Pilgrimage churches and the Auvergne

Pilgrimage churches and the Auvergne

Conques (Aveyron), view of the village and of the church of Sainte-Foy from the south-east

Pilgrimage churches and the Auvergne

About halfway between the first assembly point on French soil and the Spanish border, a so-called pilgrimage church was built along each of the four great pilgrims’ routes to Santiago de Compostela. They were the churches of St. Martin in Tours, St. Martial in Limoges, St. Fides in Conques, and St. Saturninus (St. Sernin) of Toulouse. The most important one was, of course, the church of St. James in Santiago. Of Saint-Martial in Limoges nothing has remained, and of Saint-Martin in Tours only the foundation walls have survived. Founded around the year 1000, Saint- Martin in Tours was the oldest of the five great pilgrimage churches and the one with the earliest fully-developed ambulatory with radiating chapels. In fact, it established the prototype of the five-aisled church with a three-aisled transept which was later repeated in Toulouse and Santiago.

San Juan de Ortega, depiction of pilgrims

San Juan de Ortega, depiction of pilgrims

The transept aisles with their four chapels in the east are only the logical continuation of the ambulatory. They offered not only more space for further chapels, in which devotional images could be displayed, but also the possibility of an uninterrupted procession which did not interfere with the closed-off area for the clergy in the sanctuary and in the central aisles of the transept and nave. Such a layout must have been highly welcomed by the monasteries along the pilgrim roads.
The first beginnings of an ambulatory around the end of the chancel are found in the monastery church of Saint-Philbert-de-Grandlieu dating from the first half of the ninth century. About half a century later, the monks from Saint-Philbert appear to have applied this chancel layout in the monastery church of Tournus. A fully-developed ambulatory with radiating chapels, albeit rectangular ones, was built there just after the year 1000 and has survived until today.
There appears to have been a parallel development with regard to the three-aisled transept and the nave in Tournus and at Saint-Remi in Rheims. Since building work started almost at the same time, it cannot be established which was the model for the other. It would therefore be of great interest to see the elevation. The early building date makes it highly unlikely that the forechoir, the nave and the transept aisles would have had vaulted ceilings. The church is most likely to have been a basilica with galleries and a flat ceiling, similar to that of Saint-Remi.
Around the year 1050, half a century after work had begun at Tours, the construction of a new church was started in Conques (figure, above). The statue is one of the earliest examples of large-scale sculpture in the western world. A groin- vaulted ambulatory with three semi-circular chapels leads around the three-storey chancel end. There is room for one window between each of the chapels. The gallery has no source of daylight and, seen from the outside, appears as a low, closed, semi-circular structure with a lean-to roof.

Toulouse (Haute-Garonne), Saint-Sernin. 1080-mid twelfth century. Choir, transept and central tower

Toulouse (Haute-Garonne), Saint-Sernin. 1080-mid twelfth century. Choir, transept and central tower

Above it, and below the calotte, is the clerestory which projects beyond the wide lower storey and is articulated by blind arches outside.
Looking at the ground plan, however, it looks as if the initial intention had been to build a chancel with seven semi-circular apses in echelon, similar to those built in La Charite-sur-Loire after 1056. But at Conques, this plan must have been changed even during the building work, for, in order to deal with large numbers of pilgrims, an ambulatory provided a much better solution than a choir with chapels in echelon which were, after all, intended to provide places of quiet contemplation for the monks. The transept, too, must have been altered and now had the appearance of an aisled pseudo-basilica, with the roof supports of its wide side aisles nearly reaching up to the eaves of the nave roof. The two-storey elevation of the transept consists of arcades and high galleries divided into two sections. The clerestory was omitted to make room for the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the nave. The room is lit by the windows of the side aisles and the galleries. The eastern side aisle makes a right-angle turn and continues into the bay of the forechoir where it blocks out the clerestory.

The great pilgrims’ routes to Santiago de Compostela

The great pilgrims’ routes to Santiago de Compostela

The semi-circular responds of the cruciform-based piers support the recessed arches of the arcades and the vaults respectively. The nave has only four bays and has the same ground plan and elevation as the transept. Only the shape of the supports varies in every second bay. A spacious crypt, more or less echoing the ground plan of the chancel area, was intended to house the relics and to display the monastery’s considerable treasures which has been preserved at Conques.
The experience gained at Tours and Conques was combined and perfected in the pilgrimage church of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse (photos, p. 148). Building work started in 1080 and was not completed until the middle of the twelfth century. The ground plan is consistently based on one unit of measurement even down to the last detail. The side aisles continue in the same shape around the nave and transept and continue around the choir in the form of the ambulatory. The piers at the crossing are breath-taking, carrying a bold tower consisting of five storeys of arcades, tapering towards the top, and finishing with a high balustrade. The five-aisled nave comprised eleven bays, compared to the ten of Saint- Martin. Viewed from the divided entrance bay between the towers, it appears to continue into infinity.
The three-storey choir area is very similar to that of Conques, consisting of arcades, gallery, and clerestory, and supported in the extended bay by the side aisles that extend up as far as the beginning of the ceiling. Additional features are the oculi which are set between the roofs of the ambulatory chapels and illuminate the gallery above the choir. The decoration, too, is in a much more lively vein: the elements articulating the wall vary in shape from section to section, the windows have multiple recessed intrados and colonnettes, and the outlines of arches and imposts are emphasized by ornamental friezes. Saint-Sernin, too, has a vast crypt, a mysterious complex of spaces on different levels housing an immeasurable wealth of relics. It is therefore all the more regrettable that the whole crypt appears more like a museum than a place of devotion.

The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela
The Legenda aurea has it that, after the apostle James was beheaded in Judea, his disciples took his body and secretly put it on a boat. They then boarded the boat without any oars, crossed the sea and reached the coast of Galicia. There, the saint is said to have been laid to rest in a marble tomb. Later, the tomb of James must have been forgotten, probably because the whole peninsula was under Moorish occupation. It cannot have been an accident that its rediscovery coincided with the reconquest of Spain by the army of Charlemagne. According to the legend, an angel appeared to the hermit Pelagius in 813, showing him the site of the apostle’s tomb. When the bishop of Iria Flavia (today Padron) heard of this, he had the site dug up and did indeed find the tomb. The news of the rediscovery of St. James’s grave added a tremendous impetus to the Christian army’s eagerness for battle. After centuries of occupation its site had to be freed. Nevertheless, this famous campaign suffered a tragic defeat, and Spain remained under Moorish rule for the time being.

Toulouse (Haute-Garonne), Saint-Sernin. 1080-mid twelfth century, ground plan, nave wall

Toulouse (Haute-Garonne), Saint-Sernin. 1080-mid twelfth century, ground plan, nave wall

During the second half of the eighth century, the relics must have been brought to Santiago de Compostela. It was not until the turn of the millennium, however, that the road to Santiago became accessible to pilgrims. Nevertheless, it took only about 100 years to establish four major routes through France, along which the pilgrims from all parts of France would join together in large groups. They would then make their way to Santiago, stopping frequently for prayer. The first of the four roads was the Via Tolosana which started in the east and led via Saint-Gilles- du-Gard, Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert, and Toulouse. The second, the Via Podensis, ran almost parallel to the Via Tolosana, starting in Le Puy and running through Conques and Moissac, whilst the third, the Via Lemovicensis, started in Vezelay, passed through Limoges and Perigueux, and joined the Via Podensis at Ostabat. The last one was the Via Turonensis which started at the Channel coast and passed through Tours, Poitiers, Saintes and Bordeaux before reaching Ostabat where it also joined up with the two aforementioned roads. The pilgrims on the Via Tolosana finally joined this main route in Puente la Reina where all four routes combined for the rest of the way to Santiago.
Within a very short time, Santiago de Compostela had become one of the three most important places of pilgrimage in the whole of Christendom. The other two, Rome and Jerusalem, had been the focus for Christian pilgrims ever since the first century and were dedicated to Christ the Redeemer and St. Peter, the first of the Apostles. Far from being first of the apostles, St. James was the patron saint of Spain and of the poor. It was mostly the latter who undertook the arduous and dangerous journey. It lasted several months and led them over hundreds of miles of toil and privation. They could never be sure of arriving at Santiago safely, let alone of ever seeing their homes again.
It therefore comes as no surprise that the pilgrims also paid visits to other saints on the way, asking for their help and resting for a few days before continuing the journey to Santiago. For this reason, a large number of monasteries flourished along the route at this time.