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Monthly Archives: September 2010

From Limoges, pilgrims traveling to Santiago de Compostela along the old Roman highway reached, after seventy miles, the old city of Perigeux. There, they made their way to the collegiate church which housed the relics of Saint Front, one of the shrines which the Pilgrim’s Guide recommends as an essential station. The church was vast and imposing surmounted by no less than five large domed cupolas.

Inside, the saint’s tomb was hugely impressive, set inside a replica of Constantine’s church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, the stone structure was decorated with a wealth of carved figures. “His tomb does not resemble the tomb of any other saint”, the Guide tells us, “indeed, it was built with the greatest care in a round form as the sepulchre of the Lord, and it surpasses in beauty and its admirable workmanship the sepulchres of all other saints.”

The origins of Saint Front’s cult remain mysterious. His earliest hagiographers have him growing up in the Dordogne area and becoming a hermit but already by the very early medieval period his reputation began to exceed his regional surroundings and by the eleventh century Front was accounted to be one of Christ’s original seventy-two disciples.

On the façade a relief of Saint Peter handing Front a pastoral staff reminded visitors of the Apostolic status of this saint and his most famous miracle.

The legend of Saint Front informs us that he was ordained bishop of the city of Périgeux by Saint Peter himself. When one of his companions died en route from Rome to France, Front returned and was given Peter’s staff in order to bring his acolyte back to life.

As the Book of Saint James has it, “Thanks to the staff of the apostle, the Blessed Front restored his companion from death and converted the city of Périgeux, by his preaching, to Christ. Also, he rendered it illustrious through many miracles and died in it in all dignity.”

Today very little remains of the original twelfth century church largely because of the work carried out in the nineteenth century by architect Paul Abadie, whose restoration was so extensive as to rather warrant the term recreation. The octagonal edifice surrounding Front’s tomb was destroyed during the Wars of Religion in 1575.

Initially the most popular route into Spain for pilgrims to Compostela, it has been traditionally considered that the passage over the Somport Pass was later restricted to those using the so-called Via Tolosana, from Arles. However its more central position along the Pyrenean chain suggests that the Aragonese Way drew travellers from a wider area.

A number of old Roman highways continued to serve medieval travellers. From Carolingian times a monastery at Siresa along the Hecho valley was strategically placed to assist the mountain crossing using the Palo Pass where there was an old Roman road. There, pilgrims benefited from an important collection of relics which included bones of the saints Andrew, Stephen, Benedict, Adrian, Lupercius, Medardus and Sebastian as well as a relic of John the Baptist and a piece of the Holy Cross.

However with the development of Jaca and the retreat of the Moors to the plains, the pass at  the Somport became the the standard route from Oloron.

Just below the pass, which stands at 1640 metres, was the great monastic hospital of Santa Cristina of which the Guide speaks with so much effusion. This was protected by the fortress at Candanchu. Along the right bank of the fast flowing Aragon river, the road descended gradually the thirty kilometres to Jaca, passing Canfranc where a customs house was set up in the mid eleventh century to deal with the increasing amounts of trade which were now passing between the Peninsula and France carrying goods from as far as Africa.

The rugged and desolate gorge through which the road threaded its way, made the travellers easy pickings for thieves, as evidenced in the naming of an overlooking summit as the Coll de Ladrones – thieves’ hill.

At Canfranc a bridge led over the river which could quickly become a raging torrent, to the left side. The road continued due south, on one side the castle at Castiello de Jaca and on the other the Monte del Apostol which rises to 1362 metres.

Jaca was a bustling frontier town, made prosperous by the passage of pilgrims and traders. As the capital of the early Reconquista, the royal coffers had been swollen from the money extorted from the Moorish taifa of Saragossa.  At Jaca pilgrims also had the opportunity to vist the shrine of Santa Eurosia at the cathedral.

Leaving Jaca via the bridge of San Miguel. the road followed the course of the Rio Aragon for a hundred kilometres as it turns due west, the high peaks of the Pyrenees visible to the north. A short distance to the south among the rugged hills lay the royal monasteries of Santa Maria de Santa Cruz de la Seros and San Juan de la Peña.

According to the Guide the stages following Jaca were Osturit and Tiermas. Tiermas was renowned for its “continuously running hot royal baths”. Alternate routes were available to pilgrims and the left bank of the Aragon river was favoured because there were fewer affluent streams to cross as well as an old Roman road, by contrast the right bank of the river received the fast flowing streams that ran down from the Pyrenees.

By the town of Osturit an important bridge crossed the Aragon after which, pilgrims continued along the river past the fortified hilltop town of Esco to Tiermas and Liedana.

The great massif of the Sierra de Leyre rises up here and on its slopes the celebrated monastery of San Salvador, a short distance from the camino.

San Salvador de Leyre was the oldest established abbey of the region and in the early days of the Reconquista had served as a refuge for the kings of Pamplona. This association of resistance towards the Moors was further emphasized by the presence in the abbey’s crypt of the relics of the saints Nunilo and Alodia, two sisters who had been martyred during the persecutions of Abdur Rahman II in 851.

At Ruesta there was a fortress built by the Moors in the ninth century but which they had been forced to abandon and was now taken over by the Christians. The town had a hospice for pilgrims and a monastery San Juan de Ruesta.

From Ruesta a road led south of the Aragon river via Undues de Llerda over hilly terrain towards the fortified town of Sangüesa. This was highly favoured as evidenced by the development of  the latter into an important pilgrimage station with its seven arched bridge. Alfonso el Batallador king of Aragon established his royal palace here and numerous hospices existed to care for pilgrims.

At Sangüesa, pilgrims headed north, crossing the Aragon once more over a massive bridge at Yesa leaving it to follow its southern course as the road headed northwestward along the valley of the Rio Elorz to Monreal avoiding  the Sierra de Izco.

Just before joining the main Navarrese route at Puente la Reina, the road passed by the church of Santa Maria de Eunate. This octagonal church surrounded by a cloister arcade took its round design from the church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. It may have belonged to the Knights Templar and been a funerary chapel to honour those pilgrims who had died en route.

The Rio Aragon turns westwards as it leaves Jaca, the pilgrimage road following along its left bank. Just off the road up a shallow valley lies the monastic buildings of Santa Cruz de la Seros, nestling under the peaks of the Sierra de San Juan de la Peña which tower immediately above.

It was a long established double hermitage

with one building, San Capraiso for monks  and the other, Santa Maria for nuns.

Originally, Santa Maria was part of the monastery of San Juan de la Peña, however it became the royal convent when Doña Sancha of Aragon arrived in 1070 and a major monastic and political centre in its own right.

It was initially settled by a group of hermits seeking refuge from Moorish persecution and started to receive royal attention when Sancho 11 Garces (970-994) and his wife Urraca Fernandez provided the convent of Santa Maria with a substantial endowment.

In 1049 Ramiro Ist made further endowments and in 1061 entered his youngest daughters Urraca and Teresa as nuns, leaving further donations in his will.

Ramiro’s eldest daughter had married count Armengol 111 of Urgel, however after his death in Moorish lands in 1065, she entered the convent to join her two sister in 1070.

From then on the convent started to play a role in the affairs of the nascent kingdom of Aragon with Doña Sancha supporting her brother the king Sancho-Ramirez, who made further donations in 1093. A visit to Santa Maria by the mother of Ramiro 1st, Sancha de Aibar was the occasion for a ceremonial gift offering which took place in fron of the porch of the convent church.

Doña Sancha died in 1097 and a magnificent carved sarcophagus was commissioned by her nephew the new king Pedro 1st.

These endowments helped to pay for the important Romanesque church which dates from the end of the eleventh century. It features a tall bell tower which is built over the southern transept chapel.

The tympanum over the western entrance features a crude copy of the Chrismon surrounded by two lions from Jaca. This symbol, seen at number of Aragonese monasteries implies a royal connection as was the case at Santa Cruz de la Seros and a statement of the Reconquista as a Holy War.

Situated at the mouth of a cave beneath a massive red sandstone cliff, the abbey of San Juan de la Peña benefits from one of the most dramatic locations of any medieval edifice.  The monastery lies about thirty kilometres south of Jaca hidden within a rugged sierra which rises to a height of 1220 metres.

In the tenth and eleventh centuries it was the most important Aragonese monastery and although some way off the direct pilgrimage road and entailing a difficult journey, pilgrims would have been drawn there by its reputation as the major  Cluniac centre of the region and the presence of the relics of San Indalecio.

Indalecio was considered one of Saint James’ original disciples during his ministry  in Spain and had reputedly been ordained bishop by the Apostle himself, of the Roman town of Auca, the modern day Villafranca de Montes de Oca, itself a station further along the camino near Burgos.

After the Arab conquest many Christians fled from the Ebro valley up to the Aragonese mountains for safety. In 781 they were pursued by Abd-el-Rahman Ist who attacked and killed a group of Christians who had taken refuge at Monte Pano. Early in the ninth century a powerful Christan landowner from Jaca named Aznar Galíndez pursued a policy of encouraging Christian resettlement of the region on the southern side of the Aragon river. His son Galindo Aznárez II became the first count of Aragon, and he continued his father’s ressettlement policy.

During this period, two hermits from Saragossa, Voto and Felix established a hermitage at the foot of Mount Pano, where the red sandstone cliff concealed a large grotto which opened out onto a large entrance.

According to legend they found the body of another hermit Juan de Atarès and buried him by three altars which they had erected dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, Saint Julian and Santa Balissa. These were the patrons of a Visigothic monastery at Labasal in the Extxo valley which had been destroyed by Saracens suggesting that the hermits had come from there. They built a Mozarabic church.

The hermitage was known as San Juan del Monte Pano and developed into a monastery which began to play an important role in Aragonese ecclesiastical affairs, becoming the spearhead for the Cluniac expansion in the region.

King Sancho-Ramirez formed an alliance with the Cluniacs of the diocese of Auch just beyond the Pyrenees, which was aimed at bringing the fledgling kingdom of Aragon recognition and support from Rome and the rest of Christendom.  In 1071 he invited the Cluniac monk Aquilino to become abbot of the monastery now renamed Jan Juan de la Peña. On Aquilino’s death the abbacy was taken over by the well travelled Sancho de Arinzana who had visited Rome, Monte Cassino and Compostela. Sancho de Arinzana brought with him the relics of two saints from Almeria, Indalecio and Jaime in 1078.

With these developments San Juan de la Peña expanded into a mighty abbey with substantial dependencies and lands, annexing some territory from the kingdom of Pamplona. The fortunes of the abbey and the political fortunes of the kingdom of Aragon became intertwined, as San Juan de la Peña acquired lands which were recovered from the Moors to the south during the conflicts of the Reconquista, thereby helping to define the territorial limits of the kingdom.

The construction of a new larger Romanesque church was begun with two funerary chapels, one for the laity and the other for the abbey’s monastic community. In 1083 the body of Ramiro 1st was transferred there and two years later the abbot Sancho de Arinzana was entombed.

Subsequently the new abbot Aimericus continued to acquire the older monasteries of the region and their dependent parishes so that San Juan de la Peña assisted by the favourable privileges granted by Rome developed into a veritable independent monastic state in its own right.

In 1094 the consecration ceremony for the new church was  given by the bishop of Jaca in the presence of the king Pedro 1st and the countess Sancha and numerous important figures, including the archbishop of Bordeaux and the abbots of Leyre and Languedocian monastery of Saint Pons-de-Thomières.

The cloister of the abbey dates from around the middle of the twelfth century and the carved capitals are the work of a sculptor notable for his very distinctive stylistic traits.

Unusually large bulbous eyes  lend the figures an air of meditative grace which contrasts with the expressive attitudes of their bodies. The same original hand can be seen at  work in several Romanesque sites in Aragon of the artist who has come to be identified as the Master of San Juan de la Peña.

At the point where the intersection of the roads from Lyon to Saintes and Bourges  to Bordeaux meet the Vienne river, Limoges was an inevitable point of passage. One of the abiding mysteries of the Pilgrim’s Guide is the absence of any mention of  its patron Saint Martial.

By the mid twelfth century the abbey at Limoges was one of the largest and most important pilgrimage sanctuaries in France. Its church was among the five great pilgrimage churches, each built to the same plan; Saint Martin of Tours, Sainte Foy of Conques, Saint Sernin of Toulouse, Santiago de Compostela and the Limousin abbey. All these buildings were constructed to manage a very large flow of pilgrims and all are promoted at length in the Guide, with the notable exception of Saint Martial de Limoges.

Notwithstanding, it would seem unlikely in the extreme that  travellers to Compostela would have missed the opportunity to venerate the relics of Saint Martial, passing as they did, within just twenty-five miles at Saint Léonard-de-Noblat, which could in no way compete for prestige.

Martial’s  tomb had been a site of worship since the fourth century when the first church was built over the crypt containing the relics and the cult of his mortal remains became widely known and established quite early on.

As Saint Martial’s prestige increased ever larger church buildings succeeded one another. In 994 a plague epidemic in the region drew vast numbers to his shrine seeking cure and the need for yet a bigger church became apparent.

The building programme culminated in the great Romanesque edifice of the late eleventh century  begun a short time after the abbey’s acquisition by Cluny in 1062.

The relics of the saint were transferred from the underground crypt and placed on one of the piers of the choir, in full view of the assembled crowds.

Gregory of Tours claimed Martial was one of the seven bishop sent out from Rome in the mid-third century during the time of the Consulate of Decius and Gratus. Each bishop was assigned a specific town and Limoges was the chosen destination for Martial.

Martials’ legend became so exaggerated during the medieval period that the true identity of the saint must remain a puzzle.

During the early eleventh century, the chronicler of the abbey of Saint Martial, Adhemar de Chabannes made claims that Martial was sent directly by Saint Peter and that he had been an original disciple of Christ, present at the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.

In 1031, the Pope elevated Saint Martial to Apostolic status. Many new miracles were reported, including one where Martial had resurrected a man using a rod given to him by Saint Peter.

The Romanesque abbey church of Saint Martial, dedicated to the Holy Saviour was thoroughly destroyed during the French Revolution.

Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat was home to the shrine of one of the Compostelan pilgrimage’s most popular saints, whose relics were kept in the collegiate church built over the original oratory this confessor saint had founded in the sixth century.

The origins of Léonard’s cult remain mysterious but by the twelfth century it had spread all over Europe and the saint was regarded as a special protector of prisoners and protector of Crusaders.

Léonard was born into a noble Frankish family in the early sixth century but he renounced his privileged background to become a follower of Saint Remigius, following him to Rheims and assisting him in his charitable work for prisoners. According to the saint’s legend he was donated an area of forest by the Frankish king Clodoveus. Léonard had come across the king’s wife in the midst of birth pangs alone in this forest and had delivered the king’s son. The king’s donation was a gesture of gratitude and Léonard lived there a “celibate and hermit-like life with frequent fasts and plentiful vigils amid cold, nudity and unspeakable labours”.

The site, it must be assumed existed as a minor local cult unknown, for four centuries,  beyond its immediate vicinity.

The small shrine at Nobiliacum, Léonard’s oratory, allegedly so named in deference to its donor, Clodoveus, remained unmentioned in any clerical text until a passing  reference by the chronicler of the abbey of Saint Martial of Limoges, Adhemar de Chabannes, in about 1020. Some time after that another cleric of Limoges wrote to abbot Fulbert of Chartres seeking his advice on whether any history of the saint existed. Apparently none did, however in 1030 a substantial hagiography was produced and this is the source for the extensive chapter on Saint Léonard which is included in the Pilgrim’s Guide.

As happened the length and breadth of the Compostelan pilgrimage roads, a saint acquired new status by virtue of the flow of pilgrims passing through their shrine.

This seems very much the case for Noblat, where in the twelfth century a large pilgrimage church was built with an ambulatory to allow visitors in numbers to pass by the relics.

The author of the Pilgrim’s Guide comments that, “Divine clemency has already spread to the length and breadth of the whole world the fame of the Blessed Leonard the confessor from the Limousin.”

The church at Noblat was filled with the many instruments of capitivity which had been left there by grateful pilgrims freed by Léonard’s intercession, “their iron chains, more barbarous than one can possibly recount, joined together by the thousands have been appended in testimony of such great miracles all around his basilica.”

On the way between La Souterraine and Saint-Léonard, pilgrims could venerate a relic of the Apostle Bartholomew.

In the early twelfth century an Augustinian priory founded in 1080 had received the donation of a relic of the skin of the Apostle from Bartholomew’s shrine at Benevento in southern Italy. Henceforth it became known as Bénévent l’Abbaye.

Most likely, Bénévent was already being used by Compostelan pilgrims travelling towards Limoges but the acquisition of Bartholomew’s relics turned the insignificant priory into a important halt on the road.

By the middle of the century a new much larger church was being constructed to accommodate the inflow of pilgrims.

The church is typical of the Limousin style, built out of the local granite and similar to the one at La Souterraine.

Likewise, the western entrance has a polylobed archway of Hispano-Moorish influence reflecting Bénévent’s position on the road to the Spanish shrine.

Saint Bartholomew had carried out his Apostolic Mission in Asia Minor and according to his legend, had received martyrdom by being flayed alive.

Gregory of Tours recounts how the skin and bones of the saint had been miraculously washed ashore on the island of Lipari off the Sicilian coast. They were subsequently transferred to Benevento and this tradition as well as the story of his martydom account for the relics at Bénévent being of the Apostle’s skin.

As pilgrims reached the Limousin region they arrived at the town of La Souterraine, an outpost of the abbey of Saint Martial of Limoges.

Enclosed by fortified walls, monks had built a church on land donated by the local lord.

The site they chose for the building of the church was  directly above an ancient underground chamber. Its origins and significance seem lost in the mists of time, however it appears to contain a well. This suggests an underground water source having curative powers.

It is this early subterranean structure which earned the site its name Sostereana and at some point it was adopted by Christians in the locality.

In 1017 the monks enlarged the original crypt into a substantial space over which the transept and choir of the twelfth century church were built.

The donor, Gérard de Crozant was buried there in 1022.

The polylobyed arch of the doorway at the entrance to the nave is a reminder of the Moorish influence that was carried back along the pilgrimage road to Compostela.

This can been seen at a number of Limousin churches, notably the one at Bénévent.

The one of the towers at the western end has a white stone placed high up. Tradition tells us that these were a feature of churches in the area, visible at a distance and intended as a guide to pilgrims.

The town of Gargilesse was situated at the junction of the Creuse and Gargilesse rivers.

A Cluniac priory which belonged to the abbey of Déols received pilgrims.

The church of Notre-Dame belonged to the castle stills stands today.

It is remarkable for the large number of finely carved historiated capitals depicting episodes from the Old and New Testaments.

From the Old Testament there are capitals representing the stories of Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Samson and Delilah.

New Testament images of the Annunciation, Nativity, Visitation and the Magi combine to make the relatively minor church of Notre-Dame into the finest remaining representative of Romanesque sculptural art in the Berry region.

Perhaps most notably the capitals of the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse. Arranged in groups of three, the Elders are the subjects most associated with others along the pilgrimage roads to Compostela such as at Moissac and Aulnay de Saintonge.

Those at Gargilesse have been noted for their particular resemblance to those which were to be seen on the reliquary of Saint Gilles-du-Gard.

In the crypt frescoes of the Book of revelation cover the ceiling.

An alternative route from Vézelay to Limoges passed through the city of Nevers at the crossing of the Loire River.

Thirty miles on from Saint Révérien, pilgrims found another important Cluniac priory, Saint Etienne de Nevers. The twelfth century priory church still stands today.

Pilgrims were able to venerate the relics of Saint Cyr and Saint Juliette in the crypt of the cathedral. It was the late fourth century bishop of Auxerre, Saint Amator who had brought the relics of Juliet and her son Cyr to Nevers from the Holy Land.

A child martyr, relics of Saint Cyr were particularly efficacious in the healing of sick children. His relics were discovered by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great and he appeared to Charlemagne in a dream.

Julietta was a Christian who had fled to Tarsus with Cyricus her three year old son in order to escape persecution. They were discovered and while Julietta was being tortured, the governor of the city held the boy. Cyricus scratched the governor’s face who in anger then threw him violently down the steps of his palace. Rather than weep over her son’s death, Julietta celebrated instead his crown of martyrdom. Further enraged by this attitude, the governor had her mutilated and decapitated. Their bodies were dumped outside the city walls in a heap with the corpses of common criminals. Two maids collected their bodies and buried them separately.

Cyricus’ cult was especially popular in medieval France in part due to his appearance in a dream of Charlemagne’s. In his dream, the Emperor’s life was threatened during a hunt by a dangerous boar. Cyricus promised to deliver Charlemagne in exchange for clothing to cover his naked body.