Walking as Pilgrims: Recreating the Medieval Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela
Scott B. Montgomery, University of North Texas, Rutgers Ph.D. in Art History ‘96
Scott & Alice before the Puerta de las Platerias at Santiago de Compostela
Ascending the first hill, we looked back at the sun rising over the medieval city of Le Puy en Velay, majestically perched atop its volcanic plugs. We were filled with awe, not only at the sheer beauty of the vista, but at the magnitude of our undertaking. In an attempt to recreate the Medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, we were embarking on a journey that would be longer and more arduous than anything we had ever experienced. As pilgrims, we would traverse a varied physical and emotional landscape—from mountains to desert flatlands, from torrential rain to scorching heat, from hope and joy to exhaustion, pain and occasionally despair. Sixty-seven days and a thousand miles later, as we climbed Monte del Gozo and were greeted with our first glimpse of Santiago de Compostela, we would hit another emotional peak – the realization of having reached our goal. Connecting these two events, these two locations, was the medieval pilgrimage road itself—a path that we walked in space and time.
Wishing to experience and understand the medieval pilgrimage process with every muscle and bone, my wife, Alice Bauer (Rutgers College, 1989), and I walked this pilgrimage road during the summer of 2000. We departed from Le Puy en Velay on the morning of May 18 and walked steadily toward the shrine of St. James until our arrival on July 23. During our odyssey, we became part of a stream of pilgrims dating back over a thousand years. In some respects, the world and the process have changed notably since the Middle Ages. In other ways, we were privy to glimpses of an older world – literally walking through history, as participants, not spectators. Sweating, suffering, laughing, aching, eating, drinking, sleeping as thousands had before us, we learned through our bodies historical lessons that no book could teach us.
As we awoke in the early morning of May 18 and proceeded toward the Cathedral of Le Puy for the pilgrims’ Mass and benediction, we felt a combination of excited hopefulness, enthusiasm and a little trepidation. We had chosen to begin our pilgrimage at the shrine of the Virgin of Le Puy, following in the footsteps of the first identified pilgrims—Bishop Godescalc of Le Puy and two hundred monks, who made the journey to Santiago in the winter of 950-1. Though separated by 1,050 years, we surely felt some of the same emotions as we set off that day. Like Godescalc, we were equipped with the accoutrements and symbols of medieval pilgrims—medieval-style pilgrim hats to shelter us from the sun, simple staffs to assist our footing, and scallop shells both marking us as pilgrims and placing us in the protection of St. James.
As we traversed verdant hills on that first day, we sought to understand how our feelings might echo those of the thousands of pilgrims who had walked this path before us. Surely they too delighted in the splendors of the countryside, reveled in the weather, smelled the flowers, accepted the discomfort, found shelter and comfort in the local churches, and were grateful to arrive, exhausted though safe, at the day’s destination. Through attentive observation and perseverance, we were able to peel away the years – visiting the same chapels, drinking from the same fountains, walking the same roads - as we traveled the same physical and emotional landscape as our medieval predecessors. Like them, we suffered daily—sore feet, a broken tooth, emergency medical treatment, physical exhaustion. Like them, we were rejuvenated by rest, food and a face-to-face encounter with the saints.
Our tenth day on the road brought us to our first major stop on the medieval pilgrimage route – Conques. Possessing the relics of the martyr St. Foy, the abbey church of Conques was an important pilgrimage site in its own right. The splendid pilgrimage church, with its early twelfth-century Romanesque tympanum of the Last Judgement, invites the viewer to contemplate the role of the saint in procuring salvation for her devotees. She is depicted interceding with God on behalf of those who venerate her, thus portrayed as the link between Heaven and earth, between divine judge and humble faithful. As though echoing the heavenly protection that St. Foy offers, her monastery has been providing refuge for innumerable travel-weary pilgrims since the Middle Ages. At Conques we were integrated into an ancient monastic tradition of accommodating pilgrims, as the monks received us, sheltered us, fed us, and encouraged us onward toward our goal.
Frequently as we trundled into town, we inadvertently created a spectacle by our arrival that seemed to strike locals and visitors alike as a living vestige of an era long gone. Exhausted and parched from a long walk in a heat-wave, we entered Cahors over the medieval Ponte Valentré. Realizing what we were, people stopped and stared in amazement, perhaps as their predecessors had gazed at the many pilgrims who entered town over this same bridge. We were frequently touched by the warm and spontaneous reception we received, as villages and cities alike welcomed and sheltered us. The ancient city of Moissac – a major stop along the Medieval pilgrimage road – greeted us with a pleasant surprise. Immediately upon entering the city, we were offered fresh bread and wine by some of the local merchants.
After many weeks of walking through vineyards, hills and towns, we were nearing our half-way point – the Pyrenees. We approached these mountains with much
trepidation. Though we had walked nearly five hundred miles of difficult terrain, we had not crossed any mountains as intimidating as these. We could see them for several days before arriving – looming off in the distance, but getting closer with each step. Waking before dawn, we began our climb just as the sun began its daily ascent. It was imperative that we make the journey over the pass before the sun went down, since a cold night in the mountains with no shelter could be extremely dangerous. The difficulty of the climb seemed insignificant in comparison to the beauty of the vistas, the eagles soaring overhead, and the exhilaration of crossing this formidable mid-point. Upon cresting the pass we were able to look down into the ancient kingdom of Navarre—Spain lay before us.
As we walked in the footsteps of countless pilgrims before us, we were thrilled to find ourselves on stretches of the trail that had not changed since the Middle Ages. This was particularly striking when we traversed the land along vestiges of the old Roman roads. It was precisely this infrastructure of Roman roads that the Medieval pilgrimage road utilized. Traveling these long, desolate stretches of Roman road, where not a single tree offered shade from the fierce Spanish sun, we found an eerie, silent sense of communion with our medieval predecessors who walked in a far less populated world. Like them, we walked these same stone roads, looked out across the same landscapes, wondered about the possibility of shelter in the same far-off towns and villages, and found water where we could.
Between Burgos and Leon one walks for days, even weeks, across a dry, hot land—the color scheme reduced to brown and gold, the path often straight and flat. While many complain that this stretch is dull, we were struck by its desolate beauty. This grueling stretch of the trail highlights the significance of the little towns, which occasionally appear out of nowhere, offering shade, water, rest. Here the contrast with the harsh elements makes the hospices feel more welcoming. The cool shade of the churches quenches the body’s needs in a manner analogous to the spiritual comfort that their saints offer. On the pilgrimage road, body and spirit are united, much as the relics of the saints express the spiritual presence of the holy in corporeal remains. Splendid Romanesque churches, such as St. Martin at Fromista, serve as both physical and spiritual oases—providing much-appreciated relief to the weary pilgrim, as they have for centuries.
Our sixtieth day on the road was among the most memorable, as we entered Galicia on the sublime climb towards O Cebreiro. Though the terrain is more arduous, the excitement of nearing the goal mitigates the physical strain and invigorates the body and mind. While we were exhilarated at the thought of actually arriving, and arriving in time for the feast of St. James on July 25, we were also somewhat reluctant to finish too soon. After two months, we had grown accustomed to life on the pilgrimage road and we were in no hurry to stop. So, we slowed our pace down and strove to savor every single moment, every vista, every ache and pain, every chance encounter.
We have seen very few places that are comparable with the bewitchingly charming Medieval village of O Cebreiro – its splendid setting on a mountain with sweeping vistas on all sides, gnome-like stone and straw houses, and a powerful historical connection to the pilgrimage road and several famous medieval miracles. This was one of the places where we most strongly felt the connection with the world of the medieval pilgrim. Like thousands of pilgrims before us, we were awe-struck and flooded with an almost unbearable joy on the mountain of O Cebreiro. As if responding to our augmented state of receptivity, the sun performed a stunning display of color as it sank beneath the Galician mountains to the west, beckoning us onward toward Santiago. We awoke at dawn and were treated to an equally splendid sunrise, as the entire valley below was enveloped in thick fog. Invigorated, yet calmed by the effect of the fog, we virtually floated onward to the west.
Finally we reached the eucalyptus groves that surround Santiago de Compostela. We spent our last night out in the town of Lavacolla—the traditional place where pilgrims bathed and washed their clothes—ritually cleansing themselves before the final entry into Santiago de Compostela and meeting with St. James. The last night out was marked by a complex array of emotions—excitement for the morrow’s arrival, tempered with the realization that this unique experience was nearly over.
We awoke before dawn on July 23rd and began our final approach to Santiago de Compostela. This entailed ascending the aptly-named Monte del Gozo (Mountain of Joy), from which one first sees the city and the towers of the cathedral. As we began to climb the last crest, we were drenched by a torrential downpour. Entering Santiago like a pair of drenched dogs was not exactly what we had envisioned, however nothing could break the spell of euphoria that we were under. As if applauding our emotional continence, the sky suddenly burst forth with a double rainbow, guiding our way onward – not to a pot of gold, but to a resplendent reliquary and the relics of St. James. Soon we reached the top of Monte del Gozo and could see the city stretching before us – we had made it!
Neither of us very clearly recalls the final four or five kilometers that brought us to the center of the medieval town. It was as though we strode upon clouds from Monte del Gozo to the façade of the cathedral. I don’t believe that it is possible to describe how we felt as we emerged into the Praza de Obradoiro and gazed upon the cathedral. Eyes wide-open, tongue-tied, knees weak, we gave in to the mood of tranquil rejoicing that was expressed by countless pilgrims before us. Sixty-seven days and one thousand miles away from our departing point, we joined the ranks of those who had walked here to visit the shrine of St. James.
There are certain rituals of arrival that have been performed by pilgrims for centuries. The first is to place one’s hand on the Tree of Jesse column beneath the statue of St. James on the 12th-century Portico de la Gloria at the west end of the Romanesque nave. By doing so, one symbolically places him/herself under the protection of St. James. It is a sort of votive gesture of thanks for a safe arrival. Over the centuries the hands of thousands of pilgrims have worn a hand-print into the stone—a tactile reminder of the magnitude and the physicality of the pilgrimage. In placing his/her hand in this spot, the pilgrim takes part in an eight hundred year old continuous tradition. This is the pilgrim’s first physical contact with the church of St. James.
By following these rituals one becomes part of a historical river of pilgrims that has for centuries flowed through the Portico de la Gloria, into the nave, and toward the relics of the Apostle at the High Altar. Crossing the threshold, we moved into the Romanesque nave, its massive barrel vaults soaring overhead. Their segmented rhythm draws one toward the altar – toward the relics – as though the very fabric of the church is urging the pilgrim to complete the journey. Past the high altar, we followed the flow of pilgrims into the ambulatory and awaited our turn to climb the stairway leading to the reliquary bust of St. James who looks out over his church. It is traditional to greet St. James by “hugging the apostle” – placing one’s arms around the massive shoulders of this reliquary image from behind. The physical contact of this familiar action – at the heart and goal of the pilgrimage – stresses the very corporeal nature of the pilgrimage itself. One travels to greet a person - a real, even corporeal presence. The hug fosters a sense of direct contact between pilgrim and saint, heaven and earth. As pilgrimage is a very physical phenomenon that is intended to foster a heightened spiritual sense of contact, it is appropriate that the culmination of the pilgrimage is a physical, intimate action that expresses the emotional, spiritual bond between the pilgrim and St. James. One is then directed to descend to the crypt where the relics of the saint are kept. Like the “hand-print” on the Portico de la Gloria, these stairs are worn down by the constant flow of thousands of pilgrims. Again, one becomes part of an ancient ambulatory ritual that has brought countless pilgrims together under a common goal – to greet St. James personally.
Though the present reliquary bust and altar arrangement date from the Baroque era, the basic physical and emotional interaction that is established between the successful pilgrim and the saint is in accord with medieval devotional practices. The cult of saints was always a very physical, multi-sensory phenomenon. The theatrical nature of the liturgy fostered this complete involvement. The pilgrims’ Mass, which essentially completes the arrival ritual, utilizes all of the physical senses in an effort to completely involve the entire body, and thus the entire person, in the drama of devotion – playing upon sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. This last sense has led to the development of one of the most spectacular aspects of the Santiago liturgy – the swinging of the botafumiero. This immense incense-censor is elevated high above the altar and swung across the transept on a stout rope that carries it nearly as high as the vaults. As it hurtles from vault to altar to vault and back, the botafumiero dispenses great clouds of incense throughout the space of the church. The association between incense and the presence of the divine is meant to trigger in the mind of the pilgrim a sense of glimpsing heaven. Here at the end of the pilgrimage one has arrived in heaven, brought down to earth.
Here our pilgrimage was officially completed. For the medieval pilgrims, however, this was only the first leg. They still faced an arduous return journey. Some would not live to see their return; others would return changed. We wondered about the impact of revisiting places formerly foreign, now familiar. Would the safe return passage to Conques elicit even greater joy than our initial arrival? We were not destined to find out—at least not this time.
We did, however, have one additional step to take to round out the pilgrimage process. This is the requisite visit to the Officio del Pellegrinos in Santiago del Compostela to register and receive our Compostela—a certificate that verifies the completion of the pilgrimage. Here one presents the Credential, or pilgrim’s passport, which has been painstakingly stamped at each pilgrim’s hospice along the way, thereby proving that one has walked the pilgrimage. While the details may have changed since the Middle Ages, the idea behind the practice is essentially the same. The Compostela denotes, in a very physical, documentary sense, that the pilgrim has somehow been transformed by the experience.
Having successfully completed our pilgrimage—alive and intact, contrary to the worries and expectations of some friends, family and colleagues—we were left with the equally difficult task of sorting out what we learned from it all. We had not set out to historically reenact the Medieval pilgrimage as much as to experience it ourselves—with our own bodies, minds, emotions—with the intention of gaining a better understanding of medieval pilgrimage life. In this we were successful beyond our expectations - feeling what our medieval predecessors had felt. From the bone-crunched pain of feet that have walked a thousand miles to the elation of that first view of Santiago de Compostela, from the discomforts of a poor night’s sleep and no breakfast to the little celebration that accompanies the safe arrival at the day’s destination, from the fear of losing one’s way to the relief of finding the trail again – we walked through the same physical and emotional landscape that had been tread by thousands before us. Going where they had gone, doing what they had done, we sought to walk in the footprints of pilgrims past, using our bodies and emotions as the vehicles for understanding this pilgrimage process. Our journey was motivated by the desire to comprehend pilgrimage in a more visceral and emotive sense than can be conveyed by words alone. This is the road that medieval pilgrims trod. This too is the path that we chose to take. Walking this route as pilgrims, we came closer to understanding the lives and experiences of our medieval predecessors. In the footsteps of pilgrims past we left our own footprints, cast our own shadows, and joined the river of pilgrims that has constantly flowed for over a thousand years.