The Cult of Saints and The Rise of Pilgrimage

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The Cult of Saints and The Rise of Pilgrimage

An Investment in Pilgrimage Art.

Although the concept of Christian pilgrimage to a sacred site was almost as old as Christianity itself, pilgrimage as a social phenomenon in medieval Europe increased dramatically during the tenth and eleventh centuries as more people visited traditional shrines where saints' relics had long been venerated. A relic is what's left of a saint, either a part of the body (a tooth, an arm, a skull, some blood, etc.) or an article of clothing or other accessory (ranging from Christ's own Crown of Thorns to a shoe or garment belonging to the most minor of saints). Such holy objects, increasingly in the possession of churches, cathedrals, and abbeys all over Europe, were venerated by members of all social classes who attributed to them a divine power. Their custodians preserved and honored these relics by creating beautiful containers, known as reliquaries, to house them.

The Impact of Pilgrimage.

The impact on European culture and visual art of this new flourishing of the cult of saints is difficult to overestimate. Whether pilgrims traveled to fulfill an oath, to seek a cure for an illness, to gain the favor of a particular saint, or as an act of penance, they spent money along their journeys and gave donations at local shrines. Recognizable by their large brimmed hats, walking sticks, and food bags called scrips, pilgrims collected small tokens or badges at shrines along the way, which they could bring home as souvenirs of their journey. Fundamentally a spiritual endeavor, pilgrimage also became a big business in the eleventh century, stimulating the economy and motivating secular rulers and monastic communities to invest heavily in the visual arts associated with the cult of saints. Thus, in addition to new and larger churches along the major pilgrimage routes designed to accommodate greater numbers of pilgrims, this period witnessed an explosion of metalwork and enamelwork reliquary containers for saints' relics; illustrated books narrating the lives and miracles of saints; other decorated religious books such as Bibles and psalters; and liturgical vestments and vessels used for the performance of the Mass before ever-larger crowds of Christian pilgrims. The powerful abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, France, promoted the growth of pilgrimage across Europe and profited immensely, while kings and bishops found political as well as economic advantage in supporting and endowing popular shrines with costly art objects.

Reliquary Shrine of St. Foy.

A wonderful example in many ways is the golden reliquary statue of St. Foy (or Foi), currently in the Cathedral Treasury of Conques, in south-central France. Foy was a martyr saint, a young girl executed by the Romans for her Christian beliefs. Her relics were brought to the abbey of Conques in the later ninth century. During the expansion of pilgrimage to Conques in the tenth century, the monks there actively promoted the cult of this saint and over time built for her relics a magnificent statue-like container (which was embellished further in the centuries afterward). Gold sheeting was laid over a wooden core, and a metal crown and throne were added along with the jewels, antique cameos, and gold filigree work that adorn the garment. The head is actually a late-Roman parade helmet, readapted for this new purpose. The resulting representation of the saint is a powerful object of devotion, and as an image of sacred authority (following the ancient Roman visual tradition of seated authority figures), it was an effective visual aid in the abbey's campaign to solicit donations in gold from the surrounding region. Some of the donations were used in the creation of this exquisite reliquary, but most of the abbey's income from this campaign was used for trade and other projects. The St. Foy statue thus represents and visualizes the very straightforward economic power of the reinvigorated cult of saints, just as it suggests how the devotional power of a relic could be enhanced by the creation of a work of visual beauty to contain it.

to Santiago de Compostela

Pilgrimages in the Middle Ages were such an important part of the general culture that they were represented in a wide range of art forms, including sculpture, jewelry, and manuscript illumination. One of the most famous pilgrimage sites in Europe was the shrine of St. James of Compostela in the mountains of what is now northwestern Spain. According to Christian legend, the apostle James the Greater evangelized Spain before his martyrdom in Asia Minor and his body was subsequently returned to Spain for burial. In the early ninth century, the hidden or forgotten grave was discovered at a site known as Compostela, and King Alfonso II of Asturias ordered the construction of a church at the site, designating it a cathedral. Almost immediately, pilgrims from other regions journeyed to the shrine, such was the importance of the cult of St. James, or Santiago. Within Spain, St. James came to stand for the ideal of a Spain made fully Christian again (since the Muslim conquest of most of the peninsula in 711). He became the patron saint of the Christian "Reconquest" of Spain. The traffic of pilgrims from all over Europe to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela increased dramatically over the next two centuries (in line with the general increase of pilgrimage activity in Europe) until by about 1100 the cathedral of Santiago was one of the three most important pilgrimage centers in Latin Christendom, along with St. Peter's in Rome (where the relics of St. Peter were preserved) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (site of Christ's own—empty—tomb). The volume of pilgrims necessitated a bigger church, and a new Romanesque cathedral was erected over the early medieval church. A description of the new structure can be found in the Pilgrim's Guide to Santiago, written before the middle of the twelfth century.

As was the case with pilgrimage routes elsewhere, commerce prospered with the increasing flow of pilgrims. Economic expansion due to pilgrimage brought about the growth of towns along the route and encouraged rulers and wealthy landowners along the way to capitalize on the traffic by promoting the cults of local saints and patronizing the arts associated with pilgrimage. Thus, the major routes through France and Spain to Santiago can be traced today from one pilgrimage church to another, through once-thriving town centers and along major monastic foundations. In the visual art of the Middle Ages, pilgrims can be recognized by the walking staffs and scrips or food sacks that they carry with them. Pilgrims to Santiago also wear the signature scallop shell of St. James on their cloaks, hats, and bags. One of the most interesting phenomena associated with the shrine was the invention of the pilgrim souvenir, in the form of a pewter badge that pilgrims could take away with them as evidence that they had completed their pilgrimage. Decorated with the motif of the scallop shell, such badges were mass-produced in an effort to keep pilgrims from dismantling the shrines themselves, but they also served the purpose of identifying pilgrims who could then receive both safe passage through dangerous territories and the charity that aided their travel. The badges also became an important source of income for the shrine, and many people believed they had healing powers, especially when they were made of fine metals and embellished with gems. So familiar were these souvenirs that images of the badges were often painted in a highly realistic trompe l'oeil manner in the margins of Books of Hours to look as if the actual objects were attached to the page.

Enamelwork Reliquaries.

Less magnificent and imposing but still very fine and much more abundant were the box- and casket-reliquaries composed of metal plates (sometimes over a wooden core) decorated with enamel panels, such as a twelfth-century container for a fragment of the True Cross (the cross upon which Christ was crucified) that seems to have been made specifically for the church of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse, France. The figures decorating the box are labeled by name and tell the story of the relic's journey from the East to Saint-Sernin. On the lid is an image of Christ in glory. The beauty of the container with its fine craftsmanship and colorful surface suggests the importance and value of the relic within. The two main centers for the production of such small, portable enamelwork objects beginning in the twelfth century were Limoges, in central France (where the Saint-Sernin reliquary was produced), and the Mosan region in the Rhine and Meuse River valleys. The type of enamelwork seen in the Saint-Sernin reliquary is known aschamplevé, created by a process in which the desired forms and lines are engraved into the metal surface and filled with colored glass powder, which is then heated until it fuses, producing a glass-like surface. Such works were exported all over Europe, helping to promote the veneration of relics while contributing to a greater uniformity of style and iconography in the visual arts of the period.

The Throne of Wisdom.

Another important benchmark in the rise of European devotional culture is the increasing presence of sculpted representations of the Virgin Mary (or the Virgin and Child), usually on church altars. One striking twelfth-century example carved in wood illustrates a specialty of the Auvergne region in central France. With its rigid frontality and rather abstract rendering of drapery and other details, this statue and others of its kind were meant to project an iconic presence and to convey a theological notion of the Virgin as "Throne of Wisdom" (sedes sapientiae in Latin). Such objects often doubled as reliquary containers, and they flourished in churches along the pilgrimage roads. The expression of stern authority and devotional intensity of this Virgin and Child is clearly related to that of the St. Foy statue. It is this period, in fact, that witnesses the return of monumental figurative sculpture which had been generally absent in European art since the fall of the Roman Empire.


introduction: Although there are not many written descriptions of art works during the Middle Ages, there were numerous records of the building of churches and cathedrals, some of which also included mention of the treasure of the church. The following passage from the chronicle of the abbey of St. Alban's in Hertfordshire, England, describes the origins, crafting, and purposes of a reliquary and a chalice, with some appreciation of how the shape and ornamentation were conceptualized, as well as a show of contemporary pride in their possession and display.

Abbot Simon [1167–1183] of pious memory started to collect from that time, zealously and with foresight and wisdom, a considerable treasure of gold and silver and precious stones, and to fashion the outside of the repository which we call a reliquary or feretrum (than which we have seen none finer at this time), undertaken by the hand of Master John, goldsmith and most excellent craftsman. He completed this most painstaking, costly, and artistic work most successfully within a few years. He placed it in a prominent position, namely above the main altar, facing the celebrant, so that anyone celebrating Mass at this altar would have before his eyes and in his heart the memory of the Martyr [Saint Alban]; thus facing the celebrant was portrayed the martyrdom, that is, the beheading. Moreover, around the reliquary, namely on the two sides, he had clearly depicted a series from the life of the Blessed Martyr, which consisted of his passion and the preparation for his passion, with raised figures of gold and silver, which is embossed work (commonly called relief). On the main side, which faced east, he reverently placed the image of the Crucified with the figures of Mary and John in a most fitting arrangement of divers jewels. On the side facing west he portrayed the Blessed Virgin enthroned and holding her child on her lap, an outstanding work surrounded by gems and precious jewels. And thus, with a row of martyrs arranged on both sides of the lid, the reliquary rises to an elaborate and artistic crest; at the four corners it is beautifully and harmoniously shaped with windowed turrets covered by crystals. In this [reliquary] then, which is of extraordinary size, is appropriately enclosed the reliquary of the Martyr himself (being, as it were, his own chamber in which his severed bones are known to be contained), a fitting repository first commissioned by Abbot Geoffrey. …

The same Abbot Simon also had made and bestowed to his everlasting renown, and to the glory of God and the church of the Blessed Martyr Saint Alban, a great golden chalice than which we have seen no finer in the kingdom of England. It is of the best and purest gold, encircled by precious stones appropriate to the material in such a work, made most subtle with a delicate and fine composition of interwoven flowers. This chalice was made by Master Baldwin, a preeminent goldsmith. He also had made by the hand of the same Baldwin a small vessel, worthy of special admiration, of standard yellow gold, with jewels of divers priceless kinds fitted and properly placed on it, in which "the artistry surpassed the material;" this work was to hold the Eucharist, to be hung over the main altar of the Martyr. When this became known to King Henry II, he sent with joy and devotion to the church of Saint Alban's a most splendid and precious cup in which was placed the repository immediately holding the body of Christ. …

source: William Durandus, The Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments: A Translation of the First Book of the Rationale Divinorum Officiorum. Trans. and Eds. John Mason Neale and Benjamin Webb (Leeds, England: T. W. Green, 1843): 17–30.


Peter Brown, The Cult of Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

Gesta 1 (1997). [This entire issue is devoted to body parts and body-part reliquaries.]

see also Architecture: Pilgrimage Architecture ; Literature: The Canterbury Tales ; Religion: Relics, Pilgrimages, and the Peace of God