Santiago de Compostela Cathedral – Spain

As befits one of the great shrines of Christendom, this monument to St. James is a majestic sight, dominated by its soaring twin Baroque towers. The rest of the cathedral dates from the 11th—13th centuries, although it stands on the site of Alfonso II’s 9th-century basilica. Through the famous Portico da Gloria is the same interior that greeted pilgrims in medieval times. The choir, designed by Maestro Mateo, has been completely restored.


st-jamesAccording to tradition, James returned to Jerusalem after preaching in Spain and was the first Apostle to be martyred. His body is thought to have been translated, some claim miraculously, to a burial site in Galicia. A bishop is said to have discovered the relics some 750 years later in 819, guided by a divine vision. A church was erected in St. James’ honor on the sacred spot. The Moors destroyed Santiago in 997, yet the saint’s tomb was spared (crypt). This, and subsequent Christian victories, led to St. James becoming Spain’s patron saint, and forged the cathedral’s reputation as one of Christendom’s major pilgrimage sites.



In the Middle Ages, 500,000 pilgrims a year flocked to the cathedral from all over Europe Several pilgrimage roads converge on Santiago de Compostela. The various routes, marked by the cathedrals, churches, and inns built along them, are still used by travelers today; the main road from the Pyrenees is known as the French Route. To qualify for a certificate, pilgrims must produce a stamped and dated pilgrim passport and have covered the final 62 miles (100 km) on foot or horseback, or have cycled the last 125 miles (200 km).



The Romanesque pillars, pointed arches, and ribbed vaulting of this doorway were carved in part by Maestro Mateo (the lintel of the central arch bears his signature and the date 1188). Its three arches are carved with almost 200 expressive biblical figures. Christ sits at the center, baring his wounds, flanked by his Apostles and the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse, who are carrying musical instruments. St. James is seated below Christ, perched before the richly sculpted central column. Several indentations are visible on this column, which also depicts the Tree of Jesse. These have been created by the millions of pilgrims who have touched this spot with their hands as a gesture of thanks for their safe journey. On the other side, pilgrims bend to rest their heads on the statue of the Santos dos Croques hoping to gain wisdom.

Twin Towers

These are the cathedral’s highest structures soaring to 243 ft (74m)

West Facade


The richly sculpted Baroque Obradiro facade was added in the 18th century.

Portico da Gloria

Statues of the Apostoles and prophets decorate the 12th century Doorway of Glory, the original entrance to the cathedral.

Santos dos Corques


The Saint of Bumps has greeted pilgrims since the 12th century. Touching this statue with the forehead is said to impart luck and wisdom.

Tapestry Museum

Tapestries dating from the early 16th century are displayed in the museum above the chapter house and library. Some of the later tapestries are based on work by Goya.



This giant censer is swung high above the altar by eight men during important services.

Mondragon Chapel

Fine wrought-iron grills and vaulting can be seen in this chapel of 1521.

High Altar


Visitors can pass behind the ornate high altar to embrace the silver mantle of the 13th century statue of St. James.

Porta des Praterias


The 12th century Goldsmiths’ Doorway is rich in bas-relief sculptures of biblical scenes.



The relics of St. James and two disciples are said to life in a tomb in the crypt, under the altar, in the original 9th century foundations.

Pilgrim Passport


This provides proof of a pilgrim’s journey.


As the symbol of St James, scallop shells were worn by pilgrims in the Middle Ages to show that they had journeyed to his shrine. Houses willing to accept passing pilgrims en route hung shells over their doors.


1075: Work on the cathedral begins on the site of the church destroyed by the Moors.
1750: The Baroque west facade of the building is completed.
1879: St. James’ remains, hidden in 1700, are re discovered during building work.
1985: The Old Town of Santiago is added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.


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