views updated May 08 2018


SANCTUARY . As etymology suggests, a sanctuary is a sacred place, a place set apart from the space of ordinary existence (LL, sanctuarium, from sanctus, "sacred, holy," by analogy with sacrarium, "shrine," from sacer ). Thus, the term implies a distinction between "the sacred" and "the profane" that may not be universal; consequently, "sanctuaries" may, strictly speaking, be found only in a limited if significant number of religious traditions.

Virtually any place can serve as a sanctuary. It is essential, however, that a sanctuary be marked off, that is, that the distinction between sacred and profane be perceptibly indicated, whether by natural means (e.g., a cave) or by artificial means. The latter may range from the technologically simple (a ring of stones) to the technologically elaborate (ornate Buddhist stupas). In addition, the shapes that a sanctuary's construction assumes generally carry symbolic meanings appropriate to notions of the sacred found in the community by which the sanctuary has been constructed. European cathedrals have taken the form of a cross, Mesopotamian ziggurats represent the sacred mountain, and so on.

But the term sanctuary usually carries one (or both) of two more specific meanings, one cultic, the other social. In the first case, it denotes a place of worship. The place where the sacred dwells or manifests itself becomes the place where human beings encounter it. Such a sanctuary may be used by groups of varying size, from individual dwelling units (e.g., shrines in Nuer dwellings, the pūjā room in Hindu households) to large communities (e.g., city temples). If it stands separately, it may be called, somewhat ethnocentrically, a domus dei ("house of god"). Harold W. Turner isolates four dimensions of the domus dei: It is the center with reference to which life is oriented, the point at which heaven and earth meet, the microcosm of the heavenly realm, and the locus of the divine presence, often signaled by a cult object or image.

The sanctuary as domus dei invites a great deal of specialization and elaboration. The result may be large buildings and complexes of buildings containing areas of varying sanctity, including one or more sanctuaries in a more specialized sense: particularly isolated areas or chambers where the sacred is most powerfully present, such as the "Holy of Holies" in the Jerusalem Temple or the aduton of Greek temples. Access to this sanctuary is limited, often to only the highest religious functionaries (e.g., the chief priest) at very specific, cultically significant times.

Besides the domus dei, there is another sort of religious sanctuary, not the place where the sacred dwells but the place where the religious community (itself sacred) worships. This type, which lacks the four dimensions of the domus dei isolated by Turner, may be designated by the parallel term domus ecclesiae ("house of the gathered assembly"). Its paradigmatic form is the Jewish synagogue, on which the Muslim mosque and various Christian houses of worship are patterned (such as the meetinghouse of the Society of Friends).

In the social sense, a sanctuary is a place of refuge or asylum, a place set apart from the regulations of ordinary social intercourse. Places of refuge are found widely in conjunction with religious sanctuaries. For example, in Greek mythology Orestes was safe from the Erinyes (the Furies) so long as he remained in contact with the omphalos ("navel"), a sacred stone at Delphi. Just as entire cities can be set aside as religious sanctuaries (e.g., Kasi/Banaras in India), so too entire cities have been set aside as social sanctuaries, as were the cities of refuge in ancient Israel. In the West, the right of sanctuary was formulated by law as early as the end of the fourth century, and in time specific provisions became quite complex. But movements to curb rights of sanctuary began in the early modern period (sixteenth century), and by the end of the eighteenth century such rights had virtually disappeared in western Europe.

The sanctuary as legal asylum finds an intriguing antitype in an institution that arose as the right of sanctuary disappeared: the penitentiary. As it developed in religiously valorized form in the early nineteenth century, the penitentiary, too, was a place set apart from ordinary social intercourse. But in the penitentiary the guilty were not protected from punishment by the presence of the sacred. Instead, the guilty had to come to terms with themselves and their misdeeds. That is, they had to repent (hence the name) and "convert"convicts were forced to listen to sermonsbefore emerging from confinement as new persons.

See Also

aram and awah.


For a general discussion of sacred space, see Mircea Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958), especially chapter 10, "Sacred Places." Harold W. Turner's From Temple to Meeting House (The Hague, 1979) discusses both the domus dei and the domus ecclesiae at length, but in a context that eventually leads to theological reflection. On sanctuary as asylum, Edward A. Westermarck's article "Asylum," in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 2 (Edinburgh, 1909), is a treasure-store of cross-cultural information that, however, must be used critically today. For a more detailed study limited to one particular culture, see John Charles Cox's Sanctuaries and Sanctuary Seekers of Medieval England (London, 1911). A provocative history of the penitentiary is provided by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York, 1977).

New Sources

Evans, Nancy A. "Sanctuaries, Sacrifices and the Eleusinian Mysteries." Numen: International Review for the History of Religions 49 (2002): 227255.

Gregory D. Alles (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 23 2018

sanc·tu·ar·y / ˈsang(k)choōˌerē/ • n. (pl. -ar·ies) 1. a place of refuge or safety: people automatically sought a sanctuary in time of trouble. ∎  immunity from arrest: he has been given sanctuary in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.2. a nature reserve: a bird sanctuary.3. a holy place; a temple or church. ∎  the inmost recess or holiest part of a temple or church. ∎  the part of the chancel of a church containing the high altar.ORIGIN: Middle English: from Old French sanctuaire, from Latin sanctuarium, from sanctus ‘holy.’ The early sense ‘a church or other sacred place where a fugitive was immune from arrest’ gave rise to senses 1 and 2.


views updated May 11 2018

sanctuary. Originally open land where the divine was present, but later associated with a religious building or part of it, its sacred character afforded protection where no blood was to be shed. Recognized first in Roman law (4th cent.) and by the church (Council of Orléans 511), Christian sanctuaries were later protected under English common law whereby a fugitive charged with any offence except sacrilege or treason could delay punishment by reaching sanctuary, often by grasping the ring or knocker of any church door. He had the choice of submitting to trial or, clad in sackcloth, confessing crime to a coroner and swearing to leave the kingdom after 40 days, in which case he became an outlaw, forfeiting all his goods and his wife, who was then regarded as a widow. If he did neither, he was starved into submission. Often abused, sanctuary became a source of dispute between church and state. Chief Justice Tresilian was seized from sanctuary and executed (1388). Archbishop Bourchier threatened to excommunicate lay officers who breached sanctuary (1463). It was even more abused by political fugitives in the Yorkist–Lancastrian struggles, especially in Westminster and St Martin-le-Grand, London, by debtors, and ‘a rabble of theues, murtherers and malicious heyghnous Traitours’. Pope Innocent VIII (1487) and Henry VIII (1540) limited the privilege, the latter to seven cities. Sanctuary was abolished for criminals (1623) and for civil cases (1723).

Revd Dr William M. Marshall


views updated May 17 2018

sanctuary a place of refuge or safety; originally, a church or other sacred place where a fugitive was immune, by the law of the medieval Church, from arrest. By English common law, a fugitive charged with any offence but sacrilege and treason might escape punishment by taking refuge in a sanctuary, and within forty days confessing his crime and taking an oath which subjected him to perpetual banishment.

The word is recorded from Middle English in the sense a holy place, a temple, or the inmost recess or holiest part of such a place; it comes ultimately from Latin sanctus ‘holy’.
sanctuary lamp a candle or small light left lit in the sanctuary of a church, especially (in Catholic churches) a red lamp indicating the presence of the reserved Sacrament.


views updated May 17 2018

Sanctuary (Lat., sanctuarium). A holy place, especially in Christianity the part of a church containing the altar (or high altar). The right (or benefit) of sanctuary was recognized in Roman law, limited by Justinian in 535 to more serious crimes. Canon law allowed sanctuary for a limited period so that compensation might be agreed (sacrilege and treason were excepted).


views updated Jun 27 2018

1. Especially holy place within a church or temple

2. Sacrarium, or part of a church in the vicinity of the high-altar.

3. Chancel or presbytery.


views updated May 21 2018

Sanctuary ★★ 1998 (R)

A former government agent, Luke Connolly has completely changed his life by becoming a clergyman. However, when his old agency discovers his whereabouts, the deadly skills he's renounced may be all that can save him. 110m/C VHS, DVD . Mark Dacascos, Kylie Travis, Jaimz Woolvett, Alan Scarfe; D: Tibor Takacs; W: Michael Stokes; M: Norman Orenstein. VIDEO