Being a Pilgrim: Art and Ritual on the Medieval Routes to Santiago
Being a Pilgrim: Art and Ritual on the Medieval Routes to Santiago by Kathleen Ashley and Marilyn Deegan, Lund Humphries, hardback, 264 pages, 254 colour illustrations, 2009, £30.
This book is an attractive introduction to one of the greatest, and most enduring, phenomena of medieval Christian Europe; the huge popularity of pilgrimages to the shrine of St James at Compostella in north-west Spain. It examines the culture of pilgrimage, the routes people took, the buildings they used, the towns they saw, the legends and music they heard and finally, the experience of arrival and renewal that awaited them at the shrine of the saint. Of particular interest to Vidimus readers, is the context given to contemporary representations of the saint in stained glass windows. Several schemes are illustrated or mentioned. [Fig. 1]
According to the Gospels, James (son of Zebedee) was one of the first four disciples of Jesus. He is often called James the Great(er), Major, or Elder to distinguish him from a younger apostle of the same name, James (the Less), the son of Alphaeus. He was martyred on the orders of Herod Agrippa I in AD 44 (Acts 12: 1–2).
Over the next five hundred years several legends grew up around the saint. The first was that he had preached in Spain before his death. Next, it was claimed that during his life he had defeated a Jewish sorcerer or magician known as Hermogenes. Finally, it was said that after his death his body had been placed in a stone boat which had floated from Palestine to the Spanish coastal town of Iria Flavia, now known as Padrón, in the Iberian kingdom of Galicia, where it had been found and interred together with the bodies of two of his own disciples, Athanasius and Theodore.
By the 8th century these stories were commonplace. Isidore of Seville’s biographical study of Biblical figures, De Ortu et Obitu Patrum, compiled around AD 630, repeated the claim that James had evangelised the west of Spain. In England, the chronicler Aldhelm of Malmesbury, later bishop of Sherborne, wrote a poem in honour of St James in AD 709 which claimed that he had, ‘…converted the hispanic peoples with his teaching, converting the barbarous multitudes with divine words…’.
Unfortunately Aldhelm’s assured confidence was short-lived. In AD 711 Islamic moors from north Africa crossed the strait and conquered most of Christian Spain. Only the north-western kingdom of Asturias, which included Galicia, successfully resisted the invaders. Against such a background many historians have cast a sceptical eye over the circumstances in which James’ long lost relics were miraculously discovered during the episcopacy of Bishop Theodomir of Iria Flavia (c. AD 820–300) by a hermit called Pelayo who said that he had been led to the site by a star. When the saint’s remains were translated to a shrine at Compostella (from the Latin, compositum, meaning burial/cemetery) they formed the hub of a local cult and a symbol of Christian defiance. Although the site initially only attracted a few pilgrims, substantially more began to arrive in the 11th century, and by the early 12th century – and particularly under the energetic promotion of Archbishop Diego Gelmírez (1100–1140) – the initial trickle had become a flood, with Compostella ranking alongside Rome and Jerusalem as one of the great destination sites of medieval pilgrimage.
Travellers from England, Ireland, northern Germany, and Scandinavia mainly took ships to Spanish ports like Ferrol and Corunna. Sea voyages from Bristol took around six days. By contrast, pilgrims from central France, southern Germany, and Italy usually travelled overland. In France the gathering points were Paris/Tours, Vézelay, Le Puy, and Arles. Pilgrims from Italy took a southern route through Toulouse. All roads converged at Puenta la Reina, west of Pamplona in northern Spain, where pilgrims walked or rode the final leg, The Way of St James (Galician Camiño de Santiago), a medieval motorway of devotion speckled with churches, chapels and monastic houses offering support. Long-distance journeys could be arduous and ravaged by treacherous weather. Summers might be swelteringly hot while winters saw routes blocked by snow and flooded by freezing rain. One of the pluses of this book is the way it employs contemporary travelogues to bring such experiences to life.
Why did so many people from a complete mix of social classes leave their homes to face such hardships? Motives varied. For most it was an intensely personal spiritual journey, the fulfilment of a personal vow. There were also practical motives. The church granted generous indulgences – remissions of sins – for those who became pilgrims. William Wey, a 15th-century English pilgrim, explained some of the tariffs: a third of all sins remitted for the basic pilgrimage and complete remission for those who died en route. In other instances sick people sought miraculous cures for their ailments and disabilities from the shrine, courts sentenced offenders to penitential pilgrimages, and rich young men enjoyed the adventure and the modern equivalent of a ‘gap year’ as they discovered new cities and explored spectacular landscapes. Some people even went ‘by procuration’, making the journey on someone else’s behalf because they were paid to do so.
Food and shelter were major preoccupations. A network of monastic hospices provided service stops along the routes offering a meal and a bed, medical and religious services. In the late 15th century there were thirty-two hospices in the Spanish city of Burgos alone. Some towns had streets packed with inns and shops catering for visitors. Personal safety was another priority. Pilgrims often travelled in groups in case they were attacked. One travellers’ guide stressed the need to carry a stout staff (bourdon) to ward off robbers and wolves.
Churches and chapels laced the route. Some had special ‘pardon doors’ where pilgrims too ill to finish the journey could receive the same remission of sins as if they had reached their ultimate destination. A few, like Santa Maria de Eunate, were cemetery chapels. Others sought to attract the devotions of passing pilgrims by displaying impressive collections of saintly relics. Contemporary guides even listed worthwhile detours along the route.
When the journey finally ended and Compostella came into sight, approaching pilgrims ritually washed themselves in a nearby stream before entering the city through the north-east gate, the Porta Francigena, (now the Puerta del Camino) so named because of the large number of pilgrims coming from France. Once inside they would have been accosted by swarms of fast food salesmen and souvenir sellers.
The centre of the cult was the cathedral where large statues of St James and Christ in Majesty presided over the main pilgrim entrance – the Portico de la Gloria. Crossing this threshold and entering the shrine area often left pilgrims rhapsodic. Shuffling towards the high altar they queued to climb steps which led up behind a colossal painted statue of the saint which they were encourage to hug while asking him to pray for them. Next they were shown various Jamesian relics such as his staff, the sickle with which, supposedly, he had been beheaded and the banner that the saint had carried when he had ‘appeared’ to Christian soldiers fighting the moors at the legendary battle of Clavijo. After making offerings at the shrine and spending a night of vigil either in front of the main altar or outside the church, the pilgrims would then attend a special mass and make confessions at one of the allocated booths where their language was spoken. Finally, they received an official certificate, the compostella, recording their achievement. For some it was a life-changing, even defining, moment. When the tomb of Queen Isabel of Portugal was opened in 1612, the staff and scrip she had been given in 1325 to commemorate her pilgrimage were found buried alongside her. Elsewhere confraternities were formed, charitable foundations organised by people who had made the pilgrimage. In Paris the confraternity celebrated the saint’s feast day with a lavish banquet attended by up to 1,500 people.
All this and more is told by the authors in a clear and readable style supplemented by hundreds of original and often stunning colour photographs, some contributed by Hazel Gardiner, a member of the Vidimus editorial team.
Quibbles are few. My main regret is that the authors did not include more and better maps highlighting important sites of interest along the major pilgrimage routes. Another underdeveloped theme is the extent to which these pilgrimages succoured the Reconquista of Spain and the political shape of late medieval Europe.
I have deliberately left the references to stained glass until last. There are not many and given the role of imagery in urging, justifying, invoking and remembering pilgrimages to Compostella, it may be helpful for readers of Vidimus if I summarise some of the ways that St James was depicted in this medium.
Early representations of the saint showed him as a bearded apostle holding a book or scroll. Because such figures were hard to distinguish, naming labels were used, e.g. at the church of St Michael, Stanton Harcourt (Oxon). From the 11th century, St James was depicted increasingly as a pilgrim with a long staff, a purse (scrip), broad-brimmed hat, cloak and a cockle-shell badge; attributes which made him instantly recognisable when appearing in stained glass and in other media, as in the 14th-century series of Apostles at the parish church of St Nicholas, Stanford on Avon, (Northants). Such imagery was common throughout Europe. [Figs. 1, 2, 3 and 4]
Narrative sequences depicting James’ clash with Hermogenes and other miracles attributed to the saint also appeared. 13th-century examples survive in St Etienne cathedral at Bourges in western France (illustrated in the book), Chartres, Auxerre, and Tours. At Tattershall (Lincs) a window depicting scenes from the saint’s life and his battle with Hermogenes was installed a few years after William Erneys, the steward of the hospice, had visited Compostella. A few 15th-century fragments of image and blackletter Latin texts referring to James and Hermogenes’ assistant, Philetus, formerly at Dale Abbey and now Ic and 1d in N.III at the parish church of St Matthew, Morley (Derbyshire), are probably part of another (mostly) lost series in English glass showing the saint’s victory over the Jewish sorcerer. [Fig. 5]
Some window glass seems to have been specifically linked to the act of pilgrimage. The authors cite the example of the 14th-century countess Mahaut D’Artois who commissioned stained glass windows for the hospital and church of Saint-Jacques-aux- Pèlerins in Paris. Despite being a devotee of the saint she had failed to visit his shrine in person. Although we have no evidence either way, it is possible that her gifts were substitutes or atonements for this failure.
A window in the nave of York Minster (n21) also seems to be linked to pilgrimage. It shows the figure of St James with kneeling male and female donors dressed as pilgrims at a shrine. In 1361, Agnes de Holme, left a sum of money to the same church, equivalent to the cost of a man going to Compostella, for the making of a window in honour of St James.
Name that Roundel! Solution.
This month’s puzzle has proved a real head-scratcher; what Sherlock Holmes might have called a three-pipe problem until recent legislation made it unlawful to smoke in a public place like Vidimus!
Battle scenes appear in many biblical, mythological and historical stories. Without inscriptions or any obvious clues, identifying such a subject out of context is never going to be easy. Dr Rembrandt Duits from London’s Warburg Institute has told us that while the roundel seems to be based on a famous fresco depicting the battle of the Milvian bridge in the Vatican executed by the Italian painter, Giulio Romano (c. 1499–1546), to a design by Raphael (1483–1520) between 1520–24, this does not necessarily mean that the roundel represents the same event. [Fig. 2]
The composition was adapted for countless, often generic, battle scenes during the 16th century, possibly via a print made by Giulio Bonasone (c. 1498 – sometime after 1574). [Fig. 3] Among these adaptations was an engraving by the Venetian artist, Agostino Veneziano (c. 1490–1540), depicting a battle between Romans and Carthaginians (with Carthage burning in the background) which, in turn, was used by a model for a generic battle scene represented on some 16th-century French enamels. [Fig 4]
Despite these reservations our experts have braved these choppy waters to suggest some possible solutions to the mystery.
First up is our regular contributor, Dr Paul Taylor. While not 100% certain, he has opted for a depiction of the Battle of the Milvian bridge in AD 312 when Constantine the Great defeated his rival, Maxentius, to become the sole and undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire. Some accounts say that Constantine’s cavalry won the day and that Maxentius was thrown from his horse.
The combatants had a special resonance with the medieval church. Constantine won the battle after allegedly seeing the Chi-Rho sign (a Christogram symbol formed from the first two letters of the word Christ in Greek) in the sky and ordering his soldiers to paint it on their shields. During his reign he declared Christianity to be the official religion of the empire. Maxentius, on the other hand, was a persecutor of Christians and the cruel tyrant who ordered the torture and execution of St Katherine. Truly this was a battle between good and evil!
Dr Tobias Capwell, the Arms and Armour curator at London’s Wallace collection, nominates a different solution: the battle of Tolbiac, fought between the Christian Franks (French) under Clovis I and pagan German tribes known as the Alamanni traditionally set in AD 496. Although less well known than the Roman confrontation, the outcome of the battle and the subsequent baptism of Clovis was often seen as a link between the Roman world and the chivalric culture of the medieval and Renaissance periods. According to Gregory of Tours (539–594), the author of a 6th-century history of the Franks, the Historia Francorum, when the king was baptized at Rheims:
‘…the baptistery (was) set in order, the aroma of incense spread, candles of fragrant odor burned brightly, and the whole shrine of the baptistery was filled with a divine fragrance: and the Lord gave such grace to those who stood by that they thought they were placed amid the odors of paradise. And the king was the first to ask to be baptized by the bishop. Another Constantine advanced to the baptismal font…’
Dr Capwell has also drawn attention to a fresco of the battle by the French artist Paul-Joseph Blanc (1846–1904) painted c. 1881 in the Panthéon (Paris) which resembles the roundel scene and might have been based on earlier models. [Fig. 5]
Using the scales and balances of art history, scenes of the battle of the Malvian Bridge appear more often in religious settings than depictions of the battle of Tolbaic. But what if the painting was intended for different audiences or viewers attuned to other than literal iconography?
An interesting detail in the roundel has led to more speculation. As Dr Capwell has pointed out, while the armour is a fairly standard stylised 16th-century idea of Roman (or generically ‘old-fashioned’ in an ancient hero sort of way) equipment, the banner charged with the crossed, ragged staffs seems extremely close to the coat of arms and devices of the Renaissance Duchy of Burgundy (the device of two ragged staffs forming a saltire being known as the cross of Burgundy) and Spanish land army flags of the 16th century. [Fig. 6] Could this be a clue? Similar flags can be seen in a series of early 16th-century roundels depicting one of the Emperor Maximilian’s wars. [Fig. 7] Is it possible that the painter is using a portrayal of a battle scene from the ancient world to allude to contemporary ideas involving Burgundy and Spain?
All comments are welcome!