in veste Cristiana nella tarda antiquità e nell'altomedioevo" (pp.13-51) is silently revolutionary: it refutes the long-standing theory that healing activity was continuous at the site. The choice of the island for the Asclepius cult proves to be a very rational one: its physical isolation favoured the allocation of contagious patients, while the social and urban isolation was perfect for housing a foreign deity. By the end of the 4th century AD the importance of the island is still attested but there is no further mention of Asclepius. Supposedly the temple's activity ended quietly around the end of the 5th century AD when the island was used as a prison. The next news came from the end of the 9th century AD, the foundation of Saint Adalbert's church, which gave way to Saint Bartholomew in the 12th century. The gap between the cult of Asclepius and the first Christian construction is at least 500 years. To suppose an early Christian martyr cult on the island is unfounded, argues Brandenburg. Even when Christianized, there was no allusion to the thaumaturgic properties of the site. Healing is documented again only in the 16th century when a Portuguese confraternity dedicated to the care of the sick settled on the island. Their choice, again, was probably due to the relative isolation that qualified the site for a curative function.

Domenico Palombi, in "Medici e medicina a Roma: Tra Carie, Velia e Sacra Via" (pp. 53-78) addresses the continuity of healing activity from a different angle. He reconstructs the medical guild in the quarters between the Esquiline and the Palatine. This area could have included the first medical practice in Rome, possibly a medical school, a healing cult (of the goddess Febris), and finally the production and trade of drugs, medicines and chirurgical instruments in the Horrea Piperitaria. The anatomical demonstrations mentioned by Galen could also have been carried out in this area, more precisely, in the Forum Pacis, argues Palombi, which is also where he locates Galen's medical library. The paper ends with a hypothesis about the church dedicated to the physician saints Cosmas and Damian by Pope Felix in 526-530 AD, in the building of the supposed library of the Forum Pacis. The choice of this location, in Palombi's view, reflects "the long and consolidated tradition of the presence of the medical craft in the area".

Beat Brenk, in "Da Galeno a Cosma a Damiano: Considerazioni attorno all'introduzione del culto dei SS. Cosma e Damiano a Roma" (pp. 79-92) investigates the motives for selecting the site of Cosmas and Damian's church. Before recalling "the continuity of medical cult, that perhaps never existed, at the Forum Pacis", Brenk outlines the hagiographical tradition of Cosmas and Damian and rightly questions the "historical" reality of these saints. The mosaic in their Roman church represents them in the company of Saints Peter and Paul together with Saint Theodore. It was king Theodoricus (452-526 AD) who conceded the church to Pope Felix IV. Theodore is connected to Cosmas and Damian at other places as well (Apamea and Gerasa). The Byzantine Emperor Anastasius (491-518) showed a particular worship for St. Theodore. Brenk argues, that, as it was Anastasius who recognized Theodoricus as king of Rome, the selection of the church-site for the famous doctor saints together with Saint Theodore in such a prominent place, might have been a gesture for Byzantium, supported by Theodoricus' political heirs as well.

Fabrizio Bisconti, in "Le lastre policrome del Museo Nazionale Romano: immagini di salvezza e guarigione" (pp. 93-106) analyses the polychrome slabs on a funerary relief from the end of the 3rd/beginning of the 4th century. The scenes represent: the Sermon on the Mount, with Christ bearing certain attributes of Asclepius and Jupiter, acts of miraculous healings, and the multiplication of bread. Bisconti offers an alternative interpretation: Christ shown in the moment of missio apostolorum, illustrating Acts 2: 42-46: the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and their miracles.

Galit Noga-Banai, in "Loca Sancta and the Bethesda Sarcophagi" (pp.107-123) illustrates how the Christian church in Palestine in the 4th-5th centuries redefined its Old Testament connections and how such issues are reflected in early Christian iconography. She focuses on a 4th century Roman sarcophagus on which the central scene depicts the healing of the paralytic at Bethesda. Noga-Banai outlines two separate traditions around the miracle: one connecting the healing of the paralytic (together with the blind) to the pool of Siloam, and the other to the Bethesda pool. For a short period, the Church preferred to set the paralytic's miracle at the Siloam and embrace the associations of the Siloam with the Temple and its water-related ceremonies in the Old Testament and rabbinic literature. In Noga-Banai's view, the Bethesda sarcophagi actually depict this 'ad Siloam' tradition. She explains the disappearance of this motif by the strengthening of the Bethesda-tradition, marked by the building of the church of Mary at the Bethesda site in the early 5th century.

Peter Grossmann, in "Late Antique Christian Incubation Centres in Egypt" (pp.125-140) is surely one of the most important contributions to understanding (and to detecting) Christian incubation. Grossmann starts with the well-known complex of Saint Menas, pointing out the indicators of an incubation cult: the semi-circular shaped southern section, divided into several differently shaped rooms, with remains of a kliné, and washing rooms and latrines on both sides (for men, women). Near Abu Mina (in Sidi Mahmud) the small 6th century Christian sanctuary also preserves all the indications of incubation: a continuous row of beds with headrests along the inner northern wall, oversized sitting benches on the southern side and a further row of beds outside of the northern wall. The Western contra-apse has another set of incubation beds and seats, with a burial chamber beneath the ground. Another church with remains of beds long the inner side walls is the South Church of Abdalla Nirqi in Nubia (12th century or later). The church of Hirbat al-Bayudat in Palestine also has interior beds and the church of Saint Cosmas and Damian in Firan (ancient Pharan) in the southern Sinai also shows the signs of possible incubation. Grossmann makes two important statements: (1) the built-in klinai indicate incubation; (2) incubation could often be a secondary function of the church, which was otherwise an ordinary parochial church. These observations and the examples added will necessarily lead scholars to reconsider the importance of sleeping within a temple and its diffusion in Christianity, and provide a larger background to the preserved hagiographical records.

Thomas Lehmann, in "Felix Medicus ed Ambrosius Medicus. Vescovi, santi e luoghi di salvezza e guarigione fra IV e VI secolo" (pp.149-164) revisits a less known text: the Life of Saint Tychon, bishop in Cyprus, written by John the Almsgiver. Lehmann compares the written evidence with the recent excavation report from the site. The paleochristian basilica near the village of Hagios Tychonos, dedicated to the same saint, was most likely the place of the saint's vaulted tomb and the scene of the incubation miracles described in the life. Lehmann outlines a double context for Saint Tychon: he was a healing saint after his death with relics and also a thaumaturgic bishop while alive. In the debates over the authenticity of miracles, Lehmann analyses a particular text: the healing miracle performed by Saint Felix, which Paul of Nola wrote and read in 401 at the saint's tomb in Cimitile.

Christoph Markschies, in "Gesund werden im Schlaf – Einige Rezepte aus der Antike" (pp.165-198) raises one of the most provocative issues of Late Antique studies: cult continuity. Markschies starts with a thorough reconstruction of the Greek incubation ritual. He continues with Christian incubation examples in archaeological sources (in Athens the Asclepius temple and Church of the Anargyroi; and the basilica of Dor in Palestine) and texts (Menuthis). The confrontation of pagan and Christian sites provoked a heated discussion at the end of the volume, addressing the time gap between the practices and the continuity of settlement.

Christa Belting-Ihm, in "Mediomagische Praktiken und die Reaktion der Kirche" (pp.199-226) focuses on image-magic on amulets, her example being the knightly figure on horseback. She traces it back to the Heros Equitans Epiphanens (cc. 400 BC), who returns from the dead in desperate situations. Gods succoring sick people often come on horseback, almost always with a weapon in their hand. Hundreds of such figures were found in Greece but also in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, dating to the 2nd-3rd centuries AD. King Solomon was also represented as a horseman who defeats the sickness-causing demon, often a female figure. The horseman continues its popularity in a Christianized form: the Saint George-type figures on 6th century amulet finger-rings. Belting-Ihm identifies bracelets and rings with such imagery as the link to later Christian amulets with writing on them.

Angelo di Berardino, in "Guarigioni nel contesto della traslazione delle reliquie" (pp.227-244) concentrates on the relics of Saint Stephen the Protomartyr: their discovery in the early 5th century, the foundation of the first martyria, and the redaction of his miracles and the spread of the relics from Jerusalem to Uzalis, Rome, and all over North Africa. Among the prominent patrons Berardino analyses Augustine: he patronized Stephen's cult so zealously because he saw illness as a strong temptation to look for healing by sacrifice, amulets, idolatry, charms, or magic. The martyr's cult had a function of channeling such temptations towards religious healing.

Giulia Sfameni Gasparro, in "Theos Soter. Aspetti del culto di Asclepio dall'età ellenistica alla tarda antiquità" (pp. 245-272) gives a thorough outline on a century's scholarship on defining Ancient magic within the intertwined realms of medicine, religion and astrology. In interpreting the Letter of Thessalos the Physician, Sfameni Gasparro points out the importance of analysing magical practices within their individual and cultural contexts, but without abolishing the distinction between the two.

To sum up, this excellent and beautifully illustrated volume has two major achievements: first, it provides valuable contributions on single topics focusing on religious healing, giving, at the same time, a broader context for the different means of cures that existed next to the methods of ancient physicians. Second, many of the questions raised hold valid for other issues in Late Antiquity beside healing: Palombi, though his argument is mostly hypothetical, addresses the duration of healing tradition and the ways in which memory and oral traditions might be attached to a place and to its former associations. Markschies tackles a basic problem: How could it happen that people in antiquity changed the most fundamental elements of their religion but at the same time retained a healing paradigm (like incubation), attached to that religion, unchanged? Lehmann rightly observes that early Christian saints are not be labelled with a single name: there are different types of saints, and different types of healing modes, sometimes attached to the same figure. By mapping the diffusion of Stephen's relics, and connecting them with the emergence of miracles and miraculous healings, Berardino identifies a change in the religious feelings of the age. What is most important, the volume presents the diversity in the levels of meaning of soter/soteria/salus, emphasizing that in pagan and Christian contexts we are dealing with two different meanings and one should not mix these concepts because their implications overlapped or were expressed in a similar vocabulary or because the elusive notion of cultic continuity.

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