SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, SPAIN
by Sara E. Morrow
Santiago de Compostela’s name and notoriety both come from Saint James the Apostle. It is most famous for being the site where the remains of St. James were found, where religious pilgrimers flock to each year. “St. James of the Starry Field” is the local translation for this small, charming city, set in the hills of the north-western province of Galicia, Spain. It’s believed his remains are buried there under the Cathederal’s altar.
The history behind the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is interwoven with the story of Christianity. Saint James became the leader of the church of Jerusalem after Jesus’s resurrection. Tradition states that he also traveled to Spain to share the blessed news, then returned to Jerusalem where he was made a martyr. After his death, his body was taken by his followers to the coast and then put on a ship that came ashore in Spain. The body of St. James and two of his disciples were then buried without much notoriety or fuss.
In 1813, a Spanish hermit named Pelayo got a vision – a bright light shining over a spot in the forrest. An investigation led to the uncovering of St. James’s tomb in a field, along with two of his disciples.
A church was built on top of the tomb site and around this the city of Santiago de Compostela began to grow. Monuments, churches, monasteries, towns and other cities grew along the route to and from there, as well. Also known as the “Way of St. James”, this trek is thought of as the first great Christian thoroughfare and for many centuries drew both the rich and the poor. Hundreds of pilgrims make the journey each year to the Cathederal St. James, in the heart of the city. Regarded as a reenactment of the journey to Christ, the hardships along the way welcomed as tests of faith.
Every year around ten thousand make this arduous journey, which is not easy. It’s a beautiful trek, yet rugged. This ‘camino’ is done by many different religious, including Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists – even those with no religious affiliation but a spiritual desire and curiosity. The trek is done by walking, biking or horseback on the paths of the historic Camino de Santiago.
Each year St. James’s day is celebrated on July 25 and when this is on a Sunday, it’s considered an especially special year.
What to See:
Plaza del Obradoiro – The cathedral’s facade forms part of an extended architectural composition on the a grand square surrounded by public buildings.
To the north and south, and in a line with the west front, are dependent buildings of the 18th century, grouping well with it. Those to the south contain a light and elegant arcade to the upper windows, serving as a screen to the late Gothic cloisters. Built in 1533 by the future archbishop of Toledo, the cloisters are said to be the largest in Spain.
Obradoiro façade – The spectacular Baroque facade of the cathedral, known as the was added between 1738 and 1750 by an obscure local architect, Fernando de Casas. Made of granite, it is flanked by huge bell towers and adorned everywhere with statues of St. James as the pilgrim, with staff, broad hat and scallop-shell badge.
The ground rises to the cathedral, which is reached by a magnificent quadruple flight of steps, flanked by statues of David and Solomon. Access to the staircase is through fine wrought-iron gates marked with a seashell.
Romanesque chapel – In the centre, on the level of the Plaza, is the entrance to a the Iglesia Baja (Lower Church), constructed under the portico and contemporary with the cathedral.
Pórtico de la Gloria – Entrance to the cathedral is through the magnificent, carved in 1188 by Maestro Mateo and considered one of the finest works of medieval art. The shafts, tympana and archivolts of the three doorways are a mass of sculpture depicting the Last Judgment. On either side of the portal are Prophets of the Old Testament, including Daniel, who seems to be smiling. The arches over the side doors represent Purgatory and the Last Judgment, with Christ in glory presiding in the center.
Statue of St. James – This status is below the Christ figure on the central column. Since the Middle Ages it has been the custom of pilgrims to pray with their fingers pressed into the roots of the Tree of Jesse below Saint James, and five deep indentations have been worn into the marble as a result.
The altar - A blend of Gothic simplicity and 18th-century Churrigueresque exuberance. A bejeweled medieval statue of the saint stands at the altar, which pilgrims greet with a hug upon arrival at the shrine. Those who have travelled over 100km on foot are handed a certificate in Latin called a Compostela.
Relics of St. James – The sacred lie beneath the cathedral’s high altar in a silver coffer; they can be viewed from the crypt.
Capilla del Relicario (Chapel of the Reliquary) is a gold crucifix, dated 874, containing a piece of the True Cross. A cathedral museum displays tapestries and archaeological fragments.