The Medieval Pilgrimage Shrines


The churches of the Romanesque era were the fruits of a thoroughly Catholic culture. Not only did they serve as places of worship and devotion, but also as centers of the community.

Abbey Church at Cluny (France)

One aspect of the agrarian Catholic culture in medieval Europe was the rise in popularity of the Christian pilgrimage. A pilgrimage usually involved a long, arduous journey to a sacred place known as a shrine. The veneration of martyrs led to the building of these shrines to which the faithful oftentimes came in droves. This practice gave rise to the "pilgrimage church." The more geographically inaccessible these churches were, the more excitement they generated. The pilgrims willingly embraced the hardships endured in crossing rugged terrain.

The Long and Winding Roads

Spiritual rewards, acts of penance, proof of devotion, and insurance against famine and plague were some of the reasons pilgrims traveled for days to an often out-of-the-way shrine. Others journeyed to the pilgrimage churches to seek the intercession of particular saints for cures of the sick. Whatever the reason for his trip, the pilgrim enjoyed a special status as he made his way to the shrine. He could obtain a sacred shrine badge, which put the pilgrim above all laws but those of the Church. During his sacred excursion he was exempt from taxes, debts, arrest, or confiscation of his property, and was often honored or entertained, as the people believed that anyone aiding a pilgrim shared in his grace.

The effects of the pilgrims on the towns along the popular routes were many. Markets bustled, building and shipping industries boomed, churches were crowded, and customs, songs, and tables were exchanged. Souvenirs and art objects carried by the pilgrims helped spread artistic styles from one country to another, and the necessity of accommodating large crowds led to a series of new churches along these pilgrimage routes.

The typical pilgrimage of the Middle Ages usually took about a year. Written guidebooks advised the length of a day's journey, what to carry along, and how to protect oneself from personal misfortune. The pilgrims sometimes faced not only the rugged terrain of the route and the possibility of a lengthy illness, but some pilgrimage routes were infested with bandits who were waiting to assault travelers. Thus the medieval pilgrim faced daily the chance that he might not be only cheated but attacked, robbed, and even murdered. For this reason, most pilgrims traveled in large groups. No matter what the discomforts, however, a pilgrimage was usually a pleasant occasion, and the pilgrim received not a little help along the way.

It was traditional advice that "if ye owe any pilgrimages, pay them hastily," and those who could muster the necessary funds rushed to don pilgrim's garb. If funds were not available, however, all was not lost. In these times the pilgrim penitent received great sympathy from his friends, who considered it their duty to aid his pilgrimage. For this purpose guilds were established. When in need, the penitent came to the guild for financial assistance. Nor was it only the guilds that aided the pilgrim, but also the Church and the state joined forces for his protection. Laws laid down in the 12th century threatened excommunication to anyone found guilty of cheating, attacking, or robbing a pilgrim. Toll fees were abolished for them, guide service was made available, and a charitable system of shelters and hospitals developed where the voyager could receive free benefits ranging from a haircut to shoe repair.

Underground Devotion

The importance placed on pilgrimages affected the care and attention given to the building of these popular churches. Many were erected in the Romanesque centuries and others later during the Gothic era. All were of great significance to the laity and the clergy alike. These pilgrimage shrines not only reminded the faithful of Christ their Savior and His ultimate sacrifice on the Holy Cross, but they also illuminated the Church's belief in the communion of saints, and inspired the pilgrim to imitate the life of Christ as had the martyred pilgrims that had gone before them.

The veneration of relics and the popularity of pilgrimages had several interesting consequences for church architecture. Relics were first displayed in shrines erected on side altars and niches throughout the main body of the church. As mentioned in my last column, many Carolingian churches had added reliquary apses that flanked the larger, central apse designed for the altar of the church. Because this arrangement did not accommodate the flow of pilgrims throughout the more popular churches, medieval builders introduced a new element: the crypt. Whereas the early Christian basilicas, such as Old St. Peter's, were built with small tombs beneath the altar, by the ninth century the simple tomb form was also deemed inadequate.

Instead, recalling the catacombs of ancient Rome, passageways fitted with niches were built beneath the sanctuary (and sometimes extended to the transepts or nave), to accommodate the flow of pilgrims to and from the relics and their accompanying shrines that were placed there for veneration by the faithful. Some of the larger crypts were composed of several vaulted aisles, giving them the appearance of small chapels. The addition of these larger crypts affected the interior of the church. The sanctuary under which the crypt was built was raised above the floor of the nave. In turn, this new element helped emphasize the altar as the liturgical climax of the architecture, the place upon which the most important and sacred parts of the Mass took place. At the same time, the natural hierarchy was emphasized. This arrangement was carried out most notably in Italy, in churches such as San Miniato in Florence (1013), San Zeno Maggiore in Verona (1139), and the Cathedral at Modena (1099), but was not uncommon in France or Germany as well.

Touring St. Martin's

The creation of the ambulatory also helped to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims. In this arrangement, the aisles flanking the nave were extended alongside the sanctuary and around the apse. Small relic chapels or niche shrines radiated out from this ambulatory facilitating the flow of pilgrims. The addition of the ambulatory and its radiating chapels had a significant effect on the outward appearance of many Romanesque churches. They became perforce a boldly articulated exterior adjunct to the apse.

The first known ambulatory was designed into the reconstruction of St. Martin in Tours, France. The church was dedicated in 918 with a corridor enclosing the sanctuary to give access to the tomb of St. Martin, located at the head of the apse. A series of round chapels, called absidioles, radiated from the ambulatory, setting the precedent for this new configuration, which was both practical and elegant.

The ambulatory and absidioles were used in many of the great pilgrimage churches such as Santiago de Compostela in Spain (1078), the Cathedral of Vézaley (1132) and the abbey church at Cluny (1131).


Michael S. Rose. "The Medieval Pilgrimage Shrines." Lay Witness (May/June 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

Michael S. Rose is the author of Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces — and How We Can Change Them Back Again, published by Sophia Institute Press. It may be ordered by calling Benedictus Books toll-free at (888) 316-2640.

This is the fourth installment of a series which explores the epochs of church architecture.

Copyright © 2002 LayWitness

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