Interpretive Resource

Related Story: Making a Pilgrimage

Related Story: Making a Pilgrimage


Canaletto (Italian, 1697-1768). Landscape with the Pilgrim at Prayer, from Vedute, 1735/44. Etching in black on ivory laid paper; 139 x 207 mm (image); 142 x 209 mm (plate); 169 x 239 mm (sheet). The Art Institute of Chicago, The Joseph Brooks Fair Collection, 1955.1014.

Pilgrimage, a spiritual and devotional journey, was not mandated by the Christian church fathers, yet it became increasingly popular in early Christianity. The early Christian pilgrim’s journey was a long and arduous one. Traveling from every region in the Roman Empire, pilgrims encountered bandits, hostile cities, and even lions. The journey could take a year or more. Yet pilgrimage in the early Christian era mobilized thousands across the empire.


Reliquary in sarcophagus form. 5th/6th Century. Gypsum block: 36 x 38 x 23 cm. Inventory NR.: 1/88 Location: Skulpturensammlung und Museum fuer Byzantinische Kunst, Berlin. Photo Credit: Art Resource, NY

Early Christian pilgrims wanted to see and to touch. To come into physical contact with places and relics associated with holy persons and objects was to come into personal contact with the divine. Many pilgrims poured oil at holy sites, some of which had reliquaries, containers for relics. Some reliquaries were made with holes at the top and bottom, which allowed pilgrims to pour oil into the container and then collect it after it passed through.


Pilgrim collecting oil, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem, Israel.

Pilgrims often touched and kissed the object of devotion in addition to taking fragments with them. The most extreme case was observed around A.D. 380 when a pilgrim leaned in to kiss relics of the True Cross but instead took a bite, insuring they had a substantial relic to take home. Pilgrims still collect oil from holy places. Here, a pilgrim extracts oil that has dripped into the cracks in the marble over a holy site.


Jug with Jewish Symbols, Byzantine, Palestine, vicinity of Jerusalem, A.D. 578-636, Glass, Dim. 11.4 cm (4 1/2 in.) Alex Krikhaar Collection, Chicago.

Jerusalem is one of the most important sites for Jewish pilgrims. There are a number of surviving mold-blown jugs with Jewish symbols, which likely served as funerary offerings or were used to collect oil burning in lamps in holy places, such as at the Western Wall, the last remaining section of the walls surrounding the Temple Mount. The Jewish population of Jerusalem was banished by Emperor Heraclius in A.D. 629.


Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, Israel. © N. Allan

To make a pilgrimage to Mecca, Muhammad’s birthplace, is one of the five pillars of Islam. Jerusalem became an important destination for Muslim pilgrims after the Arab conquest of the city in the seventh century. There, pilgrims can see the rock from which Muhammad made his miraculous night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and ascended into heaven. The blue-capped Dome of the Rock was built in the eighth century to house the relic of the rock.


Graceland cemetery. skphotography /

Though many today continue to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, making a pilgrimage doesn’t always have to be religious. Over 600,000 visitors make an annual pilgrimage to Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee, where they are invited to walk in Elvis’s footsteps and pay homage at the rock star’s home. While many visitors are tourists, others leave votives, like flowers, pictures, and personal objects at his gravesite.

Christianity, religion, Roman Empire

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