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Barbara Wisch

"Roma Sancta: The Pilgrim’s Progress in the New Jerusalem"

Barbara Wisch, SUNY Cortland



Both in fact and in glorious prophetic vision, the epithets fashioned for ancient Rome proclaimed its centrality and its destiny: caput mundi, urbs aeterna. The Church, with its seat in Rome, absorbed the imperial prophecies and reinterpreted its own providential destiny, declaring itself the New Jerusalem. Rome could in fact lay claim to such a distinguished title due to the extraordinary number of holy sites and relics, more than any other city in Europe. So important was the cult of saints and their hallowed remains that pilgrimage to Rome had become central to medieval and early modern devotion. Whether to implore heavenly intervention in this life or to secure indulgences, those “time sheets” of commutation from the painful catharsis to be endured in purgatory, pilgrims traversed hundreds of miles to seek salvation in Jerusalem on the Tiber.


This paper will explore the sacred topography of papal Rome, looking in particular at the transformation in the later sixteenth century of pilgrimage processions to the Principal Churches, the most venerable basilicas in the city. In part a response to Protestant challenges about the efficacy of saints and relics as well as a conscious revival of a paleochristian past, these grand processions—now led by lay confraternities—came to redefine an individual pilgrim’s progress in Roma Sancta. The paper will also examine innovative printed images, published in Rome in 1575, that codified and memorialized this new ritual practice.


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