Concepts and Practices of Sacred Space in Medieval Southern Italy

Dr. Elisabetta Scirocco

The sacred permeated the societal and political structures of pre-modern Europe. Sacred spaces determined by ecclesiastical architecture are widely recognized as material expressions of Christian religion and loci for celebrations, but the physical and mental dimensions of the sacred in a medieval church also included spatial-sensory experiences that manipulated the borders between stasis and mobility. These experiences drew on the deliberate architectural alternation between fill and void, the relationship between inclusion in and exclusion from sites of the holy through barriers, screens, and curtains, and the aesthetics of materials, images, colors, and light. At specific moments – and with calculated ritual rhythm and gestures, sounds, and scents – the liturgical performance enhanced and activated the aesthetic and spiritual dimension of the sacred through embodiment and multisensorial experiences, thereby exposing the porosity of enclosed spaces and the permeability of shifting physical or mental borders. Within sacred spaces and rites, categories of actors occupied distinct roles (performers/spectators; clerics/lays; men/women), or asserted their status by permanently occupying certain places (for example, with tombs or family chapels) and adopting selected modes of representation. In this sense, spaces (sacred or not) can be also understood as a historical product which changes over time in response to social or cultural contexts. Additionally, there are (sacred) spaces that are only mentally or temporarily conceived. This applies to all those occasions in which sacrality is instigated: any urban or natural milieu can be made sacred through religious processions, special activities and liturgical rites. Basing on the historical reconstruction – with the help of digital technologies – of the spatial contexts and of the rituals involved, the projects aims at the analysis and the interpretation of the physical, performative, and symbolic dimensions of sacred spaces within and beyond church architecture. The geographical focus of the project is the Italian South over the Middle Ages, an area that offers a large amount of case studies with enormous research potential. A dynamic area of religious encounters and a transcultural laboratory, the Italian Mezzogiorno is still little investigated from the point of view of ritual sacred spaces in their whole configuration and perception. With its mosaic of overlapping, at times competing, and sometimes-porous cultural and religious identities, it offers the additional opportunity to address culturally-specific concepts of (sacred) space.

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