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Art historian’s guide to walking the Chemin de Compostela from France

Medieval art historian Dr Julia Faiers walks in the shoes of a pilgrim to discover the sacred art and monuments along the Chemin de Compostelle

Not everyone can, or indeed wants to walk the Camino Pic: Julia Faiers

One of the miracles of the Camino, or the Chemin de Compostelle as it is called in France, is the way it continues to attract pilgrims from every walk of life more than a thousand years after its inception. It seems that these days everyone knows someone who has walked the Camino, is about to, or is thinking about it.  

What pulls – or pushes – people to pack their lives into a rucksack and head off on this well-trodden path? Despite the increasing secularisation of our world, people continue to walk the Way for religious reasons, but plenty also step out with non-spiritual aspirations.

I joined their ranks in May when I walked a section of the Camino Francés – the French Way – wearing my hiking gear and (metaphorically) my medieval art historian’s hat. 

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Tracing the steps of medieval pilgrims

The prospect of encountering so many churches, and the religious art contained within them, was my principal motivation. I wanted to see these spiritual sites not only for my own pleasure, but to attempt to walk for a while in the shoes of a medieval pilgrim. To stand at the altars where they once knelt in prayer. 

The pilgrim route from the popular starting point at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees stretches out some 791km towards the final destination of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in north-west Spain. This journey was no mean feat for a person during the medieval period. 

At the height of its popularity in the twelfth century, going on pilgrimage to Santiago involved giving up one’s livelihood not only for the weeks or months required to walk there, but also the time it took to return home again. Many people set off from their front door. Some would never return.  

Despite the fact that the risks were far greater than they are now, for many medieval pilgrims, the long route to Santiago would be the biggest adventure of their lives. At the peak of its popularity, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year faced physical hardship and spiritual succour along this route.

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A journey to sacred relics

Between the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries, the Camino Francés was by far the most popular of the Christian pilgrim routes. The reason they undertook this epic journey to Santiago? To be in the presence of the holy relics of Saint James, the only remains of an apostle outside of Rome. 

The way in which the saint’s relics are said to have reached Galicia from the Holy Land stretches the modern imagination. After being beheaded in Jerusalem by Herod Agrippa and left outside the city walls to be eaten by dogs, James’s followers took the saintly remains on a rudderless rowing boat until providence set them down in Galicia. 

Having fought a dragon and tamed some untamable bulls, they buried James’s body, where it lay until the ninth century. A miraculous star then revealed to a bishop its location, hidden beneath brambles, and a whole new pilgrim destination was born.

An infrastructure developed over the centuries to support the needs of the growing numbers of pilgrims walking to Santiago: roads and bridges, hospices, hostels, and churches with their own holy relics. 

These churches punctuated the route, offering sacred healing and respite from the physical hardships of pilgrimage. I understood the relief a medieval pilgrim must have felt seeing a church spire in the distance, knowing that they – and I – would find somewhere to rest and re-fuel.  

A continuum of devotion

The thread that links modern and medieval pilgrims could be seen in every church along the route to Santiago. Some would light a candle or pray, others like myself would stand mesmerised in front of vast gilded altarpieces and emotionally charged sculptures.

It was here more than anywhere that I felt the powerful unity of pilgrimage across the ages, where all walk the same route, face the same hardships, and seek solace in beauty.

If an armchair pilgrimage is more appealing, I recommend reading a translation of the twelfth-century guidebook, The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela (Italica Press, 1993), which describes in wonderful detail the experience of a medieval pilgrim. 

For an insight into the contemporary pilgrim experience, try photographer Jon Wainwright’s new book Camino, a beautiful photographic record of the people, landscapes and places along the Camino Francés.

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