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Monthly Archives: January 2009


Everything goes back to the Jacobus, the Book of Saint James, a compilation of hagiographical texts dating from the mid twelfth century.

A strong wish not to include any anachronistic ideas and to attempt to grasp something of the culture of the world of that twelfth century pilgrimage, however impossible that may seem, is one the motivating forces behind the content below.

Time passed more slowly a thousand years ago. Ideas and stories which, with the passage of centuries would have lost any sense of contemporaneity in our modern world, still retained a vital hold on the imaginations of men in medieval times.

To look at a Romanesque sculpted image on a twelfth century church is surely to be stirred by conflicting impulses. On the one hand, there is the profound sense of the otherness of the culture being expressed, while at the same time there is an equally profound sense of connection to it.


Vézelay, Arles, Saint Gilles, León, Moissac, Conques, Toulouse and Santiago de Compostela are just the most illustrious names of places where one can be transported back to another time.

Amongst numerous others, they are the locations of twelfth century pilgrimage churches featuring large scale stone sculpture, bound together by being stations on the great pilgrimage roads across France and northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela.

The imposing stone carvings which can still be seen at these churches throw a light on a world as far removed from our own as it is possible to imagine. A world whose dominant cultural force was religious.

Pilgrimage was predicated on the cult of the saints and the miracles reported at their shrines. Massive movements of humanity took place as people flocked to venerate saintly relics. Within pilgrimage culture the world view and notion of time were ultimately defined by the certainty of impending Apocalypse.

This meant an ordering of society which involved a tripartite division, essential  in this eschatological scheme. Each constituent part providing a mutually beneficial role  for the others. The poor labouring to feed humanity, the aristocracy advancing the cause of Christendom by force of arms and the monks providing the possibility of salvation to the dead as well as the living.

The pilgrimage to Santiago interacted with the political order of twelfth century Europe in a complex web which is hard to untangle. The road to Compostela was the spine of the Christian kingdoms of Spain. Rulers promoted the pilgrimage to repopulate their regions, bring wealth and crusaders. They expressed their power through the construction of great Romanesque building programmes.

Perhaps the most emblematic expression of the inextricable connection between the spiritual and the political is the case of the Leonese census, whereby the kings of León-Castile contributed vast amounts of gold, extorted from the Moorish princes of Andalusia, towards the building programme of the largest church in Christendom at the Burgundian abbey of Cluny in return for the promise of continuing prayer for their personal salvation to be made there.

These concerns all find their reflection in one way or another in the great sculptural ensembles of the twelfth century which are the most resonant legacy of a disappeared world.

st-guilhemLike the four rivers of Paradise which flowed to the four cardinal points, the four roads which lead to Compostela have a symbolic resonance. These earthly ways led westward towards the prospect of a return to Paradise.

The final book of the Codex Calixtus, often called the Pilgrim’s Guide, begins with these words: “There are four roads which, leading to Santiago, converge to form a single road at Puente la Reina, in Spanish territory”.

The routes were defined by the location of the most important saintly shrines on the way and the pilgrimage to Compostela became a cumulative sacred experience.

pilgrim-routes-wpress1In modern times, these four roads have been named according to the principal town on the route. Thus we have the Road of Tours which leads from northern France down the western side of France. The Road of Limoges passes through Burgundy and the centre. The Road of Le Puy crosses the Auvergne. The Road of Toulouse leads from Provence through the Languedoc region.

It is generally considered that each road began at a certain point, like a fountainhead where pilgrims congregated. The Tours route at the shrine of Saint Martin at Tours itself, the Limoges route beginning at the shrine of Mary Magdalene at Vézelay, the Puy route beginning at the shrine of the black Madonna at the cathedral of Le Puy. Finally, the Toulouse route commencing at the necropolis of the Alyscans at Arles.

The Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela which, as well as linking so many reliquary shrines along its highways and byways, was also the source of numerous legends of a mystical nature so that the terrestrial road itself was invested with an inherent and immanent sacred character. This is perfectly expressed in the legend of the Milky Way, wherein the road to Compostela could be traced by following the course of the stars of that galaxy across Europe to its furthest edge in northwestern Spain.