Twelve Treasures of Spain – Santiago de Compostela

Santiago Cathedral

“Give me my scallop shell of quiet;
My staff of faith to walk upon;
My scrip of joy, immortal diet;
My bottle of salvation;
My gown of glory (hope’s true gage);
And then I’ll take my pilgrimage.” 
                                                                                         Sir Walter Raleigh

The “Twelve Treasures of the Kingdom of Spain” was a contest/poll that was conducted by the Spanish Television Company Antena 3 and the radio broadcaster Cope. The final results were announced on 31st December 2007.  I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the eight out of the twelve that I have visited.  Seventh in the final competition results was another Cathedral, out of a total of five in the top twelve, this time Santiago de Compostela

If El Cid represents the secular aspects of heroism and military conquest during the Reconquista then the spiritual hero representing the religious justification and the Christian ethos of the crusade against the Muslims was Santiago, St James the Apostle, and the patron Saint of Spain.

Scallop Shell Santiago de Compostela

In ‘Don Quixote’ Cervantes wrote ‘St. James the Moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had … has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.’  Ever since the reconquest ‘Santiago y cierra España’, which means ‘St James and strike for Spain’ has been the traditional battle cry of Spanish armies.

Santiago was one of the twelve disciples and a devout disciple of Christ but in 44 A.D. he became the first of Apostles to suffer martyrdom when Herod Agrippa I arrested and (allegedly) personally beheaded him in Jerusalem.   According to legend Santiago had preached for a while in Iberia prior to his execution and after his death his own disciples returned his body back to the peninsula. On the way they were caught in a storm and were almost certainly doomed when a ship miraculously appeared, led by an angel, to guide them to land and safety.  They buried the saint near Compostela, ‘field of stars,’ where Santiago lay forgotten for nearly eight hundred years.

Santiago de Compostela is the capital of autonomous region of Galicia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  After Jerusalem and Rome it is the third most holy city in Christendom and the cathedral is the destination today, as it has been throughout history, of the important ninth century medieval pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James.

People continue to take the Pilgrim trail and when I visited there were many who could be identified by the pilgrim staff and the symbol of the scallop shell.   The shell is the traditional symbol of the pilgrimage because the grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes that pilgrims travel but all eventually arriving at a single destination.  It is also symbolic of the pilgrim because just as the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up on the shores of Galicia, God’s hand also guides the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela.

There was certainly no mistaking that this is a very holy city indeed and the route to the Cathedral was lined with churches, monasteries and seminaries and finally we emerged into the central square, Praza de Obradoiro, where the Cathedral (which is depicted on Spanish eurocent coins) loomed high above in a most spectacular and impressive way.  Inside, the Cathedral is nearly a hundred metres long and over twenty metres high and is the largest Romanesque church in Spain as well as being one of the biggest in Europe.

We took an hour or so to look around but it was a approaching lunch time and so we declined to join the long queue of pilgrims and visitors who were waiting in line to visit the crypt and see the box that contains the bones and other grisly relics of St James and left by a side door that opened onto another remarkable courtyard that was surrounded by huge medieval buildings and magnificent towering statues.

The Cross of St. James includes the lower part  fashioned as a sword blade making this a cross of a warrior and in crusading terms the symbol of taking up the sword in the name of Christ.   Most notably, it was the emblem of the twelfth-century military Order of Santiago, named after Saint James the Great.

These days we are a bit more sensitive about religious wars and killing each other in the name of God or Allah and in 2004 a statue in Santiago Cathedral showing St James slicing the heads off Moorish invaders was removed and replaced with a more benign image of him as a pilgrim to avoid causing offence to Muslims.   A Cathedral spokesman in a classic understatement said that the Baroque image of a sword-wielding St James cutting the heads off Moors was not a very sensitive or evangelical interpretation that can be easily reconciled to the teachings of Christ. Good point!

Saint James at Santiago de Compostella


23 responses to “Twelve Treasures of Spain – Santiago de Compostela

  1. One of the most memorable experiences of my life was being taken into this cathedral to see all the pilgrims and the swinging censor.

    At the time I had no idea what I was seeing – being a young backpacker who was just going anywhere his hitchhiking would take him.

    It was years before I found out what it was all about, and not until last year that I walked some of the route.

    Next I’ll have to go back and do more of it…


  2. I walked the Camino in 2010. An amazing journey!


  3. It looks a fascinating place, Andrew, and yes, it’s on my to do list too.


  4. We were invited on the camino a few years ago, and much as we liked the idea (although not so keen on all the people going), we declined. I’d still like to go to Santiago, but no longer sure about the walk, partly because of the need to time it rightish for half-decent weather.


    • You seem to have a problem with weather in Northern Spain? I have been to Galicia twice and had perfect weather both times. I also went to Cantabria in December and sat outside for lunch but I do have to admit that it was a bit damp when I went to the Basque Country in April 2010. In May this year I am going to Asturias so will report back to you on the weather experience when I get back!


  5. It’s unpredictable a bit like British weather. And I’ve done enough long distance walks, a few with a leaking tent and far too much rain, one in an totally unexpected heatwave in Yorkshire (!), and some hill walking in Spain. At my ripe old age, I want the weather to be exactly what I expect. No need to carry too much, and I can plan it all very nicely.

    A long distance walk:

    And I was 20 years younger back then.


  6. I hope they put that statue of St. James cutting of Moorish heads somewhere the public can see it (though my guess is not). Because from a historic perpective, it tells an interesting story about prevailing wisdom at the time the Cathedral was built.

    I must get to Spain.


  7. Cool post – We’re walking the Portuguese Way in April so seeing posts like these are making us very excited about it!


  8. I have bought the tickets to Portugal yesterday 🙂


  9. I’ve never been to Spain, but have always had a feeling I belong there. Great photos, Andrew.


  10. We’ve been talking about doing the walk, from France, across the Pyrenees, etc. Have you done it?


  11. Pingback: Travels in Spain – UNESCO World Heritage Sites | Have Bag, Will Travel

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