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Architectural Wonders: Monastic and Pilgrimage Churches

Updated on April 14, 2013
Cathedral of Santiago
Cathedral of Santiago | Source

The Romanesque was the monastic age. The most influential orders were the Cluniac, begun in the 10th century; the Cistercian and Carthusian, founded in the 11th century; and the Benedictine, which was already five centuries old. The Cluniac order, which had a great abbey church at Cluny that has been almost completely destroyed, fostered pilgrimages to the shrine of St. James (Cathedral of Santiago) at Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Well-defined pilgrimage routes to this popular shrine led across France and converged on the Pyrenees. Along these routes was built a series of great churches such as St. Sernin in Toulouse (11th century). In the Santiago cathedral (begun 1075) the massive nave arcades support a barrel vault, abutted on either side by half-barrel vaults that eliminate the possibility of lighting the nave by clerestory windows. Neither mosaics nor colored marbles relieve this somber but powerful interior.

Santiago, like Pisa, has a Latin-cross plan with nave, aisles, transepts, choir, and apse. The aisles, however, not only flank the nave, but continue around the sides and ends of the transepts, along the choir, and curve around the semicircle of the apse to form an ambulatory—a continuous path around the church. These aisles were designed not merely to provide additional space for the laity, but also to serve as a path for the processions that by this time had become an important part of the service. At an appropriate moment, the officiating priest and his acolytes would leave the high altar in the apse; the remaining clergy, including the choir, would then fall in behind him, to be followed in turn by the laity. The procession, perhaps singing Gregorian chants, would then file completely around the church, stopping from time to time at the subsidiary altars before returning to the chancel to continue the service.

The plan of Santiago was further elaborated by no fewer than five small chapels, which originally radiated out from the ambulatory. In addition, there are two chapels protruding from the east side of each transept. In contrast to the early Christian basilica, which had a single altar, Santiago had no fewer than 10 altars. These smaller chapels could not accommodate a full congregation except as a pause in the processions. But they did serve for individual devotions, and they made it possible for several Masses to be said simultaneously—a real necessity since many of the higher clergy connected with Santiago were expected to celebrate Mass frequently.

In the pilgrimage churches each altar would normally enshrine a relic of the saint to whom the chapel was dedicated. Pilgrims at Santiago were conducted through the church by some member of the church staff, who instructed them in the stories and powers of each saint. At these altars, the pilgrims offered veneration and perhaps gave alms. Although not restricted to monastic churches, elaborate processions, multiple altars, and relics were usually most in evidence there.

Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral | Source

The relics were enormously valuable assets to the church, particularly if some of them were believed to have miracle-working properties. Whoever felt that he had been helped by visiting a shrine might bequeath to the church a part or all of his estate. Most of the wealth offered at the shrines was devoted to enlarging and beautifying the church. Canterbury Cathedral offers a dramatic illustration of the wealth of pilgrimage churches. Soon after the remains of St. Thomas à Becket had been enshrined in its choir, Canterbury became the most important pilgrimage site in England. (Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are told by pilgrims en route to the shrine.) When, early in the 16th century, Henry VIII suppressed the English monasteries, including Canterbury, he fell heir to their remaining wealth. The gold and precious stones taken from the shrine itself filled two chests, each said to be so heavy that four men were needed to carry it. In addition, 26 wagons were required to carry off the slightly less valuable property.

Obviously, assets of such value required the protection of a fireproof building. It may be partly for this reason that wooden roofs were replaced by more costly stone vaults which, in turn, required more massive walls and piers to hold them. But fire was not the only hazard. Relics were a constant temptation to thieves and even to rival churchmen. The Abbot of Peterborough pried up one of the paving stones on which Becket's blood had been spilled, and took it back with him to his own monastery. He hoped that Peterborough might win some share of Becket's popularity. To protect the wealth of Canterbury the monks loosed a pack of watchdogs in the cathedral at night.


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    • tomstravels profile image

      Thomas Caton 

      5 years ago from the business end of a strong wind

      Nice blend of history and architecture, very well written!


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