Influence of Pilgrimage on Romanesque Art & Architecture

Chris has a master’s degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

During the Romanesque period, which lasted about 1050-1200 CE, the act of pilgrimage became so popular that it had a major impact on the art and architecture of the time. Discover the influence of pilgrimage, or the travel to sacred sites, on Romanesque art and architecture, including the reintroduction of barrel vaults and the creation of reliquaries. Updated: 11/15/2021

Romanesque Road Trips

Who wants to go on a road trip? Awesome, grab some snacks and some music and let’s go. Now, this isn’t going to be your typical road trip because, well, we’re not driving. We’re walking, hundreds of miles across Europe. What could compel us to do something like this? It’s easy – we’re going to church. Don’t worry, these aren’t just any churches we’re going to, they’re shrines, and places of extreme spiritual significance to the Christian faith. In short, we’re taking a pilgrimage, a journey to a sacred site.

Back in the medieval world, pilgrimages were very important – a major act of piety and faith. They became especially important in an era historians call the Romanesque period, which was roughly 1050-1200 CE. The rise in pilgrimage that defined the Romanesque period may have been a result of the belief that the world would end in the year 1000 and the subsequent gratitude that it didn’t. Whatever the reason, Europeans of all classes made pilgrimaging a major priority, and this had some pretty substantial impacts on the arts.

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Impact on Architecture

With people traveling hundreds of miles by foot to come see the holy shrines of Europe, church building became pretty important. The churches along pilgrimage roads housed weary travelers, provided opportunities for prayer and meditation along the spiritual journey, and even sold trinkets and souvenirs to remind pilgrims of their trip. This meant that churches developed some unique needs, and architectural styles had to change pretty quickly. In fact, this was one of the biggest periods of architectural develop in Europe since the fall of Rome.

So, what did these changes look like? Well, for one, as pilgrimage churches became major travel destinations, they had to increase in size in order to accommodate all the travelers. In fact, they grew large enough that a simple horizontal beam roof supported by columns wouldn’t work; you’d need so many columns to support a large roof that you wouldn’t be able to actually see the Mass. So, architects started reintroducing arches and barrel vaults, elongated arches to disperse the weight of the ceiling and provide for a more open interior. These were architectural tricks that hadn’t been used since the Roman Empire, and their return is why historians call this style the Romanesque, or Roman-like.

Besides the attempts to increase the size and openness of churches, traits that would be continued in future architectural styles, pilgrimages had another impact on architecture. For one, the church needed large doors to accommodate large crowds, and a sizeable, west-facing portal became a standard feature of these churches. Also, if you ever look at the blueprints of a Romanesque church, you’ll notice several smaller chapels jutting off the sides, generally around the apse. The point was to provide a space for pilgrims to come and worship sacred items, called relics, while not disturbing the main Mass occurring in the center of the church. Overall, these rise in pilgrimages created a boom in architectural innovation that would continue for centuries and inspire many new styles.

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Impact on Art

Now, I mentioned that pilgrimage churches often contained sacred objects, called relics. These included things like pieces of the True Cross, the hems of Mary’s robes, and pretty much anything associated with any of the Catholic saints. Now, the ability to see relics, as well as the chance to pray upon them for miracles, was one of the major motivations for pilgrimages. With relics being so important, it’s no surprise that they impacted the arts in some serious ways.

For one, churches that had relics, and every church tried to get its hands on a few, wanted to display them in a fitting way. That meant commissioning reliquaries, or objects used to display relics. Some of these could get pretty elaborate, and the demand for high-quality, expensive reliquaries led to an increase in professional artists who could create them. The churches themselves, which were becoming larger and more elaborate, also provided new opportunities for art. The relics and reliquaries were often accompanied by sculptures, carvings, and sometimes paintings depicting the history of that object. If it was the bones of a martyred saint, then the chapel would likely have a statue of that saint being martyred.

For all of the effort people put into seeing these relics, establishing that emotional and spiritual connection was important. It was also important to remind people that their piety would be rewarded. One common feature of Romanesque churches was the tympanum, a carved surface over doors, enclosed in an arch. Most churches filled the tympana over those big west portals with reliefs of the Last Judgment, with the pious being sent to heaven and the sinners cast to hell. For those who had walked dozens to hundreds of miles as an act of faith, that message was reassuring. How’s that for a road trip?

Lesson Summary

In medieval Europe, journeys to sacred sites, or pilgrimages became incredibly important. This really took off around 1050-1200 CE, the period historians call the Romanesque for the revival of many Roman architectural and artistic forms. Pilgrimages impacted the arts in both practical and aesthetic ways. Practically, the need for larger churches promoted innovation and the return of Roman techniques like arches and barrel vaults that dispersed weight and allowed for larger, more open structures. Romanesque churches also introduced side chapels for pilgrims, which gave the churches new, elaborate layouts. To attract pilgrims, churches tried to obtain sacred artifacts or relics, and displayed them in elaborate reliquaries. The demand for reliquaries, as well as paintings and statues showing the sacred history of the object, led to an increase in jobs available to artists, and the arts began to grow. Churches also used art to reassure pilgrims that their pious journeys would lead to ultimate spiritual rewards, thus validating the long and difficult journey. All in all, an entire new generation of artistic innovation was born, and all thanks to these Romanesque road trips.

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10 of the best pilgrim routes in Europe: readers’ travel tips

Blatchford Downs, UK.

Winning tip: Pilgrims’ Way, Winchester to Canterbury

A 10-day pilgrimage from Winchester to Canterbury, following Walking The Pilgrim’s Way by Leigh Hatts (Cicerone), included many ups and downs, both literal and emotional. There are many glorious parts of the walk, but the one that took my breath away was the hard push up Hackhurst Downs in Surrey, through a gorgeous yew-lined avenue, which then opened magnificently on to Blatchford Down. The splendid views from the top are well worth the ascent. To get the most of the pilgrimage, make sure you go off-path to visit the many divine little churches along the way, especially 900-year-old St Benedict’s in Paddlesworth (near Maidstone), Kent.
Kirrily Long

St Conan’s Way, Highlands

Iona Abbey.

Iona Abbey. Photograph: Alamy

Wildflowers, waterfalls and rainbows – there can hardly be anywhere more lovely and more varied to walk than Argyll in June. I walked St Conan’s Way from Dalmally to Iona, part of a planned pilgrimage route from St Andrews. I went with a friendly small organised group and was left with an enduring sense of replenishment. After 100km of walking (six days) and two ferry crossings, we reached Iona, a destination for pilgrims since the seventh century.
Sarah Akehurst

Readers’ tips: send a tip for a chance to win a £200 voucher for a Sawday’s stay

Guardian Travel readers’ tips

Every week we ask our readers for recommendations from their travels. A selection of tips will be featured online and may appear in print. To enter the latest competition visit the readers’ tips homepage

St Margaret’s Way, Edinburgh to St Andrews

The Fife Coastal Path near Anstruther.

The Fife Coastal Path near Anstruther. Photograph: Phil Seale/Alamy

Last Easter I followed St Margaret’s Way from Edinburgh to St Andrews. It’s a beautiful and varied route – west and over the Forth Road Bridge, back east along the Fife Coastal Path, then north at Shell Bay, with easy terrain that took four days to walk. My sunrise starting point was St Giles’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, where the warden was kind enough to let me in before hours. I wild camped: in the ruined 12th-century St Bridget’s Kirk, in woods near East Wemyss, and by the loch at Kilconquhar. Cafes in coastal towns served haggis-heavy breakfasts. I stayed in cheap hostels at either end of the walk.

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Via Podiensis, France


Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Photograph: Mattia Giovanni Argentieri/Getty Images

I’ve walked many of the pilgrim routes across Europe and they are all beautiful but my favourite is the Via Podiensis, from Le Puy in south-central France to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees. The 700km route meanders south-west through deep gorges, over rolling hills and by fields of sunflowers. The villages and towns are rustic perfection. Accommodation for pilgrims comes in the form of gîtes d’étape (walkers’ hostels) and is basic but cheap (€5-€10) or in gîtes that provide dinner, bed and breakfast for around €30. The walk takes just over a month but can be done in shorter stages.
Alison Jilks

St Olav’s Way, Norway

Crossing the Dovre mountain, St Olav’s Way.

Crossing the Dovre mountain, St Olav’s Way. Photograph: David Tett

This route, really a network of paths, is a great way of remembering Norway’s 11th centrury King Olav II Haraldsson, who was later made a saint. The 643km path leads to the splendid cathedral in Trondheim, which according to tradition you should walk around three times before saying a prayer. Farmers will hail you along the way and share their food or dinner with you and even put you up in their barns if the weather turns bad – as one family did for me. We sat around a campfire at night sharing a plate of moose tacos washed down with forest berry juice – a spiritual and nourishing experience that really helped me on my way.

A stretch of the Via Francigena, Switzerland

Classic view of famous Chateau de Chillon at Lake Geneva, one of Europe’s most visited castles, in Veytaux, SwitzerlandH3APW7 Classic view of famous Chateau de Chillon at Lake Geneva, one of Europe’s most visited castles, in Veytaux, Switzerland

Chateau de Chillon on Lake Geneva, near Montreux. Photograph: Scott Wilson/Alamy

Hiking in the hills just north of Lake Geneva this year, I came across a small wooden sign near a village saying Via Francigena. Curious, I followed some Spanish monks through the vineyards east of Lausanne. Replenished with their picnic offerings in spring sunshine we rested on the shores of the lake near Vevey. They taught me Spanish phrases; I taught them some English ones. We shared some food, some prayers under the stars and then a big tent before hiking another day together heading towards Montreux and the bend of the Rhône on the condition of mobile phones being switched off. A heavenly hike!
Greta Cooper

Camino de Finisterre, Galicia

Sunset at the Virxe da Barca sanctuary in Muxia

Sunset at the Virxe da Barca sanctuary in Muxia. Photograph: Joel Carillet/Getty Images

Because Santiago and much of Galicia are often somewhat busy, committing to any pilgrimage can be a struggle if you are seeking a more spiritual experience. The 30km coastal route between Finisterre (Fisterra in Galician) and Muxía – west of Santiago and so away from the main Camino – is the antidote. This is a microcosm of every Iberian pilgrimage. The coast is never far away, but the route winds over hills, through woods and fields and then gently, oh so gently, descends to Muxía. The setting of its gothic chapel, right on the shoreline, is beautiful beyond words. If you are looking for refreshment over the route, or want to split your walk over two days, the Albergue as Eiras in Lires (dorm bed from €14 including breakfast), which has a good restaurant and is generous with food and attitude for pilgrims, is right on the trail.
Alex Bell

The Pilgrims

Some 100 people, many of them seeking religious freedom in the New World, set sail from England on the Mayflower in September 1620. That November, the ship landed on the shores of Cape Cod, in present-day Massachusetts. A scouting party was sent out, and in late December the group landed at Plymouth Harbor, where they would form the first permanent settlement of Europeans in New England. These original settlers of Plymouth Colony are known as the Pilgrim Fathers, or simply as the Pilgrims.

The Mayflower Voyage

The group that set out from Plymouth, in southwestern England, in September 1620 included 35 members of a radical Puritan faction known as the English Separatist Church. In 1607, after illegally breaking from the Church of England, the Separatists settled in the Netherlands, first in Amsterdam and later in the town of Leiden, where they remained for the next decade under the relatively lenient Dutch laws. Due to economic difficulties, as well as fears that they would lose their English language and heritage, they began to make plans to settle in the New World. Their intended destination was a region near the Hudson River, which at the time was thought to be part of the already established colony of Virginia. In 1620, the would-be settlers joined a London stock company that would finance their trip aboard the Mayflower, a three-masted merchant ship, in 1620. A smaller vessel, the Speedwell, had initially accompanied the Mayflower and carried some of the travelers, but it proved unseaworthy and was forced to return to port by September.

Some of the most notable passengers on the Mayflower included Myles Standish, a professional soldier who would become the military leader of the new colony; and William Bradford, a leader of the Separatist congregation and author of “Of Plymouth Plantation,” his account of the Mayflower voyage and the founding of Plymouth Colony.

Did you know? Humphrey Bogart, Julia Child and presidents James Garfield and John Adams are just a few of the celebrities who can trace their ancestors back to the Mayflower.

The Mayflower Compact

Signing of the Mayflower Compact

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Rough seas and storms prevented the Mayflower from reaching their initial destination in Virginia, and after a voyage of 65 days the ship reached the shores of Cape Cod, anchoring on the site of Provincetown Harbor in mid-November. Discord ensued before the would-be colonists even left the ship. The passengers who were not separatists–-referred to as “strangers” by their more doctrinaire peers—argued the Virginia Company contract was void since the Mayflower had landed outside of Virginia Company territory. William Bradford later wrote, “several strangers made discontented and mutinous speeches.”

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The Pilgrims knew if something wasn’t done quickly it could be every man, woman and family for themselves. While still on board the ship, a group of 41 men signed the so-called Mayflower Compact, in which they agreed to join together in a “civil body politic.” This document would become the foundation of the new colony’s government. Signed on November 11, 1620, the Mayflower Compact was the first document to establish self-government in the New World.

Settling at Plymouth

After sending an exploring party ashore, the Mayflower landed at what they would call Plymouth Harbor, on the western side of Cape Cod Bay, in mid-December. During the next several months, the settlers lived mostly on the Mayflower and ferried back and forth from shore to build their new storage and living quarters. The settlement’s first fort and watchtower was built on what is now known as Burial Hill (the area contains the graves of Bradford and other original settlers).

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More than half of the English settlers died during that first winter, as a result of poor nutrition and housing that proved inadequate in the harsh weather. Leaders such as Bradford, Standish, John Carver, William Brewster and Edward Winslow played important roles in keeping the remaining settlers together. In April 1621, after the death of the settlement’s first governor, John Carver, Bradford was unanimously chosen to hold that position; he would be reelected 30 times and served as governor of Plymouth for all but five years until 1656.

The First Thanksgiving

HISTORY: Thanksgiving

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The native inhabitants of the region around Plymouth Colony were the various tribes of the Wampanoag people, who had lived there for some 10,000 years before the Europeans arrived. Soon after the Pilgrims built their settlement, they came into contact with Tisquantum, or Squanto, an English-speaking Native American. Squanto was a member of the Pawtuxet tribe (from present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island) who had been seized by the explorer John Smith’s men in 1614-15. Meant for slavery, he somehow managed to escape to England, and returned to his native land to find most of his tribe had died of plague. In addition to interpreting and mediating between the colonial leaders and Native American chiefs (including Massasoit, chief of the Pokanoket), Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, which became an important crop, as well as where to fish and hunt beaver. In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims famously shared a harvest feast with the Pokanokets; the meal is now considered the basis for the first Thanksgiving holiday.

The first Thanksgiving likely did not include turkey or mashed potatoes (potatoes were just making their way from South America to Europe), but the Wampanoag brought deer and there would have been lots of local seafood plus the fruits of the first pilgrim harvest, including pumpkin.

Relations with Native Americans

After attempts to increase his own power by turning the Pilgrims against Massasoit, Squanto died in 1622, while serving as Bradford’s guide on an expedition around Cape Cod.

Other tribes, such as the Massachusetts and Narragansetts, were not so well disposed towards European settlers, and Massasoit’s alliance with the Pilgrims disrupted relations among Native American peoples in the region. Over the next decades, relations between settlers and Native Americans deteriorated as the former group occupied more and more land. By the time William Bradford died in 1657, he had already expressed anxiety that New England would soon be torn apart by violence. In 1675, Bradford’s predictions came true, in the form of King Philip’s War. (Philip was the English name of Metacomet, the son of Massasoit and leader of the Pokanokets since the early 1660s.) That conflict left some 5,000 inhabitants of New England dead, three quarters of those Native Americans. In terms of percentage of population killed, King Philip’s War was more than twice as costly as the American Civil War and seven times more so than the American Revolution.

The Pilgrim Legacy in New England

Repressive policies toward religious nonconformists in England under King James I and his successor, Charles I, had driven many men and women to follow the Pilgrims’ path to the New World. Three more ships traveled to Plymouth after the Mayflower, including the Fortune (1621), the Anne and the Little James (both 1623). In 1630, a group of some 1,000 Puritan refugees under Governor John Winthrop settled in Massachusetts according to a charter obtained from King Charles I by the Massachusetts Bay Company. Winthrop soon established Boston as the capital of Massachusetts Bay Colony, which would become the most populous and prosperous colony in the region.

Compared with later groups who founded colonies in New England, such as the Puritans, the Pilgrims of Plymouth failed to achieve lasting economic success. After the early 1630s, some prominent members of the original group, including Brewster, Winslow and Standish, left the colony to found their own communities. The cost of fighting King Philip’s War further damaged the colony’s struggling economy. Less than a decade after the war King James II appointed a colonial governor to rule over New England, and in 1692, Plymouth was absorbed into the larger entity of Massachusetts.

Bradford and the other Plymouth settlers were not originally known as Pilgrims, but as “Old Comers.” This changed after the discovery of a manuscript by Bradford in which he called the settlers who left Holland “saints” and “pilgrimes.” In 1820, at a bicentennial celebration of the colony’s founding, the orator Daniel Webster referred to “Pilgrim Fathers,” and the term stuck




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