Relics and Ambulatories – Part 2 (Dennis Aubrey)

Note: Part 1 of this “Relics and Ambulatories” post can be found at this link.

In the early part of the 12th Century, the Almoravid Emir Ali ibn Yusuf journeyed to Santiago de Compostela to meet Doña Urraca, the queen who ruled the kingdoms of León and Castile. Astonished by the throngs of pilgrims, the devout Ali asked, “Who is this character so great and famous that Christians come to pray to him from the Pyrenees and even further away? The multitude of those coming and going is so great that hardly any space is left open on the road in the direction of the west.”

Those multitudes were coming from throughout Europe to visit the shrine of Saint James the Greater at Santiago de Compostela. These pilgrims were funneled primarily through four main routes in France. The Via Turonensis began in Paris and Tours, the Via Lemovicensis in Vézelay, the Via Podiensis in Le-Puy-en-Vélay, and the Via Tolosana in Arles. Monastery churches, especially those affiliated with Cluny, were important stops on the Compostela pilgrimage. Often they featured relics of such importance that the churches were sites of pilgrimages in themselves. Saint Martin of Tours, for example, contained the relics of the Patron Saint of France, Saint Martin. Vézelay held the relics of Mary Magdalene, and Conques held those of Sainte Foy.

The presence of pilgrims posed two conflicts to the monasteries. The first was the temptation to use the relics to drive traffic and revenue to the monastery. This led to the common practice of “translation” of relics. The monks at Sainte Foy, for example, stole the relics from the monastery at Agen in 866. This led to increased revenues, to be sure, but also caused difficulties with the operation of the monastery – the lay visitors often interfered with the offices of the church, the prayers that were the primary duty of the monks. This was an especially difficult situation when the relics were kept in crypts below the altar. Medieval builders resolved this second conflict by placing the relics above ground in chapels which radiated out from the apse itself and sometimes in the nave. What was then needed was a way to get the pilgrims to the chapels.

Ambulatory with three radiating absidal chapels

The solution was for the builders to design a series of passages through the church that allowed visitors to circulate without disturbing the monks. The side aisles were used to move pilgrims through the nave and an ambulatory was created to allow the penitents to pass by the altar and chancel to see the relics that were displayed in the apsidal chapels. The word “ambulatory” refers to a curving aisle in the apse that passes behind the altar and choir, giving access to chapels in the chevet.

Ambulatory and side chapels, Basilique Saint-Julien de Brioude (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This ambulatory moved the faithful in a circle through the church from one nave side aisle to the other. In this manner, great numbers of pilgrims could move silently from the west entrance of the church, along a nave side aisle, and into the ambulatory to venerate the relics displayed in the apsidal chapels. They could do so as the monks performed their devotions in the main part of the church without disturbance. It must have been a moving experience for pilgrims to enter the presence of the relics of the saints, their penance or supplication accompanied by the voices of the monks lifted in prayer and song.

Ambulatory and side chapels of Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The absidal chapels and ambulatory gave rise to a classic external feature of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, the chevet (French for “headpiece”). Seen from the outside, the eastern end of the church certainly looks like a crown for the church.

Chevet of the Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Souillac (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The early medieval devotion to relics led to a vast increase in pilgrimage which directly influenced the fundamental basilica structure of the Romanesque churches. Now they were no longer colonnaded naves with an arched apse on the east end. The radiating chapels and ambulatory led to the completely new structure of the chevet. Along with the stone vaults, these elements became some of the most distinctive characteristics of the Romanesque religious architecture, characteristics that carried forth into the less monastic Gothic structures of the next two and a half centuries.

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