40. Rubén Camilo Lois González, Belén María Castro Fernández, and Lucrezia Lopez, “From Sacred Place to Monumental Space: Mobility Along the Way to St. James”

by breavman99

From Sacred Place to Monumental Space Mobility Along the Way to St James

Sometimes an article turns out to be not quite what I expected. That’s the case with “From Sacred Place to Monumental Space: Mobility Along the Way to St. James,” co-authored by three academics from the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I had hoped it would help me think about the relationship between space and place along along the Camino Francés pilgrimage route in Spain. Instead, it revealed aspects of the Camino’s twentieth-century political history that I would rather not have known.

The authors state their purpose at the outset: they intend to think about tangible and intangible religious cultural products in relation to the Camino. Their approach is interdisciplinary. “From a geographical perspective, we explore how the progressive anthropisation of sacred spaces has transformed them into monumental spaces, where cultural assets have become references symbols for a particular identity,” they write (771). But, from an art history perspective, they “seek to fill the current vacuum regarding the monumental history of the twentieth century, based on identifying interventions made along the Way of St. James in Spain and in the historic centre of Santiago de Compostela” (771). Their interest is in “how the heritage of St. James has contributed to creating the imagery of Santiago de Compostela and of the Way within the cultural landscape,” and in “the contemporary revitalization of the Way of St. James,” particularly the restorations and embellishments of sites along the Way and in Santiago de Compostela in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (771). These sites became “tourist attractions . . . as they became part of international networks that share the common purpose of rediscovering artistic and cultural heritage,” they write, and as a result, “many historic-artistic sacred places ended up becoming touristic-artistic places” (771). These “physical interventions have allowed the successful recovery of the Way of St. James as the leading pilgrimage route in Western Europe” (771).

First, our authors discuss the figure of the contemporary pilgrim, “someone whose entire tourist perspective . . . is developed based on the countryside and visual milestones of the route, and who deliberately chooses slow movements that establish a new relationship between body and place” (771). “This pilgrim enjoys walking,” they continue, “as part of a spiritual, codified experience, both as a metaphor for new values inspired by the nineteenth century (romanticism, reflection and escapism) and with recourse to a series of consumer products associated with trekking (e.g. walking trousers, maps, anoraks and shorts)” (771). I see myself in that description: walking trousers are important because they dry quickly, maps keep you from getting lost, waterproof jackets are helpful when it rains, and so forth. Those “consumer products” are helpful if one is to stay relatively warm and dry during one’s “spiritual, codified experience.”

Next comes a definition of pilgrimage: it is “a movement and a journey of people and ideas, which keep the sacred value of the space and place alive, and which create spatial relationships” (772). “By means of these logics of spatial creation,” they continue, “pilgrimage creates a sacred space in which religious and secular discourses are encountered, in addition to debates within a religion itself” (772). The journey, the authors write, “is essential in this sacred space, a journey made on foot by pilgrims, in most cases, as a spiritual and leisure activity” (772). “In this regard,” they suggest,

it has been observed that the perception of the place–a central concept–on this contemporary pilgrimage resides in the idea that the landscape cannot be properly appreciated unless there is a true expenditure of energy to understand it, and without returning to the slow mobility of our ancestors. (772)

Here they cite John Urry’s 2000 book, Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-First Century, which I should probably look at, since I am convinced that understanding the land does require a slow movement, such as walking.

The Way of St. James is, they contend, a sacred space, but it is also one of the world’s first tourist itineraries, and since it was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, it has become a new tourism product, with hospitality provision and infrastructure. “The sacred space linked to St. James”–that is, the pilgrimage path and the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela–“is a polysemic space. In other words, it performs a number of different functions: a sacred space, a current pilgrimage route and an extremely important cultural tourism route” (774-75).

“The true protagonist of contemporary revival of the Way is, unarguably, the pilgrim,” they write, who must walk at least 100 kilometres of the route and can be awarded a certificate for having done so (775). “These attributes differentiate them”–pilgrims–“from a conventional tourist, even though both groups share the characteristics of being motivated by relaxation, contact with nature and the countryside, rediscovering the self and discovering a community of people with similar interests” (775). “The modern pilgrim,” they continue, “is a wholly contemporary individual, very different to the medieval one as far as their values and perceptions are concerned” (775). The contemporary pilgrim’s context is post-secular, and they share many characteristics with tourists, although at the same time “they form part of a clearly differentiated group” (775). The motivations of contemporary pilgrims are varied, “although returning to the place and a yearning to walk and reassert themselves in the environment form part of their personality and staunch search” (775). They tend to be more interested in the journey than their destination, the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and many continue walking on to Cape Finisterre (775).

Here, the authors shift into a discussion of the monumentalization of sacred values, which is, they write, a “form of appropriation and symbolisation” (775). In human geography, monuments are considered emblems and symbols of a place, and they contain “a system of values and beliefs” which contribute “to representing the geographical space and its contents” and evoke “a particular view of the world and safeguards the permanence of values” (775). The “sacred structures dedicated to St. James,” along with “other artistic, historic, human and cultural elements found along the Way of St. James[,] symbolism and sanctify this space,” they write (775-76).

However, the twentieth-century monumentalization process, the restoration of the Way of St. James, began under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco “as a tool for creating and transforming collective memory” (776). This is the part about the Camino that nobody talks about: the way its revival is rooted in Spain’s Fascist past. During the restoration process in the 1950s and 1960s in particular, monuments were altered extensively, particularly at Padrón, O Cebreiro, Tui, and Portomarin (776-77). From the 1960s onward, the Spanish government promoted the way as a tourist route, and it therefore took on political connotations (777). Travel on foot was discouraged; the emphasis was on modern means of transportation, which were suitable to the modern nation-state Spain had become (777). Hotels were built, tourism information offices opened, and historic sites along the way received aesthetic improvements, including sites located as far as 50 kilometres off the traditional pilgrimage path (777). I suppose everyone wanted part of the tourism bonanza the government was expecting. Meanwhile, aesthetic improvements were made in the centre of Santiago de Compostela (780): historical heritage sites were restored, pavements improved, signage installed, and “electric cabling removed from the façades of buildings” (781). The airport at Santiago de Compostela was upgraded as well, and historic buildings were restored and embellished. As a result, the Camino “became immersed in political discourse. The State used the Way to convey messages of a patriotic nature and show that people, even when scattered, were united through faith” (783-84).

None of this seems to shock the article’s authors, although it surprises me, and leaves me wondering how I could have been so ignorant of what appears, in hindsight, to be quite obvious, particularly in places like Portomarin and O Cebreiro. In fact, their conclusion is quite neutral:

The polysemy of St. James and the Way has been ever-present throughout the history of their existence. In scarcely 50 years, the Way has re-emerged from the oblivion in which it found itself at the start of the twentieth century and its identity has continued to flourish. During the Franco era, the discourse it faced was nationalistic, autarchic and religiously traditionalist. With the arrival of democracy, the phenomenon of St. James, far from weakening, has enjoyed a new golden era, in this case with a series of references that are more open, more contemporary and more diverse. The ideological framework that, from the end of the 1970s, sustained the discourse of the Santiago pilgrimage movement is no longer an authoritative discourse regarding pilgrimage to St. James, and the Way has now recovered the European nature that characterised it from the Middle Ages. Today, the Way of St. James is a pilgrimage route in fine health. It consists of a personal journey, whose essence is somewhat unique. The warrior St. James has unequivocally given way to the pilgrim St. James. Today, an alliance of experts on the Way, associations of friends of St. James scattered all over Europe and public bodies keen to contribute to the promotion of cultural and historical tourism for their towns and regions have built a powerful movement, which justifies the present success of the Way of St. James and all that is Jacobeo. (784-85)

So, although I did not find in this article a clear articulation of the distinction between space and place in pilgrimage, I learned a lot about the history of the Camino de Santiago, and I discovered references to books by John Urry that will likely prove useful in my research. I’ll call that a win on this rainy afternoon.

Works Cited

González, Rubén Camilo Lois, Belén María Castron Fernández and Lucrezia Lopez. “From Sacred Place to Monumental Space: Mobility Along the Way to St. James.” Mobilities, vol. 11, no. 5, 2016, pp. 770-88.