The Cathedral’s west entrance was finished in 1188 with the culmination of Romanesque sculpture: the “Pórtico de la Gloria.” This magnificent series of three arches, sculpted by Maestro Mateo in only 20 years, endows the vestibule with a high degree of symbolism, whose interpretation is linked to that of the other three exterior façades: original sin, Redemption and Final Judgment. More than 200 granite figures, which had never before been depicted so vividly and expressively in the Middle Ages, interact in a living painting to compose a theological message centred on Man’s Salvation.
The Portico should also be understood as a symbolic ensemble of Heavenly Jerusalem, made up of the lower crypt, the three-arch portico itself and the gallery, at the top of the church, corresponding to Earth, Final Judgement and Glory.
The Portico is made up of three arches, for each of the Cathedral’s naves, with their respective timpanums, archivolts and columns; a lower plinth, a central column or mullion, sections of back-façade (facing the Obradoiro façade) and vault.
The central arch displays the Apocalyptic vision of Heavenly Jerusalem: the resurrected Christ, surrounded by the four Evangelists and their emblems: Lucas is writing his Gospel on a bull, John on an eagle, Mark on a lion, while Matthew appears with his tax collector’s box. Among therm are the righteous ones and below, an entourage of angels carrying the instruments of the Passion. Above this ensemble, on the archivolt, the 24 elders of the Apocalypse are speaking to each other, tuning their instruments to intone the song of Glory.
Mullion and plinth
The Cathedral’s patron saint, the Apostle James, dominates the central marble column. This mullion, sculpted with the Tree of Jesse or Christ’s genealogy, features halfway up the profound marks left by the pilgrims’ hands.
The plinth all around the Portico depicts monsters, wild beasts and heroes of Antiquity, crushed by the Church’s victory. According to other authors, these symbolise a passage from the Book of Daniel. Behind the column is the figure of Maestro Mateo, kneeling down and looking devotedly to the altar.
The Portico’s entire left side is devoted to the Old Testament and the Jewish People, while the right hand depicts the New Testament and the Gentiles.
The left side arch is supported by columns depicting the prophets: from the interior to the exterior, Moses, Isaiah, Daniel and Jeremiah. Among the faces, the smiling Daniel stands out; his naturalness was historical. These were the first steps of the Gothic style in Compostela, also announced by the transept vault: Maestro Mateo probably introduced this type of vault in Spain, since there are none prior to the one he used in the crypt below the Portico. But others prefer to see in this smile on the young prophet’s face, a nod to the figure of the beautiful Esther, beside the Obradoiro doors, where she is accompanied by other Old Testament characters. Their presence makes some Portico scholars think that the Portico is the stone depiction of a medieval liturgical drama, called Ordo Prophetarum. This sacred music composition is in fact performed every year in the Cathedral around Christmastime.
The right arch, for its part, is devoted to the Final Judgment, and is supported by figures of the apostles: Peter, Paul, James and John, whose face also has a smile. In the archivolts, it is worth mentioning the graphic depiction of the torments experienced by those condemned to Hell: the drinker is trying to swallow liquids upside down; the glutton is trying to eat a pie while a snake is squeezing his throat; greedy persons have their hands and feet tied…
Opposite this scene, beside the Obradoiro doors, are characters from the New Testament such as St. Jude Thaddeus, St. John the Baptist, St. Bartholomew and St. Thomas. In relation to these, people usually say that they are conversing, with the Baptist telling the others to keep quiet in the church.
Restoration 2009 - 2018: Information here
Guided visits to the Porch of Glory (Pórtico de la Gloria): Information here.
Photos: ©Copyright: Programa Catedral_Fundación Barrié / Fundación Catedral
Illustration: Isidoro González Adalid.