Author:
Argyri Dermitzaki
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In this survey the gradual shaping and formation of the sacred topography of pilgrims in regard to the wide area of the Ionian Islands, the Peloponnese and Crete has been observed and analysed, while travelling with them, through their writings, as they sailed the Ionian and the Aegean towards Jerusalem. The texts examined in this study proved to be invaluable sources of information. Behind the common descriptions of sites and objects that reveal that the vast majority of pilgrims were already well-informed by pilgrim guides, one can discern personal beliefs, faith and fears, thoughts and sentiments, as well as formed aesthetic views and cultural and social backgrounds.

The particularity of the studied area is compellingly reflected in the pilgrims’ narratives: a space where Latins coexisted with a population with strongly rooted Byzantine traditions; the absence (excepting in the town of Candia) of elaborate structures and the ‘important’ relics pilgrims were so eager to approach; and, subsequently, their acquaintance with peripheral cults and sites, most of which were places of devotion of different confessional groups. It is in these cases, when the travellers move away from the norm of standard descriptions, that the true value of their narratives lies. In fact, in such examples as the cult of St Leo of Modon or the icons of the Virgin in the Dominican monastery of Modon and the Dominican and Augustinian monasteries of Candia their texts are among the very few – if not the only – available sources about them. Their testimonies, echoing expectations, both spiritual and aesthetic, and conveying personal experiences, reflect the ways in which each site was perceived and shed light on the reasons for its insertion and its importance in the pilgrims’ holy itinerary.

Besides the pious travellers, the undisputable protagonists in the forming of the sacred topography of the studied area, other actors also played an important role. The mariners, linked with the sea, its dangers and its routes, had already formed their own religious topography. This network of sites, encompassing famous cults and sites, as well as the peripheral ‘unknown’ small peregrinagia maritima, found an expression in the Santa Parola litany, a mariners’ prayer chanted in times of peril, listing all the aforementioned sites that dotted the main sea routes of medieval navigation. Lastly, the local actors, the religious and secular officials of each area, also participated in the process.

The studied area’s sacred topography appears to have evolved along with the ports the pilgrims visited, induced in a way by their physical movement towards their desired destination, the Holy Land. Sailing through the Ionian and the Aegean, the galleys regularly docked at the Venetian-controlled ports of Kassiopi, Corfu, the Strophades, Modon and Candia, and their passengers, anticipating the religious experience of visiting Jerusalem, sought – and projected – new and different cultic meanings at each port’s cult sites. The ‘sacred topography’ shaped by the pilgrims included several sites and local cults belonging to already existing subnetworks, such as the ones of the Marian cult sites and the memorial sites connected with St Francis’s voyage to Egypt, as well as the ‘holy topography of sailing’, the ‘holy portolano’ described in the Santa Parola litany.

Entering Greece and travelling around it towards Crete, the pilgrims experienced the liminality of the geographic space and the cult sites they visit while in the studied area; this concept of liminality was perceived in many ways and in several aspects: since embarking on the galleys in Venice, they travelled on a threshold between the sea and the dry land, visiting cult sites that stand between two dimensions, the earthly and the divine. In addition to the above, Venetian-occupied Greece also stood on the verge between the East and the West, the Orthodox Byzantium and the Latin Venice. In fact, all of the major cult sites visited within the geographical frame of this study are actually sites of interaction, mainly between these two different cultures. Furthermore, in the cases of the Virgin in Kassiopi and the Strophades monastery, the symbolic liminality of a site perceived as a threshold between heaven and earth was enhanced by the surrounding landscape, as well as its architectural framing, to such a degree that it almost became tangible.

While sharing the common characteristics of the Latin-ruled, formerly Byzantine Greek Orthodox territories, the studied ports of call differ significantly in several other aspects. The church of the Virgin in Kassiopi and the monastery of the Virgin of Strophades stand out as maritime Marian shrines directly linked to the circumstances of navigation. Their geographical location, offering protection from bad weather conditions and turbulent seas, was the reason for their inclusion in the sacred topography of sailing prior to their introduction to the pilgrims. Both sites are evoked in the Santa Parola, and there should be no doubt that the crews of the galleys would have informed the pilgrims about the miracles and legends with which they were enriched. Furthermore, the small church in Kassiopi and the fortified Strophades monastery, both Orthodox institutions that housed miraculous Byzantine icons of the Virgin, seem to have addressed to the core the religious pilgrimage by combining legends, miracles and divine power and protection with extraordinary – to the eyes of a Western visitor – architecture, decoration, customs and cultic practices, as well as an evocative interaction of the building with its surrounding landscape. Thus, their insertion into the sacred topography of the sea route to Jerusalem and subsequently their elevation to international pilgrimages should be considered mainly as a result of the synergy of the two groups involved in the marine experience: sailors, who had already integrated them into their religious topographical network, and pilgrims, who, induced by the crews of their galleys, conveyed them to a larger audience.

The cities of Corfu and Modon, important ports of the Venetian Stato da Mar, appeared quite unattractive to the pilgrims. In both towns the Latin cathedrals housed the relics of their patron saint, St Arsenius and St Leo respectively, initially worshipped by the local Orthodox and subsequently appropriated by the Latins and venerated by both confessional groups. However, while Corfu’s cathedral and the holy relics held in it appear sparsely in the travelogues, the holy body of Modon’s St Leo has a constant and uninterrupted presence in their narratives, standing out as an important cultic focus. It would be logical to deduce that the status of St Leo as a pilgrim was a decisive factor in the elevation of his cult to an international level. Pilgrims would have felt closely connected to the saint, with whom they shared the common experience of pilgrimage. Prostrating to his relics would have been a spiritually rewarding experience, symbolically linking them to their destination. The case of St Leo of Modon could be indicative of the way in which a peripheral cult site located on the sea route to Jerusalem was associated with the Holy Land and attributed new meanings through the pilgrims’ experience, resulting in it surpassing its regional character and obtaining a much larger audience.

Finally, the island of Crete and the town of Candia present a different case. The most important commercial port of the Serenissima in the Eastern Mediterranean offered the pilgrims visiting it a variety of cultic foci: Christological relics, Lucan icons, saintly relics and apostolic mementos were displayed for public veneration in its churches and monasteries. Furthermore, it was the only town where the buildings providing the architectural framing to the relics were praised as elaborate and impressive, while the grandiosity of their interiors was attested by many pilgrims. Its patron saint, St Titus, was an eyewitness of the Passion of Christ and was ordained as a bishop by the Apostle Paul himself. At the same time, it was the sole area within the geographical limits of this study where pilgrims could visit a memorial site perceived as an ‘extension of the Holy Land’ – the mountain summit where the Apostle Paul resided and wrote several of his epistles. The Franciscan friars of St Francis owned and displayed a significant collection of Christological relics, thus claiming for their monastery the title of a ‘New Jerusalem’ and enabling pilgrims to evoke the sanctity of the Holy Land by venerating the reminders of Christ’s passage on earth. One could therefore speculate that Crete and its major coastal town of Candia had all the prerequisites and should thus have been the most prominent pilgrim destination within the studied area. However, this does not appear to be the case. While it certainly cannot be supported on any grounds that Candia was not an integral part of the pilgrims’ sacred topography, it seems to have failed to emerge as the foremost destination within the area of this study in a way commensurate to what it had to offer to a religious traveller. In any event, the cultic sites of Candia have a constant presence in the travelogues throughout the 14th to the 16th centuries, but the number, as well as the length, of references to them indicate that the grandeur of the city’s religious institutions and their rich collections of important relics were not efficiently exploited and promoted in order to stand out among the other ports of call of the area of this survey.

Besides the aforementioned differences, the studied ports and towns share a number of common aspects that should be noted as affecting the reasons, the way and the extent of their appearance in the travelogues and, subsequently, their inclusion in the pilgrims’ sacred topography. All of the major cultic sites frequently mentioned by the pilgrims, with the exception of the Franciscan monastery of Candia, were related to Orthodox cults and relics that were appropriated by the Venetians after their arrival and venerated by Greeks and Latins alike. In addition, aside from the cultic sites of Candia, all of the other sites and/or major cults (the Virgin of Kassiopi, the Virgin of Strophades and St Leo) were also parts of the ‘holy topography of sailing’, evoked in the Santa Parola litany, thus almost certainly promulgated by the crews of the pilgrims’ galleys. Furthermore, aside from Kassiopi and the Strophades, which stood out in the pilgrims’ references as Marian cult sites, Modon and Crete were also parts of the same subnetwork. In fact, as attested in many travelogues, in Candia one could see and prostrate to four miraculous icons of the Virgin, at least two of which were attributed to the Evangelist Luke. Finally, a common feature of all of the studied locations is the lack of systematic and organised large-scale promotion of their major cults by the local authorities and clergies as a pilgrims’ destination. This should most probably be linked to the Venetian religious policy towards its Orthodox subjects, since the cults in question, and especially the cults of St Arsenius of Corfu and St Titus of Crete, were endorsed and grandiosely celebrated on a local level, aiming to ratify Venetian authority and contribute to the homogeneity of the local mixed society. Thus, their promulgation seems to have been directed to the city dwellers rather than to foreign visitors and pilgrims. The ‘introverted’ character of these cults should be considered as an important factor in the way in which they were perceived and the extent to which each one appeared in the travelogues.

However, the role of the metropolis should not be overlooked. Venetian rule provided the necessary framework in order for all of the studied towns to become a network of ports of call of the galleys carrying the pilgrims to the Holy Land, thus introducing cultic sites and phenomena, which would otherwise have been restricted to a regional level, to an international audience. Even though there does not seem to have been a centralised, organised and targeted promotion of any of the studied locations as a pilgrims’ destination, the Latin presence and the security provided under the aegis of the Serenissima were undeniably key factors that allowed other agents, such as the pilgrims and the mariners, as well as local actors, to promote and elevate each place’s cultic phenomena. In this sense, Venetian rule linked the studied ports to each other, making them parts of the Venetian Stato da Mar, connecting them by extension also to Jerusalem, and it should thus be considered as a constructive element of the area’s sacred topography.

The pilgrims’ passage through the Ionian, along the coast of the Peloponnese and to the island of Crete presented them with a variety of religious experiences and acquainted them with Orthodox customs and practices. Reading carefully through the travelogues, one can distinguish the cults and sites that became pilgrim destinations on the way to Jerusalem. Out of all of the stops the galleys made in the former Byzantine Greek territories – Zante, Cephalonia and Coron, as well as several islands in the Aegean – the studied ports and towns stand out as important stages in the pilgrims’ gradual approach to the Holy Land. The church of the Virgin in Kassiopi is the site that really stands out among all the rest, appearing in a significant number of travelogues throughout the 14th to the 16th centuries. Corfu, the Strophades, Modon and Crete also have a constant presence in the narratives. The emergence of these sites as integral parts of the network of holy and sacred sites dotting the way to Jerusalem allows for the observation of how that network was shaped and indicates that the insertion of a cult site into it was not due exclusively to its involvement in the Jerusalem pilgrimage, but was rather a synergy of several factors, with the pilgrims having the decisive role of imbuing it with a new perspective and introducing it to a new and larger audience.

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