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Destination: Santiago de Compostela

January 27, 2007


Nobody is a true pilgrim unless he is journeying towards the ‘house of St. James’.”
– Dante


ExperiencePlus: The History of the Santiago de Compostela – St James in the Field of the Star

After Christ’s crucifixion, Saint James, son of Zebadeo and Salome and brother of Saint John the Evangelist, journeyed to Spain to evangelize the Word. In 42-44 AD, he returned to Jerusalem were he ignored the warnings against preaching Christ’s teachings to the Jews. Herodes Agripa, King of Judea, sentenced him to death by beheading to appease religious protests and to punish the Christian community. He was the first apostle to be martyred. According to tradition, his followers took his body back to Spain for burial. They landed on the Galician coast in the north westernmost coast of Spain and buried his body in a field that was shown to them by the light of a very bright star. Later a church was built on the burial spot and the resulting settlement was named Santiago de Compostela – St James in the Field of the Star!

In the early 11th century, a hermit discovered a stone sepulcher with the remains of Saint James and two of his disciples, Theodore and Athanasius. Since then, Santiago has been a place of great devotion and a site of pilgrimage. It is said that in the Middle Ages one tenth of the population of Europe was on its way to Santiago, or on its way back or looking after those who were traveling there or back!

Laura Elizabeth Gibbs: Forging a Unique Spanish Christian Identity: Santiago and El Cid in the Reconquista

In 44 A.D. Santiago became the first of the Twelve Apostles to suffer martyrdom when Herod Agrippa I arrested and beheaded him in Jerusalem. Tradition places Santiago in Spain proselytizing prior to his execution. Why then would his body be buried in Spain if he died in Jerusalem? According to legend, Santiago’s disciples Athanasius and Theodore took his body back to Spain when a ship miraculously appeared, guided by an angel, to transport them. They buried the saint in the area known today as Compostela, “field of stars,” where Santiago lay forgotten for nearly eight centuries.

The rediscovery of the saint’s long-forgotten tomb in the ninth century occurred, tellingly enough, in a time of need “when Christian political fortunes in Spain were at there lowest ebb.” Christians suffered defeat time and again at the hands of the Muslims, until God unearthed the saint’s remains, and inspired them with the confidence that God was on their side, fighting in the battlefield with them through the figure of Santiago. “God gave us aid and we won the battle.” Christians endorsed the veracity of this claim by referring to the battle of Clavijo in 844. The night before the battle, Santiago appeared in a dream to the leader of the Spanish forces, King Ramirez of Castile, and promised him a victory over the Muslims in the fields of Clavijo. The following day, as Christians fought the Muslims, the warrior-saint appeared on the battlefield in full armor riding on a white charger, with a sword in one hand and a banner in the other. Together with Santiago Matamoros, the Moorslayer, the Christians slaughtered the Muslim invaders and won a decisive victory. Undoubtedly, Santiago appeared in the battlefield at Clavijo for he left behind impressions of scallop shells (his symbol as the pilgrim saint) on the rocks in the field and even on the stones of neighboring houses. After this battle, Santiago’s name became the Christians’ battle cry, and his appearance in warfare the symbol of Christian victory.

According to legend, the saint aided the Spaniards at least forty times in earthly warfare, including the battle of Clavijo. This was a “brave assertion of faith in St. James, in the miracle at Clavijo, and in the patron saint’s heavenly care for Spain.” The Spaniards “needed Santiago as the supernatural ally who would sustain their courage and bring certain success to their arms.” This strong faith identified Santiago with the religious element of the reconquest and the revival of Spanish fortunes. It follows then, that at the end of the eleventh century when a decisively religious element entered the equation of the reconquista, an aggressive program of dignifying the apostolate of James and of exalting Compostela as the “second Rome” took place. The image of Compostela as a “second Rome” points to the site’s religious significance, and established its importance as a preeminent place of pilgrimage.

The successful ouster of the Muslims in 1492 was followed by skepticism regarding Santiago’s role in Spain’s holy war. Skeptics accepted Santiago as the patron saint of Spain, and even the possibility that he inspired Christians in warfare. But they flatly rejected the validity of the battle of Clavijo and the absurd notion of Santiago taking personal part in the conflict by slaughtering Muslims. In the eighteenth century, Pope Benedict XIV rebuffed the unbelievers, and stated that Santiago’s Spanish mission was an historical fact and that there was no further doubt or debate on this subject in Rome. Speaking for all of Christendom, Pope Benedict declared Santiago’s participation and leadership as an essential and factual element of Spain’s Christian warfare against the Muslims — case closed….



UChicago Press: An excerpt from Pilgrimage to the End of the World: The Road to Santiago de Compostela, by Conrad Rudolph

Site: Santiago de Compostela: The Pilgrim’s Road

Oxford Student: Top spot: Compostela

IdealSpain: “It’s a long way to Santiago” (Two accounts of a pilgrimage; one by a Redemptorist priest, the other by an agnostic)

From “The Priest’s Tale…”
The attractiveness of this pilgrimage for me was I think due to many factors. Visiting the tomb of an apostle was one the most important of these but annexed to this obvious motive was the historical significance of the Spanish Reconquest, so bound up with the devotion to St. James, and which added extra glamour to the whole history of the pilgrimage. Apart from the Reconquest’s importance for the survival of Catholicism in Europe it was also a very romantic, quixotic story and that appealed to me. Another important factor was that at last there was the possibility to make a real pilgrimage as it was always made before trains and cars. Instead of turning up at a shrine feeling fit and fresh this time we would surely feel that we had really achieved something and done something worthwhile to honour the apostle. That it was to be on foot also made it easier to connect with the pilgrims of the Middle Ages, which was again another big factor for me. The sense of history in general and then more specifically the thought of all our ancestors in the Catholic Faith who had walked this way, so different and yet so close because they shared the same Faith, made it very attractive.


For many Catholics the secularisation of the pilgrimage will be a great disappointment but it didn’t jar with me or prevent me from savouring the spiritual nature of the pilgrimage. I found it to be an excellent microcosm of the tangled world today and I would have been disappointed and probably even bored to find only pious, traditionally minded Catholics…. Aside from the precious opportunity of speaking at great length about the Faith to those who would otherwise never have any contact with a priest, I find personally that faith thrives on challenges and conflict. At Santiago however the highlight was undoubtedly, being allowed to say Mass in the crypt at the tomb of St. James. Given all the problems with the Tridentine Latin Mass it was very unexpected, but was the perfect way to finish the pilgrimage and to pray for all our special intentions….

From “The Agnostic’s Tale…”
With both myself and Fr Clement suffering from sore feet we had ended up walking at a similar slow pace as Charles had speeded up to get out of the sun. Charles was to part company for good at Sarria whereas I ended up walking and talking with the monks for the remainder of the Camino. I would attend their Latin Mass almost everyday which to my surprise I gradually grew to really appreciate.

This was the most intense part of my journey – the conversations were really interesting but also deeply troubling for me. Fr. Clement spoke frankly about Christianity as the only true religion and I found this deeply problematic. Whilst I recognise different religions (and secular ideologies) as containing some truth or truths, I regard them as all fundamentally flawed in some way and tend to favour a more holistic approach to life.

Somehow though I found myself gaining a real insight into such a mindset and this fundamentally bothered me. If I could bring myself to understand something that had previously been too repulsive to even contemplate then all the things I had taken for granted had to be rethinked. I also began to realise to my horror that on some level I actually found Christianity and Catholicism in particular very attractive….


Statue Controversy

From a University of Washington faculty page:

The violent image of St. James of Compostela crushing a defeated Moor epitomizes the way Spaniards conceived their religious identity for nearly a thousand years. The church was a crusading church whose great aim was victory over Islam. When this group, of polychrome marble, was made at Santiago in the XVth century, that victory had been virtually won, but the crusade continued, to be carried across the Atlantic to the New World. St. James (Santiago), the brother of St. John, had, according to legend, been buried in Spain. In the IXth century his body was providentially discovered at Compostela and the shrine became the most celebrated place of pilgrimage in the whole of Europe. His appearance in battles against the Moors was an established part of the myth of Spanish history.

BBC News: Church to remove Moor-slayer saint (May 2004)

Alejandro Barral, president of the cultural commission for the cathedral council, told BBC News Online: “This is not an opportunistic decision. This is not through fear of fanatics of any kind and nothing to do with 11 March or 11 September.”

He said the decision was taken a few years ago, but simply had not yet been implemented.

Mr Barral said the idea was to try to take the image of the saint back to its origins – St James as the apostle or pilgrim who took the word of Jesus to the Iberian Peninsula.

The Baroque image of a sword-wielding St James cutting the heads off Moors is not a very sensitive or evangelical image that fits the teachings of Christ, he added.

Telegraph: Public outcry forces church to keep Moor Slayer’s statue (July 2004)

Church officials have been forced to overturn a decision to remove a statue of the saint from the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain.

The statue, an 18th-century work by Jose Gambino which depicts St James on a white charger hacking off the heads of Moors beneath his rampant mount’s hooves, was deemed to be offensive to Muslims.

However a spokesman for the church, which is Christendom’s third holiest site after Rome and Jerusalem and attracts half a million pilgrims each year, said yesterday that, due to public anger over the proposed move, the statue will now remain in place.


St James, who was described by Cervantes’ Don Quixote as “the most valiant”, still exerts a strong hold on the Spanish popular imagination.

Spanish troops deployed to Iraq were issued with a special badge depicting the Moor Slayer’s red cross….


Recommended Sites:
The Confraternity of Saint James
Official site of Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela

See also:
Vatican: Address by His Holiness John Paul II at Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, 1989
Rick Steves’ Europe: Santiago de Compostela, Spain: On site to hail pilgrims’ progress

Wikipedia: Santiago de Compostela
Wikipedia: Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Wikipedia: Way of St. James

New Advent: St. James the Greater

Related Posts:
Report: Bishops Fear Rebirth of Islamic Kingdom
Report: Muslims ask pope to OK worship in ex-mosque
Theme: Andalusia – Yesterday, Today and…
Article: The Jihadist Dream to Liberate Spain



From → Destinations

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