Being a Pilgrim: Art and Ritual on the Medieval Routes to Santiago.
In Abbot Suger's Life of King Louis the Fat, the monastic leader described a moment in Louis's life that reflected the popularity of pilgrimage: "When he [Louis] came to the castle of Bethizy, he was at once followed by messengers of William, duke of Aquitaine, who told him of the duke's death on his pilgrimage to St. James." William of Aquitaine was just one of many nobles who underwent the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the locus of the cult devoted to St. James, a list that also included Louis's son, Louis VII. The pilgrimage route to Santiago is a consistent reminder of the power of the saints in the life of Christendom. Pilgrims from the medieval period up to the present day purchase tokens, pins, or any object adorned with a scallop shell as a reminder of the spiritual quest that was successfully fulfilled in this Spanish town where the relics of James were miraculously discovered. But the roads culminating at the cathedral in Santiago begin elsewhere, and the recent volume by Ashley and Deegan vividly recreates the popular routes that commence at different points in France and progress to Santiago, a journey that established the pilgrimage as an internationally known spiritual destination.
The authors wish to explain the influence of the Santiago routes by presenting the geography, social infrastructure, and cultural impact of the pilgrimage, while recording the notable developments in Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture in the towns on the way to Santiago. Ashley is the scholar responsible for the text, while Deegan is credited for editing the prolific images that illustrate the book. The authors construct and organize their narrative so that the reader begins the journey at the outset of a particular route, at St-Denis, Vezelay, or Arles, discussing prominent churches and prominent figures of the medieval period in due course. After providing some foundational background on pilgrimage, each subsequent chapter treats a particular element involved in the pilgrim's journey, such as the preparation for pilgrimage and the devotion to the saints, culminating in a chapter describing the climactic arrival to Santiago.
Ashley and Deegan made a wise decision in focusing on the towns dotting each route that became mandatory stops, thus ingraining themselves into the culture of pilgrimage and deepening the gravitas of the road to Santiago. Suger, the abbot of St-Denis, indicated the popularity of pilgrimage (to Santiago and to his own domain) by describing the necessity to expand the abbey church of St-Denis, explaining that "the narrowness of the place forced women to run to the altar on the heads of men as on a pavement with great anguish and confusion" (On What Was Done in His Administration). Ashley includes this quote amongst others to emphasize the level of dedication attached to the cult of the saints in the medieval period (37). While there is a chapter included on the preparation the pilgrim must make, there is not much analysis explaining why this arduous journey became so prolific in Western Europe. Ashley suggests that the relics of the saints in Europe were the currency of the faithful, just as icons were so central to piety in the Eastern Church (108). However, there is a paucity of detail to support her point regarding the circulation and proliferation of material relics outside of the brief descriptions relative to the companion images in the book. For example, the authors do not delve very deeply into the impact of the true cross, arguably a relic that inaugurated the trade and spawned the practice of pilgrimage, although they do briefly mention and provide an image of a reliquary cross at St-Guilheim (120).
Initially, the reader is so captivated with the high-quality reproductions in this volume that the actual text is overshadowed. For the most part, word and image complement each other in this treatment of the pilgrimage routes, largely due to the quality of Deegan's images. But the images mask the lack of scholarly detail of the relevant material, perhaps the greatest weakness of the book. There is little evidence of any deep engagement with primary or secondary sources, resulting in a rather thin bibliography. This is not a book that will deepen a scholar's understanding of pilgrimage or provide any new insights. And arguably, these are not the authors' intentions. The great contribution the book provides is the marvelous illustrations that serve as windows into the journey of a pilgrim. While the captions are occasionally short on detail and slightly confusing, the images themselves are nothing short of extraordinary. Not only are there numerous illustrations of the reliquary churches, the authors include unique photos such as an odd statuary representation of the Trinity featuring God the Father as an old man holding a crucifix from St-Hilaire-la Grande (140).
Ashley and Deegan have not created a tome that is particularly challenging or provocative, but they have offered a volume featuring exquisite images that detail the pilgrimage routes to Santiago. The book does not boast the depth of scholarship other secondary sources on pilgrimage have to offer, such as Jonathan Sumption's work or the foundational work of Peter Brown (an author Ashley and Deegan cite often). Still, it is an admirable contribution to the field of medieval art and architecture, due to its catalog of images. For a scholar of this period, this book is a handy visual reference guide for the towns along these routes. While this title would not be a likely candidate for adoption in any undergraduate or graduate course, the book is recommended for interested readers in ecclesial art and architecture of the medieval period. The book's images will likely beckon both scholar and general reader alike to seek an opportunity to visit these sites in person and gaze upon their grandeur face to face on the way to Santiago.
Lee M. Jefferson
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|Author:||Jefferson, Lee M.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2010|
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