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Recasting the Concept of the ‘Pilgrimage Church’: The Case of San Isidoro de León

Recasting the Concept of the ‘Pilgrimage Church’: The Case of San Isidoro de León

By Therese Martin

La Corónica, A Journal of Medieval Spanish Language, Literature & Cultural Studies Vol.36:2 (2008)

Introduction: What makes a building a “pilgrimage church”? When Kenneth John Conant codified the “great churches of the pilgrimage roads” in 1959, the definition applied exclusively to five Romanesque basilicas with continuous aisles leading from the west entrance that navigated through a projecting transept with absidioles and around an ambulatory at the east end with additional radiating chapels, continuing along the opposite aisle and terminating at the point of departure, the west facade.

The same uninterrupted space was repeated at the gallery level, where a second-story aisle duplicated the layout of the lower one. The spaces were covered throughout by stone vaulting. Such a design was lauded for allowing the free circulation of pilgrims, but, as a singling out of just five buildings implies, most churches of the period that we now call Romanesque did not display all of these characteristics. In fact, as John Williams notes, none of these elements appeared in Spanish Romanesque architecture before the construction of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (c. 1075-1130). We know that many churches built in the eleventh and twelfth centuries held important relics and attracted great numbers of pilgrims. I will use the basilica of San Isidoro in León to examine the modern construct of the medieval “pilgrimage church” and to make the case that the reality was more flexible than our desire for neat categories generally allows.

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