The Sensory Experience of Visiting a Medieval Shrine

Florence Eccleston describes how medieval shrines made use of the bodily senses to enhance the spiritual experiences of pilgrims.

The cults of the saints and pilgrimages to their shrines became increasingly important in the Western Church over the course of the Middle Ages. As a result, over time cathedral spaces dedicated to these shrines became more and more elaborate, using multi-sensory strategies to shape the pilgrim’s experience and impress it on the memory. Artists and architects, advised by their patrons, aimed to influence the minds and bodies of pilgrims via a range of sensory stimuli, not just at the site of the shrine but throughout their journey through the cathedral.

In medieval theology, the senses had an important part to play in managing the spiritual state of the soul. Ascetic control over the senses was imperative to keep the sensory ‘gates’ closed against sin but open to allow the good and the holy in. John Drury stated in his 1434 Lantern Instruction in the Context of the Faith that “just as nothing can enter a city except through the gates, just so may nothing enter your soul, good or bad, except through one of them”. The shrine was an amalgamation of sensory devices, designed to stimulate and heighten the medieval pilgrim’s sensory faculties so that the sanctity and healing powers of the saint could be bestowed upon them through a miracle.

The site of St Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral

Sight

Sight was the most immediate sensory experience for the medieval pilgrim. Churches and shrines were intensely colourful, with wall paintings in vivid hues, polychromed and gilded statues, luminous stained glass windows, painted and carved ceilings, and enamelled reliquaries; even the floors were covered in patterned tiles, as can still be seen around St Swithun’s shrine in Winchester Cathedral. The visual was used to alert the senses of the pilgrim and imprint upon them the sanctity of the shrine.

The shrine itself could be a spectacularly theatrical ocular event. The tomb was often encased and would only be revealed by a pulley at certain times of the day, as in the case of the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury. An enamelled box, depicting his martyrdom, lifted to reveal the enclosed, sacred gold tomb, covered with precious gems. This would remind the worshipper of the saint’s heavenly residence: the heavenly Jerusalem was described in the Book of Revelation as being encased by golden walls punctuated with jewels: “The city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel” (Revelation 21:18-20). The majestic cover would be raised high up, allowing the pilgrims to catch a glimpse of the shrine as they processed around the cathedral before they reached it, heightening anticipation and acting as a mnemonic device.

A 15th-century image of the shrine of St Edmund (British Library, Harley MS. 2278)

Touch and Movement

Touch was considered to be the “most earthy and beast-like sense” (Woolgar) in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, physical contact was a priority when constructing shrines, as they were intended to encourage, even necessitate, tactility in order to allow for the pilgrim to physically ‘absorb’ the saintly power. Tombs were therefore often constructed with openings (foramina) to allow the pilgrim to get inside the shrine itself, allowing them greater proximity to the saint’s relics. Surviving examples include St Osmund’s tomb in Salisbury Cathedral and the shrine of St Wite at the church of St Candida and the Holy Cross in Dorset.

Pilgrims climbing inside the tomb of Edward the Confessor to be healed
(Cambridge University Library, MS. Ee.3.59)

Specially designed and guided routes around the church allowed the pilgrim to feel greater proximity to the saint, increasing their chances of a miracle, by mapping “the saint’s martyrdom and miracles onto the pilgrim’s own experiences” (Emma Wells). At Canterbury, the monks would lead groups of pilgrims around a specific route which successively visited the four major saintly sites within the cathedral. Beginning with the location of St Thomas Becket’s martyrdom, it moved down to the former position of the shrine in the crypt, where many miracles were recorded. It culminated with a procession around the elevated altar with the famous medieval windows showing miracles being performed, then to the Corona chapel, the location of the head of Thomas Becket, and finally to the Trinity Chapel which housed Becket’s shrine, where the pilgrims hoped miracles would be enacted upon them too.[1]

On this procession, ampullae and pilgrim badges would be touched against shrines, relics, and sacred objects within the church, as physical proximity could enhance the intercessory nature of the saints. These objects served as memory devices for the pilgrim but were also believed to have amuletic powers, being able to cure sickness and ensure salvation. Miracle stories also speak of other devotional gestures, such as kissing columns and tombs, genuflections, touching reliquaries and shrines, and making the sign of the cross, all of which were thought to call on the powers of the saint.

A medieval pilgrim’s ampulla, a souvenir of pilgrimage used for holding blessed water or oil (Image from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, via Wiki Commons)

Smell and Taste

Smell and taste were often equated in the Middle Ages, as “smelling was understood as a form of internal ‘tasting’ because it acted as a metaphor for the sacred and the holy” (Wells), a belief derived from a line in Psalm 33:9: “Taste and see that the Lord is sweet”. The small spaces of a shrine, for example the shrine of St Alban at St Alban’s Cathedral, often meant that pilgrims would “physically ‘taste’ the air of the saint’s locale” (Wells). This would be made all the more potent as incense was burnt at shrines, partly because in apocryphal literature and stories of visions of Paradise it was said that “saints fed on perfumes” (Beatrice Caseau). Incense was thus considered symbolic of prayer and of Paradise, the sanctity of which the pilgrim hoped to absorb.

Actual ingestion took place at shrines too. The sweet-smelling oil miraculously excreted from shrines, such St William’s at York, and blessed water, either mixed with sweet spices, or in the case of Canterbury Cathedral infused with the blood of St Thomas, would be collected in ampullae and drunk for their miracle-working properties. Even wax was ingested! Pilgrims, especially the sick, would sleep beside shrines in the hope of increasing the likelihood of a cure with extended proximity to the saint’s relics. Pilgrims would often report stories of saints visiting them in their dreams and prescribing melted wax (kerôtè), often from candles lit beside the saint’s shrine, to be eaten or drunk.

Interior of a church, with monks in choir (British Library, MS. Egerton 2125, f. 117v)

Sound

Medieval cathedrals were often designed with a curving apse to reverberate noise, and the masonry was designed to echo even the quietest sounds. Pilgrimage was a noisy affair, with lots of people, lots of prayer and lots of excitement. Services and mass may also have taken place, adding a note of solemnity to the plethora of sounds within the cathedral. Music too might have been played, chanted or sung, and musical harmonies were thought to correspond to the harmonies both of the body and of the heavens. As Isidore of Seville said, music creates emotions (musica movet affectus); music would heighten spiritual excitement and form another mnemonic device. Due to the carefully designed architecture, all these noises would be turned into ‘chants’, and the “loss of high frequencies and the resulting impossibility of localising the sound makes the believer part of a world of sound” (Blaukopf). Thus an ethereal, spiritual sound surrounded the pilgrim, creating a sacred atmosphere.

The shrine itself used sound to signify its divine, thaumaturgic (miracle-working) state. Bells on the pulleys of the cover of the shrine would ring out into the cathedral when moved and signify when the shrine was being unveiled. Foramina tombs would reverberate noise around the tomb but those standing outside the shrine would not be able to hear, so pilgrims could say private prayers directly to the tomb without worrying about others hearing. It would echo the pilgrim’s voice back to them, giving it a mystical quality, as if it had been altered by the sanctity of the saint and made divine.

[1] For a recent alternative view on how pilgrims approached St Thomas’ shrine at Canterbury, see John Jenkins, ‘Replication or rivalry? The ‘Becketization’ of pilgrimage in English cathedrals’, Religion 49 (2019), 24-47 (link).

Further Reading

Wells, Emma, An Archaeology of Sensory Experience: Pilgrimage in the Medieval Church, c.1170-c.1550, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/7735/

Newhauser, Richard (ed.)., A Cultural History of the Senses in the Middle Ages (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018)

Woolgar, C.M., The Senses in Late Medieval England (Yale, 2006)

For more on how the senses were thought of anatomically:
Jack Hartnell, Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages (Wellcome Collection, 2018)

About the author

Florence Eccleston is a history of art student at the Courtauld Institute. She is especially interested in medieval Christianity, religious practice and pilgrimage, and its relationship with the body, the senses and art.

One thought on “The Sensory Experience of Visiting a Medieval Shrine

  1. historyweaver

    What a wonderful post. My first experience in the medieval chruch was at Borges, France. That ancient place impressed my 20 year old self (53 years ago) with a sense of the divine. The weight of the arches over head pressed down on me as if to make me bow. All of we students felt it, too and have talked about it for years.

    Liked by 1 person

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