A Pilgrimage Round my Room: Virtual Travel to the Holy Land in the Middle Ages

The history of virtual travel and immersive experiences extends well into the Middle Ages. Without leaving their room, many Christians undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land using only devotional manuscripts and the affective power of imagination. If done correctly, these imaginative journeys would not only provide the devotee with the benefits of physical pilgrimage, but would also grant a spiritual gain that could surpass the one achieved in a “real” one.

This popular form of devotion spread across rural Europe in the post-crusades era, and in particular in the two centuries that preceded the Protestant Reformation. In a society ruled by the Church, an obsession with the torments of the afterlife was constantly fed by the delicate balance between sin and punishment. While it preached for an earthly life of pious obedience, the Church also provided the possibility for salvation through the remission of sins, given in the form of a religious currency—indulgences—given to a sinner in return for confession, donation, or pilgrimage. [1] Measured in units of time, indulgences served as a get-out-of-hell free card, awarding days, months or years deducted from a sinner’s time in the fire of purgatory (the temporal place of judgement between heaven and hell). As a proof of penance, the number of indulgences was contingent on the size of donation given to the local church or the pilgrimage destination, with Jerusalem topping the list by awarding a “plenary indulgence” — a complete cleansing of the soul and the remittance of all sins.[2]

Jerusalem was a popular destination amongst penitential pilgrims. It was far, dangerous and expensive, posing physical and mental hardships, in itself a proof of the pilgrim’s commitment to remorse and penance. It also provided an opportunity to visit the site of Christianity’s greatest sacrifice and perform the ritual of Imitatio Christi: retracing the steps of Christ in order to identify with his last hours of pain and suffering.[3] This mode of Passion devotion was the ultimate goal of a Jerusalem pilgrim: he could carry Christ’s cross through the Via Crucis and be Crucified with him in Calvary only to conclude with the reassurance of Resurrection and the promise of one’s own salvation.

Image: Manuscript with the measured Wound, ca.1320. Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek. In Kathryn Rudy, Rubrics, Images and Indulgences in Late Medieval Netherlandish Manuscripts, 56.
[1] John Sumption, Age of Pilgrimage: the Medieval Journey to God (Paulist Press, 2003), 8.
[2] Until 1215, a plenary indulgence was only given to pilgrim-knights: Crusaders.
[3] Kathryn Rudy, Virtual Pilgrimage in the Convent: Imagining Jerusalem in the Late Middle Ages (Brepols, 2011), 20.
[4] Ibid.
But not every Christian could go to Jerusalem. Economic means, communal duties, or physical strain were only some of the reasons one would choose to abstain from this monumental undertaking. In monastic circles it was even considered immoral: When Peter the Venerable was encouraging a Twelfth-Century knight to choose chastity over a journey to Jerusalem, he argued that “it is better to serve God in humility and poverty forever than to set out in grandiose and luxury for Jerusalem.”[4] Indeed the journey was dangerous not only for the body but also for the mind, and many women were simply not allowed. The moral degradation of the cities and the sinful character of roadside inns and the degradation of morals in the city posed a risk too big on a woman’s soul. In the 13th Century, Jacques de Vitry wrote that the roads to Jerusalem were full of “wicked, impious, sacrilegious, thieves, robbers, murderers, parricides, perjurers, adulterers, traitors, corsairs, [and] pirates.”[5] [5] Sumption, op. cit, 158.

The desire to visit Jerusalem and perform Passion devotion did not cease with the impossibility of the actual city; it led to the proliferation of alternative “Jerusalems” across Europe in the form of shrines, buildings and religious complexes that copied the spatial logic of Jerusalem’s shrines or replicated its theatrical topography.[6] [6] These are two archetypes that I explore in chapters II & III of my ongoing doctoral thesis Towards Jerusalem: the Architecture of Pilgrimage.Another kind of Jerusalem pilgrimage was not defined structurally or spatially, nor was it dependent on public rituals and participatory worship. It was practiced through private contemplation, with a high level of concentration, and a strong faculty of imagination.

Virtual pilgrimage was not entirely independent; it was based on participatory reading of devotional literature that followed certain rules. The pilgrim’s itinerary was divided into episodes from the Christological narrative, which were coupled with prescribed prayers. While the journey followed locations from the Holy Land, it was geared towards the cultivation of emotions that these sites evoke in order to establish an empathetic relationship with Christ. Chapters were organized according to the annual calendar, days of the week and even hours of the day,[7] [7](LBL Add. 31001, fol. 102v) in Rudy, op.cit., 189. so that the reader (a nun wishing to gain indulgences, for example) could weave the journey into her daily routine, provided she distanced herself from the convent.[8] [8] Ibid. One manuscripts is dedicated to Holy Week: Monday through Wednesday are dedicated to a condensed version of the events of Christ’s infancy and adulthood; from Thursday on, the nun changes to a “real-time” experience through Good Friday and Palm Sunday, reading and embodying his arrest, suffering, crucifixion, and final resurrection. Beyond canonical hours, the nun could also incorporate Christ into life’s mundanity: the hunger she felt before mealtime was an identification with His starvation on the way to Bethany; during the meal, she was ordered to “eat her dinner with Jesus and all of his sad friends,” by projecting the image of his disciples on her silent sisters.[9] [9] Ibid.

As these examples show, commitment to a virtual pilgrimage was not a simple task; it required immense imaginative labour. For this purpose, the text was filled with details of tangible elements such as landscapes, structures, and characters, that were aids to internal visualisation and guided meditation. Many manuscripts were also furnished with images: Iconographically and stylistically varied, these visual representations intensified the emotive power of the text. Like the fragmentation of the text into episodes, the images depicted the Passion not as a singular event but as a sequence of frames. Brutally realist, these affective images would fill half or even the entirety of the page, and would interact with the text that was to become detailed annotations. With a clear visual hierarchy, these two modes of representation, text and image, worked in tandem to transform the manuscript into a tool for internal meditation. In addition to being incredibly descriptive, the guidebooks were also prescriptive, giving second-person orders to the reader: “Here your interior eyes should fall on the crucified, bloody, naked Christ, and read with great thankfulness on your knees five Pater Nosters in honor of his five deep bloody wounds.”[10] This painful excerpt reveals the extent of emotional cultivation that was expected from the reader; the repetition of prayers anchored the action in familiarity, adding an element of ritualization to the unusual mental effort.

In some cases the book itself was not just a surrogate pilgrimage guide, but an object of veneration: drawings of the crucifixion nails, Christ’s wound, or even a part of his body would decorate the page in a 1:1 scale. These bloody illustrations would then gain the material significance of a relic thanks to its adherence to a holy measurement.[11] With visual aids, textual description and a fierce imagination, the monastic cell would become a diorama, in which the drawing was not representation but real; signs of human interaction with the pages, such as scratches on the faces of Christ’s tormentors, or tears over the nails that pierced his dead body (and the page) are found throughout.[12]

These image-relics were based on dimensions taken by Holy Land pilgrims on their journeys. Quantifying one’s journey in Jerusalem was common: visitors measured steps between stations, documented currency exchange rates, and counted the number of indulgences collected.[13] Image: Prayer with a life-size Nail piercing the page, Brabant, ca. 1520 Rotterdam Library, Ms 96 E 12, fol. 28v.
[10] Heer Bethlem’s Guide, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 231 G 22, fol. 20v, in Rudy, op. cit., 208.[11] Hanneke Van Asperen, “‘As if they had physically visited the holy places’ – Two Sixteenth-century Manuscripts Guide a Mental Journey through Jerusalem (Radboud University Library, Mss 205 and 233)” in The Imagined and Real Jerusalem in Art and Architecture, eds. Jeroen Goudeau, Mariëtte Verhoeven & Wouter Weijers (Brill: Leiden and Boston, 2014), 203.
[12] Kathryn Rudy, Rubrics, Images and Indulgences in late Medieval Netherlandish Manuscripts, (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 58-80.
[13] Zur Shalev, Christian Pilgrimage and Ritual Measurement in Jerusalem (Haifa, 2009).
[14] Van Asperen, op. cit., 203.
[15] Rudy, Virtual Pilgrimage in the Convent: Imagining Jerusalem in the Late Middle Ages, 171.
[16] Ibid.
Upon return, these sacred numbers would add credibility to the pilgrim’s journey and form the basis for an authentic pilgrim guide – be it for a real or virtual traveller.[14] Considering the Holy Land pilgrim indeed traced the exact footsteps of Christ, the virtual traveller could now use the book in order to take the same physical actions while remaining in her own cell or convent. While marching to the refectory or encircling the cloister, a nun could imagine herself carrying the Cross between Pilate’s court, the Column of Flagellation or the Hill of Golgotha—monuments which she would project on her familiar surroundings, landscape, and architectural markers. Some stations included bodily poses that mirrored those of Christ: In Gethsemane, the nun would pray on her knees; when she was given the cross to carry, she would bend forward beneath its heavy weight.[15] Immersing herself in the narrative, partaking in physical action, and superpositioning Christ’s city in her own environment, could transform the convent, even momentarily, into her Jerusalem.[16]

While the incorporation of dimensions authenticated the experience of virtual pilgrimage, it also anchored it in the constraints of reality; it seems paradoxical that this imaginary form of devotion should be led by precise measurements. Indeed, several guidebooks altered the journey and in order to leap across geographical and political borders. While real pilgrims had to choose between the sites of Jerusalem or the relics of Rome, an imagined itinerary could include both in one day: a virtual pilgrim could “walk” in Jerusalem while “stopping” in Rome’s Seven Church en route to collect sacred objects: She could visit Bethlehem to see Christ’s place of birth and see his crib in Santa Maria Maggiore; continue to the room of the last Supper in Jerusalem but see the table where they ate in St John the Lateran; in Calvary the hill of the crucifixion could be completed with the nails of the Cross from Santa Croce in Rome.[17] [17] Van Asperen, op. cit., 198. From a compilation of mental pilgrimages, written in a Brigittine convent, late fifteenth century, kept in The British Library, Ms 31001, fols 68v-69r. Instead of fighting for urban seniority, this journey places the two cities as complementary.[18]
Another example is Feix Fabri’s Die Sionpilger from ca. 1491 AD, written for Dominican nuns after his own return from Jerusalem.[18] Nine Miedema, Following in the Footsteps of Christ: Pilgrimage and Passion Devotion, 84. Instead of describing the places in the order he had seen them, Fabri opts for the Scriptural chronology of places. That is, the sites will appear in the order that they are read and preached: from the events of Bethlehem to those in and around Nazareth, and finally to Jerusalem. This familiar itinerary removes the topographical conditions that often distort the coherence of narrative for the Holy Land traveller.[19] [19] Kathryne Beebe, “The Jerusalem of the Mind’s Eye: Imagined Pilgrimage in the Late Fifteenth Century” in Visual Constructs of Jerusalem, eds. B. Kühnel, G. Noga-Banai, H. Vorholt (Brepols Publishers: Turnhout, 2014), 415. Fabri’s alterations to the journey also include an ahistorical writing of the city’s geopolitics and the appropriation of sites from Islam to Christiniaty. He includes, for exmaple, a visit to the House of Veronica and Pilate’s Palace, places that were restricted by the city’s Muslim rule. Part Biblical, part Crusaders’, Fabri’s writes an ideal Jerusalem that negates, for the readers, the disappointments of the real city: the Dome of the Rock is described in his own diary as Tempel Demonis; but for the virtual travellers, the golden-domed shrine at the top of Temple Mount is identified as Tempel Salomonis.[20] [20] Felix Fabri, Die Sionpilger, (ca. 1491) eds. Wieland Carls,126.

These leaps in space and time furnished the mental traveller with the possibility of constructing a Jerusalem of the imagination. The elimination of the physical aspect from the phenomenon of pilgrimage evokes Jerome’s claim that the archetype of Christian faith is the body itself: “Access to the courts of heaven is as easy from Britain as it is from Jerusalem; for ‘the kingdom of God is within you.’[Luke: 17:21]” [21] [21] St. Jerome, Letter LVII to Paulinus (ca. 370 AD).The notion of sedentary travel eliminates some of the biggest concerns that developed with the phenomenon of pilgrimage: the industry of relics, the commodification of holy places, and the economic exploitation of these travellers; it also contributes to violent territorial disputes over histories, landscapes, and shrines. This form of material possession is tied with the pilgrim’s desire to obtain credit through a performative ritual that involves so many external factors that it erodes its very intention, which is internal. If one was to restore this original meaning, it would have to be through static meditation, activating the faculty of imagination and the power of analogy. Ecstatic, immersive, and spiritual, mental travel is only possible through removal of common distractions in favour of solitary contemplation.