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Retrospect, part I: "Without Ourselves and Still Together"

přidáno: 10. 5. 2017 7:27, autor: Žaneta Turoňová   [ aktualizováno 10. 5. 2017 8:09 ]
Although the idea of a four-month walk along medieval pilgrimage routes seemed impracticable at the beginning of preparations, on March 24th, all twelve participants of the project arrived at the goal of the journey’s first phase – in the small French village of Conques. Three-week experiences are strong enough that they nearly call for a small recapitulation – even though it is not the end by a long shot.

At the physical level

The first week already put us under a strong physical load, especially due to bad weather. It seemed like a joke, when a cold material resembling icy hailstones started to fall on us while walking to the Lausanne cathedral. However, it was not a joke, and for the following days we admired the beauty of the landscape around the lake of Geneva accompanied by strong winds, rain and sometimes even a sprinkling of snow. These rather tough conditions led us to think that we can handle anything with the help of “warming” drinks and a big supply of waterproofing. It made our body and soul stronger. In the end, it was hardest at the beginning, and when we crossed the French border, spring was waiting for us. Picturesque valleys around the Rhône river was followed by the buzzing of bees and the fragrance of trees coming into bloom. We passed across more than one mountain (e.g. Massif Central), we slept under the open sky or under borrowed shelter and we put on sun cream. Besides suffering knees and tendons, we luckily avoided any more serious injuries, so in a healthy state we reached the keenly awaited town, Le Puy-en-Velay, on March 17th. Here, the second presentation awaited us, together with the deeply fascinating cathedral of Notre-Dame. Thanks to the extraordinary willingness of the local parish priest, we could move freely around the abundant space of the building and discuss many aspects of medieval sacral architecture and also the phenomenon of pilgrimage roads. Motivated by this unique experience and by French croissants, we set out on the road, full of euphoria and the feeling that Conques was within easy reach. And it was true: the days spread out, time passed and we found ourselves only a few kilometres from our goal. Perhaps to remind us of the beginning and to let us know that the circle was closing, it snowed nicely on the last day. But, centimetres of snow no longer affected us and we started to come down to the valley, to Saint Fides, with a song.

From the psychical side

As the name of this article suggests, we have been together all the time. In every situation – even in situations when we might normally like to be alone. After a few days of collective journey, notions like “privacy”, “intimacy” or “private space” faded away into one’s own mind, which became the only place where one could be really alone. And even there sometimes not completely, because even at the end of the group one can hear what the people in front of him are talking about or singing about. Naturally, a collectivisation of everyone and everything has happened, and even thought this word might have negative connotations, it has become a drive for the whole group. With the goal of pleasant coexistence, each of us has tried to renounce his own individuality and to offer the best of himself to the others. This perhaps utopian condition has not been fulfilled entirely and definitely not in one day, but when we look back at the past three weeks, it is fascinating how close to this condition we are. Group behaviour did not fail, on the contrary it became stronger with the passing days and it even increased when we accustomed this “new” way of living.

Of course, we remained ourselves, but, more and more, the time for one’s own “self” transformed into collective meditation hours or individual decisions to walk without communication with the others for a while.

Thus for the most of the day, twelve people tried to act and think for the collective “we” rather than for their own “self”, which led us to make such a positive atmosphere that, in the end, three weeks seemed more like three days. There are still many weeks of walking ahead of us and nobody knows if it will be possible to keep up such an optimistic mood. But we learn, we walk, we think, and in addition to blisters, we trample down our egos as well, that are sometimes deformed by the “real world”.

The charm of encounters

Maybe it was also this pleasant atmosphere, or an “aura“ that we created, which allowed a series of unbelievable encounters and social experiences to happen. As mentioned before, because of bad weather it was not always possible to sleep outside, and it was particularly in these moments that we met extraordinary human kindness. Almost everybody we asked for something, really helped us: we slept in town halls, gyms, garages, a barn, above a cow house, in living rooms, in halls, in a closed hotel and a summer house. We asked and it was given to us. Most of these beautiful people also shared practically all the food and beverages they had at home. Thus we had collective dinners and breakfasts and, during them, we found out the fortunes and stories of our hosts. Because of this, our knowledge of the history and the way of life in different regions was increased. So various phases of our first pilgrimage became connected with emotional encounters with unforgettable people. We were literally surrounded by helpfulness and openness and we are still astonished by it. Aside from grand gestures, such as “giving” one’s own house to a group of strangers, other acts of kindness pushed us forward: in local bars we always got some fresh water for free, we often got a discount while shopping at markets (and some vendors even gave us some products for free), a lady lent us her car when we needed to buy something in a distant village, … And these people with their acts of kindness helped us (and still do) to find that more open lifestyle – in a world view through an unselfish perspective of a thoughtful “we”.

The objects

Since the motivation for this pilgrimage was especially the objects of our interest and study, I will now give a summary of them.

Ash Wednesday, the first Wednesday of March, was reserved for the Lausanne cathedral, which was presented by Adrien, to us and also to local art history students. We discussed the dating of the acquisition of Virgin Mary relics and the impact of their presence on the appearance of the architecture, as well as the significance of the cathedral as a pilgrimage place. A later program of “resurrection” of this Marian cult was connected with this topic and culminated in 1272 with the dedication of the cathedral to the Virgin Mary. These topics and many more were discussed while the sculptures of the main portal were observing us. The roofed portal resembles a sort of small narthex, which originally served as the main entrance.

On the second day of the walk, we were soon introduced to a late 13th century wall-painting in the Swiss church of Notre-Dame de Nyon. After that, we continued to Geneva. There, Saint Peter’s cathedral was waiting for us and its underground museum exhibition led to great enthusiasm. It showed us archaeological findings from the 70s, which revealed the remains of an entire complex of sacral buildings – certain Insula Episcopalis – on whose basis the cathedral was built. Together with a substantial visual reconstruction, this helped us to understand a complicated mesh of the phases of cathedral building and to strengthen an image of local action and reaction.

Another stop near a sacral object didn’t come until we crossed the Swiss border, on March 14th, and we arrived at the town of Bourg-Argental. Without knowing what was waiting for us there, we ended the stay with a discussion about Saint-Andrew’s portal (Église Saint-André de Bourg-Argental). Its relief decoration, which seems to be inspired by the voyage of the three Biblical Magi from the East following the star, led us to believe that this church was the first pilgrimage church of our previous French path.

After another few days of walking, we reached the town of Le Puy-en-Velay, and Katarína presented the cathedral to us the next day. And again, discussions revolved around the Marian cult and the town’s connection with pilgrimage routes – the major ones (the first pilgrimage organized from here to Santiago de Compostela was in 951) but also local ones (to the nearby Saint Micheal’s hill). In a deeper sense, even the phenomena of the crusades came through here, as visual articulation of political-clerical programs or architectural elements which bear witness to the presence of pilgrims in the cathedral. A half day was really insufficient for this monument and it was not easy to say goodbye to the decorative door of Saint Martin’s chapel. After this, we set out on our journey again, motivated by our stay in Conques. We reached the magic of this place on March 23rd. Here, the first week of April was dedicated to discussions and studies, since Hans Belting, Cynthia Hahn and Sible de Blaauw honoured us with their presence. However, that is a story for another time…