In our work shooting Romanesque churches in France, we have come to believe that there were two major forces that created the architectural style known as Romanesque. This was primarily a monastic movement and style, and most churches were built by monks as abbey churches. The first of the influences was the need to protect the churches from the depredations of Vikings, Saracens, Magyars and other warrior-invaders of Europe. The churches were an easy target for plunder and were often burned after being pillaged. The wooden vault was the main culprit and medieval builders had to learn to build stone vaults to protect those churches. We have already described this process in a previous post.
The second major influence was medieval pilgrimage, particularly that of Santiago de Compostella. The spiritual and physical needs of pilgrims traveling to Santiago de Compostela were met by the development of a number of specialized types of churches.
The effects the thousands of pilgrims on the economies of the areas through which they passed was, of course, enormous. The pilgrims supplied a steady influx of money to the churches that housed the relics, to suppliers of lodging and food, and even the sale of religious souvenirs. It was important to ensure that the pilgrims came to a local church, and one of the ways to ensure this was to a have relics of enough importance that the pilgrims would stop, worship, and make donations to church, even if that meant a deviation from the most direct route. The relics of Saint Foy in Conques, for example, brought a steady stream of pilgrims to the wilds of the Aveyron.
The need to accommodate the pilgrims affected the religious architecture significantly. Churches needed to be larger and required facilities specific to the requirements of the pilgrims. The Carolingian church was fundamentally a basilica with transepts and a rounded apse, perhaps with side aisles as well. There were also the octagonal churches modeled after the Palatine Chapel in Aachen.
The Romanesque churches were usually basilicas as well, but with changes to accommodate the requirements of pilgrimage. Starting from the west end, the narthex was added as a place to gather, instruct and shelter the pilgrims before they were admitted to the sanctuary. It is also known as the “Purgatory,” an intermediate space between the world – the outside – and the sanctuary itself, which evokes images of paradise. Here the pilgrim would drop the trappings of the material world to prepare to enter the sacred.
Upon entering the church itself, the pilgrims would be channeled to the side aisles where they could approach the relics without disturbing any religious services. Remember that most monasteries followed the Benedictine rule in one form or another and this required eight “offices” during the day and night – Vespers (at the end of the day), Compline (upon retiring), Vigils (sometime during the night), Matins (at sunrise), Prime (during the first hour of daylight), Terce (at the third hour), Sext (at the sixth hour), None (at the ninth hour), and Vespers (at the end of the day) These services would have proceeded no matter what crush of pilgrims might await visiting the relics. The side aisles would funnel the visitors to the apse where the relics were kept without disturbing the services.
The ambulatory was one of the great architectural innovations, a means to have the pilgrims circle around the chancel in order to see relics located in individual chapels. Different relics could be displayed for veneration in these apsidal chapels that radiated beautifully from the central apse. Each of these served as a station for worship, and it was possible to pass from one to the next praying and meditating, without having to worry about disturbing either the religious services or the press of other pilgrims anxious to view the relics themselves.
The ambulatory with the radiating chapels was a significant – and characteristic – change to the basilica footprint. It also created the magnificent Romanesque and Gothic chevet that adorns the exterior east end of the churches.
Of course the decoration of churches was important – pilgrims were instructed in the faith by the capitals, the portal sculptures, the tympana, and the colorful frescoes covering the walls. The stories reminded each person of the importance of the pilgrimage and why it was important to endure the hardships that accompanied the journey.
The awe-inspiring beauty was an important feature to the pilgrimage church and cathedral. The splendor of the church was a sign of the importance of the relics contained in the chapels or crypt. It was also a sign of the devotion of the monks themselves, both to their God and to the saints and martyrs. The Romanesque church is a monument to all those nameless monks who conceived and built these churches. Too often they did not live up to the expectations of their order. Too often the monsters of pride, ignorance, greed and ambition that decorated their columns came alive to swallow them whole.
But what other group of people – nameless men and women – ever contributed so much beauty that endured so long? Two centuries of believers gave us a vision in which, if we look hard enough, we can see the traces of their deepest hopes and fears. And these are the deepest hopes and fears of humanity itself, even if we are too proud to acknowledge them.