The Secret Language of Sacred Places by John Canon


The Secret Language of Sacred Spaces: Decoding Churches, Temples, Mosques and Other Places of Worship around the World, by John Canon. London: Duncan Baird Publishing Limited, 2013. 215 pp. $35.00.

John Canon’s Secret Language of Sacred Spaces is a visually stimulating collection of some of the world’s most important spaces of worship as well as a discussion of their history, significance, and meaning. The thesis of Canon’s text is that places of worship reflect elements of the religion which they represent. He reveals the purpose for his text by stating that “it is a history of the places of worship of each faith, emphasizing what they reveal about the belief system itself” (6).

Canon accomplishes his purpose in the two major sections of his book. Part One provides a preliminary discussion of form and style in architecture and gives specific pictorial examples. He lists and explains various key elements of religious buildings, such as platforms, entrances, enclosures, sanctuaries, main halls, and features reflecting geography. Two of the main terms that he defines as foundational for discussing the significance of the places of worship are form and style. Canon defines form as the overall shape of a building and style as the way the form is communicated. He states that every element of a building’s design, from the outline of the rooftop to the intricacies of its engravings, articulates the form in some fashion or another. In keeping with the thesis of his book, he states that the culmination of these facets of design will embody basic aspects of the faith for which the building was created. He also remarks that “religious buildings document history: they stand witness to the beliefs and personalities of the past. From simple, sometimes intimate, halls in which to pray, to grand forums for a richly theatrical liturgy, their designs reveal not only the tenets of a given faith but also its internal hierarchies and ideas about authority” (43). Part One of the book continues to explore theology and creation and how those are displayed in the form and style of places of worship. It closes with a historical perspective on where and how people have gathered for worship throughout the ages.

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In Part Two, titled “Architecture and the Ages of Faith,” Canon provides a visual exploration of significant places of worship, most of which date back to the ancient world. He organizes this section according to the primary living faiths of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Eastern spirit religions. Throughout the text, photographs and paintings alike are used as helpful examples and fascinating depictions of the themes being discussed. Whether his pages display the impressive form of Il Duomo of Florence or the marble profile of the Taj Mahal, the photographs reveal exquisite details of well-known places of worship as well as introducing readers to some less commonly known.

Canon’s Secret Language of Sacred Spaces is a well-crafted visual manual of significant religious architecture throughout the world. The inclusion of photographs and paintings not only enhances and provides visual examples for the discourse of the text, but also makes the book enjoyable for almost any age or level of interest. By including many faiths, Canon takes an academic approach to the discussion of religious practices and presents the variety of beliefs represented by each one through their religious spaces. He uses small insets of photographs that magnify intricate details of otherwise overwhelmingly ornate images. He also uses helpful diagrams and numberings in pictures as points of explanation and example, providing specific information about smaller details or facets of the place of worship being discussed. Whether purchased for individual use or as a text for study, Canon’s Secret Language of Sacred Spaces is a helpful, engaging, and enjoyable visual collection of places of worship from around the globe. With his tactful combination of images and explanation, he reveals the secret language of sacred spaces both visually and verbally.

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Kaitlyn Zachary

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Fort Worth, TX