Making ‘Sense’ of the Pilgrimage Experience of the Medieval Church

Making ‘Sense’ of the Pilgrimage Experience of the Medieval Church

By Emma J. Wells (Durham University)

Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, Vol.3:2 (2011)

Introduction:  It cannot be doubted that medieval devotion towards the cults of saints was a physical affair, involving touching, kissing and even crawling as a way of coming into direct contact with the intercessory power of the divine. Expressions of the physicality of this type of worship can be seen in the design of the architectural and decorative schemes of medieval foramina-type saints‘ shrines, and permeate the artistic elements of these sacred locales. Few survive, but in the stained glass and illuminated manuscripts of the twelfth through to the fifteenth century, pilgrims are depicted crawling into them, kissing the shrine through its apertures, and bestowing ex voto offerings in the shape of infected or broken limbs. Whilst highlighting the variety of monumental architecture deployed in the space of cult churches, they also demonstrate the importance of the multi-sensory involvement of such locations.

This paper will explore the importance of sensory experience throughout the late twelfth to the early fifteenth-century, with a particular focus on the act of bodily participation with the divine, and how this was reflected in the architectural and visual structure of a saintly site. To illustrate the importance of sensory means of veneration towards the cults of saints, several stained glass images from the decorative frameworks of two of the most popular English shrines of the medieval period will be analyzed; one of whom was a very locally venerated saint, and the other who was perhaps the most popular saint in the country for much of the Middle Ages.

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