Nowhere on earth is the power of pilgrimage more evident than in the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. After more than a thousand years, the Camino de Santiago—the Way of St. James—continues to inspire Christians from around the world. Next to Jerusalem and Rome, people flock to this UNESCO Heritage site in Spain and even walk thousands of kilometers, aptly called The Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) just to reach the revered Cathedral.
The Legend of St. James
It is believed that the Apostle James the Greater came to Spain to convert the country to Christianity and preached for seven years before returning to Judaea, where he was martyred by Herod. Forced to leave the country, his disciples smuggled St James’s body back to Spain and buried it near the spot where they were supposed to have first landed in Spain, near Padron (a few miles from Santiago). The site of this tomb was unknown for many years but according to legend a star revealed its location to Theodomir, Bishop of Ira Flavia, in 813. (`Compostela’ means literally ‘field of a star’ — from the Latin ‘campus stella’ — and Santiago is the Spanish for St James.) An alternative legend has it that St James appeared on the battlefield at Clavijo near Logrotio, to help the Spaniards in their fight against the Moors; after which time St James became known as `Matamore’ or Slayer of the Moors.
In the middle of a large public square in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela lies a paving stone engraved with the image of a shell and these simple words: Camino de Santiago. For hundreds of years pilgrims have stood on this spot, gazing at the imposing, twelfth-century cathedral that rises before them.
Those who gather here are often footsore and weary after weeks of journeying across plains and mountains. Many have made this journey to deepen their faith or fulfill a vow, others to perform a penance, and some out of a sense of adventure.
All end their wanderings here, before the church where the remains of the apostle St. James (Santiago in Spanish) are said to lie. After more than a thousand years, the Camino de Santiago—the Way of St. James—continues to inspire Christians from around the world.
After climbing the cathedral stairs and entering its doors, the first sight that greets pilgrims is the spectacular Portico de la Gloria, an entryway of carved stone that is considered one of the masterpieces of medieval art.
Pilgrims are instructed to place their hand on the pillar where St. James stands, finding the deep grooves formed by the hands of the millions of travelers who have come here before them. As they touch the pillar, they are to say the prayer of petition that has brought them on pilgrimage. Then they walk to the other side of the column where a small statue stands, a figure that is believed to be the self-portrait of the stonemason Mateo. To receive some of the master’s wisdom, they must knock their forehead three times gently on his head.
And then, at last, one can contemplate the interior of the cathedral. At the end of the long center aisle, a dazzling Baroque altar blazes with gold. It includes three depictions of St. James: as teacher, pilgrim, and knight. But this magnificent, overwhelmingly ornate altar welcomes pilgrims in a surprisingly intimate way: visitors are invited to climb the stairs that lead to an area behind the altar, where they can embrace the gilded statue of St. James from behind, wrapping their arms around him in a hug. After this familial embrace, pilgrims descend into the crypt where the saint’s relics are kept in a silver casket. The final pilgrim’s task is to attend a mass in the cathedral.
If pilgrims are fortunate, they can time their visit to coincide with a service during which the cathedral’s botafumeiro, a huge incensory made of silver-plated brass, is used. During special services at the cathedral, the 170-pound censer swings like an enormous pendulum through the sanctuary, leaving behind a trail of smoke and the fragrance of incense.
In this hushed sanctuary, an air of holiness is palpable. The cathedral seems filled with the petitions of the millions of pilgrims who have journeyed here over the centuries, bringing their prayers, hopes, dreams, and pleadings for mercy. After traveling so far to arrive here, many people spend hours in contemplation in the church, clearly reluctant to end their pilgrimage.
Visiting the relics
The relics of the Apostle James and his disciples, Athanasius and Theodorus, are kept in the Roman mausoleum below the Cathedral of Santiago’s high altar. They are housed in a 19th-c. silver urn, whose shape imitates a Romanesque sarcophagus.
To go down to this small crypt, you should head to the Cathedral’s ambulatory. In the 2010 Holy Year, this area can only be accessed by going through the Holy Door in Plaza de la Quintana. Once inside, the itinerary begins by going up to the apostle’s alcove, at the top of the high altar, where it is customary to embrace the saint, represented by a 13th-c. Romanesque statue. You then go down to the mausoleum and briefly visit the urn; there is not a lot of room inside.
In an era in which it’s easy to step onto a plane and be deposited nearly anywhere in the world, the Way of St. James is a reminder of the power of pilgrimages taken slowly and deliberately. The path to Santiago de Compostela is meant to be walked, for the journey is as important as actually standing at the crypt of the apostle. Once all pilgrimages were like this, journeys that took weeks or months of hard travel. But of the three most famous Christian pilgrimages—to Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela—only the Way of St. James has remained a route that many pilgrims take on foot.
Even if one can’t make the long journey to Santiago de Compostela, I believe all pilgrims can learn from the Way of St. James. Its most important lesson is that a pilgrimage is as much about the journey as it is about arriving at the destination. Though it is deeply meaningful to stand in the cathedral in Santiago, time spent en route to the shrine is the more important part of the pilgrimage.—
Santiago de Compostela is a World Heritage City, pilgrimage destination, cultural capital and example of historical, urban and environmental regeneration, which attracts thousands of visitors due to its singularity.
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