Thursday, May 9, 2019


Emilie Marlène van Opstall (ed.), Sacred Thresholds: The Door to the Sanctuary in Late Antiquity. Religions in the Graeco-Roman world. Religions in the Graeco-Roman world, 185. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2018. Pp. xiii, 376. ISBN 9789004368590. €121,00.

Reviewed by Michael Wuk, University of Nottingham (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Doors and thresholds by definition simultaneously act as an entrance into and an exit from a specific space. Generally, when we pass through these portals, we move from one defined area into another, separate from the first. Doors can thereby represent both a boundary and also a means of crossing it. This concept is the main theme of the volume under review, with particular focus on religious spaces and their thresholds which differentiated between the domains of mortals and deities. Developed from a 2015 conference entitled "The Door of the Sanctuary: a place of transition," Sacred Thresholds contains twelve chapters, each with their own bibliography, which approach perceptions of mostly late antique doorways to areas of sanctity and the process of crossing from a range of interdisciplinary perspectives.

The book opens with an introduction by Opstall as editor, who states that the volume aims to explore mental, physical, spiritual, and social patterns of experience. Usefully, Opstall situates the work within three trends of scholarship, namely the study of liminality, the "experiential turn," and the "spatial turn." As these theoretical frameworks are examined to various degrees by each contribution, the editor has not structured the essays around these concepts. Rather, the volume is divided into four sections of two to four essays grouped around common themes.

The first section, "Experiencing Sacred Thresholds", concerns the physical experience of individuals who passed through religious thresholds and what messages were imparted by this act of crossing. This section begins with a contribution by Opstall, who seeks to reconstruct the physical and symbolic experience of entering the Hagia Sophia through comparison between Paul the Silentiary's ekphrasis, the structure and decoration of the actual building, and other comparable monuments and ekphraseis. Through this interdisciplinary approach, Opstall aims to provide a paradigmatic case-study for the volume as a whole. The remainder of the section, which has the more discrete focus of religious rituals and their usage of thresholds, works well as a triplet. Day's chapter examines baptismal ceremonies in Milan and Jerusalem as described in three late fourth- to early fifth-century AD catechetical instructions. Although these rituals were similar in procedure, the different layouts of the baptisteries in question meant that the rites could take place on either side of the doors, which then shifted the dynamics and theological messages proffered by these highly emotional ceremonies. Boudignon's contribution examines three sixth- to mid-eighth-century AD liturgical commentaries and the way they relate the processional entrances of religious authorities and the later dismissal of the laity. While there is some divergence between these three sources on the meaning and identification of these processes, Boudignon persuasively argues that passing the threshold always represented a form of birth in which the persons crossing entered a new state of being. The closing chapter of this section provides a fascinating discussion regarding religious practices that involved sleeping within a sacred space. Unlike in the preceding essays, Csepregi's sources range from the fifth century BC to the seventh century AD. The author thereby shows that although the religious orientation and other aspects of the ritual had changed over time, doorways always remained a prominent part of the ceremony. This triplet of contributions all argue that physical crossing of sacred thresholds represented a spiritual transition.

The second section, "Symbolism and Allegory of Sanctuary Doors", is centred around the metaphorical use of thresholds. All of the discussions are of great interest but are less cohesive than those in the preceding section. Tissi's essay examines concepts of initiation and learning as represented by travelling through doorways and antechambers in Neoplatonic discourse. De Blaauw's subsequent contribution describes the atrium of St. Peter's basilica and discusses medieval perceptions that it represented paradise by analysis of its architectural and artistic elements. Similar to the previous section, De Blaauw's overarching argument is that entrance into the Vatican from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages was meant to represent a higher form of journey. Dijkstra's discussion, the concluding chapter to this section, provides an intriguing counterpart to De Blaauw's. Dijkstra examines the concept of St. Peter as the gate-keeper to Heaven in early Christian thought, particularly in poetry and on sarcophagi, but notes that gates rarely feature in these representations. Rather, references to Peter handing over the keys to Heaven point towards a Christian interpretation of the significance of religious thresholds, where his judgement of "the good" and "the bad" equalled another form of separation. In essence, Peter's keys were meant to indicate either an opening or shutting of Heaven's entranceway.

The contributions in the third section, "Messages in Stone", focus on a more specific feature of many thresholds, namely the use of inscriptions around religious doorways. One prominent difference from earlier sections is Roels' chapter, which discusses civic inscriptions around the main entranceways into religious spaces in Asia Minor from the fourth century BC to the second century AD. Roels therefore provides a stimulating comparison to the other contributions in this section, which focus on late antique Christian epigraphy, and indicates the traditional significance of this phenomenon. Agosti's exploration of the purpose of poetic epigrams inscribed on early Christian churches argues that this practice was an active attempt to change the religious orientation of late antique civic space. These inscriptions were not only a method of preparing individuals entering for their spiritual experience but also intended to present Christian paideia and superiority over non-Christian literary traditions. Concluding this section, de la Portbarré-Viard's essay attempts to cover a variety of points. The chapter first examines Paulinus of Nola's testimony regarding entrances he had commissioned for the church dedicated to the earlier bishop Felix and compares these descriptions to archaeological remains of the building. The focus then shifts to presentations of doorways in the later works of Gregory of Tours in order to show that there was some development in meaning. The section's theme of epigraphy is considerably less evident in this contribution when compared to the preceding two, but it is in the second half of the chapter that de la Portbarré-Viard makes her most thought-provoking observation: while thresholds in Gregory's works can still represent religious transition or demarcate between the sacred and the mortal, the doorways often marked areas of intense violence in ways that reflected the tumultuous nature of his contemporary society.

The final section of the volume, "The Presence of the Divine", has the smallest number of contributions, but it is perhaps the most compelling. As with Roels' earlier discussion, Williamson's chapter does not use late antique sources, but rather examines temple doors in Greek society (broadly the seventh century BC to the second century AD). Williamson argues that, although temple structures and thresholds were not always created for sacred sites in this period, the doors that did feature were often meant to prepare the worshipper and frame the cult icon or main element of the sanctuary. In the words of the author, "the door to the temple was not a barrier between the sacred and the profane, but a filter of visibility and access" (333). Whereas the preceding chapters are mainly concerned with the admission of mortals, Shilling's concluding contribution discusses the entrance of the divine. Comparing several early Byzantine apse decorations of the Virgin Mary and Christ with miracles described in hagiographical and liturgical texts, Shilling convincingly argues that viewers of these depictions were meant to associate liturgical services with divine contact. Mary's growing prominence in these presentations, where the Virgin was placed in the foreground, related to the increasing remoteness of Christ. Through the apse, the vision of Mary's descent and crossing from Heaven to earth was meant to solidify the association of the sacraments with divine intercession and, more implicitly, an eventual entry into the afterlife.

Generally, the volume delivers what it promises in a convincing manner, but the arrangement of chapters is sometimes a little confusing. For example, the second to fourth contributions would have made more sense as a separate section regarding ritual interactions with doorways, while Opstall's opening paired with Blaauw's discussion of St. Peter's basilica, both of which relate to specific religious buildings, may have worked better as an introductory unit based on case studies. Additionally, many readers may find the general conclusions unsurprising.

These reservations aside, the volume has many strengths, not least its examination of a wide variety of sources, with well-known authors such as Gregory of Tours being used alongside lesser known epigrams. Although the book markets itself as being focused on Late Antiquity, its brief excursuses on matters both before and after the period in question provide welcome evidence of continuities and developments. All fifty-one high-quality images and figures also help the reader to understand how worshippers experienced these doorways. The authors and editor should be commended for their efforts to create links between the contributions and to maintain a fairly consistent line of argument that doorways generally related to religious transitions. As a result, although the volume will be useful for specialists who pick individual chapters that are relevant to their interests, readers are advised to compare these contributions with others in the work, particularly if they are using any of the triplet in section one or either essay in section four.

Opstall (22-24) acknowledges that the volume is not comprehensive in treatment. As a result, the book has opened the door for discussions on other thresholds. For example, even though politics sometimes features in these essays, most notably in Opstall's and de la Portbarré-Viard's contributions, there remains ample space to discuss how sanctuary doors were sometimes used in relations between religious authorities and emperors. Particularly illustrative is Theodosius I's temporary excommunication, where, following the massacre in Thessalonica in 390, Ambrose of Milan reportedly prevented the emperor from entering his church. Ambrose halted Theodosius at the doors and stated that he could not pass the holy threshold due to the blood dripping from his hands (Theodoret Church History 5.17).1 Additionally, sixth-century Persian envoys were made to wait at the threshold of the imperial audience chamber in Constantinople behind silk curtains, which were then raised when they could enter to meet the emperor (Constantine Porphyrogenitus De Ceremoniis 1.89). There is, therefore, plenty of scope for thinking about the roles played by thresholds in other areas of society, such as court ceremonial, diplomacy, and political life.

In sum, this is a nicely produced, readable, and interesting collection of essays which researchers interested in concepts of space, transition, and experience, especially in religious contexts, will find useful.

Authors and titles

Emilie M. van Opstall, Introduction.
1. Emilie M. van Opstall, On the Threshold: Paul the Silentiary's Ekphrasis of Hagia Sophia.
2. Juliette Day, Entering the Baptistery: Spatial, Identity and Salvific Transitions in Fourth- and Fifth-Century Baptismal Liturgies.
3. Christian Boudignon, From Taboo to Icon: The Entrance to and the Exit from the Church in the First Three Greek Liturgical Commentaries (ca 500-730 CE).
4. Ildikó Csepregi, Bonus Intro, Melior Exi! 'Inside' and 'Outside' at Greek Incubation Sanctuaries.
5. Lucia M. Tissi, Sanctuary Doors, Vestibules and Adyta in the Works of Neoplatonic Philosophers.
6. Sible L. de Blaauw, The Paradise of Saint Peter's.
7. Roald Dijkstra, Imagining the Entrance to the Afterlife: Peter as the Gatekeeper of Heaven in Early Christianity.
8. Evelien J. J. Roels, The Queen of Inscriptions Contextualised: The Presence of Civic Inscriptions in the pronaos of Ancient Temples in Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor (Fourth Century BCE-Second Century CE).
9. Gianfranco Agosti, Verses De Limine and In Limine: Displaying Greek paideia at the Entrance of Early Christian Churches.
10. Gaëlle Herbert de la Portbarré-Viard, The Door to the Sanctuary from Paulinus of Nola to Gregory of Tours: Enduring Characteristics and Evolutions from the Theodosian to the Merovingian Period.
11. Christina G. Williamson, Filters of Light: Greek Temple Doors as Portals of Epiphany.
12. Brooke Shilling, The Other Door to the Sanctuary: The Apse and Divine Entry in the Early Byzantine Church.


1.   Note also Mclynn, Neil. 1994. Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital. Berkeley, 315-30, who at 323 interprets the scene as a "public relations triumph."

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