The present-day cathedral is the fourth building that arises above the Apostle’s relics. It started to be built in 1075 in order to enlarge the space for the thousands of pilgrims that arrived each year along the Way of Santiago.
With the passing of time, this cathedral, consecrated in 1211, would receive influences from other styles, some of which are visible both in the inside and in its façades. Out of all the renovations, the most ambitious and important one was the construction of the Obradoiro façade, which enlarged the sanctuary and also gave the name to this square, turning the cathedral into the baroque jewel that we see today. Although its medieval appearance on the outside was transformed, it still preserves its Romanesque soul inside.
Construction work began in 1670 on the right tower by Peña de Toro, and was continued by Fernando de Casas y Novoa, who died before it was finished. This façade is conceived as a great altarpiece divided into three parts. The 74-metre-high towers that we see on both sides have a baroque top that was added to the already existing medieval towers. In the middle, we find a great stone altarpiece with the figure of Santiago dressed as a pilgrim in the centre. On both sides of his niche, angels in pairs are holding the Cross of St. James. Underneath them, there is a depiction of the Apostle’s tomb illuminated by a star. It is escorted by two of his disciples, Teodoro and Atanasio, those who, according to legend, transported the sacred relics from Palestine.
The windows were the biggest of that time and have a double function. On the one hand, they reflect the sunlight, producing a baroque effect of light and shade and creating volume; on the other hand, they let a great deal of sunlight in, which is unusual in a Romanesque church.
The main entrance is reached through the elegant stairway designed by Ginés Martínez in the seventeenth century. At its base we can see the entrance to the crypt, which was made in the twelfth century by Master Mateo’s workshop. It was the perfect solution to overcome the difference in height between the cathedral’s naves and the square. The crypt is covered by a vault strong enough to support the impressive work that, years later, Master Mateo would create: the “Pórtico de la Gloria.”
The verticality of the Cathedral’s main façade, which rises up like a triumphal arch, is in total contrast with the lateral buildings. To the right, the façade of the Cathedral’s Gothic-Renaissance cloister; to the left, the Archbishop Palace, built by the first and powerful Archbishop of Santiago, Diego de Xelmírez, in 1120. It is an extraordinary example of Romanesque civil architecture; inside, we find a medieval palace with a kitchen, stables, a patio and a synodal room covered by an impressive ribbed vault.
The ticket for the Cathedral’s Museum will enable us to admire its magnificent cloister and less-known places such as the Chapel of Relics, also known as the Royal Pantheon. A walk around these and other areas, such as the Cathedral’s rooftops or archaeological excavations, will enable visitors to understand the city’s history from its Roman origins, its glorious medieval past and the importance of pilgrimages in its final configuration as a city.