Pilgrimage Architecture

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Pilgrimage Architecture

Symbolic Places.

Because medieval Christians believed that holy places bore the mark of divinity, they were drawn to the sites of important historical and spiritual events, such as those in the Holy Land where Jesus had lived and died, the tombs of revered saints, or important collections of their relics. To visit these spots—the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem or the footprints of St. Peter in Rome—not only revealed the truth of the scriptures, but also allowed the Christian worshipper to remember the past through the rituals of the present. In religious journeys or pilgrimages to these special places of spiritual power, relics—the physical remains of bones, skin, hair, and fingernails or objects touched by saints—offered concrete points of contact with Christian martyrs, who, though long dead, provided accessible and inspiring models for behavior. While pilgrimage and the cult of saints and their relics originated in the first centuries of Christian devotion, they became especially important in the Middle Ages. The church, and particularly its monastic orders, fostered pilgrimage as one strategy to refocus the energies of secular society away from destructive fighting toward more peaceful concerns. By 1100, the shrine of Saint James, apostle of Jesus, at Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain had become the most popular pilgrimage destination in Western Europe and joined Jerusalem and Rome in importance. Dozens of other churches sheltering the miracle-working relics of saints—Sainte-Foy at Conques, Saint-Trophîme at Arles, Saint-Sernin at Toulouse—rose along the major routes that fanned out through France from the road to Santiago. For local communities, pilgrimage was a lucrative source of income from services provided for the pious travelers and the donations they left behind. Medieval architecture played a critical role in giving form to religious memory and experience, but the cash generated by those encounters with the divine also fueled the burst of building.

The Ambulatory and Chapel Plan.

As early as the ninth century, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, with its circular plan and dome, had been a model for many kinds of religious buildings in Western Europe. Likewise, St. Peter's in Rome was reproduced repeatedly in the Carolingian period to honor saints, and in Italy its T-shaped plan with a transept and apse inspired other designs, such as that of Bari, where the body of St. Nicholas was placed in 1089, as well as nearby Trani, where the cult of a rival St. Nicholas was promoted. During the eleventh century, however, a new and more complex plan came together that skillfully orchestrated spaces around the multiple functions that a shrine church needed to accommodate. Simply put, the cruciform basilica that maintained the association to the venerable martyrs' churches of St. Peter's and St. Paul's in Rome was joined to the kind of ambulatory and chapel arrangement found in crypts arranged around saints' tombs and pioneered in Carolingian churches such as Saint-Germain at Auxerre and Corvey. The breakthrough came when the apse of the body of the church was spatially connected with the ambulatory through an open arcade. As a result, like a modern highway system, the ambulatory allowed pilgrims to circulate around the outer edge of the interior, bypassing the liturgical area of the choir and leaving the clergy undisturbed. Visitors might descend into the crypt where they could peer in through arches or windows at the tomb of the saint, or they might make the circuit of the ambulatory above to glimpse the golden and jeweled reliquary boxes displayed on altars in the main choir and chapels. Five of the major churches along the route to Compostela—Saint-Martin in Tours, Sainte-Foy at Conques, Saint-Martial at Limoges, Saint-Sernin at Toulouse, and Santiago—adopted this plan, each with a nearly identical two-story elevation composed of an arcade with a gallery above and crowned by a barrel vault. Although this design is often called the "pilgrimage roads" type, it is by no means typical of pilgrimage churches in general. To cite but one example, Saint-Front at Périgueux in southwestern France, begun in the late eleventh century, turned to St.

Mark's in Venice for its cross-shaped plan capped by five domes. By quoting St. Mark's, itself based on the sixth-century church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, Périgueux advertised its saint's identity as one of the seven apostles of early Christian France.

Church as Guidebook.

In addition to the general plan of a pilgrimage church, other architectural features sometimes served to remind visitors of their purpose and impress upon them the scope of their undertaking. A striking example of this phenomenon is the exterior design of the church of Mary Magdalene (La Madeleine) of Vézelay. This church was originally built as a shrine for the relics of Mary Magdalene; once their authenticity had been confirmed by the pope in 1058, the church became a major destination for pilgrims, both because of its own significance and because it lay at the intersection of the roads leading to Compostela and a major route towards Jerusalem. One of the key features of this church is its tympanum, the huge semi-circular carving above the main portal inside the narthex of the church, which was begun in 1124 and sculpted in a style that resembles the choir capitals in Cluny in 1115. This relief carving, which would be one of the first things every visitor would see because of its location at the main entry to the church, depicts the ascension of Christ combined with the mission of the apostles. In this scene of Christ flanked by the apostles, his power both to condemn and to save mankind is clearly revealed to all who walk into the church. The lintel—the horizontal frieze at the bottom of the semi-circle—contains various peoples, including imagined Ethiopians and monstrous races of men with the heads of dogs believed to live in the remote parts of the world, all illustrating Christ's successes in preaching to and converting non-Christians. Appropriately for a church where the Second Crusade was to be preached, the tympanum showed pilgrims the symbolic liberation of the Holy Land, a subject matter that would be easily recognized by later pilgrims as a sort of prophecy.

The Decorated Church.

Church portals were not the sole focus of figural decoration in the medieval church. Gold-ground mosaics that narrated stories of the lives of Christ or the saints, as seen in the Norman churches of Sicily, sometimes covered wall surfaces. Other churches adorned their walls and even the ceilings with extensive cycles of paintings. In the Romanesque period, the capital, the topmost part of a column or pilaster, became a favorite field for sculptural decoration. Often brightly painted, capitals were most frequently carved with figures of animals and fantastic beasts such as griffins, harpies, or sirens. Their appearance on capitals in monastic cloisters prompted Bernard of Clairvaux to condemn them as distractions.

In the cloisters, before the eyes of the brothers while they read what are the filthy apes doing there? The fierce lions? The monstrous centaurs? The creatures part man and part beast? The striped tigers? The fighting soldiers? The hunters blowing horns? You may see many bodies under one head, and conversely many heads under one body? In short, everywhere so plentiful and astonishing a variety of contradictory forms is seen that one would rather read in the marble than in books, and spend the whole day wondering at every single one of them than in meditating on the law of God.

But in addition to this menagerie of imaginative creatures, capitals in such notable churches as La Madeleine in Vézelay or Saint-Lazare at Autun—both in Burgundy, France—were carved with religious and moralizing subjects. As viewers moved through the interior space of the church, they might look on devils tormenting the lustful or leading misers to hell, the temptation of Christ, or the miracles performed by St. Benedict. Complementing the monumental images of the divine in stone and paint at the portals and in the apse, these capitals offered a vivid reminder to the congregation of the paths that led to heaven or hell.

Church as Reliquary.

The ambulatory and chapel scheme remained in force during the twelfth century at such magnetic pilgrimage churches as Saint-Denis, Canterbury, and Chartres. The Canterbury itinerary, for example, led from the altar in the north transept where the archbishop Thomas Becket had been murdered, down into the crypt, then up and around the ambulatory to the stations where Becket's relics were displayed, while pilgrims at Saint-Denis circulated around tombs set on the raised stage-like platform of the choir, in a setting enhanced by an innovative use of glass and a more unified sense of space. It was mainly in drawing upon these new possibilities that shrine architecture of the thirteenth century adopted a radically different language. Rather than looking to the past for plans and references, commemorative structures during this later "Gothic" era increasingly replicated the delicate, brittle effects of contemporary metalwork. The most breathtaking example of this new taste is embodied by the Sainte-Chapelle, built by Louis IX between 1241 and 1248 as the repository for the fabulous horde of relics of Christ he had purchased from the emperor in Constantinople and transferred to his palace in Paris. With the summit of the exterior walls embellished by an intricate filigree of bar tracery (a network of slender ornamental shafts), bristling with ornate pinnacles, and crowned by a diadem of pierced gables, the royal chapel appears as a monumental stone and glass version of a reliquary fashioned of gold, silver, enamel, and precious stones. The building literally assumed the form of its function. While the construction cost of the chapel itself was reported at 40,000 pounds (as a gauge, the annual salary of a master mason would have been about 10 pounds), the king spent 100,000 pounds on the relic containers, and 135,000 pounds for the relics themselves. Thus, the meaning of the building was not created through connections to historical models, but by emulating objects closely associated with the veneration of holy figures and their symbolically resonant precious materials. Similarly, Saint-Urbain at Troyes, built between 1262 and around 1285 to commemorate the birthplace of Pope Urban IV and as a shrine to his patron St. Urban, advertises its memorial character in the fretwork of sharp gables and tracery that encase the exterior. And at Notre-Dame in Paris, the two tiers of ornate gables added between 1300 and 1350 transformed the choir into an otherworldly container for the body of Christ and the relics of the saints.


William Melczer, ed., The Pilgrim's Guide to Santiago de Compostela (New York: Italica Press, 1993).

Raymond Oursel, Pélerins du Moyen Age: Les hommes, les chemins, les sanctuaires (Paris: Fayard, 1978).

Conrad Rudolph, The Things of Greater Importance: Bernard of Clairvaux's Apologia and the Medieval Attitude Toward Art (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990).

Francis Woodman, The Architectural History of Canterbury Cathedral (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981).

see also Literature: The Canterbury Tales ; Religion: Relics, Pilgrimages, and the Peace of God ; Visual Arts: The Cult of the Saints and the Rise of Pilgrimage

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