The cathedral shows its visitors a Romanesque interior, dominated by the “Portico de la Gloria.” It was conceived as the atrium of the cathedral and was carved by Master Mateo between 1168 and 1188. It only took him 20 years. It is considered the masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture. Its objective was presenting visitors with a glorious, apocalyptic vision of the time of the end, similar to Heavenly Jerusalem, whose ‘gates are not closed at all by day, for night does not exist there.’ [Revelation 22:15]
The central body of the “Pórtico,” dominated by Christ the Redeemer and the figure of St. James in a seated position, receives pilgrims with a view of the work’s monumentality and delicacy, with more than 200 granite figures making up a studied iconographic programme.
Pilgrims from all over the world placed their right hand on the marble column depicting the tree of Jesse, thereby expressing their gratitude and joy at having reached their longed-for destination.
The ritual was completed at the front, beside the figure of Master Mateo kneeling down, the one known as “Santo dos Croques.” According to tradition, his talent will be passed on to whoever bangs their head against him three times. This custom was especially popular among students and visitors in search of inspiration.
Nevertheless, the conservation teams advise against such rituals due to the severe deterioration they have caused in the monumental work in recent years.
In any case, whoever wishes to contemplate the “Pórtico de la Gloria” in all of its splendour can do so by participating in the Cathedral of Santiago’s own tour programme.
If we continue along the main nave, we will be able to understand the layout of the cathedral, perfectly preserved in its Romanesque style. This is the typical Latin cross plan of all pilgrimage churches, with three longitudinal naves and another three under the transept. The central nave is 97 metres long and is crowned by a triforium, which elevates the naves up to 20 metres high. This gallery was very useful in the Middle Ages, when many pilgrims had to sleep in the cathedral waiting for the first religious service to start.
Once we arrive at the main altar, we will notice the ostentatious intervention of baroque architecture in the Romanesque cathedral. The spectacular baldachin with Solomonic columns, which protects the silver altar and the Apostle’s chamber, has a statue on the Apostle riding his horse on top. It is a seventeenth-century work, commissioned by the Chapter to make the Cathedral look even more spectacular. This is where the faithful’s greatest expectations are met: the Pilgrim Mass is held here, along with the individual rites of embracing the Apostle and venerating his relics.
In effect, going up the ambulatory’s right stairway, in the chamber, the thirteenth-century Romanesque figure of Santiago receives the emotional embrace of all pilgrims. After that, pilgrims go down the left stairway so as to visit the Apostle’s relics in a small mausoleum that has always been the city’s spiritual epicentre. This crypt contains the first-century remains, discovered, according to legend, in the ninth century, and which today rest in a nineteenth-century urn. The reason for this is directly related to one of the privateer Francis Drake’s attacks against Coruña, in 1589, when he threatened to take the venerated relics back to England. The Cathedral’s canons hurried to hide them and so they remained for three hundred years. However, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the relics saw the light of day when a papal bull acknowledged their authenticity once again.
In solemn ceremonies, the “Botafumeiro” swings through the 65-metre- long nave that we see at both sides of the main altar. Probably in the twelfth century, this huge censer started to be used as a purification instrument for the cathedral, although its true function was to hide the pilgrims’ body odour with its incense aroma.
The one-and-a-half-metre-high Botafumeiro weighs around 60 kilograms and is moved by eight so-called “tirabolieros,” who make it swing from north to south through the transept. It only takes a minute and a half for it to reach a speed of 68 km per hour, forming an 82-degree angle with the vertical line and almost touching the vault. The rope and pulley system, built in the sixteenth century, can always be seen hanging from the octagonal dome.
If you take a walk through the transept and around the ambulatory, you will be able to admire architectures, tombstones and religious art from different periods, especially in the chapels, in which pilgrims from all over the world can find the saints of their devotion.
Before leaving the cathedral, we advise you not to miss the Corticella Chapel. It was founded in the ninth century by Benedictine monks as an oratory. However, it ended up being connected to the cathedral by a corridor with stairs in its northern arm, becoming a parish church for pilgrims and foreigners inside the cathedral. Although the chapel is dedicated to Our Lady, its entrance features a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi, along with the figure of “Christ in the Mount of Olives” inside, bearing the faithful’s prayers and supplications.