The Path of Sant Iago – Churches (Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by PJ McKey
Cathédrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Schematic plan of the Romanesque pilgrimage church
Schematic plan of the Romanesque pilgrimage church (reproduced under terms of GNU Free Documentation license)

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.

Reliquary of Sainte Foy, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Reliquary of Sainte Foy, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Narthex, Basilique Saint Philibert de Tournus, Tournus (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey
Narthex, Basilique Saint Philibert de Tournus, Tournus (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

South side aisle, Basilique Saint-Julien de Brioude, Brioude (Haute-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey
South side aisle, Basilique Saint-Julien de Brioude, Brioude (Haute-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Ambulatory, Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Airvault (Deux-Sèvres)  Photo by PJ McKey
Ambulatory, Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Airvault (Deux-Sèvres) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Chevet, Église Abbatiale Sainte-Marie, Souillac (Lot)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Chevet, Église Abbatiale Sainte-Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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 Annunciation, north transept, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
The Annunciation, north transept, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

26 thoughts on “The Path of Sant Iago – Churches (Dennis Aubrey)

    1. Knowing this makes a difference in looking at the churches. You can tell which ones were pilgrimage churches – even ones today that seem to be in areas that have no importance. Sometimes they are modest and sometimes grand. Glad this was useful to you, Angeline. Thanks for the comments.

  1. This has taken me back to think again about the churches I knew…..thank you. get something that has long annoyed me off my chest….my commune in France has an early medieval chapel out in the fields….its restoration was undertaken and, apart from tearing up the stones from the floor and replacing it with tiling suitable for a modern kitchen those responsible installed a cockle shell motif on the floor of the porch though the chapel was on no known pilgrimage route and there had been no cockle shell images of any sort in the chapel.
    A bastardisation of a simple, holy place….using the Compostella route as some sort of advertising stunt.

    1. Helen, I just looked it up and it seems that Saint Clemetin is about 20 miles west of Airvault and Saint Jouin-de-Marnes. And you’re right, probably not on the pilgrimage route. Interesting that they got the funding for that kind of work.

    1. In our database it is listed as Église Saint-Martin-de-Noizé d’Oiron. It must be the same church, in Oiron, just north of Saint Jouin. We haven’t shot there yet, but it is on our list!

      1. We may be heading back that way in October – if so, it’s on the list. Thanks, Helen. I notice from your “About Page” that you no longer live in France, but in Costa Rica?

      2. Yes, we do. We were in France for over twenty years, but my husband’s health required a more stable climate….and, architecture apart, we haven’t regretted it!
        It’s exciting to adapt to a different culture, just as it was to adapt to France all those years ago and here, as there, we are lucky to have friends with enquiring minds.

        Finding your work has been a sheer delight to me and has brought to mind so many visits to churches in the region.

        Bilazais and St. Generoux are two more that i remember….

        There’s a link here to a site about Carolingian churches

        Not that you need it…but I used to find it handy if out of area!

  2. The idea that protection against fire was the reason for building stone vaults in early medieval churches sounds plausible but I doubt if this is the only reason. I suspect there were many reasons which blended together to make it happen and as a tradition became established builders carried on partly out of habit. I suspect the architectural unity of stone walls and vaults appealed to the builders’ aesthetic sense. Also because music was such an important part of the monks’ lives the (usually) superior acoustic properties of stone vaults over timber would have been appreciated.

    1. Brendan, the impetus to resurrect the masonry skills for the stone vaults seems likely to have required a great necessity. Once the skills were developed and the virtues of the stone vault apparent, most builders of churches wanted them for many of the reasons that you mention. And the challenges to vault larger and larger spaces taxed the ingenuity and imagination of the builders so that they developed new and exciting techniques that led eventually to the quadripartite and other rib vaults.

  3. I learn so much by reading this blog, and I also remember so much about times I’ve been in these churches. When you said the pilgrims could wander up the side aisles during offices, I thought of the many times I’ve been in a French church to pray or have time out, and have been disturbed by numbers of tourists taking photos and looking at me as if I were part of the scene. But then, it’s better than an empty church. I’m sure there’ll be even more tourist-pilgrims in the future because of your photos, Dennis and PJ.

    1. Trish, thanks for the kind words. We had an odd experience at Vézelay a couple of years ago. We went to the Vespers service in which the monks and nuns sing. There was a full service and as it began, a tour of Dutch tourists came in. They sat respectfully and listened to the entire service. But when it was finished, they applauded. The treated it like a performance. You could feel the shock among both the congregation and the monks and nuns. So you never know. As for the photo-takers, they are partout! I was in Bayeux last September and two young girls decided that they wanted to take some photos of a large painting in the north side of the ambulatory. I was set up for a shot, but they spent 20 minutes, climbing up and down on walls and furniture. They saw me but clearly didn’t care, or they decided to obstruct. I ended up missing the light coming down through the north transept. But there’s nothing one can do.

  4. I’m not sure what it is with young tourists. I was in a cathedral in Melbourne (Australia) recently where a sign clearly said ‘No photography’. But of course there were plenty of migrants clicking away. Groan. I get more peace in the non-photogenic churches.

    1. Those at Vezelay were not young, Trisha. Last year we saw a young red-headed nun leading a group of young French visitors.. She spoke for at Least an hour and had them enthralled.

    2. Ah what a can of worms you open here! A good discussion might be well deserved, but is this the place…? The wonderful Aubrey/McKey images always suggest peace (a 20th/21st Century travellers’ goal, if not one from a millennium before in such great places), but even they are ‘taking’ something.
      One takes photographs; we also take trinkets, often taudry ones (the word comes from junk souvenirs found at St Audrey’s fair in distant centuries). Our forebears, if rich enough) to be travellers over a century ago, took tiger skins or antlers, we at least only take our photos of the beautiful beasts.
      Do we perhaps feel the photography acceptable if somehow it is sensed that the photographer is giving as much as (s)he takes?
      I have just returned from looking at Indo-Chinese temples: and watching a dozen pilgrims encircling a sanctuary, holding their iPads aloft with both hands as they genuflect towards the image of saint or god, has revealed contemporary ritual practices I knew nothing of before!

      1. John, great pickup on the lead provided by Trish. I have a half prepared post on church etiquette for photographers who are serious about their work. You might have given me the push needed to finish it.

        Very seldom are we aware of intruding, but it does happen. Even last year, we were at the Collégiale Notre-Dame de Mantes-la-Jolie. The early Gothic church was almost empty, but there was one African woman seated midway in the nave praying. As always, we stayed away so that the clicking of the cameras did not disturb her meditations. But we were there for two hours and she never moved. She was awake, concentrating, and praying, and we began to feel like intruders. Finally, we left and we never shot in the nave or in the side aisles near her.

        I have never seen something like your description of the Indo-Chinese temples, though, except of course in museums. To see people with their iPads held high, documenting their presence in the temple of art, if not their participation. At least in Indo-China they were participating.

  5. Apologies for being obtuse: the pilgrims with iPads aloft are, of course, the Anglo-Saxon/European tourists, clustered at a starred spot of their itinerary.
    The day before yesterday, by contrast, amidst the cacophonous energy of Cholon, Ho Chi Min City’s twin Chinatown where we saw not another western face, my wife Mary and I entered the wonderful calm of a 200-year old temple and, among the few going about their businesses, lighting incense sticks and praying, sitting quietly or reading a paper, we were immediately calm and completely unremarkable: nothing was asked of us, we were addressed directly by and talked with an old man trying his English, we were neither intruding nor invited. This allowed me, after some quiet minutes to take a few photographs with calm; drawing no attention but perfectly openly, taking away only the peace of the place and my respect for its people.
    I do look forward to your post on etiquette for photographers.

    1. Ah, they were like the museum folks. There is an interesting use for these mobile devices, however. While at a cathedral last year, a woman kept coming up to me asking technical questions – about how high the nave was, the distance from point x to point y. My father (an engineer) was with me and we would make the best estimate that we could. She would write the answers down, fuss some, and then come back. Finally I asked what she was doing and she told me that she was preparing some banners for a celebration to hang down from the organ platform above the western entrance and she needed to know how large to make it. I was able to use an app that I have on the iPhone that allows me to measure distances and angles and with some calculation, we were able to get accurate measurements.

      Thanks, John.

  6. Like John I also look forward to your post on etiquette for photographers. When I’m a tourist I’m afraid I’m guilty of snatching photographs, but I always carry a sketchbook and use it to help me understand what I am looking at. If I want to take good photographs I always ask permission – then I can take my time and (for example) ask for glaring lights to be turned off. (I like to photograph church interiors with natural light.)

    1. Brendan, how I wish that I could sketch. I would do that as much as I would photograph!

      As far as the natural light situation, we prefer it sometimes, but other times the shapes are more interesting when there are artificial lighting highlights and shadows. And sometimes, like the Église Saint Martin in Ygrande, we could not see in the apse. Literally, it was too dark. We would shoot long exposures, look at them and then evaluate what we had seen. So we have added to our equipment – we bought a couple of these small LED headlamps like the ones used by spelunkers! We look foolish, but at least we can see!

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