Influence of Pilgrimage on Romanesque Art & Architecture

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  • 0:00 Romanesque Road Trips
  • 1:18 Impact on Architecture
  • 3:26 Impact on Art
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

After the fall of Rome, Europe went through a period of declining artistic innovation. That began to change with the Romanesque period. In this lesson, we'll talk about how pilgrimages impacted this change.

Romanesque Road Trips

Who wants to go on a road trip? Awesome, grab some snacks and some music and let's go. Now, this isn't going to be your typical road trip because, well, we're not driving. We're walking, hundreds of miles across Europe. What could compel us to do something like this? It's easy - we're going to church. Don't worry, these aren't just any churches we're going to, they're shrines, and places of extreme spiritual significance to the Christian faith. In short, we're taking a pilgrimage, a journey to a sacred site.

Back in the medieval world, pilgrimages were very important - a major act of piety and faith. They became especially important in an era historians call the Romanesque period, which was roughly 1050-1200 CE. The rise in pilgrimage that defined the Romanesque period may have been a result of the belief that the world would end in the year 1000 and the subsequent gratitude that it didn't. Whatever the reason, Europeans of all classes made pilgrimaging a major priority, and this had some pretty substantial impacts on the arts.

Impact on Architecture

With people traveling hundreds of miles by foot to come see the holy shrines of Europe, church building became pretty important. The churches along pilgrimage roads housed weary travelers, provided opportunities for prayer and meditation along the spiritual journey, and even sold trinkets and souvenirs to remind pilgrims of their trip. This meant that churches developed some unique needs, and architectural styles had to change pretty quickly. In fact, this was one of the biggest periods of architectural develop in Europe since the fall of Rome.

So, what did these changes look like? Well, for one, as pilgrimage churches became major travel destinations, they had to increase in size in order to accommodate all the travelers. In fact, they grew large enough that a simple horizontal beam roof supported by columns wouldn't work; you'd need so many columns to support a large roof that you wouldn't be able to actually see the Mass. So, architects started reintroducing arches and barrel vaults, elongated arches to disperse the weight of the ceiling and provide for a more open interior. These were architectural tricks that hadn't been used since the Roman Empire, and their return is why historians call this style the Romanesque, or Roman-like.

Besides the attempts to increase the size and openness of churches, traits that would be continued in future architectural styles, pilgrimages had another impact on architecture. For one, the church needed large doors to accommodate large crowds, and a sizeable, west-facing portal became a standard feature of these churches. Also, if you ever look at the blueprints of a Romanesque church, you'll notice several smaller chapels jutting off the sides, generally around the apse. The point was to provide a space for pilgrims to come and worship sacred items, called relics, while not disturbing the main Mass occurring in the center of the church. Overall, these rise in pilgrimages created a boom in architectural innovation that would continue for centuries and inspire many new styles.

Impact on Art

Now, I mentioned that pilgrimage churches often contained sacred objects, called relics. These included things like pieces of the True Cross, the hems of Mary's robes, and pretty much anything associated with any of the Catholic saints. Now, the ability to see relics, as well as the chance to pray upon them for miracles, was one of the major motivations for pilgrimages. With relics being so important, it's no surprise that they impacted the arts in some serious ways.

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