Christian Pilgramages

The term pilgrimage refers to a movement of people who walk through different continents moved by institutionalised powers (Barreiro Rivas, 1997; Esteve Secall, 2005; Alvarez Sousa, 2004). All great religions have their pilgrimages, which are generally based on the association of a God to a place or an object (Coleman, 2004). Among them, the Christian […]

The term pilgrimage refers to a movement of people who walk through different continents moved by institutionalised powers (Barreiro Rivas, 1997; Esteve Secall, 2005; Alvarez Sousa, 2004). All great religions have their pilgrimages, which are generally based on the association of a God to a place or an object (Coleman, 2004). Among them, the Christian tradition is the most researched (Eade and Sallnow, 1991). This sociological phenomenon is presented below using a historical approach with an emphasis on the Christian pilgrimage. Some of the fundamental features of this social phenomenon that nowadays is experiencing a new phase are outlined below.

The historical profile of Christian pilgrimages.

The origins of pilgrimages can be found in cultures of the past according to which initiated individuals (knowledge custodians) were responsible for the harvests and sanctuaries. According to the religious culture of the Middle Ages, life was a journey and the pilgrimage was a mission to atone for one’s sins; however, unlike other trips, the pilgrimage was considered unidirectional. Pilgrimages have been forms of devotion since as early as the fourth century, but during the seventh century there was a proliferation of sacred places that allowed the veneration of saints, their relics and their disciples. The intention of the Church was to create a « network of sacred places » that would reinforce the Christian community throughout the West. Therefore, they undertook this European territorial organization through a vertebration of pilgrimage routes, becoming axes that united the East and West within Western Christendom. In this « macro territorial » project, religion was a sign of collective identity, so many local and individual phenomena were absorbed into the major routes. Shrines throughout Europe lost their autonomy and were integrated into major pilgrimages: Santiago, Rome and Jerusalem. According to its symbolic denominations: the « Way of Christ » went to Palestine, the « Way of Man » led to the apostolic tombs in Rome and the « Milky Way » went to Santiago de Compostela and Finisterre. The endpoint of the three major pilgrimages were geo-spiritual centres, which fulfilled the religious necessity of getting closer to God, but also established a Christian dominance in the territory.

Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. Source: Lucrezia Lopez.

During the Middle Ages, the pilgrimage developed new meanings, not only the divine meaning but also as a collective sociological phenomenon (Barreiro Rivas, 1997); furthermore it was a way to overcome cultural, social and economic stagnation. The pilgrimage was a movement, a journey of people and ideas, values ​​and cultures. From as early as the eleventh century, the Camino de Santiago was documented in many Christian European passages, influencing their customs, art and spiritual life, and tales and Jacobean translations began to spread.

Christian pilgrimages developed during a period of great tradition. Although the sanctuaries have different founding dates, their possible generalisation marks the trend of the time. The American researchers Mary Lee and Sidney Nolan (1994) highlight six periods in the creation of the Western European pilgrimage:

  • preChristian Period (first century to 699): pre-Christian shrines are distributed mainly in Ireland, where Celtic saints have survived.
  • High Middle Ages (700-1099): the sanctuaries are mainly dedicated to saints, or as in the pre-Christian sanctuaries, many of these are dedicated today to the Marian cult.
  • Low Middle Ages (1110-1399): this is considered the most prolific period of European sanctuaries. Although most were dedicated to saints, many were also dedicated to the Virgin. Along the Iberian Peninsula many of these sanctuaries were initiated with the intention of combating Muslim domination.
  • Renaissance (1400-1529): although during this period some of the sanctuaries of the Middle Ages diminished, there was a flowering of cults. This period marked a time of great change in the creation patterns of the sanctuaries: Marian apparitions and a more personalised relationship between humanity and divinity through ex-voto votive offerings.
  • Post-Reform (1530-1779): the creation of the cult increased throughout Catholic Europe, especially in southern Germany where almost half of the modern pilgrimages appeared.
  • Modern Period (1780-present): pilgrimage shrines, as a result of a more heterogeneous phenomena than in the past, have proliferated in recent times. These sacred centres have arisen because they are in some way related to the life of a saint or of people who are renowned by their religious behaviour and transmit an ever stronger symbolism.

Pilgrims are prepared to live an experience that to their knowledge can be dangerous, however, they are indifferent to suffering, because they will be rewarded by their encounter with the divine. To make a pilgrimage, you have to leave your routine and be adventurous, both on a sociological level and on a psychological level. The pilgrim leaves the domi, that is, the familiar space of the everyday, where everything is well structured to enter the foris, an unknown space. The limen it is the boundary between domis and foris; it is a psychological boundary that determines movements and displacements. We understand that it is from this differentiation that the anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner (1978) define the pilgrimage as an experience of liminality, that is, an experience between two existential levels.

During the journey pilgrims can reflect on their inner willingness. At a social level they free themselves from structures because all individuals share the same intention, the same objective and the same status annulling the hierarchical differences. This anti-structural experience (Turner and Turner, 1978) subverts the established order and makes pilgrimages inclusive experiences. The ease of these social relations reinforces the sense of communitas, within which habits, norms and rules (often not explicit) create this union. The community satisfies its members peace of mind and social security (Bauman, 2001); this sense of community and union is achieved in religious spaces during masses, in moments of prayer or in rituals. In a metaphorical sense, the pilgrimage is a quest, that is, a spiritual journey that involves the search of oneself and as such is part of a process of conformation of the individual (Turner and Turner, 1978, Morinis, 1992, Osterrieth, 1997). At the end of this process and thanks to the encounter with the sacred, a new identity or status is created. Pilgrimages involve some rituals before and after the trip; it is an experience that does not end with the arrival to the destination or the return home, where individuals have to rejoin their daily lives, but a different daily life, as the profound experience of spirituality that they have lived will affect their perception of the world (Frey, 1998; Coleman, 2004).

Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. Source: Xosé Santos.

Sometimes pilgrimages are manipulations or are manipulated by ecclesiastical hierarchies. For example, Guadalupe, which was a major Christian pilgrimage, was a strategy to incorporate Mexican indigenous people into Christianity. The protagonist of the apparitions was the indigenous Juan Diego, for that reason Guadalupe is the Virgin of the indigenous people. The pilgrimage movement of the late nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth (Lourdes, Fatima, Santiago de Compostela, etc.) was another strategy by the Church to mobilise its bases against the growing secularism of European society as a result of the Illustration, the industrial revolution and modern society resulting from these processes.

Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima. Source: Xosé Santos

Today, new pilgrimages celebrate memories or the tombs of national martyrs or commemorate the diaspora (root-pilgrimage or diaspora tourism) to recover a population’s ethnic roots (Wagner, 1997, Basu, 2004). They are created through new secular or civil religions that are founded on nationalist sentiments that legitimise reality through new places of worship (Mazumdar and Mazumdar, 2004). In addition, modern societies are producing privatised religions, in which power resides in the individual and not in the transcendent (Farias and Lalljee, 2008). They were the « New Age » movements, which from the 1960s and 1970s interpreted the search for a new « self-spirituality » and the need for introspection (Digance, 2003). Individuals were attracted by the New Age, because of its system of beliefs and magical practices, which gave meaning to unusual ideas and experiences (Farias, Claridge and Lalljee, 2005).

Pilgrimages classification

In order to classify a pilgrimage route, factors related to mobility, the pilgrimage route and the pilgrim stand out. Pilgrimage routes take place at different distances throughout territories without taking national boundaries into consideration, and in several cases they become a space for intercultural and inter-religious encounters. They are networks that reduce distance, since they link the territory by connecting or creating new spaces, organizing them hierarchically (Stoddard and Morinis, 1997). They are space-temporal movements (Morinis, 1992) between two ends from a physical and concrete point of view (Stoddard, 1997), or from a metaphysical-spiritual point of view (Coleman and Eade, 2004), that is, symbolic. This key element of the pilgrimage can be approached from a spatial, temporal or sociological point of view.

Another aspect is the direction of movement: linear and circular or spiral. In the case of a linear movement, the ends are the house and the sacred place and this type of movement can be accompanied by other movements that symbolize devotion, such as dance or prayers (Morinis, 1992). These types of routes converge with (or are made to) other sacred places that the pilgrim has to visit (Stoddard, 1997). Otherwise, the movement is circular or spiral, when the pilgrim goes around the territory, sometimes as a further form of ritual. In the case of a spiral movement, the pilgrim does not go directly to the endpoint of the pilgrimage, but encircles the pilgrimage centre. This spiral movement has symbolic value in those cases in which the sacred centres are located in high areas.

Pilgrimages can be dictated by religious texts; in this case the sacredness does not refer only to the itinerary towards the mentioned places, but it expands to all surrounding areas (the reflexive property of the sacred). This type of pilgrimage is either circular  or non-circular (processional); the circular route does not involve the necessary reproduction of a circle, but implies a closed route as the pilgrim always arrives at a place mentioned in the text. If the route is not circular, the focus of attention is the place of pilgrimage and the whole route is a process of preparation for the arrival (Stoddard, 1997).

Pilgrims along the French Way in Saint Jean Pied-de-Port. Source: Miguel Pazos Otón

The French Way. Source: Miguel Pazos Otón

According to the type of journey made by the pilgrim, the authenticity of the pilgrimage is assessed. A pilgrimage on foot is considered the most authentic form of pilgrimage; it is a form of sacrifice that puts you in contact with the past. Walking is a practice, almost a ritual, that is part of the pilgrimage (Coleman, 2004; Frey, 1998). Some religious centres can be easily reached by car or bus, while others are known for being attainable only by foot (Coleman, 2004). For example, the pilgrimage to Santiago De Compostela has always been considered the most difficult pilgrimage, it is the true pilgrimage, because the meaning is to walk thousands of kilometres on foot. The pilgrimages also redirect commercial activities and cultures, as confirmed by the historical evolution of the territories crossed by the different pilgrimage routes.

Regarding the intensity of the displacement and the repetition of a journey, the pilgrimage can be: frequent, monthly, annual, periodic (as for example during the Holy Years) or at certain periods of the year. To some extent, the frequency is a consequence of its level of obligatoriness. And finally, in sociological terms, mobility is a characteristic of the post-modern condition that affects the inner pilgrim (Coleman and Eade, 2004) and the pilgrimage is an example of transnational mobility.

According to an investigation carried out by the geographer R. Stoddard (1994), some features of the pilgrimage location stand out. First, most of the great pilgrimages are located near regions with a large population, perhaps because this proximity ensures access to various services, although pilgrims consider the isolated localities the most sacred as opposed to the most populated. As for the climate, pilgrim displacements are associated with certain conditions and generally speaking pilgrimages take place in moderate climatic conditions.

The history of the pilgrimage is related to the history of the sacred place. The foundation of a sacred place is the expression of a religious and cultural system over time. V. Turner and E. Turner (1978) classified pilgrimages with a historical approach, resulting in four types:

  • Prototype pilgrimage: that which is created by the founders or saints of a religion; its beginning is documented.
  • Archaic Pilgrimage: derives from an original devotion and features ancient religious symbols.
  • Medieval Pilgrimage: conceived during the Middle Ages and benefits from the theological and philosophical significance of this era.
  • Modern Pilgrimage (post-Medieval): This is characterised by a strong devotion and personal piety.

To this historical classification we add a fifth type of pilgrimage: the post-modern pilgrimage. As we have already mentioned, there are currently modern and secular pilgrimages that respond to globalising trends.

Looking to the present

Through Christian pilgrimages, Christian society has shaped its cultural image, giving rise to a landscape that we can define as symbolic, religious, cultural and medieval. This landscape has a spatial coherence at an objective-visual level in its symbolic references, such as sacred structures with their functions (pray, venerate, meditate and educate) and at a subjective-experiential level in practices and rites. To reconstruct this spatial coherence, medieval historiography uses a collection of architectural elements within a well-defined space, contextualising them and investigating relations with the territory. In addition, medieval religious imagery has determined a territorial organisation that continues influencing us today. Take, for example, the Christian prevalence at a geographical level, which is evident in countries’ toponomastics relating to institutions or saints names, dedicated to patrons, founders of churches or defenders of faith.

Church of Monteriggioni, Vía Francigena. Source: Xosé Santos

Another aspect through which it is now possible to acknowledge the religious mentality and the spirituality of the medieval Christian society is the urban and rural ecclesiastical planning: monasteries, sanctuaries, cities and roads. The first three points refer to the « centres », that is to say to the sacred places, while the roads are the way that connects them. The result has been a spatial organisation formed by centres (the sacred place) and communication channels (the pilgrimage routes). This medieval legacy, when the centres of power coincided with places of production of knowledge, can be interpreted today in a post-modern way, considering it a form of « space heritage ». Throughout this period, anthropic action has been fundamental, as the human being has made the space « semantic », giving it meaning and experience through religious cultural products, materials (objects, relics, images, statues, etc.) and non-materials (symbols, myths, rites, nature phenomena, etc.). The religious structures, that continue to be part of the European medieval landscape, are cultural symbols that allow the dynamics of the past to be understood. Looking at the different landscapes across current European cultural itineraries we witness how cultural assets have become symbolic referents of European culture, resulting in the transformation of these spaces into monumental spaces.

Xosé Manuel Santos Solla

Universidade de Santiago de Compostela.

Lucrezia Lopez

Universidade de Santiago de Compostela.


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Coleman, Simon & Eade, John (Dir.), Reframing Pilgrimage. Cultures in Motion, London, Routledge, 2004, p. 224.

Frey, Louise Nancy, Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago, Berkeley-London, University of California Press, 1998.

Nolan, Mary Lee, «Seasonal Patterns of Christian Pilgrimage». In Bhardwaj, Surinder; Rinschede, Gisbert & Sievers, Angelika (Dir.), GEOGRAPHIA RELIGIONUM Pilgrimage in the Old and News World, vol. 8. Berlin, Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1994, pp. 37-55.

Morinis, Alan (Dir.), Sacred Journeys. The Anthropology of Pilgrimage, Westport CT, Greenwood Press, 1992.

Stoddard, Robert, «Major Pilgrimage Places of the World». In Bhardwaj, Surinder, Rinschede, Gisbert & Sievers, Angelika (Dir.), GEOGRAPHIA RELIGIONUM Pilgrimage in the Old and News World, 8, 1994, pp. 17-36.

Stoddard, Robert H. & Morinis, Alan (Dir.), Sacred Places, Sacred Spaces. The Geography of Pilgrimage, Baton Rouge (LA), Geoscience Publications, 1997.

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