The Legend of St. James
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.
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.
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.
div class=”separator” style=”clear: both; text-align: center;”>