A colleague is currently posting on social media about his pilgrimage through Northern Spain, and I am reminded of the enduring lessons of Romanesque pilgrimage churches in that area of the world, especially how the built environment can be shaped to support ritual and user experience.
Today there are many people who undertake a pilgrimage for a variety of reasons. In a literal sense, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith, usually requiring a long and arduous journey. The most famous historical Christian pilgrimage route in Western European is a series of ancient pathways known as the Camino de Santiago. Still available today, the Camino is a network of walking trails across France and Northern Spain connected by simple ‘shell’ icon-based wayfinding signage.
During the eleventh century, a growing spirit of religious enthusiasm resulted in increased pilgrimage traffic and the Crusades to liberate the Holy Land. The cult of relics had started with those of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and then extended to saints and holy people. Pilgrims walked from church to church to venerate relics of saints. The goals were originally Rome and Jerusalem. But these locations were not always safe for travel, and slowly over time another site became the ultimate destination for pilgrims: Santiago da Compostela in Northern Spain. As this church purportedly held the relics of St James the Apostle, it had a strong attraction for Christian religious communities.
Along these pilgrims’ ways, large churches were constructed to house other relics and to accommodate the increasing numbers of visitors who sought the spiritual benefits of pilgrimage. Slowly, as architects experimented with stone vaulting – especially the round arch reminiscent of ancient Roman building – they tested out new floor plans. Eventually, regional variations of the pilgrimage church appeared.
The basic elements of pilgrimage churches are:
- Latin cross or “cruciform” plan based on the Basilica
- Short, wide transepts
- Extremely long naves
- Sanctuary and high altar at eastern end
- Pilgrimage choir: new space responding to needs of the era = unit comprised of Ambulatory, Apse, and Radiating/apsidal chapels
The Pilgrimage Choir was a key planning response to the growing numbers of visitors inside the churches. Niches for precious relics were built in the walkway behind the church’s apse, and clear passage to this area of the church was ensured for the pilgrims. It was a clever design solution. One could enter the church, travel along the side aisles (without disturbing regular activities in the nave), continue around the perimeter, and reach the niches at the east end. There, famous relics could be adored in private worship. Following this ritual of relic veneration, the pilgrim could continue walking via the side aisles and exit the church. The building’s plan elegantly supported the needs of its diverse users.
In observing the pilgrimage church and its distinctive Choir space, designers today can surely recognize the results of ‘design research’. The special plan of the typical pilgrimage church was most likely improved by user observation. Modern pilgrims who walk in the steps of so many others probably don’t need to give the elegance of this solution much thought. These sacred spaces still permit the user to be released from mundane concerns of circulation and contemplate the spiritual benefits of their journey in a well-planned environment.
Sorabella, J. (April 2011). “Pilgrimage in Medieval Europe”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pilg/hd_pilg.htm