Day: September 11, 2007

Santiago’s Golden Legend

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Santiago de Compostela has been a lodestar for visitors for more than a thousand years. The world’s first guidebook was written in 1130 by Aimeri Picaud, a French monk, to give information to travelers on their way there. In the early Middle Ages, between 500,000 and 2 million people came each year. They came, however, not for the sun or the architecture, but to visit the sacred relics of the body of St. James.

As a center of Christian pilgrimage, Santiago rivaled Rome and the Holy Land. The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, originated in towns all over Europe – in England, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia and, of course, France. Pilgrims set out alone, in small groups, or in large gatherings. For the most part, their paths converged in France, where the routes were organized by the Benedictines and Cistercians of Cluny and Citeaux and the Knights Templars of the Spanish Order of the Red Sword. By the time the pilgrims crossed the Pyrenees and entered Spain, they continued on two routes only – the northern coastal road, called the Asturian, and the more popular Camino Frances, or French Way. Along the latter, so much traveled over hundreds of years, and still used today, were built some of the most spiritual and magnificent of Spanish buildings. Yet nothing prepares one for the wonder of Santiago de Compostela itself.

In Spain it is often impossible to separate tradition and history. But there’s no doubt that a visit to this northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula is made far more exciting by some knowledge of the extraordinary events that did (or didn’t) happen there. St. James the Apostle, brother of St. John the Evangelist, brought Christianity to Spain and then returned to the Holy Land, where he was beheaded; his body was conveyed to Spain by his disciples in a rudderless boat that found its way to a little inland port now known as Padron.

About 15 miles southeast of Santiago, Padron is a good introduction to the marvelous mysteries. If you’re lucky enough to find the priest to let you in, enter the little 17th-century parish church of Santiago by the River Sar, which flows through the town; under the altar you can actually see the granite stone to which the apostle’s boat was tied. Thus the name Padron, taken from ”piedra,” meaning stone.

After St. James’s body reached Spain, it disappeared for 800 years until Pelayo, a hermit, saw a brilliant star flashing over a woodland (hence, perhaps, Compostela, from ”campo de la estrella,” or ”field of the star”). An ancient burial place was unearthed and on July 25, A.D. 813, the holy remains were drawn triumphantly in an ox cart into the center of Santiago. On the busy Calle de Franco, there’s a little shrine to mark the spot where the journey ended, and near the city walls, by the fine stone market, there stands the Romanesque church of San Felix de Solovia, built near the cave in which the hermit Pelayo lived; the church is notable for a 12th-century tympanum of the Adoration of the Magi.

On the top of the Bishop’s Palace, facing the great Cathedral of St. James, there is a huge statue of a knight on horseback carrying a banner. Not much, you might think, to do with the James who watched with his brother at Gethsemane. But this is his reincarnation, Santiago Matamoros, the Moorslayer, who appeared miraculously to inspire the Christians in their battles against the infidels. His banner bore an ornamental red cross and it is still the city’s symbol, marking souvenir ashtrays, key chains and decals.

A third St. James was created by the pilgrims themselves. He is dressed as one of them, with a wide-brimmed hat and a heavy cloak adorned with the scallop shell that was – and remains – the pilgrims’ emblem. He carries a stout staff with a drinking gourd attached. This St. James appears above the Holy Door in the cathedral’s east facade, overlooking the Plaza de la Quintana.

The pilgrims usually entered the cathedral by the Puerta de Azabacheria, where the jet workers made and sold their wares. Jet and silver are still the two crafts of Santiago, and the silvermakers cluster round their own door, the Platerias, with its superbly carved Romanesque entrance and 17th-century clock tower.

There is an argument for never leaving the cathedral and the four great squares that surround it. The extraordinary many-layered building embraces, in its crypt, an 11th-century barrel-vaulted church; its gigantic Gothic cloister has a dazzling filigree trellis, and its Treasury Tower recalls a Thai temple.


The 18th-century Baroque Obradoiro (west) facade, with its double staircase, is the most ornate. Within is an older facade, decorated with a parade of stone figures carved by Master Mateo in the 12th century: the Door of Glory. The master carved a self-portrait on the back of the pillar on which St. James and, above him, Christ in Glory look out into the narthex. Here, St. James and, indeed, all the more than 200 figures, particularly the mysteriously smiling Daniel, have a warmth and gentleness that belie their granite material.

Inside, at the heart of the cathedral, yet another St. James, resplendent in golden cloak studded with jewels, dominates the center aisle from above the main altar. Steps leading upward allow pilgrims to walk behind the statue, kiss its mantle and embrace its shoulders. Steps leading downward uncover a small shrine where an ornate silver chest contains the bones of the saint.

Hidden from the buccaneering Sir Francis Drake in 1589, these relics were lost again for three centuries until a historian, Antonio Lopez Ferreiro, found them in 1879. An elaborate plaque commemorating him can be seen opposite the old university buildings now housing the geography and history faculties.

The quest for St. James leads into every corner of the city; the problem is to unravel fact from fiction. Indisputably real, because it stands four-square at the northwest corner of the cathedral in the Plaza de Espana, is the Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, built by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand at the turn of the 16th century to house and nurse the pilgrims who were pouring into the city. Forgetting for a moment Isabella’s terrible legacy of the Inquisition, her hotel/hospital is a tranquil and glorious monument to religious belief. It is built round four courtyards and displays the most beautiful hotel doorway in the world, ornamented with a profusion of carved figures, beginning with Adam and Eve. Since 1954, the Hostal has been run as part of the Spanish national chain of paradors. Yet it is still a charitable foundation: each day, up to 10 certified pilgrims can claim three free meals a day for up to three days. These contemporary pilgrims eat with the staff, the manager explains.

It is perfectly possible to visit Santiago and see it only as another splendid European city. Its Plaza de Espana rivals in magnificence the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo in Siena or the Piazza San Marco in Venice. The stone-paved streets have a multitude of cafes and bars that, in term time, are thronged with some of the 47,000 students who fill the thriving University of Santiago. Yet among the tourists you will spot the pilgrims: one morning two white-haired men with backpacks entered through Mateo’s Door of Glory and pressed their fingers into the holes made in the stone by their forerunners over eight centuries.


Inside the offices of the cathedral sits a representative of the secretariat whose one job is to certify the true pilgrims, those who have walked, bicycled or ridden (on horseback) over at least 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) to get to Santiago. They bring a card stamped in the town halls along the route and sign in at a registry. Under the heading ”motives for pilgrimage,” someone has written ”une promesse” and someone else ”100 percent por Dios” and a third ”religieux et sportifs.” A very ”sportif” Frenchman bounds in while I am there; he has bicycled from the Rue St. Jacques in Paris, the traditional start of the route, to Santiago in 10 days. The secretary tells me that the number of pilgrims has more than doubled in the past 10 years.

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