The term liminality has become so pervasive in the humanities that its overuse, or misuse, in studies of thresholds—whether real, imagined, or symbolic—often runs the risk of delegitimating the concept of a physical, material limen within architectural and art historical analysis. It is therefore refreshing to encounter a volume such as Emilie M. van Opstall's Sacred Thresholds: The Door to the Sanctuary in Late Antiquity, which explores the myriad ways in which doors to sacred spaces served as both physical objects and metaphysical conceits, and as conduits between human and divine experience.
This edited volume is the product of a 2015 interdisciplinary conference held at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam titled “The Door of the Sanctuary: A Place of Transition.” The twelve essays in the book are divided among four thematic sections, with van Opstall's general introduction providing an excellent primer on the methodological approaches used by the contributing authors. More important, however, is the introduction's concise overview of the history of “liminality” in scholarship and of the principal theoretical models used to interpret the construction of sacred space and the role of doors in facilitating religious ritual.
Following the introduction, van Opstall begins the first major thematic section of the volume, “Experiencing Sacred Thresholds,” with her own essay, “On the Threshold: Paul the Silentiary's Ekphrasis of Hagia Sophia.” Paul's sixth-century ekphraseis on the ecstatic, even euphoric, effects of Hagia Sophia's interior design are widely known. Rather than focusing on Paul's well-known observations regarding the church's interior, van Opstall draws attention to the church's so-called Imperial Doors and their ability to negotiate the multisensory experiences of the divine as described by Paul. This novel approach sets the tone for the essays that follow, which demonstrate that sanctuary doors not only function as permeable veils between the human and the divine but also serve to stimulate the human senses in anticipation of divine epiphany.
Juliette Day's essay, “Entering the Baptistery: Spatial, Identity and Salvific Transitions in Fourth- and Fifth-Century Baptismal Liturgies,” examines entrances to baptisteries in the early Christian basilicas at Milan and Jerusalem, buildings that, though no longer extant, are described in the so-called mystagogical catecheses of Ambrose of Milan and Cyril of Jerusalem. These catechetical sermons are frequently cited in discussions of early Christian baptismal liturgies, but Day's treatment of their descriptions of baptistery entrances and their relation to ritual performance offers new insight into how communal Christian identity was established in late antiquity. Day discusses some of these baptismal transformations in greater detail in her books Baptism in Early Byzantine Palestine, 325–451 (1999) and The Baptismal Liturgy of Jerusalem (2007), but her contribution here is of particular interest for its application of Douglas Davies's anthropological theory of emotions and encoded memory in performative religious acts.1
In the next essay, “From Taboo to Icon: The Entrance to and the Exit from the Church in the First Three Greek Liturgical Commentaries (ca 500–730 CE),” Christian Boudignon employs the earliest commentaries on Christian liturgy by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus the Confessor, and Germanus of Constantinople to articulate the various levels of importance and symbolism that Eastern bishops placed on sequences of doorways (first and second entrances) moving either into or out of the space of the sanctuary. In some instances, Boudignon argues, sanctuary doors developed an almost apotropaic character—that is, they were seen as protecting the congregation from satanic influences.
The final essay in part 1 is Ildikó Csepregi's “Bonus Intra, Melior Exi! ‘Inside’ and ‘Outside’ at Greek Incubation Sanctuaries,” which provides a much-needed comparative study of ancient Greek incubation practices at healing sanctuaries (such as those of Asklepios and Hygeia) and the rise of early Christian physician-saints (such as Cosmas and Damian). Csepregi considers the role of doors in these healing spaces as gateways between the mundane and the miraculous, capable of fulfilling promised cures or exercising divine judgment.
Part 2, “Symbolism and Allegory of Sanctuary Doors,” establishes some of the principal interpretive paradigms for understanding the function of liminal spaces in the late antique imagination and early Christian liturgy. Lucia M. Tissi's “Sanctuary Doors, Vestibules and Adyta in the Works of Neoplatonic Philosophers” begins the section. Tissi's analysis of Greek paideia among the third-century Neoplatonists focuses on their metaphysics of the door as limen to knowledge, exploring how this potent metaphor influenced the ways in which ritualized spaces were occupied. This effectively reverses the methodological approach to the door as physical object, capable of exerting influence over sacred space, by asserting the primacy of the idea of the door over its material presence—in true Platonic fashion—in determining how architectural space could be reimagined.
In “The Paradise of Saint Peter's,” Sible L. de Blaauw expands on themes he first introduced in 1994 in his pivotal study of early Christian cultic space in Rome, Cultus et decor.2 He examines the metaphor of paradise that was used to describe Old Saint Peter's in Rome throughout the Middle Ages. Based largely on descriptions of the now-lost atrium and its cantharus fountain, this was a trope for a renewed Eden that played upon the senses of visitors and beckoned them toward the sanctuary entrance. The foretaste of paradise that visitors received in the atrium was made manifest through communion with the divine in the basilica's interior. The exterior façade mosaic, which once featured an apocalyptic vision of the Second Coming of Christ, also represented an eschatological paradise in dialogue with both the Edenic garden of the atrium below and the promise of divine revelation inside the sanctuary itself.
Roald Dijkstra's “Imagining the Entrance to the Afterlife: Peter as the Gatekeeper of Heaven in Early Christianity” explores the iconography of Saint Peter as gatekeeper to heaven (traditio clavium) in the earliest Christian art and poetry, comparing this with the iconography of the traditio legis. Holding the keys to heaven in visual and literary depictions, Peter soon became a metaphor in Christian eschatology and the ecclesiology of the threshold, suspended between earthly and heavenly existence.
Part 3, “Messages in Stone,” addresses the role of inscriptions, spolia, and other signifiers that stage the transition from the terrestrial and mundane to the celestial and extraordinary. Evelien J. J. Roels starts the section with “The Queen of Inscriptions Contextualized: The Presence of Civic Inscriptions in the Pronaos of Ancient Temples in Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor (Fourth Century BCE–Second Century CE)”—one of only two essays here to focus squarely on non-Christian sources. Examining the presence of inscriptions near the pronaoi of Greco-Roman temples, Roels concludes that the varied nature of the inscriptions (located primarily in Asia Minor) suggests a form of exterior advertising on the thresholds of the temples' sacred precincts.
Gianfranco Agosti's “Versus de Limine and in Limine: Displaying Greek Paideia at the Entrance of Early Christian Churches” offers new insights into early Christian strategies of appropriating the venerable reputation of Greek literary traditions by placing poetic inscriptions on or near the entrances to churches in the Eastern Mediterranean. Employing poetic meter and diction often associated with the highest forms of Greek literacy, Christians used these inscriptions as a form of literary spolia to adorn their worship spaces and thereby declare a new Christian paideia that superseded the earlier pagan archetypes.
In the final essay of the third part, “The Door to the Sanctuary from Paulinus of Nola to Gregory of Tours: Enduring Characteristics and Evolutions from the Theodosian to the Merovingian Period,” Gaëlle Herbert de la Portbarré-Viard examines Paulinus of Nola's early fifth-century literary descriptions of the doors at the cult shrine of Saint Felix and considers how these revealed or concealed the power of the saint within. Approximately 150 years later, when Gregory of Tours described the rise of pilgrimage churches dedicated to saints, the role of the door was modified; rather than simply facilitating revelation or wonder, the door became a locus for the miraculous at a time when increasing numbers of pilgrims sought both physical and spiritual healing upon entering these sanctuaries.
The fourth and final section of the volume, “The Presence of the Divine,” addresses one of the most overlooked functions of the physical limen of the sanctuary door, namely, to interrupt and destabilize the spatial divide between the human and the divine, and thereby to facilitate a form of epiphany. Christina G. Williamson's “Filters of Light: Greek Temple Doors as Portals of Epiphany” is a fitting start to the section and returns the audience to the major themes of the volume's introduction: sanctuary doors as thresholds to epiphanic encounters with the divine, the framing of sacred space, and the physicality of the door as both fixed and permeable barrier to revelation. Williamson's two major case studies illustrating these themes are the cult shrine of Aphrodite of Knidos and the Temple of Apollo at Didyma.
Finally, Brooke Shilling's “The Other Door to the Sanctuary: The Apse and Divine Entry in the Early Byzantine Church” marks a curious shift in the direction and access points of divine revelation. Focusing on the apse of the early Christian church and using the examples of Panagia Angeloktistos at Kiti and Panagia tis Kyras, both on Cyprus, Shilling argues that the apse—and often its iconography of Christ in Majesty or the Transfiguration—served as the conduit through which God approached the worshipper, rather than as a threshold space through which the worshipper moved actively to approach God.
Sacred Thresholds is a welcome addition to studies of architectural framing devices, spaces of initiation, and sensory perception in ritual environments, but there are some lost opportunities here. Although many of the essays emphasize philology and literary methodologies, only a few of them pursue rigorous architectural, art historical, or archaeological approaches to the materiality of sanctuary doors and their role within the broader construction of visually dynamic sacred spaces. After all, sanctuary doors controlled divine revelation, both as physical access points and as metaphysical gateways to epiphany. More methodological diversity in discussing the physicality of thresholds would have helped to balance this volume, but it is nevertheless an excellent contribution to the burgeoning field of liminality studies.