Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Pilgrimage in Medieval Europe

The fundamental teachings of Christianity count no place more holy than any other: Jesus himself says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20, KJV). Throughout the Middle Ages, however, Christians sought to close the distance between themselves and God by engaging in physical travel toward a spiritual goal. Such journeys served a variety of functions: a pilgrim might set out to fulfill a vow, to expiate a crime, to seek a miraculous cure, or simply to deepen his or her faith. None of these purposes is specific to Christian pilgrimage—the idea of the sacred journey is a feature of many religions—yet by the fourth century A.D., pilgrimage had become a recognized expression of Christian piety. Persons from all walks of life made religious journeys, with far-reaching consequences for society and culture as a whole. This essay concentrates on the impact of pilgrimage on art and architecture in Western Europe from late antiquity through the fifteenth century.

The earliest Christian pilgrims wished to see the places where Jesus and the apostles had lived on earth. This meant journeying to the Holy Land, a relatively easy feat in the fourth century, when the Roman empire still unified the Mediterranean world. Major theologians of the period, including Saints Jerome and Augustine, endorsed spiritual travel as a retreat from worldly concerns. In this sense, they equated pilgrimage with the monastic way of life, which pilgrims sometimes embraced after completing their journeys. The best-documented early travelers to the Holy Land worked to achieve individual spiritual enrichment by reading and living the Bible on location. For example, Paula, a disciple of Saint Jerome, had this experience at Bethlehem: “Here, when she looked upon the inn made sacred by the virgin and the stall where the ox knew his owner and the ass his master’s crib (Isaiah 1:3), . . . she protested in my hearing that she could behold with the eyes of faith the infant Lord wrapped in swaddling clothes and crying in the manger, the wise men worshipping Him, the star shining overhead, the virgin mother, the attentive foster-father, the shepherds coming by night to see the word that had come to pass” (Jerome, Letters 108.10, translated by W. H. Fremantle et al., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. 6. [Buffalo, N.Y.: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893]). For Paula, the Biblical texts and the very spot where she stood helped her to witness sacred events and so to believe more deeply.

Sacred architecture complemented the interior meditations of visitors to the sites of Christ’s mission on earth. In the 320s and 330s, Constantine, the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity, constructed sumptuous buildings on several locations that had already become popular destinations for pilgrims. These churches often incorporated a round or centrally planned element, a form associated with tombs and the shrines of martyrs. In Jerusalem, Constantine built a basilica at the place where Christ was crucified and a rotunda around the Holy Sepulcher, the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection; in a later European ivory depicting the holy women on Easter morning (1993.19), his tomb appears as a round structure, evoking the church there. In Bethlehem, Constantine commissioned another church over the cave revered as Jesus’ birthplace—when Paula visited, she glimpsed it through an opening in the floor of a richly decorated octagonal structure probably adorned with images of the Nativity. The distinctive features of these buildings were widely copied in churches, tombs, and baptisteries throughout Europe, sometimes with specific references to the Holy Land. Octagonal glass bottles made as souvenirs for pilgrims (1972.118.180) also replicate the forms of Constantine’s buildings in the Holy Land—and demonstrate the market for such things among religious tourists of Jewish as well as Christian faith.

The city of Rome became another major destination for pilgrims. Easier of access for European pilgrims than the Holy Land, Rome had also been the home of many saintly martyrs, including the apostles Peter and Paul, and the places where they were buried attracted pious travelers from a very early date. Constantine erected great basilicas over the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul, and pilgrims visited these as well as other churches associated with miraculous events. A distinction of these sites was the presence of holy relics, material objects like the bones or clothes of the saints, the sight or touch of which was supposed to draw the faithful nearer to saintliness.

Rome was particularly rich in relics, but as the Middle Ages progressed, other places acquired important relics and became centers of pilgrimage themselves. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, huge numbers of pilgrims flocked to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, where the relics of the apostle Saint James the Greater were believed to have been discovered around 830. Canterbury was a popular destination for English pilgrims, who traveled to witness the miracle-working relics of Thomas Becket, the sainted archbishop of Canterbury who was martyred at the hands of knights of King Henry II in 1170 and canonized shortly thereafter. The relics of local saints drew visitors from closer range to sites like Saint Frideswide in Oxford, and San Nicola Peregrino in Trani.

In addition to attracting religious travelers, the veneration of relics provided a springboard for the creation of works of art. Sculptors and goldsmiths made the reliquaries required to enshrine the holy objects (53.19.2; 47.101.33; 17.190.352a,b), and jewelers produced small containers for sacred material suitable for the faithful to wear (63.160). The translation of relics from one place to another, either within a church or across a great distance, was cause for celebration and often depicted in art (24.167a–k). Artists made objects that allowed pilgrims to commemorate their journey, ranging from simple badges (2001.310) to elaborate miniature reliquaries (17.190.520). It was customary for pilgrims to bring offerings to the shrines they visited, and many of these, too, were works of art: costly liturgical vessels, elaborate priestly vestments, and other precious objects enriched the treasury of every pilgrimage church.

Before departing, the pilgrim normally received a blessing from the local bishop and made a full confession if the pilgrimage was to serve as a penance. To signal his special vocation, the pilgrim put on a long, coarse garment and carried a staff and small purse—Saint James is often depicted with this distinctive gear (69.88), as well as a broad-brimmed hat and the shell-shaped badge awarded to those who reached his shrine at Compostela. Serious-minded pilgrims engaged in constant devotions while en route, and some carried prayer books or portable altars (1982.60.399) to assist them. Monasteries located along the pilgrimage roads (25.120.1–.134) provided food and lodging and also offered masses and prayers. Some monastic churches also housed relics of their own, and these often incorporated an interior passageway called an ambulatory, which allowed pilgrims to circulate and venerate the relics without interrupting the monks in their regular orders of prayer. The need to accommodate larger numbers of pilgrims caused many churches to undertake major renovations, for example, Saint-Denis, which was dramatically altered under Abbott Suger in the early twelfth century.

The concept and experience of pilgrimage was so strong in medieval Europe that it fired the imagination of the age and set the tone for travel of all kinds. The Crusades, armed campaigns mounted to win control of the Holy Land, were understood as a particular kind of pilgrimage, and so were many of the quests pursued by knights in life and legend. In literature, the idea of pilgrimage lies at the heart of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which features a diverse band of pilgrims telling lively popular stories. The concept of the sacred journey also structures Dante’s Divine Comedy, which recounts the author’s own transformative course through the realms of hell and purgatory to the heights of heaven. The norms of medieval pilgrimage affected the visual arts as well. For example, an ivory carved around 1120 depicts the risen Christ with the two disciples who met him on the road to Emmaus; they are shown as contemporary pilgrims, with walking sticks, a vessel for water, and a purse marked with a cross (17.190.47). The ivory reflects the popularity of Santiago de Compostela, then at the height of its fame, and it differs markedly from another depiction of the same subject in a ninth-century ivory, where the travelers wear modified classical garb and pursue their goal less emphatically (1970.324.1). A fragment of a painting by Sassetta represents another biblical journey, that of the Magi on the way to adore the infant Jesus; the kings are fashionably dressed, mounted on horseback, and surrounded by a lively entourage, like aristocratic pilgrims traveling in state (43.98.1).

In the later Middle Ages, pilgrims often traveled in order to win indulgences, that is, the Church’s promise to intercede with God for the remission of the temporal punishment for sins confessed and forgiven, a prayer that will be heard because of the holiness of the Church. Pope Boniface VIII declared 1300 a jubilee year, when pilgrims to Rome might gain a plenary indulgence, that is, a guarantee of the Church’s prayer for dispensation from the temporal punishment due to sins forgiven over a whole lifetime. To purists and reformers, such attractions seemed less laudable than the heartfelt goals of earlier pilgrims, and preaching friars like the Franciscans and Dominicans urged a return to devotional exercises like those that Paula had practiced: whether in a place sanctified by a sacred event—and the preaching orders came to control the holy places at Bethlehem and Jerusalem—or in the quiet of one’s own home, the individual was exhorted to imagine sacred events as though witnessing them in real life, in the most vivid manner possible. The increase of humanity and naturalism in religious art of this time may be linked to this type of spiritual exercise. A work like Giotto‘s The Adoration of the Magi (11.126.1), for example, seems to expose the reality of the event that it depicts, offering the viewer entrance into a sacred story, and in the Merode Altarpiece, the donor is actually depicted as a witness to the Annunciation, which he glimpses through an open door (56.70).

Even travels of nonreligious character might share the spirit of pilgrimage or appear so in art. The final miniature of the Belles Heures of Jean de Berry, a lavishly illustrated prayer book for a nobleman’s private use, depicts him setting out on a journey, as his responsibilities often obliged him to do (54.1.1, fol. 223v). Coming as it does in a devotional book among so many religious pictures, the scene assumes an air of sanctity and is accompanied by a prayer: “O God, who granted to the sons of Israel to pass through the middle of the sea with dry steps, and who revealed thee to the three wise men through the guidance of a star, grant us, we beg thee, a prosperous path and calm weather, so that we might be worthy of arriving at the place where we are going and, finally, at the gate of eternal happiness” (Husband 2008, p. 263).