El Peregrinaje de Claudia de 2013 travel blog

The Cathedral of Santiago.

Santiago with his staff and shells.

A chapel in the Cathedral.

Cruz de Santiago in stained glass.

Decorations on the back of the shrine of Santiago.

Detail from Pórtico de la Gloria.

These musicians represent 24 elders mentioned in Revelations.

Elders playing the organistrum, better known today as a hurdy-gurdy.

You can still see the polychrome on many parts of the Pórtico.

Fragments of the Rose Window of Maestro Mateo.

Where the Rose Window used to be above the Pórtico de la...

San Mateo writing, a figure from the old stone choir.

A section of the restored stone choir stalls (now in museum).

Detail from choir with remnants of original colors.

Beautiful marble column.

Panel from later wood choir stalls, also removed from cathedral.

Looking across the cloister of the Cathedral.

The Botafumeiro is over 5 feet tall.

Santiago's original cape was getting worn from all the hugs, so it's...

A gorgeous wooden retablo now in the Cathedral museum.

The stone roof makes tours possible.

A one-handed clock in a Cathedral tower.

Here are photos I took in and around the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. In addition to visiting the cathedral and its adjoining museum, I took two guided tours: one of the Pórtico de la Gloria, now being restored and under scaffolding; another walking about the roof of the Cathedral. Below, some background to illuminate the pictures a bit.

While current construction and overall ambiance of the Cathedral are not the most glorious, the history and details are rich. The cathedral was constructed over the ruins of the earliest shrine to Santiago, St. James the Greater, one of Jesus' Apostles and the patron saint of Spain. You might ask, "why St. James?"

St. James came to Spain to convert pagans, but, having little luck, he grew discouraged. In a vision, the Virgin Mary encouraged him to return to the Holy Lands and continue his service to Christ there. She explained to him that although he had had little luck in Spain, in time his influence would be profound. He returned to Judea where, in 44 AD, he was beheaded by order of Herod Agrippa.

The legend has St. James' body being brought back to Galicia where it was laid to rest near the western coast. In 814 AD, a peasant witnessed a field of stars (campo de estelae > Compostela) and unusual lights and understood, from an angel perhaps, that he had come across the remains of St. James. The bishop decreed it a miracle and informed King Alfonso II of Asturias, who ordered a shrine be erected.

By 899, the shrine had expanded into a church and pilgrimages to the site were encouraged, in part to support the Reconquista, the Christian efforts to reconquer areas of the Iberian Peninsula held by Muslims. That year, the church was destroyed by Al-Mansur, a Moorish commander, who sent its bells to Córdoba for the mosque there. Around 1075, a replacement cathedral was begun. But the construction drug on and King Fernando II of León grew tired of waiting. So, he contracted with Maestro Mateo, an architect and sculptor, to complete the construction. This occurred in 1188 and the product was an elegant Romanesque cathedral filled with light and spectacular stone work.

Master Mateo built onto the existing edifice, incorporating themes from the Book of Revelations throughout the structure. The crypt below the sanctuary represents Earth, the main level is Heaven and the Tribunal (open galleries) above is the Holy City of Jerusalem. Each level has stone decorative elements reflecting its realm. The Earthly sanctuary was a clearing in the midst of a stone forest, with natural light pouring through open stone rose windows and galleries in the upper levels. A stone choir sat at the center of the main nave. The main entrance was the Pórtico de la Gloria, a magnificent three-part carved stone depiction of Christ in Glory with the Prophets and Apostles, Elders, Sinners and Saints, all communicating the story of the Apocalypse and Jesus' Second Coming. It must have been a magnificent sight for the faithful who had come from across Europe to be pardoned and blessed by St. James.

Various expansions and renovations of the cathedral took place between the 16th and 18th centuries, resulting in a mainly Baroque exterior, and enclosing much of the masterpiece of Maestro Mateo. Now the sanctuary, while still grand, is a much darker, more somber space. The altar and chancel are gushing golden and silver spectacles surrounding the bust of St. James which pilgrims and visitors file past to hug and thank for their safe journeys and well-being. Below the altar is a very small crypt where one can pray before the reliquary containing the remains of the saint.

A lovely tradition of the cathedral is that of the Botafumeiro. This censer, said to be the largest in the world, is swung from the dome over the chancel on high holy days. Supposedly, use of this huge censer began as a way to overcome the smell of dirty pilgrims who often slept in the galleries of the cathedral. I saw this ceremony when I attended mass on St. James Day, July 25, 1985. It was awe-inspiring, even a bit frightening, to watch this giant metal vessel fly through the air, spilling smoke upon the priests and pilgrims, saints and sinners gathered below!

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