Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Church Architecture Styles: “Pilgrimage Churches”

October 27th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

“House Churches”

Early Christian Style

Byzantine Style

Romanesque Style

The cult of relics has been around since the very beginning of Christianity. Christians worshiped at the graves of saints and martyrs located in cemeteries outside the walls of cities. Altars (stone mensa) were erected over the graves so that during the celebration of Mass the sacrifice of the martyrs could be associated with Christ’s sacrifice.

(Click on pictures to see larger images)


Fig. 1 The mensa (altar) over the grave of Saint Lawrence. The small chapel and mensa are below the high altar of the church that was constructed above the site. The tiny chapel is called a ‘confessio’.

It is often said that many martyrs’ relics were later transferred into city churches as a precaution against sacrilege committed by marauding barbarians. That may have been true in some cases but, more likely, Christian leaders simply needed the relics transferred to more convenient locations within the cities. Initially, the pope forbade the removal of corpses from their original tombs but the ban did not stick. Finally, a complete reversal of policy occurred at the Council of Carthage (401) which declared that all altars should contain relics (it didn’t really matter how large the relic was).


Fig. 2 The crypt in the cathedral church of Speyer, Germany.

The transferred relics were normally housed in the crypts of churches, in a small chamber (or ‘confessio’) under the altar where the faithful could often get a glimpse of the relics through a window. Crypts varied in size depending upon the popularity of the relic. To accommodate large crowds some crypts were enlarged with a passageway around the inside of the exterior wall of the crypt with additional passage ways leading directly to the relics and on to the other side. This created a more orderly flow to the crush of pilgrims.

Further increase in pilgrimage activity presented major headaches for those who had to manage the crush of huge crowds packing churches, especially on holy days and feast days. One abbot claimed that his monks were forced to jump through windows with the relics in hand in order to escape rioting crowds!

By 1130 or so crypt storage and display of relics was becoming obsolete. Increasing crowds and changes in liturgical practices led to the display of relics in elaborate shrines or reliquaries. These were usually placed directly behind and above the most important altar (high altar) of the church. The change stimulated the religious fervor of the pilgrim even more as the sumptuous caskets containing the relics and the new elevated location heightened the experience of the sanctity of the relics.


Fig. 3 The reliquary of the Three Kings over the high altar of Cologne Cathedral, Germany.

There were many pilgrimage churches. The medieval travel guide “Pilgrim’s Guide” (1130) mentioned 26 shrines that could be visited on the routes leading from France to Santiago de Compostela, alone. (Not to mention Rome and Jerusalem.) Few have much in common in how they architecturally dealt with crowd control. Five, however, solved the problem in a similar way that has become known as the “pilgrimage church” style. These five are not, however, representative of pilgrimage churches as a whole but did have considerable influence on subsequent church buildings.

The five churches vary among themselves in many aspects but generally share in dealing with crowd control by including in their plans an ambulatory and radiating chapels. Pilgrims could walk up the side aisles of the nave and then continue on around the high altar and then down the opposite side of the church. This system caused a minimum of distraction and interference  with the daily liturgical offices being celebrated in the Choir and Chancel.

2 labels 295274187_354c6892fa

Fig. 4

Pilgrimage churches usually possessed many relics worthy of veneration in addition to the main one at the high altar. The small chapels radiating out to the outside of the ambulatory provided ideal places to display those. In addition, visiting priests could offer private or small group Masses in the radiating chapels. The arrangement resulted in a beautiful semi-circular east end of the church.

web label ambulatory

Fig. 5

The exterior is impressive as the clearly defined geometric forms stacked up starting with the low chapels and stepping up to the slightly higher roof over the ambulatory, and then to the higher apse roof and chancel roof, and finally culminating in the tower over the crossing; all creating the ‘stepped massing’ characteristic of Romanesque.

web label Dehio_212_Cluny

Fig. 6

The ‘pilgrimage church’ design combined functional problem solving with beautiful proportion, harmony and rhythm. It became one of the most impressive of medieval architectural expressions.


Text sources: Early Medieval Architecture, Roger Stalley, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999)

Picture Sources: Fig. 1 By Sibeaster (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Fig. 2 Bernard Dick (Own Work); Fig. 3 website <>; Fig 4 By José-Manuel Benito (uploaded from wikimedia commons) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, labeled by Bernard Dick; Fig. 5 website <>; Fig. 6 This image is taken from Georg Dehio/Gustav von Bezold: Kirchliche Baukunst des Abendlandes. This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art, labeled and highlighted by Bernard Dick.

Tags: , ,


Leave a Reply

Log in | Register

You must be logged in to post a comment.

-Return to main page-