Monday, February 15, 2016


Vered Shalev-Hurvitz, Holy Sites Encircled: The Early Byzantine Concentric Churches of Jerusalem. Oxford studies in Byzantium. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xviii, 430; 20 p. of plates. ISBN 9780199653775. $175.00.

Reviewed by Mark J. Johnson, Brigham Young University (

Version at BMCR home site


This book is a study of a group of churches in and near Jerusalem that were built over the most sacred sites of Christianity. The Roman emperor Constantine and his mother Helena were responsible for building churches in the 320s-330s at the site of Christ's birth at Bethlehem, the site of his crucifixion at Golgotha and of his tomb and resurrection, and at the place of his ascension. A century later, similar churches were built at sites connected with Mary near Jerusalem. This study provides an excellent overview of previous scholarship on these monuments and adds important new observations and ideas on the group and on individual churches.

In defining the topic of her inquiry, the author has focused on what previous scholarship has termed "double-shell" buildings and coined the new appellation of "concentric churches." What is meant by both terms are circular or octagonal structures that possess an inner core, at times domed, surrounded by an ambulatory and in some cases by a third ring of auxiliary porches, vestibules, and chapels. Such designs place a focus on the center of the building and as the author demonstrates, that focus is in part on whatever object was present to make the site sacred, e.g., the tomb of Christ in the Anastasis Rotunda, but also as the focal point of liturgical practice.

Part I, which is the heart of the book and makes its most significant contributions, begins with an examination of the liturgy as it was practiced in Jerusalem in the fourth century and beyond. For the non-specialist, this is a welcomed introduction to the topic that also has relevance to understanding the design and particular functions of the buildings. The second chapter is dedicated to the fourth-century "churches of Jesus", the Anastasis and the church of the Ascension, both Constantinian. Unfortunately, the author's narrow definition of her topic leads her to omit a detailed analysis of the octagon at Bethlehem, because even though it fits in well with the others in terms of encircling a holy site with a centrally-planned structure, it was not freestanding and did not have an ambulatory. Chapter 3 examines the "churches of Mary", the fifth-century churches of the Kathisma, where Mary allegedly rested by sitting on a rock on her journey to Bethlehem and the church of her tomb, both of which are destroyed with few remains in situ.

Each of these four churches is examined in terms of their respective archaeological records as well relevant historical sources and context. The analysis of the literary sources should be singled out for particular praise as the most thorough encountered in scholarship. The author's careful reading of the texts of Eusebius and Cyril of Jerusalem demonstrate convincingly that the Anastasis Rotunda was planned and built under Constantine and not added later as many have supposed. This conclusion is linked to another important observation about the Constantinian churches in the Holy Land—the churches were part of complexes with two buildings—a traditional basilica and a "concentric church" over the venerated site. She also notes (pp. 191-92) that Constantine's decision to find the tomb of Christ and build the three churches came within a short time of the Council of Nicaea and the promulgation of its creed that in part states that God became incarnate, died and was resurrected and then ascended to heaven, arguing that it gave the motive to the emperor to identify the sites connected with those events and honor them with monumental buildings.

What is missing from this study is a thorough discussion of the architecture in terms of materials and construction technique. The reporting of measurements is usually limited to only the diameters of the main divisions of the plan. In other words, when it comes to the material qualities of the buildings, only generalities and not specifics are presented.

Part II of the book discusses in a broad manner the other concentric churches outside of Jerusalem. Chapter 6 covers the Palestinian concentric churches outside of Jerusalem, including the church of the Theotokos at Mt. Gerizim, now recognized to be a copy of the Kathisma church, the octagonal church at Caesarea, proposed by the author to have been the cathedral of the city, the round church at Scythopolis (Beth Shean), and the church of St. Peter at Capernaum. These are presented in much the same manner as those in part I, though with less analysis. Chapter 7 examines in brief fashion a limited number of similar churches beyond Palestine including S. Lorenzo at Milan, the only tetraconch church included, Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome and various other octagonal and circular late antique churches, which for the most part are barely mentioned. This is a very incomplete list, omitting the circular churches at Pelusium (Tall al-Farama) in Egypt, Sant'Angelo in Perugia and several octagonal churches including those at Gerasa (Jerash), Homs, Viransehir, and Hebdoman. Chapter 8 is an epilogue of sorts, containing a discussion of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, in which the possibility that it was first built as a church is examined along with its obvious connections to the Christian concentric churches.

There are a few questionable assertions, such as the claim that an altar stood in the center of the octagon of the Church of the Nativity when all reports state that its center was occupied by a railed opening looking down into the grotto. Santo Stefano Rotondo is compared to the Anastasis Rotunda, citing Richard Krautheimer's early study of the building, but ignoring the fact that in his later publications the pre-eminent scholar of Early Christian architecture had disavowed the theory that the two buildings were directly connected. Throughout the book each of the concentric churches is said to have been domed and the diameters of their inner circles or octagons are often given as the "diameter of the dome." Which churches actually possessed domes and which had conical or pyramidal wood roofs is actually very uncertain. None of them seem to have had the structural support for a masonry dome. Some of the inner supports are piers that may have been able to support a light wood dome; others have small piers or even columns that almost certainly could not have carried a dome of any kind. Other than citing evidence for the dome of the Anastasis, there is no discussion of the limited evidence, physical or textual, concerning the covering of the interior spaces of all of the other churches.

The book suffers from a few production problems including a number of typos that remain in the text. The illustrations are of a mixed quality and the key to Plate 20 is incorrect. The plan of Charlemagne's Palatine Chapel at Aachen (Figure 40) shows a circular building with a circular ring of piers in its center rather than the church with an interior octagonal core and a sixteen-sided exterior.

Notwithstanding the title of the book, none of these churches are Byzantine. Given their fourth and fifth-century dating, they are in fact "Early Christian" or "Late Antique" buildings. I am aware that it is a common practice in Holy Land archaeology to refer to this period as "Early Byzantine" but it is a practice that should be abandoned. Constantine was no more a Byzantine ruler than was Augustus and his buildings in the Holy Land were already a century and a half old before there was a Byzantine Empire. Calling anything built or made before the last quarter of the fifth century "Byzantine" is simply wrong.

The book's problems are, however, for the most part minor and do not detract from its contribution to the study of Early Christian / Late Antique architecture in general and of the buildings in Jerusalem in particular. Its discussion of the four major double shell churches in Jerusalem will be the starting place for future studies on these buildings as well as on the continued study of the development of multiple architectural types in early ecclesiastical architecture and how this particular architectural type relates to function.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.