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Pilgrimage Routes and the Cult of the Relic

Essay by Christine M. Bolli
Basilica Ste-Madeleine, Vézelay, France, dedicated 1104
Basilica Ste-Madeleine, Vézelay, France, dedicated 1104 (photo: Dr. Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The End of the World

Y2K. The Rapture. 2012. For over a decade, speculation about the end of the world has run rampant—all in conjunction with the arrival of the new millennium. The same was true for our religious European counterparts who, prior to the year 1000, believed the Second Coming of Christ was imminent, and the end was nigh.
When the apocalypse failed to materialize in 1000, it was decided that the correct year must be 1033, a thousand years from the death of Jesus Christ, but then that year also passed without any cataclysmic event.
Just how extreme the millennial panic was, remains debated. It is certain that from the year 950 onwards, there was a significant increase in building activity, particularly of religious structures. There were many reasons for this construction boom beside millennial panic, and the building of monumental religious structures continued even as fears of the immediate end of time faded.
Not surprisingly, this period also witnessed a surge in the popularity of the religious pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place. These are acts of piety and may have been undertaken in gratitude for the fact that doomsday had not arrived, and to ensure salvation, whenever the end did come.
Map of pilgrimage routes
Map of pilgrimage routes (image adapted from: Manfred Zentgraf, Volkach, Germany)

The Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

Pilgrims from the tympanum of Cahedral of St. Lazare, Autu, photo: Holly Hayes, Art History Images
Pilgrims from the tympanum of Cathedral of St. Lazare, Autun; photo: Holly Hayes,  Art History Images
For the average European in the 12th Century, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Jerusalem was out of the question—travel to the Middle East was too far, too dangerous and too expensive. Santiago de Compostela in Spain offered a much more convenient option.
To this day, hundreds of thousands of faithful travel the “Way of Saint James” to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. They go on foot across Europe to a holy shrine where bones, believed to belong to Saint James, were unearthed. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela now stands on this site.
The pious of the Middle Ages wanted to pay homage to holy relics, and pilgrimage churches sprang up along the route to Spain. Pilgrims commonly walked barefoot and wore a scalloped shell, the symbol of Saint James (the shell's grooves symbolize the many roads of the pilgrimage).
In France alone there were four main routes toward Spain. Le Puy, Arles, Paris and Vézelay are the cities on these roads and each contains a church that was an important prilgrimage site in its own right.

Why make a Pilgrimage?

A pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was an expression of Christian devotion and it was believed that it could purify the soul and perhaps even produce miraculous healing benefits. A criminal could travel the "Way of Saint James" as an act penance. For the everyday person, a pilgrimage was also one of the only opportunities to travel and see some of the world. It was a chance to meet people, perhaps even those outside one's own class. The purpose of pilgrimage may not have been entirely devotional.

The Cult of the Relic

St. Foy Conque, photo: Holly Hayes, Art History images
Reliquary of St. Foy at Conque Abbey, photo: Holly Hayes, Art History images
Pilgrimage churches can be seen in part as popular desinations, a spiritual tourism of sorts for medieval travelers. Guidebooks, badges and various souvenirs were sold. Pilgrims, though traveling light, would spend money in the towns that possessed important sacred relics.
The cult of relic was at its peak during the Romanesque period (c. 1000 - 1200). Relics are religious objects generally connected to a saint, or some other venerated person. A relic might be a body part, a saint's finger, a cloth worn by the Virgin Mary, or a piece of the True Cross.
Relics are often housed in a protective container called a reliquary. Reliquarys are often quite opulent and can be encrusted with precious metals and gemstones given by the faithful. An example is the Reliquary of Saint Foy, located at Conques abbey on the pilgrimage route. It is said to hold a piece of the child martyr’s skull. A large pilgrimage church might be home to one major relic, and dozens of lesser-known relics. Because of their sacred and economic value, every church wanted an important relic and a black market boomed with fake and stolen goods.
Portal, Cathedral of Saint Lazare, Autun, 12th century
Portal, Cathedral of Saint Lazare, Autun, 12th century

Accomodating Crowds

St. Sernin, Toulouse (plan)
St. Sernin, Toulouse (plan)
Pilgrimage churches were constructed with some special features to make them particularly accessible to visitors. The goal was to get large numbers of people to the relics and out again without disturbing the Mass in the center of the church. A large portal that could accommodate the pious throngs was a prerequisite. Generally, these portals would also have an elaborate sculptural program, often portraying the Second Coming—a good way to remind the weary pilgrim why they made the trip!
A pilgrimage church generally consisted of a double aisle on either side of the nave (the wide hall that runs down the center of a church). In this way, the visitor could move easily around the outer edges of the church until reaching the smaller apsidioles or radiating chapels. These are small rooms generally located off the back of the church behind the altar where relics were often displayed. The faithful would move from chapel to chapel venerating each relic in turn.

Thick Walls, Small Windows

The thrust of a barrel vault
The thrust of a barrel vault
Romanesque churches were dark. This was in large part because of the use of stone barrel-vault construction. This system provided excellent acoustics and reduced fire danger. However, a barrel vault exerts continuous lateral (outward pressure) all along the walls that support the vault. 
This meant the outer walls of the church had to be extra thick. It also meant that windows had to be small and few. When builders dared to pierce walls with additional or larger windows they risked structural failure. Churches did collapse.
Nave, Tournus Cathedral, 11th century
Nave, Tournus Cathedral, 11th century
Groin vault
Groin vault
Later, the masons of the Gothic period replaced the barrel vault with the groin vault which carries weight down to its four corners, concentrating the pressure of the vaulting, and allowing for much larger windows.
Essay by Christine M. Bolli

Want to join the conversation?

  • purple pi purple style avatar for user grace.evans
    Why would Jesus' return be an end? Isn't he a friendly, loving figure in the New Testament?
    (4 votes)
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    • leafers tree style avatar for user Michel El Hachem
      this return is common for all Abrahamic religions. The jews have the messiah, the Christians waiting for the second return and the resurrection day for islam. I think this fundamental belief is closely related to the hell and heaven concept. On this day people are to be rewarded according to their beliefs and deeds. So you see jesus has nothing to do with; it has more to do with the concept of retribution / punishment or rewarding the "faithful". And retribution / punishment are not really merciful terms to portray that day in a friendly and loving manner. So would be seen as friendly and loving for most of the pious but will harsh by that same group for all that differs in their beliefs; and that's why all of these last judgment paintings portray both sides of that equation.
      (4 votes)
  • aqualine tree style avatar for user Brian Merlob
    Why do we have these "end of the world" stories? Are they just remnants of cultures long ago (the way that current religious holidays correlate strongly with past pagan holidays), or perhaps just propagated by individuals who perceive a degradation of morals in their societies and desire divine judgement? Or maybe its something more systemic with the age of the society (or just cyclic, every generation needs their own judgement day)? It seems to happen quite a lot (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dates_predicted_for_apocalyptic_events) and there is an entire theology dedicated to it (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/End_of_the_world_(religion)). I'd imagine it's also important to note how many people take each of these stories seriously (Not many people took 2012 seriously, as far as I know; I doubt religious buildings were made in any greater number because of it).
    (3 votes)
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    • mr pink red style avatar for user edosan
      "End of the world stories" aren't exclusive to antiquity. Ask the people that thought Y2K or 2012 was going to be the end of everything. There are Christians today that sincerely believe that Jesus is coming back in their lifetime.
      (2 votes)
  • hopper jumping style avatar for user Mason Alex
    I don't think that the "end of the world" is coming or that it will ever come. I mean i'm sure that it will come I just don't know when. Only God can predict the end of the world, the question is When?
    (1 vote)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Aviv Brafman
      Depends on your definition of "world". Is it the end of human civilization? That could come in a relatively short time if we become reckless enough (relative to historical timescales). Is it the end of life on this planet? That will come when our star dies in approximately 5 billion years; Earth may or may not survive the sun's red giant phase intact. If you refer to the end of existence, I'm not sure I'm convinced by the "big freeze" scenario for the end of our universe, though if it does happen, the time scale is in trillions of years, not billions. (the eventual decay of all matter as we know it has been predicted by models striving for unification. Protons are predicted to have a half-life of 10^32 years...so, assuming that is correct, we are barely in the infancy of the life-cycle of matter.
      http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/particles/proton.html)
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Inés  Camerlynck
    Is there anything important going on in the apse?
    (1 vote)
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  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Chelsea An
    Can you give me a quote about the many people visiting relics? Also, how come you did not mention how relics had healing powers?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user shaban.murtishi
    The end of the world never gonna happen, This is my opinion I had hear from my mum because before to many many years ago this happened!
    (1 vote)
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