The practice of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages created a demand for space that the Church had to adapt to. The structures built to house the relics of the Middle Ages show a need for size, and pilgrimage churches were designed to better accommodate large crowds of people. In visiting these sites, I gained a true appreciation for the scale of medieval pilgrimage. Some of the sites that were the focus of medieval pilgrimages have endured to the present, while others have been lost either to obscurity or destruction. In speaking with modern-day pilgrims I met along the way, I found myself thinking about how some things have not changed at all. While the actual travel of pilgrimage can be much faster now thanks to modern forms of travel, many people still approach the pilgrimage trails in the same way that medieval pilgrims approached them.
May 30, 2013
Saint Peter’s Basilica is an utterly massive structure, but it did not feel so large while I was standing inside. The scaling on the upper statues made it seem as if everything was closer together, even as the elements of the church dwarfed the audience. I happened to be visiting while a mass was being performed, so I was unable to see the farther ends of the church except from above, when I climbed to the top of the dome. The crowds were impressively large, even though it only took about forty minutes for me to get through the line outside to the security checkpoint. There were people at the church specifically to make sure that those entering the structure were properly dressed. The voices of the mass echoed easily throughout the church and I honestly could not tell if they were being amplified with microphones or if it was simply the acoustics of the structure. The rich decoration adds to the atmosphere, but at times it was too crowded to really reach some of the spaces easily. People who were going to attend the mass were able to enter into the transept crossing and the apse while secular tourists were restricted to the nave.
May 29, 2013
The churches of Santa Maria Maggiore and San Giovanni di Laterno in Rome are both massive marble constructs in the basilica style of architecture. They dwarf you as you enter, and convey a sense of monumental size and power. At Santa Maria Maggiore, there were several chapels from which visitors were barred. One of these in particular had more light than the rest of the church and so drew the eye. The crypt below the altar was partially open so that it could be viewed from above, and Pope Paul V was interred there as a saint. The main reliquary, containing the remains of Christ’s manger, is located directly beneath the main altar.
San Giovanni di Laterno was similar in feeling. However, unlike at Santa Maria Maggiore, it was not possible to enter the crypt area. Monetary offerings had been thrown down onto the steps, rather than using a money box as I saw in most churches. The current basilica is in the baroque style, and uses double aisles on either side of the nave in order to make room for large crowds. I saw two pilgrims walking between the two churches, so they are obviously a continuing part of the Roman pilgrimage.
The pilgrimage to Rome, called ad limina apostolorum, “to the threshold of the apostles,” has been one of Christianity’s most important pilgrimages since the beginning of the practice. The cults of St. Peter and St. Paul, whose relics are the two largest attractions to Rome as a pilgrimage center, developed in the second century alongside the practice of Christian pilgrimage. Despite its importance, pilgrimage to Rome did not remain consistently popular throughout the Middle Ages. Throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries especially, the city experienced a distinct drop in popularity among pilgrims. This occurred as a result of both the inordinate amount of violence in Northern Italy, making an already dangerous journey even more risky, and the deteriorating reputation of Rome among foreigners, with the exception of more recent converts to Christianity. Rome re-emerged as a popular pilgrimage destination in the thirteenth century, culminating in the Jubilee year of 1300. To counteract the popularity of sites such as Compostela and the draw of the Holy Land, Rome also pushed the indulgences that could be gotten in Rome in a way that placed them over those which could be gotten through pilgrimage to other major sites.
 Birch, Pilgrimage to Rome, 151–5, 170–3.
May 27, 2013
Assisi, like Conques, is a town defined by its history with religion. The town is birthplace of Saint Francis of Assisi and its largest attractions for visitors are the sites that were important in the life of the saint. I met more people actually involved in pilgrimage here than I met more general tourists. The first night I was in Assisi, there was a Catholic youth group staying there that was taking a pilgrimage as a senior high school trip. I also met a pilgrim from Sweden with whom I discussed the unusually cold weather that Italy, and most of Europe, was experiencing this May. Photos were not permitted in either basilica.
Basilica of St. Francis
The Basilica of Saint Francis has several levels: an upper basilica which is for the public, a lower basilica meant for the Franciscan brothers, and the crypt where Francis and some of his companions are buried. The basilica has several methods to cope with pilgrims and visitors to the basilica. For example, those who purchase a candle for prayer in the crypt are not allowed to light it themselves. Instead, they leave candles as offerings that will be lit and left on the altar later on. This prevents too many lit candles in the small space of the crypt, especially since the area itself was very crowded with people entering and walking around the tomb. The flow of foot traffic was very carefully maintained to go into the same direction, and visitors were directed to use only the staircase designated for entry or exit in order to keep the passages from getting blocked. There was a reliquary chapel off to the side of the lower basilica which had the 1223 rule, the letter from Francis to Brother Leon, and St. Francis’s robe, tunic, shoes, and cord. Other relics were kept in the chapel, although some of them were not explicitly linked to Francis. The chapel felt very separate from the church and more like a museum than a place of prayer.
Basilica of St. Clare
The Basilica of Saint Clare had a similar set-up to the Basilica of Saint Francis. The main part of the church was missing most of its frescoes, although some fragments remained. Saint Clare’s crypt was much more heavily decorated than that of Saint Francis. Where Saint Francis’s crypt was in plain stone, Clare’s crypt was painted with polychromatic marble and a colored effigy of Saint Clare on the tomb (it was a little disconcerting). The basilica had relics of both Clare and Francis on display in the crypt opposite from Clare’s tomb, but the focus seemed to be on documents like the letter which granted the right to poverty for the Poor Clares. I found it interesting that documents from the founding of the orders were treated as relics and put on display alongside clothing that had belong to the saints.
May 25, 2013
The Basilica of San Vitale is a Byzantine church that dates to the mid-sixth century. The mosaics in this place are amazing and much larger than I had been expecting. The images of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora, which are on either side of the altar, were another example of the way in which Christian rulers used the Church and donations to the Church to reinforce their authority. The church was built to house the relics of San Vitalis, who was martyred in Ravenna in the second century. While I was there, the church felt more like an art historical gallery than a church, especially since most of people seemed to be walking through the church just to look at the mosaics.
May 21, 2013
Speyer cathedral was built between 1030 and 1106. It served as the burial site for German kings from the time of Conrad II, who was buried there while the church was still under construction in 1039, until the early fourteenth century. The church was constructed as part of a promise made by Conrad II to donate some of his own lands to the church in Speyer if he was elected king. The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and its imagery reflects that. It was originally built in the Romanesque style, but the west façade was reconstructed in the Neo-Romanesque style after the church was partially destroyed during the wars of the Palatinate in the seventeenth century.
Once again, the image of kingship is closely linked with the visible proof of faith at the cathedral, and kings later wanted to be buried at Speyer in order to continue the imagery cooperation between the church and the secular state shown by the early Salians, especially Henry III. The tombs of the kings themselves are relatively non-descript, especially compared with their British and French counterparts, with simple stone graves to mark their burial places. The crypt itself is noted to be one of the oldest vaulted crypts in Europe.
May 20, 2013
The cathedral of Trier did not use to be the main pilgrimage site within the city. Instead, the focus was formerly on St. Matthias’ Abbey where the bones of St. Matthew are held to be buried. The Holy Tunic, the cathedral’s relic, is thought to be the shirt that Christ was wearing when he died and has become the main attraction for pilgrims to the city. The church itself is built in a much older style and still has its roman and Romanesque center, although the church’s two apses have been redecorated and are in a much more elaborate style. The church is not one which seems to rely on non-religious tourism in the way many of the others have, and visiting the cathedral was a very peaceful experience.
May 18, 2013
The cathedral at Aachen was built as the royal chapel by Charlemagne in the ninth century. The oldest part of the church, the original two story octagonal chapel, is based on Byzantine rather than Roman church layouts. The modern mosaics were put in between 1880 and 1913 and were made to more closely match the Byzantine style of the ninth-century structure. The mosaics are done in glass with gold- and silver-leafing and are mostly abstract images and patterns, with the exception of the central dome which shows Jesus enthroned in Heaven with the four apostles. The effect when first entering the chapel is, for lack of a better word, dazzling.
A Gothic-style choir whose layout was very similar to the design of Sainte-Chapelle was added to the church between 1355 and 1414. Its stained glass windows are all modern since the windows were blown out during World War II. The cathedral’s structure survived mostly intact, but the windows were destroyed along with about eighty percent of the town. The choir houses the relics of Charlemagne. Charlemagne, though not a saint, is considered to be beatified. The relics held in Aachen were placed there after Frederick Barbarossa convinced the anti-Pope Paschal III to canonize the king in the twelfth century in an attempt to increase the prestige of the German emperors. The reliquary shows images of the German kings from Charlemagne to Frederick Barbarossa’s son, Frederick II, along with legendary images from the life of Charlemagne. There is very little religious imagery on this particular reliquary, and it emphasizes instead the life of Charlemagne in terms of miracles and the images of the German kings and emperors that ruled after him. It is placed further back from the altar than the church’s other relics, which are generally considered more important religiously speaking.
The four great Aachen relics—the apparel of the Virgin Mary, the swaddling clothes and the loincloth of Christ, and the decapitation cloth of John the Baptist—have been housed in the Shrine of Mary since 1329. The reliquary is constructed very similarly to the Shrine of Charlemagne, but shows the images of Christ, Mary, Charlemagne, Pope Leo III, and the twelve apostles instead of the German rulers. These relics have been part of a massive pilgrimage since the fourteenth century, and are taken out and displayed once every seven years as part of the “Aachener Heiligtumsfahart,” the Aachen-pilgrimage. The next display of the relics is scheduled to take place in June 2013.
In addition to its role as a major pilgrimage site, the royal chapel at Aachen was used by for the German coronation ceremonies, as a way to link their rule with that of Charlemagne. The throne of Charlemagne in the second-floor galleries of the chapel is placed directly across from the image of Christ enthroned in Heaven on the dome. The throne itself, though simple, is constructed from four slabs of marble taken from the Holy Sepulcher in Palestine, making the throne itself a relic. The enthroning of the new king on the throne of Charlemagne was considered an important element of the coronation ceremony.
 Concise Guide to Aachen Cathedral, English Version, Domschatzkammer Aachen, 2013.
May 17, 2013
The Cologne Cathedral holds the relics of the Three Magi and was one of the most important pilgrimage sites of the Middle Ages. It has a small crypt, but there did not seem to be much there that was easily visible to visitors. The reliquary with the relics of the Three Magi is kept in the apse of the cathedral, behind the altar, and separated from the ambulatory by iron grills. Although it is visible to pilgrims, the iron grills create a definitive separation of space between the ambulatory as the space for the visitor and the relic as the space of the sacred. The church was also fully shut down for visits during its services, and though other churches have also said they close during services, this is the first time that I happened to be there at the time.