Codex Calixtinus -detail

Medieval Soundscape in Santiago de Compostela

How do you recreate the soundscape of medieval cathedrals? This question is being answered by an ingenious reconstruction of a long-lost space like the Romanesque Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela

It may seem odd to claim that the interior of the Romanesque Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela is long lost and cannot anymore be experienced. Every day pilgrims walk up the stairs and enter through the Portico de la Gloria, where they are expected to place their hand in the deep grooves made by millions of pilgrims for more than 800 years. Then they walk to the other side of the column and knock their forehead against the self-portrait of the mason, who worked on the cathedral around 1200. After this, the time has come to absorb and melt into the huge interior infused by smells, sights and sounds of seemingly yesteryear.

However, as the Cathedral stands today it is foremost a Romanesque space clothed in Baroque furniture and paraphernalia, masking the interior and not least changing the soundscape. It does not sound as a medieval cathedral at all.

Acoustic Archaeology

Recent years have witnessed the invention of a kind of new archaeological technology aiming at recreating soundscapes long gone. Recently this technology was used by a team led by Rafael Suárez from the Universidad de Sevilla to recreate the soundscape of the Romanesque Cathedral in Santiago. This church was built with a Latin cross floorplan and based on the model from Cluny with a shallow presbytery for the main altar and a wide choir in the central nave for the cchanting of the divine office. This was located in the first three stretches of the nave after the transept. In front was a platform used for giving sermons.

The aim was to resurrect the ancient experience of medieval pilgrims entering the place and create a more holistic approach towards the preservation of such places by including the intangible cultural heritage vested in the architecture and its surroundings. The music which was used for the simulation was the liturgy and music created in honour of St. James and preserved in the Codex Calixtinus.


Plan of Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela
Plan of Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Courtesy of Rafael Suárez

Exactly how the acoustic model simulations were carried out is question best answered by the specialists. Nevertheless, the results were quite fascinating.

First of all the archaeologists found that the acoustic conditions for people to experience the actual celebration of mass at the main altar were non-existent for people, who were not close to the source: the choir, the ambulatory and the transept. The last space was occupied with the faithful. However, their main experience was visual as the words must have deluded them aurally.

As opposed to this, the acoustic conditions in the choir must have been quite different. Here the enclosed space provided ideal conditions for clarity of choral singing and allowing for both plainchant and polyphony. The team experimented with a choir consisting of the maximum number (72) chapter members and found that the voices were projected clearly inside the choir. However, in the rest of the church intelligibility suffered although reverberation was adequate.

The archaeologists also found that the acoustic quality of sermons preached from the platform in front of the choir was just as bad. However, this could be improved by the chanting of texts at a slow rhythm, write the archaeologists.

The team concluded that the Romanesque church was “an enclosed space with two clear functions”: a church for the faithful inhabiting an unintelligible soundscape in the lower end of the nave, the aisles and the transept. In the choir and in front of the main altar, the clergy inhabited intelligible soundscapes filled with musical clarity.

In a theological understanding, this created an ecclesiola in the ecclesia with different aural experiences – mouzak and music – provided for the faithful and the inner circle of performers. However, it also provided for a continuous soundscape creating a commonality between the two groups immersed in a common multi-sensorial experience of sharing the same space.

The same conclusion has been reached by and acoustic archaeological exploration of the digitized reconstructed space in the defunct abbey-church at Cluny carried out by the same team.


Intangible Cultural Heritage: The sound of the Romanesque cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
By Rafael Suárez, Alicia Alonso and Juan J. Sendra.
In: Journal of Cultural Heritage 16(2) · June 2014


Future research will explore the different experiences of sounds according to the listeners position. Two examples have been published in connection with the present article and may be listened to here:

The empty Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela

The full Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela


The Sound of the Maior Ecclesia of Cluny (Medieval Histories)

Sound and Sights of 6th Century San Vitale in Ravenna (Medieval Histories)


Detail from a reproduction of the Codex Calixtinus