Mª José Prieto
In its development, the Way of St. James worked as a circulatory system. European trends spread along the arteries forming the backbone of the route, bringing the knowledge of the time to the villages that sprouted along the Way. This exceptional holy year, split in two by the pandemic, invites you to encounter the magical landscape surrounding the history of St. James.
Before getting started, it is worth looking into its origins. Why hundreds of people face every year, since time immemorial, an initiatory journey; a journey which begins with the restlessness of the unknown and ends in exaltation, in a feeling aroused by the arrival at the immense space which is the Plaza del Obradoiro, causing a moving emotion which is as overwhelming as it is pleasurable in terms of experiences and knowledge.
Thus, the origin: it was in the year 813 when a hermit noticed some light signals in the sky. The event was brought to the attention of Teodomiro, then bishop of Iria Flavia, who verified on the spot that the strange lights were coming from an abandoned funerary building. In the face of such an occurrence, the prelate concluded, not without a period of thorough meditation and fasting, that in that place was the tomb of the apostle St. James, on whose remains the primitive church which was the foundation of the magnificent cathedral of Santiago de Compostela would be built.
Little time elapsed before political power came into play. The bishop not only certified the discovery, but also asked the king, Alfonso II the Chaste, to visit the site from Oviedo, the capital of the kingdom, a feat he carried out at least once, in the year 834. In this way, without any document recording the reason for the decision taken by the monarch, the first stone was laid on the Pilgrim’s Way, making Alfonso II the first documented pilgrim of this great story.
The Grail of O Cebreiro
It goes without saying that those times were prone to myths. Indeed, there is in the rich chronicle of the Way of St. James a fondness for legend, for prodigious events which extol the need to undertake the Way, at least once in a lifetime, either for a spiritual motivation or for the avidity of experiences bestowed by a scenic and historical environment of sublime proportions. There was also, in the remote medieval centuries, the need to recover territories for Christianity and to recover the Reconquest from the Muslims. The existence of a so-called “holy corridor” raised hopes among the kingdoms guarding the Way of the Apostle.
If any sound echoes at every step, apart from the footsteps or the virtuous natural melody accompanying the route, it is the incessant whisper of the legends which weave an imaginary path; a kind of parallel road in which fiction and reality intermingle to tile a route as prolific as it is inexhaustible, nourished by the popular heritage.
The miracle of the Holy Grail of O Cebreiro stands out from this fruitful ingenuity, spread throughout Europe by the voice of clerics, minstrels and pilgrims. Tradition tells how, one cold winter’s day, a resident of the village of Barxamaior went up to O Cebreiro to hear mass, despite the heavy snow that was falling on the mountain pass. The priest, annoyed by the fact that he was celebrating the Eucharist in front of a single parishioner, told him that he could have died on the way up just to kneel down before a bit of bread and wine. In response to such an insolent comment, after the consecration of the forms, the host turned into flesh and the wine into blood. The commotion caused by the miracle was such that the Catholic Monarchs visited the site in the year of their pilgrimage to Compostela, in 1486. Even the queen Isabel herself was so fascinated by the sacred object that she tried to take it with her; but when the royal retinue set off for Castilla, the horses stopped, making it impossible to advance, so the monarch ordered the relics to return to O Cebreiro.
The stone talks
In the distance, the silhouette of the Cathedral of Santiago majestically dominates the urban skyline. As the pilgrims wander through the warp and weft of narrow streets, they can fantasise about the efforts of the geometricians, mathematicians, stonemasons and painters who carved this masterpiece of Romanesque art.
It was truly a colossal construction. The cathedral was conceived to stand out in splendour from all other known temples. The most brilliant minds of the time worked on its construction and the finest materials were used; everything was designed to create the grandest sanctuary in Christendom. If there is one element encapsulating the architectural and artistic plenitude of the church, it is the Pórtico de la Gloria, conceived by master Mateo as a stage in movement, where the stone talks, laughs and holds a conversation. The figures convey feelings that were once unimaginable and flee from Romanesque solemnity to enter into a true sensory revolution. No one had ever dared to work stone in this way before.
One can imagine the ecstasy caused by the first polychromy of the portico. The great masses of gold and lapis lazuli glittered when struck by the sun’s rays. The image radiated a sensation of divinity; the stone came to life and the statues moved to acquire a natural appearance never before seen.
Behind this incredible spectacle, one of the most undisputed geniuses of art was to be found: the master Mateo, a charismatic character, surrounded by a halo of legend which has even transcended his own work.
An exceptional team
It was King Ferdinand II of León who took the decisive step to complete the cathedral. In order to complete the work in the shortest possible time, he hired Mateo, to whom he allocated two silver marks a week, which was a good sum of money for the time. In the Compostela of the 12th century, his job was to supervise all the architectural, sculptural and painting work: a director at the head of an exceptional team well-versed in the stylistic traditions of medieval Europe.
The outstanding personality of the master is surprising, as can be seen in the inscription Magistrvm Mathevm on the lintel of the Portico (year 1168), which makes no reference to King Ferdinand II, the true sponsor of the works, nor to Archbishop Pedro Suárez de Deza, who held the archbishop at the time.
From Mateo’s impetuous character may have arisen the legend of the Santo dos Croques, a sculpture located on the back of the Portico de la Gloria, which is considered to be a self-representation of the master. Legend has it that he placed his figure in the portico itself, but when the archbishop disapproved of his audacity, he moved it to its present location. In the 19th century, the habit arose among students of gently head-butting their heads on the effigy’s forehead in order to be infected by his wisdom, hence its name in Galician, croque: a head-butt.
The arrival of the apostle in Galicia
The tradition of St. James o Santiago (known in Spanish) claims that the tomb of St. James has been located in the city of Compostela since the 1st century, when the remains of the apostle, who was beheaded in Jerusalem around the year 44, were taken by his disciples by boat to the Galician coasts. The skeletal remains were found in a funerary edicule of Roman origin, in the Libredón forest, the place where the primitive church was built. The current urn with the relics of the apostle and his disciples Athanasius and Theodore dates from 1880 and presides over the crypt located under the main altar of the cathedral.
The papacy almost always rejected the fact that St James preached on the Iberian peninsula; however, it did acknowledge that the tomb was in Compostela. The city is considered one of the three great centres of pilgrimage for Christianity, along with Rome and Jerusalem.
Paradores on the Camino
History has carved out many different ways to reach Santiago. Along the way are some of the most spectacular paradores of the route. The one in Santiago, in the middle of the Obradoiro square, was founded in 1499 as a royal hospital to house pilgrims. Its location makes it a unique enclave for immersing oneself in the tradition of the Pilgrims of St. James.