Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Road to Compostela

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Road to Compostela

Article excerpt

In medieval times the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela on Spain was a major attraction for western Christian Europe

"Who can this great and powerful figure be to whom Christians from both sides of the Pyrenees throng to address their prayers? So mighty are the multitudes journeying back and forth on the road westward that there is hardly any room to move on it. We have been told that the person in question was 'St. James, the apostle of our Lord and Saviour', whose body is buried in Galicia, and who is venerated as patron and protector of all the lands of Christendom: France, England, Italy, Germany and, first and foremost, Spain."(*)

Thus wrote the ambassadors of the Emir Alf ben Yussuf (1106-1142), full of wonder as they took the road leading to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. ("Santiago" is the Spanish for St. James). Where had they come from, these crowds of pilgrims who obstructed their way? When had this pilgrimage begun?

The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela honours the apostle St. James the Great. The son of Zebedee (a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee) and Salome (one of the holy women who habitually accompanied Jesus), St. James was the brother of St. John, another apostle and a key figure in the New Testament.

After the death of Christ, St. James preached the gospel in Palestine until he was beheaded on the orders of Herod Agrippa I, nephew of the notorious Herod the Great. He was probably executed in 44 A.D., thus becoming the first apostle to be martyred. According to legend, he also preached in Spain, where his mortal remains were taken and buried in Galicia.

The mythical Moor-slayer

In 711 A.D., a Muslim army from North Africa landed on the Spanish coast near Gibraltar. The Visigothic kingdom of Spain was in decline, and within seven years the entire peninsula had succumbed to these courageous and well-trained invaders. For the next eight centuries, throughout the Middle Ages, the history of Spain was to be determined by the relationship between the opposing religious and cultural powers of Islam and Christianity, a relationship which was difficult but not always hostile.

St. James was to become the symbolic figurehead of the "reconquest" of Spain by the forces of Christianity, and a knowledge of his mythological role in this struggle is essential to an understanding of medieval Spain. Known as Santiago Matamoros ("St. James the slayer of Moors"), he is traditionally depicted as a warrior armed with a sword and sitting astride a white horse.

An opportune discovery in the ninth century revealed the legendary burial place of St. James near the town of Iria Flavia, at the westernmost tip of the Iberian peninsula.

For some time previously, the hermit Pelagius and the natives of this area had been troubled by strange and mysterious phenomena. At night the air would be filled with supernatural light and the sound of sweet canticles, sung as if by angels. Bishop Theodemir was informed of these occurrences, and their source was immediately identified as a tomb, undoubtedly that of St. James the Great. When news of this felicitous discovery reached Alfonso II the Chaste (759-842), ruler of the small kingdom of Asturias and Leon, whose capital was Oviedo, the king wrote, ". . . the presence has been revealed to us of the most precious treasure of the blessed apostle, namely his sanctified remains. Learning of this, my spirit filled with devotion and supplication, and with my court I immediately hurried to worship and venerate this precious relic, and we paid homage with great shedding of tears and prayers to the patron saint and protector of Spain."

The origins and history of the pilgrimage

In contemporary documents, this discovery is described as an inventio, in the sense of an encounter that was so unexpected and marvellous as to be considered supernatural. The king made arrangements for a chapel to be erected on the site of the tomb, and shortly afterwards this was enlarged and transformed into a basilica. …

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