In deeply religious pre-Modern Europe, pilgrimages to holy sites were a common practice. Record of Christian visitors to Jerusalem and other settings of the New Testament survive from as early as the second century A.D. The journeys were expected, and intended, to be difficult; the hardship being penance for past sins. The experience of holy places and of relics (clothing, bones, and other items associated with Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints) was meant to strengthen to faith by making abstract religious concepts physically palpable.
During the Early Middle Ages, Santiago de Compostela, in the Galicia region of northwest Spain, became one of the three great pilgrimage destinations of Christianity, along with Jerusalem and Rome. According to legend, the town is the burial place of St James the Greater, patron saint of Spain, first Christian martyr, and one of the Twelve Apostles.
One of the oldest surviving travel guides, the Codex Calixtinus, was compiled circa 1135 by a French scholar and monk named Aymeric Picaud to aid pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela: “There are some bad toll-collectors near the gates of Cize, in the village called Ostabat, at Saint-Jean and Saint-Michel-Pied-de-Port; they are frankly sent by the devil.”
A series of more or less fixed routes led from points across Europe to Santiago de Compostela. The volume of travelers was so great that numerous monasteries, churches, and hospitals were built to serve (and profit from) them at key points along the way. The routes are now UNESCO world heritage sites, as is the historic core of Santiago de Compostela.
Sainte Foy in Conques, France, is one of the most celebrated of the many monasteries that flourished along the route to Santiago de Compostela. Completed in the 12th century, the Romanesque church housed the relics of its namesake as well as an arm of St. George the Dragon Slayer, making it an attractive pilgrimage destination in its own right.
The nave of Sainte Foy.
A 1508 engraving by Dutch master Lucas van Leyden shows two pilgrims taking a break during their journey, which would have taken months to complete. The pilgrims can be identified by the cockle or scallop shell on their hats. The shell is the symbol of St. James, and consequently of pilgrims to his burial place.
A 15th century French pilgrim’s badge, made of lead.
According to tradition, St James spent time preaching in Spain after Christ’s death. When he returned home to Judea, King Herod Agrippa had the saint beheaded. His body supposedly made its way back to Spain on a miraculous vessel with no rudder or oars, as Martín Bernat depicted in this painting of 1480. The executioner can be seen sheathing his sword in the upper right of the scene, and Herod stands at center in an ermine-trimmed costume.
A hermit supposedly rediscovered Saint James’s tomb in 819, attracted by strange lights in the sky (Compostela is a derivative of the Latin phrase Campus Stellae, or field of stars). King Alfonso II “the Chaste” of Asturias and Galicia made the first pilgrimage to the tomb and ordered the construction of a chapel, which was expanded and rebuilt by successive monarchs and then burned by a Muslim army in 997. Construction of the present, Romanesque cathedral began in 1075; it was consecrated in 1128.
The nave of the cathedral, with its characteristically Romanesque rounded arches, remains largely unchanged. The Codex Calixtinus names several men as responsible for the design and construction: “The master stonemasons who built the basilica of Santiago were named Bernard the Old, a wonderful master, and Robert, who with another fifty masons worked painstakingly under the faithful supervision of Master Wicart … ”
The entrance to the south transept, called the Puerta de las Platerias, or Portal of the Silversmiths, is the only remaining Romanesque façade. The reliefs around the doorways incorporate fragments that were relocated here from two other portals.
Another remnant of Romanesque relief sculpture is the Portico de la Gloria, in the vestibule to the nave, on the west side of the church. Architectural historian Sir Bannister Fletcher described it as “one of the finest works of mediaeval Christendom.”
The Romanesque apse is hidden behind a Baroque perimeter wall.
A drawing of the cathedral’s principal, west façade as it appeared in 1657, with its Romanesque towers intact. José de Vega y Verdugo was the visionary administrator charged by Pope Innocent X with modernizing the building during the late 17th century.
Vega y Verduro had the baldachin erected over the main altar (1672–76); it was designed by Domingo Antonio de Andrade.
St James’s tomb is located in a crypt accessed from behind the altar.
De Andrade also designed the massive clock tower toward the rear of the church, along the south transept.
From 1738–49, architect Fernando de Casas Nuova designed and built a new west façade, which is a masterpiece of the ornate Churrigueresque, or Spanish Baroque style.
The pilgrim’s path actually did not end in Santiago de Compostela, but another three to four day’s journey west, at a peninsula called Cape Finisterre. Finis terrae means “end of the earth” in Latin, and prior to Columbus’s voyage, that’s what this rocky outcrop effectively was. A recent bronze sculpture of a boot, overlooking the Atlantic, marks the terminus of the pilgrimage route, and the starting point of the journey home.
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