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The eleventh century saw the first return to monumental stone sculpture aulnay-ls-church-from-southin Europe since the end of the Roman Empire nearly six hundred years previously.

It was a time of  widespread church construction and it coincided with the great age of European pilgrimage culture. A close association was formed between the roads to Compostela and the development of the style of building and sculpture known as the Romanesque.

Churches were not merely practicalmoissac-christ-tetramorph2 structures but buildings of immense symbolic  significance.

In the Romanesque period this symbolic nature extended itself into the sculpture which filled the strategic points of the church. Great theophanic visions filled the space above the entrance.

The space inside the building had allegorical significance and the stone carved imagery contained a complex iconography derived from a variety of sources and which today is often difficult to decipher. bessuejouls-14The sculpture of the pilgrimage roads to Santiago de Compostela contains a repeated reference to the Book of Revelation and other Apocalyptic Biblical writing which speaks of a strong obsession  with eschatological ideas and a preoccupation with the coming of the End of the World.

Christian pilgrimages were grafted onto older pagan ones. The sacred grove or magical dolmenmellepsd9 now became a Christian shrine with a miraculous relic to attract Christian pilgrims.

“Comets in the sky appeared and countless went in pilgrimage. Their numbers were greater than the past age had ever heard of”.

So wrote Radulfus Glaber, Benedictine monk of the abbey of Cluny in his account of his own time in the mid eleventh century, observing an increase in travel to holy places.

In the tripartite feudal order, the pilgrim – temporarily at least, wore the same mantle of sanctity as the monk and cleric. The knightly and labouring castes who fontenaylacked the spiritual benefits which were the privilege of the monastic vocation were fearful for their soul’s eternal destiny. As millennial Apocalyptic fears grew, spiritual rewards could be obtained by travelling ever greater distances to the important shrines, which offered the possibility of redemption and a place in Heaven.

As Glaber concluded, “many consulted in these matters about the meaning of this concourse. They were answered that it portended no other than the advent of that corrupt Antichrist, whose coming at the end of this world is prophesied in Holy Scripture”.

The edict of the Council of Carthage regarding the placing of saintly relics under all altars had been allowed to lapse but it was now revived. However, with the wave of church building which was now taking place in western Europe, the shortage of suitable additional relics to furnish the corresponding altars posed a problem. The availability of martyrs had diminished since the Empire became Christian, although in Spain there were some who died for their faith at the hands of the Saracens.

There were several ways in which a relic could arrive at a church. Most obviously, the church was erected over the site of the saint’s burial. Alternatively, it could be transferred in the ceremony known as a “translatio”. Also cases of relic theft were not infrequent and since it was reckoned that the saint chose themselves where their bones resided, these thefts were considered sacred or “furta sacra”. By extension, saints whose bones lay buried and neglected could choose how and when they were discovered: this was known as “inventio”.

The monk chronicler Radulfus Glaber writing in the early eleventh century noted that, “the relics of many saints were revealed by various signs where they had long lain hidden.”

And indeed, in the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries a number of “inventios” of significant Biblical characters were discovered in Western Europe and seized the popular imagination. In Burgundy there was Mary Magdalene and Lazarus. In Aquitaine, the head of John the Baptist and at Compostela, the Apostle James.

Each of these became important pilgrimage shrines in their own right.

As society moved inexorably towards the End Times a mutually supporting division developed, a caste system imported from the East. This was the Tripartite division: those who prayed, those who fought and those who laboured. In other words, the monks, the knights and the feudal serfs. Each performed a vital service towards the greater good in a mutually interdependent structure whose sole purpose was the preparation of man for Judgment. These were the moral underpinnings of the feudal order.

Those who worked the land provided the necessary food, the knightly aristocracy protected the other two divisions and fought to defend Christendom. It was the monks and clerics however, who provided the most vital function: prayer.

melle-ls-church-l_s1For it was considered that humanity was too sinful to be redeemed without constant prayer and so around the relics of saints an ever more elaborate liturgical ritual evolved. And so the monasteries were reformed, they received great donations from kings and the wealthy aristocracy for the provision of foundations and endowments. By the eleventh century European Christendom contained a network of thousands of abbeys and priories.

In the Book of Revelation, after the breaking of the fifth seal, the author declares, “I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” saintes-crypt-ls-tomb-vaul2

From early Christianity, it was the practice to venerate the relics of the saints. Relics were the bodies, that part that was left behind on earth when the soul had ascended to heaven. It was said that these were in many cases perfectly preserved and that rather than smell of decomposition they emitted an attractive perfume, hence the expression “to die in the odour of sanctity”. In reality it was the skeleton or a part thereof.

Men would have to wait until the End of Time to enter Paradise, but the saint ascended directly into the presence of God. Out of this arose the notion of their mortal remains being a conduit between Heaven and Earth. Prayers said before relics carried much greater weight.

The Christian cult of the saints held that they were of two orders: the martyrs and the confessors. That is, those who were killed for their faith and those who were celebrated for upholding and spreading it. The wave of persecutions of Christians which spread through Gaul in the early fourth century produced no shortgage of martyrs and a canon of the Council of Carthage in 401, taking its lead from Revelation, stated that the bones of saints should be placed under all church altars.

The popularity of relics grew as more and more pagans were converted. Their cults were transformed from the magical to the miraculous. Secondary relics, such as cloth worn by the saint also became widespread.

In the East an alternative cult had developed, that of icons – pictures of saints which held the same miraculous properties as relics. In about 790, the Frankish ruler Charlemagne issued a lengthy text to Pope Adrian on the question of icons. Charlemagne insisted on the cult of relics: “The Greeks place almost all the hope of their credulity in images but it remains firm that we venerate the saints in their bodies or better in their relics”.


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.