Santiago de Compostela: Camino de Santiago and Cathedral

The Western facade of the cathedral
The meaning of life is to give life meaning.

                            Viktor Frankl (1905.-1997.)

The higher goal of every person is to find oneself in this journey called life. Many people are not even aware they are looking something higher that will fulfill their being. Some people made it sooner and some of them later. Some people find themselves in the river of life that flows quietly, and some people have been troubled on stormy waves of life for a long time. Whatever the circumstances are once you discover why you are here–only the sky is the limit.

As you can see, this is not some ordinary blog post. How it can be when the topic is the famous Camino de Santiago and Santiago de Compostela, a beautiful cathedral of St. James, same name as the city where located. Santiago is the capital of the autonomous community in northwest Spain, in the province of La Coruna. Its old town UNESCO declared for World Heritage Site in 1985 and in 2000 was the European Capital of Culture.

Name Santiago de Compostela comes from Sant Jago, derivative from Lat. Sanctus Iacobus and Compostela. The second part of the name has two interpretations. According to legend, at the tomb of St. James was the field of lights (lat. Campus stellae), but more likely that the name comes from the Roman custom of burying the dead at the cemetery: Lat. compostum (cemetery) and tella (field). 

Along with Jerusalem and Rome, Santiago de Compostela is the third most important destination for Christian pilgrimage. When you read the story that surrounds this special place, you will understand why.

Beginning of the iconic pilgrimage site 

According to legend, one of Jesus' disciples, James brought Christianity to Celts in the Iberian Peninsula. He was executed in 44 in Jerusalem, and the remains were brought back to Galicia. His tomb was abandoned in the 3rd century when the Romans persecuted the Spanish Christians. 

Apparently in 814 a hermit Pelayo discovered it after a vision of luminous stars in the night sky on the same place where Jacob's body without a head with the inscription Here lies James, the son of Zebedee and Salome was found. Bishop Theodomirus of Iria saw it as a miracle and reported to King Alfonso II of Asturias and Galicia (791 - 842). The king, who is considered the first pilgrim of the sanctuary, ordered the construction of the chapel.

The first church was built in 829 on the same place, and 899 new pre-Romanesque church on orders of King Alfonso III of Leon. Thanks to these architectural sites, the town developed in big pilgrimage center. In 997 the church was set on fire by Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir, military commander of the Cordoba's Caliph. 

Construction of the present cathedral began in 1075 during King Alfonso VI of Castille according to the same plan as the Basilica of St. Sernin in Toulouse. It is composed mostly of granite and dedicated in 1128 in the presence of King Alfonso IX of Leon. 

From the Codex Calixtinus, the architects “Bernard the elder, a wonderful master” and his assistant Robertus Galperinus and later “Esteban, master of the cathedral works” build it. In the final faze of construction the “Bernard, the younger” took part, who built monumental fountain in front of the north portal in 1122.

The church became an Episcopal seat in 1075 and because of its growing importance as a pilgrimage center Pope Urban II lifted it on the level of the archdiocesan headquarters in 1100. 1495 was awarded the university. Below you can read how the cathedral was decorated and expanded between the 16th and 18th centuries. 

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral and Spanish coins

Since Romanesque style of architecture spread from France to Spain during the 10th and 11th century, the cathedral is the most prominent monument of early Romanesque architecture in Spain, despite the late Baroque remodeling. It has: 

-a floor plan in the shape of a Latin cross, 
-three naves (nave–main body of the church), 
-transept (transverse part, lies across the main body), 
-choir with ambulatory (covered passage around the altar), 
-dome over the crossing  
-large arcades with a double arches 

Out front of the cathedral is a golden shell, the symbol of St. James, which pilgrims kiss as a sign of respect. 

Around 1667 the medieval cathedral was completed by adding baroque facades and towers of the main (west) facade. These are left tower (Torre to Carraca) with the image of Zebedee, father of Jacob, and right tower (Torre das Campas) with the figure of St. Mary Salome, his mother. Both are 76 meters in height.

The facade is in late Baroque style, built between 1738 and 1750 by Fernando Casas y Novoa. In the central gable is a statue of St. James; below are two statues of his students Athanasius and Theodomirus, dressed as pilgrims. They stand side-by-side from the image of St. James’s tomb, which is under the star that led to its discovery. 

Interesting, the image of the facade is on the Spanish coins of 1, 5 and 10 cents. 

In front of the northern facade was the end of St. James’s path, from direction of France. Portal on this side, Francigena (known as the “gates of heaven”) was built in 1122 by the treasurer of the church, Bernard, and was destroyed in the 17th century. At the top of the facade is a statue of St. Jacob from the 18th century with two kings before him, kneeling: Alfonso II the Great (866 - 910) and Ordono II of Leon (873 - 924). In the middle is the statue personifying faith.

East facade has two major portals, sacred door and the royal doors. Sacred doors open only during Jubilee - the year when the feast of St. James, July 25, falls on Sunday. Then the passage is through a smaller door dedicated to St. Pelayo, the discoverer of the tomb of St. James. The privilege of maintaining Jubilee was approved by Pope Callistus II in the 12th century, and in 1179 Pope Alexander III confirmed it with bull Regis Aeterni. This privilege raised the Santiago de Compostela to the same status as Rome and Jerusalem.

Butt head for getting genius and improved memory? 

The south façade is located in the square Praza das Praterias where in the past sold silver jewelry. Porto das Prateririas is one of the best preserved portals that lead to the south transept. This two-arched Romanesque portal displays a set of scenes in low relief, carried out between 1112 and 1117. In the lunettes above both doors are life scenes of Christ. Sculptors who have carried out came from the French places which led to favorable synthesis of their artistic traditions. On both sides of the door are marble columns encrusted with the arcades figures.

Behind the western facade is the triple portal, a 12th-century Portico da Gloria. It is a masterwork of Romanesque sculpture built between 1168 and 1188 by Master Mateo at the request of King Ferdinand II of Leon. Art form of the figures is energetic naturalism with polychrome, of which traces of color remain. 

Portico da Gloria, triple portal in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
Portico da Gloria, triple portal in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

The middle pier is Saint James, with an ecstatic serenity showed on his face. In his hands he holds the text scroll that says Misit me Dominus (The Lord sent me). Below him is the Tree of Jesse (the lineage leading to Christ), while above is a representation of the Trinity. It is customary for the pilgrims to touch the left foot of Saint James's statue, signifying they have reached their destination. The right tympanum is divided into three parts and is dedicated to the salvation of the souls and the left one show scenes from the Old Testament.

Behind the portico is the statue of Maestro Mateo and custom related is very interesting. It is said whoever butts their head three times against the statue will be given a portion of Mateo's genius and enhanced memory. 

The barrel-vaulted nave and the groin-vaulted aisles include eleven bays, while the wide transept consists of six bays. The choir is covered by three bays surrounded with an ambulatory and five radiating chapels. An enormous baldachin, with a statue of Saint James from the 13th century, rises above the main altar. The pilgrims can kiss the saint's mantle via a narrow passage behind the altar. 

The crypt, below the main altar, was the final destination of the pilgrims. In the crypt are the relics of Saint James and two of his disciples: Saint Theodorus and Saint Athanasius. 

Camino de Santiago: Meet God and find yourself 

I have previously mentioned that Santiago de Compostela is the third most important Christian pilgrimage after Jerusalem and Rome. There are many routes that lead to the destination, English, Portuguese, Catalan, Basque, Northern ... but French route is the most common of all. It is long about 800 kilometers. The Council of Europe in 1987 awarded it with the title of The main street of Europe. Also, in 1993 UNESCO declared Spanish and French part of the way to Santiago de Compostela as a World Heritage Site. 

Way of St. James
Way of St. James

Speaking about the meaning of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Lele Viola, author of “The True History of St. James”, said this pilgrimage is to find time for you and to meet God:

“St. James for me is the saint of meetings, unexpected meetings; he is a saint of journeys and travel; journey within the meaning of pilgrimage, walking towards a target which is an encounter with God. During the trip another person is being met who walked the same path, which aims identical to ours. Feeling part of the river of peoples on the move, in my opinion, is one of the magical components of pilgrimage.“

In the past, pilgrims were often dressed in traditional cloaks, carrying a long stick and curly felt hat decorated with Jacob hats, symbols of the saint. Many cathedrals, churches and hospitals were built along these different routes and today show the way to Santiago de Compostela (Santa Maria del Camino, San Pedro de la Rua, Santo Domingo...) 

The victory over the Moors is attributed to the legend of St. James, and even today he lives in people’s religiousness as an advocate to liberate Spain from Muslim hands.

So, have you ever been on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela? How was it? Please, tell me all about it, I want to know ;) 

And share this article so that other people can decide to go to Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage, the journey of a lifetime! 


  1. What a fascinating account of religion and history! I have not been on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela yet but maybe one day I will! We are friends on twitter by the way!

    1. Hi! Thank you for your comment :) Me neither, I have never been on this pilgrimage, but the whole story fascinates because people's experiences really do tell that they found themselves on this journey.

  2. Awesome! Congrats on your journey. Can wait to embark on mine..

    1. No. I've never been there... but do tell how your journey was once you go there. :)