the first hill, we looked back at the sun rising over the medieval city
of Le Puy en Velay and were filled with awe--not only at the 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. 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, and I walked this
pilgrimage road during the summer of 2000. 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. 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.
I first heard of the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago
de Compostela in art history classes at Pomona College. Ever since, I
have been fascinated by the cult of saints' relics and the pilgrimage
to be in their presence. Over the years, as a historian of medieval art,
I have deepened and broadened my knowledge of this historical phenomenon.
However, nothing could substitute for the personal, physical education
of becoming a pilgrim.
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. 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. 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 10th day on the road brought us to our first major
stop--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 church, with its early 12th-century Romanesque tympanum of the
Last Judgement, invites the viewer to contemplate the role of the saint,
who is depicted interceding with God on behalf of those who venerate her.
As though echoing the heavenly protection that St. Foy offers, her monastery
has been providing refuge for travel-weary pilgrims since the Middle Ages.
At Conques we became part of that ancient monastic tradition, as the monks
received us, sheltered us, fed us, and encouraged us onward toward our
Frequently as we trundled into town, we seemed to strike
locals and visitors as living vestiges of an era long gone. Exhausted
and parched from a long walk in a heatwave, we entered Cahors over the
medieval Pont ValentrŽ. Realizing what we were, people stopped and stared
in amazement. In other places, we were touched by the warm and spontaneous
reception we received. The ancient city of Moissac--a major stop along
the medieval pilgrimage road--greeted us with a pleasant surprise: fresh
bread and wine from local merchants.
After weeks of walking through vineyards, hills and
towns, we neared our half-way point--the Pyrenees--with trepidation. We
could see them for several days before arriving--looming in the distance,
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 old
Roman roads that had not changed since the Middle Ages. Traveling these
long, desolate stretches, 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.
Waking before dawn in the tiny village of Olmos de Atapuerca,
we began our 47th day on the road, heading toward the city of Burgos.
As we came upon a 14th-century roadside cross, an old woman approached
us. Teary-eyed and clearly moved to see two "medieval" pilgrims, she wished
us well and said that she would pray for us.
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. Here the contrast with the
harsh elements makes the hospices feel more welcoming. 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 60th day on the road was among the most memorable,
as we entered Galicia on the sublime ascent towards O Cebreiro. Though
the terrain is more arduous, the excitement of nearing the goal mitigates
the physical strain. While we were exhilarated at the thought of 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 and strove to savor every moment, every vista, every ache and
pain, every chance encounter.
We had seen very few places comparable to 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. 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 fog, we virtually floated onward to the
Among the more challenging endeavors of the last week
on the road was trying to persuade my wife that reaching the marker indicating
47 kilometers to Santiago was a momentous occasion. Though unconvinced,
Alice humored me and agreed to take my picture at this monument.
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 marinated
sagehens 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 to the top.
Neither of us very clearly recalls the final four or
five kilometers that brought us to the center of town. It was as though
we strode upon clouds from Monte del Gozo to the faŤade of the cathedral.
Eyes wide, knees weak, we gave in to a mood of tranquil rejoicing. 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 oneself under the protection of St. James.
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.
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.
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.
This physical contact--the very heart of the pilgrimage--stresses the
corporeal nature of the pilgrimage itself. As pilgrimage is a very physical
phenomenon 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 pilgrims.
The pilgrims' Mass, which essentially completes the
arrival ritual, utilizes all of the physical senses, 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. 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 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.
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 had learned from it all. We had not set out to historically
reenact the Medieval pilgrimage as much as to experience it 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.
In the footsteps of pilgrims past we left our own footprints as we joined
the river of pilgrims that has flowed for over a thousand years. --Scott
Montgomery is assistant professor of visual arts at the University of