Santiago de Compostela

Missing image

The Obradoiro façade of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on the Spanish 0.05 coin

Santiago de Compostela (2003 pop. 92,339), the "European City of Culture" for the year 2000, is located in the north west region of Spain in the province of A Corua. It is the capital of the autonomous community of Galiza.

A popular etymology of the name "Compostela" holds that it comes from Latin campus stellae, i.e. "field of stars", making Santiago de Compostela "St. James of the Field of Stars". This name would come from the belief that the bones of St. James were taken from the Middle East, to Spain. These bones were then buried where a shepherd had spotted a star and a church was eventually built over the bones and later replaced with the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela. The City lies at the end of the important medieval pilgrim route, the Camino de Santiago or Way of St James. A more probable etymology is Compositum, i.e. "The well founded".


The site

Santiago is only a few miles inland from the westernmost coast of mainland Europe facing the Atlantic, so prior to Christopher Columbus's voyage of 1492, it was considered the edge of the known world, the Finis Terrae in Latin, Finisterre in Spanish and Fisterra in Galician (See also Finistre in France and Land's End in England). Also, as the lowest-lying land on that stretch of coast, it took on added significance. Legends supposed of Celtic origin made it the place where the souls of the dead gathered to follow the Sun across the sea. Those unworthy of going to the Land of the Dead haunted Galicia as the Santa Compaa.

The prevailing wind from the Atlantic and the surrounding mountains combine to give Santiago some of Europe's highest rainfall: about 66 inches annually.

The relics

"Santiago" ("Sant' Iago") means "St. James", and the city is supposedly the final resting place of the Apostle Saint James the Great, the brother of John. His remains are said to be beneath the altar in the crypt of the cathedral. According to another theory the actual remains in the crypt belong to Priscillian, an ascetic from Avila who was beheaded as a heretic at Treves, France, in 385 AD, but was venerated as a martyr in Galicia and other parts of northern Spain.

The Roman Catholic Church affirms that the belief that St James had found his way to the Iberian peninsula, and had preached there, was current before AD. 400.

According to a tradition that cannot be traced before the 12th century, the relics were said to have been discovered in 835 by Theodomir, bishop of Iria in the far northwest of the principality of Asturias. Theodomir was guided to the spot by a star, the legend affirmed, drawing upon a familiar myth-element, hence "Compostela" was given an etymology as a corruption of Campus Stellae, "Plain of the Star." Other etymologies derive it from "San Jacome Apostol".

Whose bones were actually found, and precisely when and how, may be unknowable, and perhaps it does not matter. What the history of the pilgrimage requires, but what the meager sources fail to reveal, is how the local Galician cult associated with the saint was transformed into an international cult drawing pilgrims from distant parts of Christendom. At Santiago itself, a building more substantial than the first shrine was begun in 868, but was totally destroyed in 997 by the Moors, who, however, respected the sacred relics. On the reconquest of the city by Bermudo III of Leon (died 1037), the roads that led pilgrims from across northern Spain to the shrine were improved, and the reputation of the shrine spread. The earliest recorded pilgrims from beyond the Pyrenees had visited the shrine in the middle of the 10th century, but it seem that it was not until a century later that pilgrims from abroad were regularly journeying there in large numbers, even the first recorded pilgrims from England, between 1092 and 1105. By the early 12th century the pilgrimage was a highly organized affair. Four established pilgrimage routes from starting points in France converged in the Basque country of the western Pyrenees. From there a single combined track crossed northern Spain, linking Burgos, Carrin, Sahagn, Len, Astorga and Lugo.

Diverse requirements of the pilgrim trade were met by a series of hospices along the way, by royal protection of such a lucrative source of revenue, by the evolution of a new genre of Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture designed to cope with huge devout crowds; and by the familiar paraphernalia of tourism, selling badges and souvenirs, and the remarkable guide-book put together in about 1140. The pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela internationalized the entire route to a degree unheard of in this impoverished and isolated backwater on the outermost fringes of Europe, which was opened most particularly to the influence of France, whence the great majority of pilgrims always came. Enterprising French people settled in the pilgrimage towns, where their names crop up in the archives.

Pilgrims would walk Way of St James for months to arrive finally at the great church in the main square to pay homage, and so many pilgrims have laid their hands on the pillar just inside the doorway to rest their weary bones, that a groove has been worn in the stone. So numerous were the pilgrims that the popular Spanish name for the Milky Way is El Camino de Santiago.

The Galician government hopes to make the Way into a powerful tourism destination. For the Holy Compostellan Year: whenever July 25 is a Sunday, the Xacobeo campaign is reinforced.

The cathedral

The Obradoiro faade of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: an all-but-Gothic composition generated entirely of classical details
The Obradoiro faade of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: an all-but-Gothic composition generated entirely of classical details

At the front of the Baroque cathedral, a golden mollusc shell adorns the altar. A steady stream of pilgrims still queue there to kiss the shell, as another sign of homage. The cathedral preserves its original barrel-vaulted cruciform Romanesque interior. Perhaps the chief beauty of the cathedral, however, is the 12th-century Portico de la Gloria, behind the Late Baroque facade. The shafts, tympana and archivolts of the three doorways which open onto the nave and aisles are a mass of strong and nervous sculpture representing the Last Judgment. Faint traces of color remain. The cathedral's facade (illustration, right) gains from forming part of an extended architectural composition on the Plaza del Obradoiro, a grand square surrounded by public buildings. The ground rises to the cathedral, which is reached by a magnificent quadruple flight of steps, flanked by statues of David and Solomon. Access to the staircase is through some fine wrought-iron gates, and in the centre, on the level of the Plaza, is the entrance to a Romanesque chapel, the Iglesia Baja ("Lower Church"), constructed under the portico and contemporary with the cathedral. To the north and south, and in a line with the west front, are dependent buildings of the 18th century, grouping well with it. Those to the south contain a light and elegant arcade to the upper windows, and serve as a screen to the late Gothic cloisters, built in 1533 by Fonseca, afterwards archbishop of Toledo. They are said to be the largest in Spain. The north side of the cathedral is in the rich Spanish Baroque style called Churrigueresque.

In the cathedral's Capilla del Relicario ("Chapel of the Reliquary") is a gold crucifix, dated 874, containing a piece of the True Cross.

The city

The cathedral fronts on the main Plaza of the old and well-preserved city. Across the square is the Pazo de Raxoi, the town hall, and on the right from the cathedral steps is the Hostal de Los Reyes Catlicos, founded in 1492 by the Catholic Kings, Isabela and Fernando, as a pilgrim's hospice. Today, this beautiful Renaissance building with four cloisters serves as a luxurious hotel. The Obradoiro faade of the cathedral, the best known, is depicted on the Spanish euro coins of 1 cent, 2 cents, and 5 cents (€0.01, €0.02, and €0.05).

Santiago also has a fine university which can be seen best from an alcove in the large municipal park in the centre of the city. The University ensures youthful night life. Within the old town there are many narrow winding streets full of historic buildings. The new town all around it has less character though some of the older parts of the new town have some big apartments in them.

Santiago gives its name to one of the four military orders of Spain: Compostela, Calatrava, Alcantara and Montesa.

External links

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