The high altar reflects the lavish baroque intervention in the Romanesque Cathedral. To “brush up” the old 12th-century altar, it was surrounded by 36 Solomonic re-gilded columns covered with vine tendrils. Finally, the Romanesque altar was replaced by a large silver baroque work, dominated by St. James dressed as a pilgrim, with a spectacular baldachin supported by angels above and crowned by an effigy of the apostle on horseback and the Spanish coat of arms.
The high altar’s splendour increased when railings were added, the vaults polychromed and the ensemble surfaced with marble. The work of Peña de Toro was completed by the master Domingo Andrade, with gilded wood, marble, jasper and silver; and by the 18th-century organs, decorated by Miguel de Romay. Hanging from the octagonal dome, opposite the altar, we can see the rope and system of pulleys designed in the 16th century to operate the famous “Botafumeiro” censer.
The high altar is where the Pilgrim Mass takes place, every day at 12 noon, as well as the rituals carried out by worshippers in the Cathedral. Going up the stairs to the alcove, visitors follow the custom of embracing the seated St. James wearing a pilgrim’s cape, a Romanesque figure from the 13th century, and admiring the view of the main nave.
Traditionally, the next step is going down from the alcove to visit the relics of the Apostle James and his disciples, Athanasius and Theodomirus, in the small underground mausoleum. This area of worship, the oldest in the Cathedral, corresponds to the original Roman pantheon, which had been blocked off in the 12th c. by Archbishop Gelmírez. Curiously, until the 19th c. worshippers could not visit the relics, which in fact had been “missing” since the 16th century. It turns out that they were hidden in 1589 to prevent Sir Francis Drake from stealing them and taking them to England. However, in the end, the “pirate” did not even reach Compostela. In 1879, during archaeological excavations in the church, the bones were rediscovered behind the altar. After papal certification of their authenticity, the apostle’s relics were placed in a 19th-century engraved silver urn and the tomb acquired its present-day appearance.