Pilgrimage & Recall: the Shrine as Sensory Catharsis, the Flask as Memory Trigger

Pilgrimage is a time based medium, intended to radically alter the lives of those enacting its rituals. As such, pilgrimage creates a desire in practitioners to document and reinvigorate emotions and sensations experienced on the pilgrimage route. This paper seeks to address the role of sensory stimuli as memory triggers in the afterlife of medieval pilgrimage. It will do so through linking sensory experiences during the pilgrimage journey with the catharsis experienced at the pilgrimage shrine, and by examining souvenirs and eulogia that may have acted as retroactive sensory stimulants. These formed a complex, interlinked system of visual, tactile, and olfactory triggers that may have prompted memory recall in the user post-pilgrimage.

This investigation of the phenomenological experience of pilgrimage will focus on the Piacenza Pilgrim’s account in tandem with seventh century pilgrim flasks from Jerusalem. Other accounts, miracle stories, and shrines will act as supporting evidence. Scent will be a particular focus–– memory is most deeply connected to the human sense of smell. The olfactory bulb is directly linked to the amygdala and hippocampus; areas of the brain deeply connected to emotion and memory. Olfaction, more than any other sense, is the superior trigger of emotions and memories. Ultimately, I will propose that the shrine acted as a theatre of emotional and sensory catharsis, which was then encapsulated within the flask through personally selected eulogia. Both a highly individual act, yet simultaneously an encoded cultural phenomenon, pilgrimage seeks to build and then reinforce the transformative experience of the journey.

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