Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is situated in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. The cathedral is the reputed burial-place of Saint James the Greater, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. It is the destination of the Way of St. James (popularly known by its local denominations: Galician "Camiño de Santiago", Portuguese "Caminho de Santiago", Spanish "Camino de Santiago", French "Chemin de St. Jacques", German "Jakobsweg", and so on), a major historical pilgrimage route since the Middle Ages.


According to legend, the apostle Saint James the Greater brought the Message of Christ to the Celts in the Iberian Peninsula. In 44 AD he was beheaded in Jerusalem. His remains were later brought back to Galicia, Spain. Following Roman persecutions of Spanish Christians, his tomb was abandoned in the 3rd century. Still according to legend, this tomb was rediscovered in 814 AD by Pelayo, a hermit, after witnessing strange lights in the night sky. Bishop Theodemir of Iria recognized this as a miracle and informed the Asturian king Alfonso II (791-842). The king ordered the construction of a chapel on the site. Legend has it that the king became the first pilgrim to this shrine. This was followed by a first church in 829 AD and again in 899 AD by a pre-Romanesque church, at the order of king Alfonso III of León, causing the gradual development of a major place of pilgrimage. In 997 this early church was reduced to ashes by Mohammed ibn-Abi Amir (938-1002), army commander of the caliph of Córdoba, Spain. The gates and the bells, carried by Christian captives to Córdoba, were added to the Aljama Mosque. When Córdoba was taken by king Ferdinand III of Castile in 1236, these same gates and bells were then transported by Muslim captives to Toledo, to be inserted in the cathedral Santa Maria.

Construction of the present cathedral began in 1075 under the reign of Alfonso VI of Castile (1040-1109) and the patronage of bishop Diego Peláez. It was built according to the same plan as the monastic brick church of Saint Sernin in Toulouse, probably the greatest Romanesque edifice in France. It was built mostly in granite. Construction was halted several times and, according to the "Liber Sancti Iacobi", the last stone was laid in 1122. But by then, the construction of the cathedral was certainly not finished. The cathedral was consecrated in 1128 in the presence of king Alfonso IX of Leon.

According to the "Codex Calixtinus" the architects were "Bernard the elder, a wonderful master", his assistant Robertus Galperinus and, later possibly, "Esteban, master of the cathedral works". In the last stage "Bernard, the younger" was finishing the building, while Galperinus was in charge of the coordination. He also constructed a monumental fountain in front of the north portal in 1122.

The church became an episcopal see in 1075 and, due to its growing importance as a place of pilgrimage, it was soon raised to an archiepiscopal see by pope Urban II in 1100. A university was added in 1495.

The cathedral has been embellished and expanded between the 16th and the 18th century.


At the front of the cathedral, a golden mollusc shell adorns the altar. A steady stream of pilgrims still queue there to kiss the shell, as another sign of homage.

Western façade

The western façade (or Fachada de la Plaza del Obradoiro) is flanked by two medieval towers, 76 m high. The left tower ("Torre de la Carraca") shows a statue of Zebedee, father of St. James; the right tower ("Torre de las Campanas") shows the statue of Maria salome, his mother. The façade was built in Late Baroque style (the Churrigueresque style) by Fernando Casas y Nóvoa between 1738 and 1750. The gable in the centre shows a statue of St. James the Great, with below his two disciples Athanasius and Theodomir, dressed as pilgrims. They are flanking a representation of the tomb of St. James, with above the star that led to its discovery.

The cathedral's facade ("illustration, right") gains from forming part of an extended architectural composition on the "Praza do Obradoiro" (lit. Workshop Square), a grand square surrounded by public buildings.

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 some fine wrought-iron gates, and in the centre, on the level of the Plaza, is the entrance to a Romanesque chapel, the "Igrexa Baixa" ("Lower Church"), constructed under the portico and contemporary with the cathedral.

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, and serve as a screen to the late Gothic cloisters, built in 1533 by Fonseca, afterwards Archbishop of Toledo. They are said to be the largest in Spain. The north side of the cathedral is in the rich Spanish Baroque style called Churrigueresque. This is the palace of Gelmirez, originally from the 12th century.

This façade is illustrated on the Spanish euro coins of 1c., 2c. and 5c.

Northern façade

The northern façade leads into the "Praza da Immaculada". Here ended the Way of St. James, coming from France, ending at the Francigena (also called Gate of Paradise), the Romanesque portal built in 1122 by Bernard, treasurer of the church. This gate was demolished in the 17th century. On top of the façade stands a statue of St. James from the 18th century, with two kings at his feet in a praying position : Alfonso II the Great (866-910) and Ordoño II of León (873-924). In the centre stands the statue of Faith.

Eastern façade

The eastern façade at the "Praza da Quintana" offers a completely different view. It has two main portals : the Holy Door and the Royal Door. The Holy Door opens only during a Holy Year, the year when 25 July (the saint's day of St. James) falls on a Sunday. It is accessible during those years via a smaller gated door, dedicated to St. Pelayo (discoverer of the tomb of St. James). This privilege of holding a Holy Year dates from the 12th century and was granted by Pope Callixtus II in 1119 and confirmed with the papal bull "Regis Aeterni" by Pope Alexander III in 1179. This privilege elevated Santiago de Compostela to the same saint status as Rome and Jerusalem.

This Baroque façade was built by Fernandez Lechuga in 1611, reusing the statues of the prophets and the patriarchs sculpted by Master Mateo. Again one finds above the door statues of St. James and his two disciples.

The Royal Door derives its name from the royal escutcheon above the door.

outhern façade

The southern façade is situated at the "Praza das Praterias" where, in times past, silver jewels were sold. This square is confined on two sides by the cathedral and the monastery. Adjacent is the city hall in the Rajoy palace. On the right side is the Baroque Clock Tower ("Torre del Reloj") by Domindo de Andrade, dating from the 17th century. On the left is the Treasure Tower.

This "Puerta de las Platerias" one of the best preserved portals. It leads to the south transept. This two-arched Romanesque portal shows us a series of juxtaposed scenes in bas-relief, sculpted between 1112 and 1117. These sculptors came from Conques (in the French Pyrenees), Toulouse, Moissac, Loarre and Jaca, resulting in a happy synthesis of their artistic traditions. Parts from the west façade and reliefs from the north portal were probably later integrated in this portal.

The two tympanums give a disparate impression. The left tympanum shows us the "Temptation of Christ" in the desert. It is depicted in different fragments, giving a rather motley impression. On the right side of this tympanum one sees a half-dressed "Woman Taken in Adultury" with the skull of her lover in her lap (attributed to the Master of the Platerias). This probably refers to a legend from the Order of the Knights Templar or maybe a legend with Cathar origin. The right tympanum shows at its centre the flagellation of Christ; at the left side : the crowning with the Crown of Thorns and the healing of the blind; in the upper part : the Epiphany (rather damaged).

The frieze shows figures from a "Transfiguration" : Christ, Abraham (rather unusual), scenes from the Old Testament and four angels with trumpets.The left pier shows (starting at the bottom) King David playing the lute (attributed to the Master of the Platerias), the "Creation of Adam" and "Christ blessing King David". These sculptures attest to a high degree of artistic quality, especially Adam with his right hand over his heart. They probably were taken from the ancient Romanesque northern portal and date from the last decade of the 11th century.

At the left side of the vestibule : "Adam and Eve, driven from Paradise" (originating from the north portal).


The cathedral is 97 m long and 22 m high. It preserves its original barrel-vaulted cruciform Romanesque interior. It consists of a nave, two lateral aisles, a wide transept and a choir with radiating chapels. Compared with many other important churches, the interior of this cathedral gives a first impression of austerity until one enters further and sees the magnificent organ and the exuberance of the choir. This cathedral, through its monumental dimensions, is the largest Romanesque church in Spain and even one of the largest in Europe.

The Pórtico da Gloria

Perhaps the chief beauty of the cathedral, however, is the 12th century "Portico da Gloria", behind the western facade. This "Portico da Gloria" in the narthex of the west portal is a remains from the Romanesque period. It is a masterwork of Romanesque sculpture built between 1168 and 1188 by Master Mateo at the request of king Ferdinand II of Leon. The vigorous naturalism of the figures in this triple portal is an expression of an art form, varied in its details, workmanship and polychromy(of which faint traces of colour remain). The shafts, tympana and archivolts of the three doorways which open onto the nave and the two aisles are a mass of strong and nervous sculpture representing the Last Judgment.

The central tympanum gives us an image of Christ in Majesty as Judge and Redeemer, showing His wounds in His feet and hands, accompanied by the tetramorph. He is surrounded on both sides by a retinue of angels carrying the symbols of the Passion. In the archivolt are represented the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse, who are tuning their musical instruments.

The column statues represent the apostles with their attribute, prophets and Old Testament figures with their name on a book or parchment. These were all polychromed. Noteworthy is the faint smile of the prophet Daniel looking at the angel of Reims.The middle pier represents Saint James, his face conveying an ecstatic serenity. The text scroll in his hand shows the words "Misit me Dominus" (the Lord sent me). below him is the Tree of Jesse (the lineage leading to Christ), while above is a representation of the Trinity. It is customary for the pilgrims to touch the left foot of this statue, signifying that they have reached their destination. So many pilgrims have laid their hands on the pillar to rest their weary bones, that a groove has been worn in the stone.

The lateral portals are dedicated to the rival churches : on the left to the Jews and on the right to the unbelievers.

The right tympanym is divided in three parts and is dedicated to the salvation of the souls. In the centre Christ and St Michael, flanked by Hell (represented by demons) and Heaven (represented by children). The purgatory is shown on the side.

The left tympanum shows scenes from the Old Testament.

Demons are represented at the bottom of the "portico", signifying that Glory crushes sin.

Behind the portico stands the statue of Maestro Mateo, the master architect and sculptor put in charge of the cathedral building programme in the 12th century by Fernando II. It is said that whoever butts their head three times against the statue will be given a portion of Mateo's genius [Lonely Planet: Spain. 4th Ed. 2003] and perhaps enhanced memory. There is usually a long line of visitors waiting to bump their head against the statue.

The sculptures in this portico have been a point of reference for Galician sculpture until the 15th century.

The nave

The barrel-vaulted nave and the groin-vaulted aisles consist of eleven bays, while the wide transept consists of six bays. Every clustered pier is flanked by semi-columns, three of which carry the cross vaults of the side aisles and the truss of the arched vaults, while the fourth reaches to the spring of the vault. Lit galleries run, at a remarkable height, above the side aisles around the church.

The choir is covered by three bays and surrounded with an ambulatory and five radiating chapels. The vault of the apse is pierced by round windows, forming a clerestory. The choir displays a surprising exuberance in this Romanesque setting. An enormous baldachin, with a sumptuous decorated statue of Saint James from the 13th century, rises above the main altar. The pilgrims are allowed to kiss the saint's mantle via a narrow passage behind the altar.

In the choir aisle one remarks the beautiful lattice work and the vault of the Mondragon chapel (1521). The radiating chapels constitute a museum of paintings, retables, reliquaries and sculptures, accumulated throughout the centuries. In the "Capela do Relicario" ("Chapel of the Reliquary") is a gold crucifix, dated 874, containing an alleged piece of the True Cross.


The crypt, below the main altar, shows the substructure of the 9th century church. This was the final destination of the pilgrims. The crypt houses the relics of Saint James and two of his disciples : Saint Theodorus and Saint Athanasius. The silver reliquary (by José Losada, 1886) was put in the crypt at the end of the 19th century, after authentification of the relics by Pope Leo XIII in 1884.

In the course of time, the burial place of the saint had been almost forgotten. Because of regular Dutch and English incursions, the relics had been transferred in 1589 from their place under the main altar to a safer place. There were rediscovered in January 1879.


A dome above the crossing contains the pulley mechanism to swing the "Botafumeiro", which is a famous thurible found in this church. This thurible was created by the goldsmith José Losada in 1851. The Santiago de Compostela Botafumeiro is the largest censer in the world , weighing 80 kg and measuring 1.60 m in height. It is normally on exhibition in the library of the cathedral, but during certain important religious high days it is attached to the pulley mechanism, filled with 40 kg of charcoal and incense. In the Jubilee Years, whenever St James's Day falls on a Sunday, the Botafumeiro is also attached in all the pilgrim's mass. Eight red-robed "tiraboleiros" pull the ropes and bring it into a swinging motion almost to the roof of the transept, reaching speeds of 60 km/h and dispensing thick clouds of incense. One irreverent explanation of this custom, which originated more than 700 years ago--although incense has been used in Catholic ritual from the earliest times--is that it assisted in masking the stench emanating from hundreds of unwashed pilgrims.



* Text from the articles in the French and Spanish wikipedia
* Turner, J. - Grove Dictionary of Art - MacMillan Publishers Ltd., 1996; ISBN 0-19-517068-7

External links

* [ The official site of the Santiago de Compostela cathedral]
* [ Reconstruction of the swinging motion of the Botafumeiro]
* [ Photographs of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain]
* [ Pictures of Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela]

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