How well it is for the Christian soul to behold the city which is like a heaven on earth, full of the sacred bones and relics of the martyrs, and bedewed with the precious blood of these witnesses for truth; to look upon the image of our Saviour, venerable to all the world; … to roam from tomb to tomb rich with memories of the saints, to wander at will through the Basilicas of the Apostles with no other company than good thoughts."

With these words the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch described the value of making a pilgrimage to Rome, which he did in 1350. Dante Alighieri had made the same journey in 1300. Pilgrimages captured the energy and imagination of millions of medieval Christians—a captivation reflected in the numerous pilgrim references in the Divine Comedy.

From crusades to Jubilees

At first, pilgrimages focused on Jerusalem. Such journeys served to unify God's people as early as King David's reign. After the establishment of the church, Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem continued until the latter 1200s.

Pilgrimages changed during the Crusades, when many travelers had to arm themselves for protection. Then in 1291 Acre, the last Christian stronghold in the Holy Land, fell to the Muslims, making travel to Jerusalem perilous.

Loss of contact with Christianity's motherland was traumatic. Pope Boniface VIII responded in 1300 by establishing the first Jubilee pilgrimage to Rome. "Jubilee" refers to the Old Testament tradition of holding a Jubilee every fiftieth year during which slaves were freed, debts were canceled, and land reverted to its original owners.

Boniface had prepared his capital well for visitors. He was one of a series of popes who recreated Rome as a flourishing city that attracted numerous artists to work ...

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