Thoughts toward January 27/ Soranzo 1

conversion / space – some (at times pedantic) remarks on a difficult relationship

Etymologically speaking (my source is Pierre Hadot) the word conversion (in Latin, “conversio”) loosely translates two distinct Greek words, that is, epistrophe and metanoia. Whereas epistrophe entails a change of direction, or better, a return to a previous position both in a physical (e.g. the turning of a wheel, or of a planet against the zodiac) and intellectual (e.g. Plotinus’ conversion from a lower to a higher hypostases) sense, metanoia refers to a moment of spiritual and intellectual rebirth, a renaissance. This polarity, according to Hadot, has constantly marked Western characterizations of conversion, especially after the diffusion of Christianity. Both epistrophe and metanoia, to make a long story short, are crucial terms in the Bible. Epistrophe, for instance, is used in the Old Testament to account for the movement of Israel toward God and the promised Land; while metanoia is the word used for the spiritual rebirth brought about by Christ in the Gospels.

With this in mind, I have been thinking a lot about our project, and above all about occurrences of conversion in relation to space. For what I understood, etymologically speaking (epistrophe, metanoia) conversion is a word that denotes movement in space. One converts (epistrophe) from A to B by going back to where she is from physically, intellectually and spiritually (as in Plotinus or the Old Testament). By means of conversion (metanoia) one leaves darkness behind (as in Plato’s Republic, a seminal text in the history of metanoia) and “goes out” in the light. In other words, it can be said that conversion manifests itself in space, both in a literal and metaphorical sense.

In the Christian tradition, for what I know, this is not simply a metaphor as places themselves can be converted. I have been looking at Canon Law, for instance, and in particular at the canons dealing with sacred places. Well, there are countless prescriptions concerning – for example – the conversion of  a pagan sanctuary into a place of worship or of a Church into a space dedicated to profane activities. The language of these canons, for what I know, comes from early Christian writers such as Lactantius or Eusebius, and in particular from the edicts issued during Theodosius II, when Christianity became the official religion and pre-existing religions were forbidden and persecuted. This language –as Andrew Spicer has recently discussed – was in the process of being redefined precisely in the Early Modern period, when authors such as Luther or Calvin both accused Catholic rituals of conversion of spaces (e.g. consecrations, exsecrations, blessings etc.) of being an imposture, thus triggering a Catholic response.

Space, moreover, gives conversions a visible setting, while physically mirroring the spiritual changes endured by the convert. Damascus, Milan, Assisi, Manresa – to name a few – are all places that witnessed the unfolding of famous conversions, and became sacred spaces and destination of pilgrimages. Early Christian Churches, moreover, had a designated area called narthex for aspiring Christians. The topography of early modern cities such as 17th century Augsburg, moreover, mirrored the different confessions present in the urban space, while the peregrinations of former Jesuit father Jean de Labadie from Catholicism to Pietism corresponds – as Michel de Certeau discussed – to a nomadic life of constant displacements, which ended up with Labadie’s foundation of a sect outside of Catholicism and on the fringes of Europe.

While trying to pull all these strings together, I have been thinking that: 1. conversion and space are tied to each other in multiple ways (I have only mentioned a few; Ben’s idea of space as thing, for instance, would explore the interplay of space and conversion in a fascinating new way ); 2. the history of this relationship is closely linked with the evolution of Christianity (or, more likely, with the evolution of Western culture in general, of which Christianity is an aspect); 3. something crucial in this relationship takes place in the Early Modern period at the time of the Reformation (so, in the timespan of the project; and this point would be expanded by Ben’s idea as well); and personally 4. I want to look at how this relationship manifests itself in early modern devotional literature/ spirituality, starting from Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. The first exercise, as you certainly know, is called “composition of place” and historians attribute to the Jesuits the invention of a particular space for conversion, that is, the retreat; considering what was going on in XVI century Europe, this was an interesting choice, wasn’t it?

Ok, these are some of my thoughts.


One thought on “Thoughts toward January 27/ Soranzo

  • Ben Schmidt

    Happy holidays, Matteo and other Conversion of Space teammates! Thanks for this update and food for thought (far more nourishing than the endless holiday cookies I have been consuming over the past few weeks).

    To begin at the end: I fully agree with conclusion no. 1, which may as well be the point of departure for whatever we end up saying, viz. that shoehorning our collective ideas on conversion/space will be impossible, so we should keep a collectively open, flexible mind. Despite working a bit outside of the range of Christianity (with material objects, albeit ones that derive from spaces that undergo European efforts at evangelization), I also agree with conclusion no. 2—how could I not!—yet I believe, all the same, that it makes sense to keep in mind the multiple uses of the word (there is a staggering entry, e.g., in the OED); and there are many examples of the phenomenon that extend beyond the Christian understanding that, I agree, needs to remain central to our work (and to that of the EMC project, more generally).

    I like especially your thoughts on places/spaces being converted into something sacred (or con/reverted from a sacred to desacralized state); there is whiff of the colonial in this, which may point us toward a different metaphorical and etymological road—but does, all the same, get at something shared among Reformation era princes, who simultaneously aspired to control their confessional space and to expand their imperial space. In the conversion of space that I am thinking about there is also a religious facet: the failure to convert China, Japan, India, etc. into a space of (serious, longstanding) religious production is compensated for by their conversion into spaces of commercial production. (Cf. Stephen Greenblatt’s argument about Columbus’s anxieties and use of “marvel” in the New World.)

    I am not sure how the material conversion I am thinking about—space into thing; exotic space into material art—works with these religious conversions, yet I am hoping that I can work this out by thinking through our collective ideas on conversion. Moving from religious conversions to these material conversions may be pivotal for me.

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