The Geometry of Love
Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church
By Margaret Visser
reviewed by Catherine Fournier
If yo're planning to visit Rome any time in the next hundred years or so, you'll want to read this book. If you've been to Rome lately, you'll want to read this book (though you'll probably kick yourself for not visiting this "ordinary church ... small, fairly well known but not too famous": Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura - Saint Agnes outside the Walls.) Even if you've been sitting in your own parish church wondering vaguely why it's laid out in a cross, or it has a half dome, or even why your modern church leaves you feeling somehow lost and dissatified, then you'll want to read this book.
I'll quote the press release:
"Margaret Visser writes a mixture of tribute and history in "Geometry of Love," exploring the origins and symbolism of church architecture. Visser touches on everything from the symbolism of altars to the methods of construction, the intentions of the builders and the spiritual effects these buildings have on their visitors. Visser digs deep to understand why we build these monuments of faith and what they mean to us personally."
"More than any other kind of edifice, a church is intentionally meaningful in all its aspects, and Visser decided to find out what it was trying to express, in its nuances as well as in its grand gestures. She deliberately chose a relatively simple church just outside the walls of Rome, Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura, but she casts a wide net - taking in history, theology, anthropology, and folklore, among other disciplines - to illuminate its physical and spiritual architecture. As she guides us through the building, from apse to nave, catacombs to campanile, Visser explores the symbolism of lambs, the Christian fascination with virgins, the meanings of martyrdom, and the history of relics. At the same time, she moves back through the centuries to reveal Christianity in its earliest forms and purposes. The book ends at the church's beginning, with the grave of Agnes, a twelve-year-old girl who was murdered seventeen hundred years ago and whose remains lie buried beneath the altar. By then we have learned how to read any church building, how to interpret what it "does" and "says," whether we are of any faith or none."
We heard of the imminent release of Margaret Visser's book shortly before we went on a trip to Rome, and so included a trip down the Via Nomentana to Sant'Agnese in anticipation of reading the book on our return. We found a little gem of a church, surprisingly (to us) at the bottom of a long, intriguing staircase. We toured the catacombs with a respectful guide and found them exactly as we had expected - damp, cramped and slightly creepy, and not at all like we had expected - practically whispering with history and full of fascinating detail.
By the time we returned to Canada, Margaret Visser's book was out of print. Wildly successful, its first print run sold out within weeks. We had to wait, as the memories of the church began to fade...
But "The Geometry of Love; Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church" proved to be well worth the wait. (And we're kicking ourselves on how much we missed.)
Here's an excerpt: "It is a building that feels as if it has been on a very long journey out of the past, has altered and suffered and gathered accretions, and now it is here with us, still bearing its cargo of memories and still carrying out the purpose for which it was built."
Visser goes on from there for 262 lovely pages, exploring Roman burial customs, the evolution of mosiacs in Christianity, the appreciation of porphyry columns, metaphysics in architecture, symbolism, and a myriad of other fascinating topics. The readers is constantly imagining, visualizing and comparing.
Which brings me to my only complaint with the book. The visualizing of placement, orientation, excavation and history would have been much easier and much more satisfying with some maps to help. Simple line drawings showing the relation of Sant'Agnese to Santa Constanza for example, with the huge curved wall of the funerary basilica would have helped me visualize not only the size of the basilica, but the extent of the catacombs that surround and surrounded Sant'Agnese. A map of early and modern Rome, a map of the Roman walls, some line drawings of the church before its partial excavation, for example. All would have added immeasureably my reading of the book. Eventually, I pulled out our ragged map of Rome and kept it beside me as I read.
This is no reason not to buy this book. It's actually a reason to go to Rome to see for yourself more than anything else and in the meantime, study "The Geometry of Love." If you've got a relative in studying art history, architecture, theology, history or almost anything else, buy a copy for them too.
About the Author:
Margaret Visser was born in South Africa, studied at the Sorbonne, and received her doctorate in classics from the University of Toronto. She is the author of three previous books: Much Depends on Dinner; Rituals of Dinner, which won the International Association of Culinary Professionals' Literary Food Writing Award and the Jane Grigson Award; and The Way We Are. She divides her time among Toronto, Barcelona, and southwestern France. The author's Web site can be found at www.margaretvisser.com.
Also by Margaret Visser:
The Rituals of Dinner : The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners
Much Depends on Dinner : The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos, of an Ordinary Meal