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Cathedral of Santiago
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Cathedral of Santiago

Santiago de Compostela´s Romanesque Cathedral is the fourth building erected on the site of the Apostle James´ mausoleum. The first chapel was built after the discovery of his relics in the 9th century, followed by a pre-Romanesque church that was destroyed in the year 997 by the invasion of the Moors led by Almanzor. A new basilica existed by the 11th century but it was decided, in the year 1075, to erect a cathedral capable of housing the thousands of pilgrims visiting it. This is the present-day Cathedral, whose west side was completed by the masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture: the `Pórtico de la Gloria´.

`Pórtico de la Gloria´

Conceived as a portico or narthex of the Cathedral, the work sculptured by Maestro Mateo between 1168 and 1188 consists of three arches and more than 200 granite figures, which make up a theological message centred on the idea of salvation. The central arch is dominated by the apocalyptic vision of Heavenly Jerusalem: the resurrected Christ, surrounded by the four Evangelists and, above them, on the archivolt, the 24 elders tuning their instruments in order to intone the hymn of glory.

The left-hand arch features scenes from the Old Testament and rests on columns depicting the prophets, among which Daniel stands out. His expressive smile announced the first steps of the Gothic style in Compostela, which are also patent in the ribbed vault. However, according to popular wisdom, the prophet Daniel´s smile has to do with the beauty of Queen Esther, the blushing female figure opposite him.

The right-hand arch, for its part, is dedicated to the Final Judgement and rests on figures of apostles: Peter, Paul, James and John. As the Cathedral´s patron saint, St. James appears again on the central marble column, carved with a representation of the Tree of Jesse or Christ´s genealogy. Halfway up the column we can see the deep handprints made by visiting pilgrims. Behind the column, the kneeling Maestro Mateo is now called the `Santo de los Croques´ (Saint of the Head Butts) since, according to popular tradition, he is able to pass on his talent to whoever bangs his head against him three times.

Naves, High Altar and Chapels

The Cathedral reflects its original Romanesque style with a Latin-cross ground plan typical of pilgrimage churches, with three naves lengthwise and three in the transept, crowned by a triforium surrounding the entire church. This gallery was a useful element in the Middle Ages, when many pilgrims were obliged to spend the night in the Cathedral while waiting for the first religious service. It also gives the interior space an elegant aspect by raising it to a height of 24 metres.

Four of the Cathedral´s 16 chapels –18 if we count the chapel of the crypt and the cloister- are attached to the main nave. On the left is the neoclassical Chapel of the Communion and the Chapel of the Holy Christ of Burgos; the ones on the right house collections of relics, the royal pantheon and the Cathedral Museum´s treasury.

The High Altar reflects the magnificent intervention of baroque architecture in the Romanesque space. The baldachin of Solomonic columns, which protects the silver altar and the Apostle´s alcove, dates from the 17th century. Domingo de Andrade completed the decoration made up of gilded wood, marble, veined marble and silver, exaggerated angels and a splendour that also encompasses the organs in the first sections of the central nave, decorated by Miguel de Romay. In the midst of this profuse ornamentation is where the rites justifying the pilgrims´ efforts take place: the Pilgrim Mass which is held daily at noon; embracing the 13th-century figure of the Apostle overlooking the altar; and, finally, visiting the Apostle´s relics in his underground mausoleum. This crypt houses the mortal remains from the 1st century, which were discovered, according to tradition, in the 9th century and are kept in an urn from the 19th century.

The `Botafumeiro´

The 65-metre transept extends beyond both sides of the High Altar, marking the trajectory of the `Botafumeiro´ on solemn feasts. This enormous censer was originally (probably in the 13th century) used to purify the atmosphere inside the Cathedral, which was filled with crowds of pilgrims. It now forms part of the liturgy, during which its 1.5-metre height and 53-kilo weight, activated by eight men called `tiraboleiros´, begin to `fly´ through the transept. It takes just one and a half minutes to reach a speed of 68 kilometres per hour, forming an 82-degree angle with the vertical, which brings it to within a metre of the vault.

A tour around the transept arms and the ambulatory enables us to admire architectures and artistic pieces from different periods. One example is the overwhelming baroque style of the Chapel of El Pilar, at the right-hand end of the ambulatory, decorated with pilgrimage motifs such as the shells and cross of St. James. Nearby is the Holy Door, which is only opened during Jacobean Holy Years. Next is the ambulatory´s central chapel, called the Chapel of El Salvador, which marks the staring point of the Romanesque construction in the year 1075.

Exiting the Cathedral via its north arm gives us a view of the Chapel of La Corticela, an old Benedictine oratory from the 9th century (remodelled in the 13th century) attached to the transept´s north arm; it still functions as a parish church independent from the Cathedral.


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Cathedral of Santiago
Cathedral of Santiago

More information

Praza do Obradoiro, Santiago de Compostela, 15705