In 2020, due to restoration works, the free interior visit is limited to the High Altar, the alcove to embrace the saint, the Apostle's tomb in the mausoleum and the Corticela chapel.
Following the French model of Romanesque pilgrimage churches, the Cathedral of Santiago’s interior space has a traditional Latin-cross layout with three naves per arm. The main nave measures, from west to east, around 94 metres long inside, and the transept, much bigger than usual for churches of that time, attains 63 metres from north to south, which makes this Cathedral the largest Romanesque church in Spain. The maximum height of the naves is 20 metres, reaching 32 metres at the dome.
The central nave is covered by a barrel vault and the side ones by groin vaults. The volumes are supported by elegant semicircular, crowned by a tribune or triforium running along the length of the church and continuing along the transept arms and ambulatory. This triforium gives the naves an unusual slenderness and clarity (compared to other churches of this time), as does the large window in its main façade.
The centre of the main nave was occupied, between the 12th and 16th c., by Maestro Mateo’s majestic stone choir, part of which can be admired today in the Cathedral Museum. It was replaced in 1608 by a wooden Renaissance choir that ended up being dismantled in 1946, which finally cleared the view of the altar.
In the sanctuary, an ambulatory surrounds the high altar to provide access for worshippers and pilgrims to the radial chapels, on the one hand, and to the relics kept in the underground mausoleum on the other.
Chapels in the main nave
Many of the chapels in the original Romanesque ground plan were joined together or altered throughout the centuries, resulting in 16 today. There is also the apostolic crypt, the “Pórtico de la Gloria” crypt and an independent parish, called La Corticela.
The main arm features 4 chapels, none of which belong to the Romanesque ground plan: the ones on the left are the Chapel of La Comunión, in Neoclassical style, and the Chapel of El Santo Cristo de Burgos, from the 17th century. The ones on the right, built with the 16th-century cloister, were designed to house collections of relics, the Royal Pantheon and the Treasury of the Cathedral Museum; it is therefore necessary to buy a museum ticket to visit them.
Chapels in the ambulatory
An unhurried stroll along the transept arms and ambulatory enables us to admire architectures and artistic objects from different periods, especially in the chapels, in which pilgrims from different nations found the saints they venerated. The sanctuary’s original five original chapels and the four small apses in the arms were transformed into notable chapels, some of which reflect a Romanesque structure with Gothic, Renaissance, baroque or Neoclassical altarpieces and ornaments.
The ambulatory features, from left to right, the chapels of San Bartolomé and San Juan, both with a Romanesque ground plan; and Santa María la Blanca, belonging to the silversmiths’ guild. In the centre of the ambulatory we can see the Chapel of El Salvador, the starting point of the Romanesque construction in 1075, according to the inscription that it still bears. Here is where pilgrims received communion and were handed a letter certifying their pilgrimage. Beside it is the Holy Door, which is only opened during Holy Years, so that worshippers going through it can obtain plenary absolution, after going to confession and receiving communion.
The following chapels, towards the south, are La Azucena, with a Romanesque ground plan, and Mondragón, which features a 17th-century terracotta Descent from the Cross. At the far right of the ambulatory, there is the unbounded baroque style of the Chapel of El Pilar, decorated with marble, jasper and pilgrimage motifs, such as scallop shells and the Cross of St. James.
Chapels in the crossing
Starting in the ambulatory towards the Platerías door, we find the tomb of the bishop that discovered St. James’ relics, Teodomiro (9th c.), beside the exit of the Royal Portico (now the Cathedral shop). Then comes a 11th-century baptismal font. Opposite we see the Timpanum of Clavijo (the first known depiction of St. James the Moor-slayer in the 13th century) and two plateresque façades: those of the cloister and the sacristy.
The opposite side, towards the Azabachería door, features a larger number of chapels: the Chapel of La Concepción (with a 16th-century Virgin), the Chapel of El Espíritu Santo (Gothic, extended in the 17th century), the entrance to La Corticela, and the chapels of San Andrés, San Nicolás and San Antonio. On the other side, we can see the small altar to St. James the Moor-slayer (18th century) and the Chapel of Santa Cantalina, which used to be a royal pantheon.
The oldest existing chapel is that of Santa María de la Corticela, a 9th-century Benedictine oratory that was originally a separate building, situated between the Cathedral and the first city wall. It belonged to the monks in charge of St. James’ tomb, who would subsequently found the Monastery of Pinario. The present-day chapel was built in the 13th century and features, on its entrance tympanum, an admirable Adoration of the Magi. Despite having been attached to the transept, it is still a separate parish from the Cathedral and is the setting of the weddings held in the church.