By Mary K. Farag, author of What Makes a Church Sacred? Legal and Ritual Perspectives from Late Antiquity
St. Laurentius has been celebrated for his wit in a time of grave distress. In the mosaic featured on the front cover of my new book, What Makes a Church Sacred?, he stands prominently, carrying an open volume. Next to him, Bishop Pelagius of Rome holds a miniature model of the church that he dedicated to St. Laurentius—the very church in which this mosaic once stood. By Bishop Pelagius’s time, St. Laurentius was a figure of the distant past, but stories continued to be told and retold about the saint.
This mosaic is a pictorial rendition of the cunning that costed St. Laurentius his life. It also succinctly captures the main subject of my book.
Laurentius was said to have rebuffed the government’s attempt to seize the church treasury over which Laurentius served as steward. Laurentius did so by cleverly deceiving the city prefect. When the prefect summoned him to hand over “the treasure of the church,” Laurentius brought forward lepers, the poor, and widows. Coming to collect the expected wealth, the prefect was instead confronted by the complaints and appeals of neglected members of society.
With this action, Laurentius deliberately interpreted “the treasure of the church” to mean the people. But the prefect had clearly intended on collecting material things. We see these two conflicting interpretations of the church’s treasure within the cover image. Bishop Pelagius holds the miniature model of a church gleaming with gold and gems. St. Laurentius’s book names the people, declaring “He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor,” and Laurentius’s presence as a haloed saint evokes his legendary equivocation of the two meanings. In Bishop Pelagius’s time, the connotative exchange had even made its way into the laws of the church, in which thieves of the church’s wealth were labeled “murderers of the poor.”
In What Makes a Church Sacred?, I focus on these two concepts of the church as sacred treasure. The miniature model represents what I call a legal discourse, while the open book represents what I term a ritual discourse. These two perspectives on the church often clashed in late antiquity. The legal discourse favored the perpetual maintenance of material things. Legally speaking, dissolving church assets was tantamount to sacrilege. By contrast, the ritual discourse prioritized the people. As some church leaders argued, if churches were built for the sake of people, then the needs of the people should take precedence over the perpetual maintenance of church assets. With this rationale, bishops committed sacrilege to take care of the poor by illegally repurposing church treasures. Such pious acts of mercy were inescapably political, however, as they (un-)intentionally threatened the legacy of the donors who gave the treasures as gifts.
My book calls attention to the unease between these two perspectives. It does so by distinguishing and juxtaposing legal ways of preserving church property in late antiquity with ritual ways of celebrating it. What it meant for a church to be sacred depended on whether one’s eyes focused on the miniature church or the words of the open book in this image. It was hard to toggle one’s eyes back and forth from one to the other, but that is exactly what good bishops in late antiquity were expected to do.