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The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church Hardcover – April, 2001

13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Visser, described as "an anthropologist of everyday life," has written an enthralling, absorbing and exquisitely researched study of what she calls an "ordinary church." For her subject matter she chose a small but ancient Christian church dedicated to St. Agnes that sits half-buried outside the walls of Rome. Tired of endless tours through world churches in which guides provide lists of facts about dates and architects, Visser aims to bring one small church alive by exploring the stories, meanings and rituals built into each piece of the building. Using the physical layout of the church as the structure for her book, the author takes each staircase, window, fresco, catacomb and chapel as an entryway to fascinating details of mythology, history, early Christian theology, Roman culture and contemporary practice. Visser brings an obvious love and respect for her subject matter and demonstrates remarkable depth in her knowledge of the church's milieu from details on the origins of the halo in religious art, to the techniques of mosaic building, to the historical development of virgin-hero myths. In some ways the author is an archeologist as much as an anthropologist: she digs through layers of history to reveal the depth and breadth of one small building, and peels back layers of meaning in the words and images that adorn it. For the reader, this is rich and thoughtful armchair traveling of the best kind.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Spiritual traveler and author Visser (Rituals of Dinner) takes readers on an extended interior conversation as she explores Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura, a smallish Roman church dedicated to the fourth-century martyr Saint Agnes. Sort of an anthropology of the commonplace, the work spans art and architecture, medieval theology, myth and symbolism, history, and Catholic doctrine, as the author travels from the threshold of Sant'Agnese through its sanctuary and below to the crypt and tomb of the saint. Not so much about the church itself, Visser's insights are intended to evoke internal discovery within each reader, "like finding one's way to the center of a labyrinth." The result is a sort of well-researched guidebook for "reading" symbolic places. Visser's thoughtful perspective gives license to those who find transcendence and majestyDsecular or religiousDin spiritual architecture. Recommended for general religion and art history collections.DSandra Collins, Duquesne Univ. Lib., PA
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: North Point Press; First American Edition edition (April 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0865476187
  • ISBN-13: 978-0865476189
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,135,136 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Visser's spectacular language surpasses even her previous efforts, as she delves here into the majesty of faith and the intricate worship spaces we build. She sheds the usual anthropologist's garb of objectivity, admitting from the start that she is passionate about her subject, and the work is stronger for it.
However, I eventually got annoyed that there were no illustrations provided to help the reader along (it may be just the Canadian edition that suffers from this tragic flaw). As visual as her language is, this book proves the maxim that a picture is worth 1000 words. Those thousand words can be as beautiful as they like, but sometimes, dummies like me need a picture as well.
Reading about the spectacular details of St Agnes' church, I got more and more frustrated. Visser presents each column, each section of ceiling and floor, each mosaic tile, with such loving detail that I needed to examine them -- but lacking the plane fare to Rome, that's a nearly-impossible dream. Flipping from her descriptions of columns to the front cover hoping to catch a glimpse of them was eventually too much for me, and I returned this book to the library unfinished (this almost never happens).
A book of this quality deserves glossy, full-colour illustrations. Without the multimedia assist, you're going to find this book to be dry and tough going, even if you've enjoyed Visser's work in past. But still... I've recently discovered that Visser has her own website with many small images from the church ...
Perhaps I'll print out the pictures from the website and curl up with this book again at some point. Her language is so lovely, it may be worth another shot.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By karl b. on April 3, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura Church stands just outside the old walled city of Rome, built, at its lowest levels, into the catacombs which surrounded the city. It is dedicated to a 4th Century Saint, a 12 year old slain for her refusal to marry the son of a Roman Prefect. Built in the 7th Century and continuously modified, it incorporates the layers of aesthetic, cultural, theological influences of the centuries, organically revealing Rome's tumultuous history. It is galvanized, though, by the reverence for this child martyr by its artisans. Visser's study is an exploration of the physical manifestation of the mysteries of faith. Like the church itself the book is more than the sum of its parts. The author searches for context and meaning, through the ecclesiastical history behind each of the church's major components-- nave, narthex, altar, tomb--. The author's descriptions convey the pageantry and the sometimes violent drama of the little church succinctly. Difficult to categorize, it is an in-depth look at how the church's schema reflected the attitudes of its congregants. Visser presents a spiritual anthropology measured in the church's marble, masonry and frescoes. She synthesizes the form and symbolism of its architecture. The book is filled with anecdotes of the inspiration Sant'Agnese has had on the faithful, vividly exposing its human dimensions. This intensively researched, rigorously constructed book is a fascinating read, be your interest historical, religious or artistic.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Rebecca Brown on June 24, 2001
Format: Hardcover
The relatively simple Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura just outside the walls of Rome comes under the scrutiny of history, theology, anthropology & folklore to illuminate its physical & spiritual architecture.
Margaret Visser guides us through this organic aged basilica, from its apse to its nave, its catacombs to its campanile, she opens our eyes to its symbolism, its layers of religious expression, the Christian fascination with lambs & virgins, the meaning of martyrdom & the provenance of relics.
Effortlessly, this tranquil & earnest author moves us back through the ages to reveal, like the ancient stones she walks past, the erstwhile Roman attitudes toward our mortal remains & then through Christianity's infancy, in all its forms & purposes.
Part archaeology, part love story, part poetry & part tourist guide, The Geometry of Love is a quintessential read & I fell in love with columns all over again!
A superb example of writing about what you know - this author bequeaths us a unique & enfolding account of the why, where, who, when & what of a charming house of worship.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Linda Pagliuco VINE VOICE on June 28, 2004
Format: Paperback
The other reviewers on this page have admirably described this book's content, strengths, and weaknesses. As an inveterate visitor of ancient churches, what I've found invaluable is Visser's thorough lesson on how to read a church, especially an Italian Catholic one. I disagree that Sant'Agnese fuori le Mure is an "ordinary" church; its layers of history, folklore, language, mysticism, and symbolism have accumulated over many centuries, and the building itself is a treasure. Reading Geometry of Love answered many of the questions I had about religious, archaeological, and artistic traditions and also raised some new ones. But now when I enter an old Italian church I am better equipped to notice and interpret its many layers of nuance and meaning.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By benjamin on August 25, 2004
Format: Paperback
One of the reviews on the back of this book states that every reader will be able to pinpoint at the exact point that s/he becomes hooked by the text. For me, this point wasn't until about halfway through the book, in chapter 5, when I realized that a reading of a church building is not like a reading of a book: the imagination presences itself front-and-center, rather than lurking in the background, masked by a self-proclaimed "objectivity". The religious imagination embodies itself in the artwork, architecture and ceremony that *is* the church.

This book is a thick narrative that works on multiple levels: architectural and artistic, theological and socio-historical. The church building itself is far from static; in letting the church speak of what is timeless, it itself enters into time: ancient altars and recent restorations, classical Byzantine mosaics and Baroque-inspired paintings all inhabit the same space of the church. Each generation, each culture has done something to become a part of the history of the church, and therefore a part of the next generation. The church becomes a shared narrative, so to speak: a structural representating of communion.

The book functions as both an introduction to Christianity, and more specifically Roman Catholicism. Visser situates her text within the larger history of the Roman church, a world filled with saints and mystics, ascetics, martyrs and power struggles, sacraments and quasi-magical popular beliefs. It is a world in which the dead still have a presence in the present, and in which heaven and earth meet at particular times and in particular places - and more in the church than anywhere else.

What appears more than anything else in Visser's work is that of the Roman Catholic imagination.
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