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 sermons—before emerging from confinement as new persons.
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).
Evans, Nancy A. "Sanctuaries, Sacrifices and the Eleusinian Mysteries." Numen: International Review for the History of Religions 49 (2002): 227–255.
Gregory D. Alles (1987)
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.
Revd Dr William M. Marshall
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.
Sanctuary ★★ 1998 (R)
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