Pilgrimage in Medieval Corinth

December 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

It was a pleasure to read Amelia Brown’s contribution to the inaugural volume of Herom, a journal dedicated to Greek and Roman material culture. She presents a useful overview of some evidence for pilgrimage in Corinth, Athens, and elsewhere in southern Greece. While textual evidence provides the overarching framework for her paper, she does take into account some of the archaeological evidence particularly around Corinth. 

Using sources, particularly from the West, she established that pilgrims occasionally stopped at the church of St. Andrew in Patras and, following A. Kaldellis’ lead, argued that the Parthenon rechristened the church of the Virgin attracted pilgrims drawn by its perpetual light. (In light of Kaldellis’ work, Brown’s suggestion that “Medievel Athens rebranded their ancient monuments as churches seems a bit simplistic. In fact, in some ways it might be that Modern Athens rebranded their Medieval heritage as evidence for its Classical past.)

For Corinth, Brown considers the ring of Early Christian churches around the urban center as potential pilgrimage sites marking not only martyr shrines (such as that of Kodratos), but also major routes in and out of the city. In this way, Corinth seems to be similar to arrangement of martyria around Milan or even Rome. The major pilgrimage church in the area, however, seems to have been the Lechaion basilica  at Corinth’s western port. Readers of this blog are probably sick of hearing about this building, but its massive size, double atrium, elaborate baptistery, and association with the martyrdom of Leonidas and his female companions, make this building’s association with pilgrimage almost certain. In fact, Brown makes the intriguing observation that the importance of baptism at Lechaion might echo Leonidas’ death by drowning which at least one life called his “second baptism”. Scholars have largely dismissed or overlooked the practice of second baptism in the Byzantine and Late Antique times, but there is a small, but growing body of evidence suggesting that martyr shrines might have served as the location for some form of ritual ablution. More intriguing, of course, is that the association of Lechaion with baptismal rituals persisted into the Byzantine period suggesting that parts of the monumental baptistery and church still grounded the life of the martyr in the local landscape.  Brown might have added that the  nymphaion located a few hundred meters south of the church and likely contemporary with the church may have served as a roadside stop for weary pilgrims as they made their way south across the Isthmus. Travelers passing south through the fortress at Isthmia would have encountered inscriptions that invoked the protection of God and the Virgin in conspicuously liturgical language reinforcing the sacred nature of the Isthmian landscape. In this context, all travelers became pilgrims as they encountered the sacred in even the most mundane passages.

The most curious thing about this article is that Brown clearly privileges pilgrims from outside of Greece and struggles a bit with the interpretation of more local hagiographic sources. We know, for example, that local pilgrimage practices were common in the Peloponnesus. I have written on the obscure St. Theodore of Kythera whose church became a pilgrimage destination after his death. The battle between Nauplion and Argos for the body of St. Peter of Argos after his death demonstrates the significance of relics to the spiritual life of those communities and implies that the saint’s remains would become a place of pilgrimage. Other lives preserve incidents where travelers stop to visit holy hermits or the remains of abandoned churches. In fact, these lives do more than describe a landscape full of sacred spaces, but they also produced these landscapes and inscribed them with the routes that made  everyday movements small acts of pilgrimage.

In this context, the Corinthian landscape comes alive with the movement of myriad pilgrims. These include the relatively recent monastery of St. Patapios near Loutraki where modern pilgrims go to visit the healing relics of St. Patapios as well as visitors to the church of the Ayia Anagyri in Anaploga who still incubate at the church there during the annual feast to these “penniless doctors” or villagers who decorate the church of Profitis Elias on his feast or celebrate small, local panayri festivals at long neglected chapels. To be sure, the archaeological and textual evidence for this kind of pilgrimage will be faint, but it preserves the everyday and extrordinary movements of pilgrims in the Greek landscape. 

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