Friday, February 23, 2018


Jelena Bogdanović, The Framing of Sacred Space: The Canopy and the Byzantine Church. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xxxv, 411. ISBN 9780190465186. $60.00.

Reviewed by Vasileios Marinis, Yale University (

Version at BMCR home site


With this book, based on a 2008 dissertation from Princeton, Jelena Bogdanović brings much-needed attention to the use and function of canopies inside and outside Byzantine churches. She expands the inquiry to include not only altar ciboria, but also those covering tombs of saints, baptismal fonts, ambos, and other church furnishings. Chapter 1 ("Ciborium or Canopy? Textual Evidence on Canopies in the Byzantine Church") offers a useful overview of the various terms associated with canopies. The second chapter ("Canopies in the Byzantine Church") investigates archaeological and architectural evidence for the existence of canopies in Byzantine church buildings. Form, materials, decoration, and inscriptions are also discussed extensively. Chapter 3 ("Place-Making: The Place of the Canopy in the Church") examines material as disparate as the Christian House in Dura-Europos1 and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople to address the location of canopies within the church building, claiming they promoted a variety of messages and religious beliefs. Chapter 4 ("The Micro-Architectural Framing of Sacred Space") offers several case studies, including Saint Peter's in Rome and Saint Euphemia in Constantinople, in which the canopy "carries the essence of the sacred and its experience" (p. 179). Bogdanović's discussion of the relationship between altar and saint's grave within the context of a church is interesting, but it would have benefited from a more serious engagement with the important work of Ann-Marie Yasin.2 For Hosios Loukas, Bogdanović follows the long-outdated opinions of Eustathios (here misnamed Eustachios) Stikas and does not take into consideration the most recent study of the complex by the late Paul Mylonas.3 Her suggestion that the "nine-square grid design" of many Byzantine churches is essentially based on the canopy is intriguing, if impossible to prove. Such an interpretation would, however, straightjacket the production of Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture into something unoriginal, predictable, and unimaginative. Chapter 5 ("Nested in Its Own Shape: The Canopy and the Byzantine Church") returns yet again to Hagia Sophia in Constantinople—with an excursus to the Holy Sepulcher—"[t]o examine how these religious concepts of framing the sacred Presence and sacred space were embodied in church spaces" (p. 267). The short conclusion nicely wraps up the main arguments of this study.

The book is beautifully produced with many good-quality color photographs and fine drawings. It also collects and discusses an immense amount of material ranging from Syria to Italy, and from the third century to the post-Byzantine period. That said, it is littered with factual errors and misreadings that greatly diminish its importance. I restrict my comments to those I was able to identify in the first thirty pages, for example, Bogdanović's lexicological analysis of the word κιβούριον (pp. 13-20). After an overview of late antique rhetorical practices that lack direct bearing on the subject at hand, Bodganović turns to three "early church leaders" who "were trained in various educational centers of the Classical and late antique world" and who all provide a well-known pseudo-etymology of the word ciborium (κιβ- from κιβωτός, ark; οὖριν means light of God). The first is Germanos I, patriarch of Constantinople, to whom the influential liturgical commentary Historia Ekklesiastike is attributed.4 Since Germanos died in ca. 730, he is hardly an "early church leader."5 Another text, which Bodganović attributes to Basil of Caesarea is, in fact, a version of the Historia Ekklesiastike.6 The third text, which Bogdanović credits to Sophronios, the seventh-century patriarch of Jerusalem, is, in reality, an eleventh- or thirteenth-century treatise, based in part on the Historia Ekklesiastike.7 In short, we have here, counted as three separate authorities, three variations of the same text, all postdating the eighth century.

Similarly, Bogdanović claims that "[f]ollowing the early Christian and Byzantine rhetorical practice of the importance of sound in delivering a message, when pronounced aloud, the Greek nouns ὁ κιβ (kib, kiv) and τὸ [sic] κιβωτός (kibōtos, kivōtos) on the one hand, and the nouns τὸ ὠρίον, τό ὄριον (orion) or ὁ οὐράνος [sic] and the adjective οὐράνιος (ouranios) on the other, share the sound and the new meaning of the κιβούριον (kibourion, kivourion)."8 Yet, the texts in question are theological treatises, not homilies, and there is no evidence they were ever "pronounced aloud." Even if they were, the aural parsing suggested by Bogdanović might work as a false etymology but cannot be extended to the congregation's perception. In another instance Bogdanović claims that artophoria, containers of the consecrated Eucharistic bread, "were made to hold sufficient Hosts for the Communion of huge congregations, especially during the annual Easter celebration" (p. 27). But the consecrated host was used either in emergencies or, most often, at the presanctified liturgy.9 It was certainly not used during the regular Easter liturgy. Finally, on p. 29, it is claimed that "Athanasius the Theologian spoke of columns as if they were the towers of the church." The text actually says: "And who might be the towers of the church, if not those who at the time were righteous and its leaders, to whom the apostles described the glories of God?"10

Citation of sources is also lacking. For example, on p. 22, Bogdanović mentions that Nicholas Kabasilas "challenged some of Germanos' explanations because of the absence of the explicit emphasis on the reception of holy communion," yet she gives no reference to any of Kabasilas's works. On p. 38, the author mentions Theophanes the Confessor, the Inventory of the Palace of Botaniates, Anthony of Novgorod, Anna Komnene, and Nikolas [sic] Mesarites, but provides references only to the latter two and that on the previous page. As a result, the reader is required to hunt down the references in Table 2 ("Texts with References to κιβώριον") at the end of the book, then consult Table 1 ("Texts with References to Ciboria or Canopies") for the abbreviated citation, then turn to the bibliography for the full title.

Finally, the text would have benefited from copyediting that went beyond spelling mistakes. There are needless repetitions and sections that belabor the obvious (e.g., as with many other church furnishings, canopies have suffered destruction), as well as abrupt transitions (see, e.g., pp. 57–58, where a paragraph on the existence of canopies during the fourth century is followed by a discussion of the middle Byzantine rock-cut churches of Cappadocia).

In short, while this book will likely become a useful reference for the archaeological material it assembles, the author's interpretations need to be taken with caution.


1.   The most recent study on the Christian House is missing from the bibliography: M. Peppard, The World's Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria (New Haven, 2016).
2.   Only one of Yasin's publications is listed in the bibliography. Her Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean: Architecture, Cult, and Community (Cambridge, 2009), esp. 151–209 would have been a useful addition.
3.   Μονὴ τοῦ Ὁσίου Λουκᾶ τοῦ Στειριώτη. Ἡ ἀρχιτεκτονικὴ τῶν τεσσάρων ναῶν (Athens, 2005).
4.   P. Meyendorff, trans., St. Germanus of Constantinople: On the Divine Liturgy (Crestwood, NY, 1984), 58.
5.   On p. 75, Germanos is erroneously placed in the ninth century.
6.   For a discussion of the different versions, see R. Bornert, Les commentaires byzantins de la Divine Liturgie du VIIe au XVe siècle (Paris, 1966), 128–160.
7.   Bornert, Les commentaires, 210–211.
8.   p. 15.
9.   S. Alexopoulos, The Presanctified Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite (Leuven, 2009), 153–157.
10.   "Καὶ τίνες ἄν εἶεν οἱ πύργοι τῆς Ἐκκλησίας ἤ οἰ κατὰ καιρὸν αὐτῆς ἡγούμενοι καὶ δίκαιοι, οἶς καὶ διηγοῦνται τὰ μεγαλεῖα τοῦ Θεοῦ οἱ ἀπόστολοι;" PG 27: 221.


  1. Jelena BogdanovićMarch 2, 2018 at 11:15 PM

    Marinis acknowledges that my book assembles useful archeological and architectural material that confirms the extensive use of canopies in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, his review mischaracterizes my book as only valuable as a catalogue of Byzantine canopies, suggesting a misunderstanding of my thesis. With more than two hundred canopies documented, some material is published and analyzed for the first time, but is going far beyond a simple catalogue of these objects. My book also provides an innovative interpretation of the relationships between the canopy and the design of the Byzantine church, which is supported by numerous images and computer modeling done specifically for this project in order to highlight a more plastic understanding of Byzantine architectural design.

  2. Jelena BogdanovićMarch 2, 2018 at 11:16 PM

    There is only one place in his review where Marinis engages with the content of the book and its thesis, but he does so without real understanding. Only the reviewer's questionable expertise in architectural design could explain his statement, "Her suggestion that the 'nine-square grid design' of many Byzantine churches is essentially based on the canopy is intriguing, if impossible to prove. Such an interpretation would, however, straightjacket the production of Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture into something unoriginal, predictable, and unimaginative." Actually, as I show in my book, conceptual, nine-square grid design allows for better understanding of highly sophisticated and numerous building solutions seen in Byzantine architecture; it allows for a better understanding of the plasticity of Byzantine church architecture, including the theological, liturgical, and performative aspects of the church design based on canopies. This system is generative but not imitative.

  3. Jelena BogdanovićMarch 2, 2018 at 11:17 PM

    At its most essential level, it consists of a domed canopy as a structural, spatial, and conceptual unit, that sits centrally inside of a nine-square grid. Out of this plan and due to the plastic treatment of church space, additional elements can be added or removed, such as side chapels. The design could be additionally modified to devise, for example, the so-called triconch or tetraconch design out of the so-called cross-in-square plan, that last of which most closely relates to the prevalent type of the Middle Byzantine church. Designing around canopies allowed for a wide variety of architectural solutions and provided an adaptable base to build from because it was open to exceptions and alternations. Moreover, I argue that because these solutions were based on the canopy as an architectural "parti" - a guiding idea for design, which unified its material and immaterial aspects - they generated unique experiences of being and presence in space. Such a design, in turn, reinforced the diversity and the reality that no two Byzantine-rite churches were ever built the same (see, for example, pp. 251-263, 295-299).

  4. Jelena BogdanovićMarch 2, 2018 at 11:18 PM

    I will not go into the details of the reviewer's language and questionable assessment of my work and the work of other scholars with whom he disagrees: these reveal obvious conflicts of interest. The reviewer simply disregards many ideas and original conclusions I present based on my expertise in architecture and architectural history and theory. Rather than engaging with the content of the book and its method, the reviewer mostly criticizes the material taken out of context. For example, he asks about chronology in the chapter that deals with concepts rather than their chronological enumerations, which my book indeed presents in the tables of both objects and texts.

    Many of Marinis' critiques are petty, dwelling on his questioning of the dating of supporting texts and primary sources and on his painstaking search for a few misspellings and typos. Furthermore, Marinis fails to mention that I clearly state that my "book points to some of the linguistic…ambiguities" and that careful re-reading of the sources may further point to terms the Byzantines used to denote canopies and their meanings, as well as to some lacunae in scholarship based on textual references; see for example, pp. 43-45, as well as table 4, on pp. 324-327, that presents examples of copying texts related to canopies over prolonged periods of time.

  5. Jelena BogdanovićMarch 2, 2018 at 11:19 PM

    My analysis of this material is extensive, supported by more than 900 primary and secondary textual sources, which I consulted over more than a decade of research, including the reviewer's first book (Vasileios Marinis, Architecture and Ritual in the Churches of Constantinople. Ninth to Fifteenth Centuries (New York, 2014)), where he lists my dissertation within the bibliography but forgets to properly acknowledge or cite the places in the text of his book where he used my research. Yet, in his review of my book, Marinis points to a missing bibliographical reference on Dura Europos from 2016 that I did not consult and that would be a nice addition, though it does not challenge the arguments I make in my book; furthermore, as most of us know, the publication process takes some time and my manuscript was with the publisher in 2015.

    Marinis' review attempts to discredit my study. For different, unbiased, and more balanced opinions, readers may also search for reviews of this book done by Professor Emeritus Walter Cahn of Yale University, Barbara Opar from the Syracuse University Libraries, Professor Daniel C. Waugh from the University of Washington in Seattle, or Professor Mark J. Johnson from Brigham Young University. Needless to say, I am most grateful to the Bryn Mawr Classical Review for presenting my book at your venue and for alerting your readers to read the book and reach conclusions on their own.