Saying Plaza de la Quintana is a redundancy, since “quinta” or “quintana” refers to an open public space. While the upper area, at the top of the stairs, is known as “Quintana de Vivos” (“Quintana” of the Living), the large esplanade where we’re standing is called “Quintana de Mortos” (“Quintana” of the Dead), since it used to be the city’s main cemetery. Besides housing Roman and early medieval tombs, discovered during excavations at the Cathedral and its surroundings, this square was a burial place until the 18th century. After that, due to a lack of space and to improve the sanitary conditions, it was decided to look for another piece of land for such purposes.
From this rear view we can see the Cathedral façade featuring the Holy Door, which is only opened during Holy Years so that believers going through it can obtain full absolution, after going to confession and receiving Holy Communion. Such a privilege, granted to the Cathedral in 1122 and ratified soon after, turned Santiago into one of Christendom’s holy cities. From this door we can see the cathedral’s Romanesque apse. The top part of the façade features the Apostle and his two disciples; in the lower part we find 24 inserted figures that belonged to Maestro Mateo’s old stone choir, which was dismantled in the 16th century.
To our back, we have the impressive wall of the Monastery of San Paio de Antealtares, with its 48 barred windows. Alfonso the Second founded it in the ninth century so as to have the monks watch over the Apostle’s remains, since he feared they could be stolen.
Towards the end of the 15th century, Benedictine monks were replaced by cloistered Benedictine nuns, who have remained here ever since. The nuns make pastries that are sold through a rotating window facing onto San Paio Street, on the other side of the convent.
According to legend, a university student fell in love with one of the convent’s novice nuns. One night, while trying to climb up to her window, he fell and died at the foot of the long wall. Since then, some people say that his spirit wanders around at night in search of his beloved. The magical atmosphere created at night time in this square was also described by Federico García Lorca in his “Galician Poems”: “Look at his wasted flesh, / black with twilight and wolves. / Mother: The moon’s dancing / in Quintana of the Dead.”
This square has truly been a witness of history. The first municipal proclamations of the Middle Ages were heard here; the square also housed the city’s first Town Hall, saw the University originate in the Monastery of San Paio and was a marketplace and the scene of the city’s most diverse political expressions. During the War of Independence, it witnessed the departure of a battalion of a thousand university students and teachers who went off to fight the French troops, preventing the fall of Galicia one night in May 1808. In their honour, the Quintana was named for some time Square of the Literates, as a plaque on the monastery wall reminds us.
Maybe this square is called Plaza de la Quintana, square of squares, because it has accumulated so much history over the centuries.