Plaza del Obradoiro is the monumental centre of Santiago de Compostela. Its Galician name seems to be derived from the workshops of the stonemasons that built the Cathedral´s baroque façade, which dominates the square and welcomes the thousands of pilgrims arriving via the Way of St. James.
The buildings enclosing the square –the Cathedral; Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, a former pilgrim hospital that is now a national `Parador´; Colegio de San Xerome, which houses the university vice-chancellor´s office; and Palacio de Raxio, which houses Santiago City Council- represent the Galician capital´s main centres of activity: religion, university education, accommodation for pilgrims and visitors, and the Administration.
This square therefore has the quality of summarising the city´s uses and thousand-year history. A quick glance around the square reveals the presence of different architectural styles, which arose during more than 700 years of construction.
The present-day Romanesque Cathedral was built on the site of the Apostle´s tomb starting from 1075. Its most photographed view is its west façade (Obradoiro Façade), which was built in front of the Cathedral between the 17th and 18th centuries like a large ornamental curtain. Before then, the Pórtico de la Gloria, now housed inside the Cathedral, could be seen from the square through an archway.
The towers attained their 74-metre height in the mid-18th century, when the architect Fernando Casas y Novoa, continuing with the remodelling project that Peña de Toro initiated in 1670, added the baroque tops to the medieval towers. In between them he placed a large stone altarpiece and large windows, which fill the inside with daylight while reflecting it onto the façade´s ornaments –coats of arms, volutes, columns, capitals, pinnacles- to create a play of light and shade. The façade is dominated by the figure of St. James dressed in pilgrim attire, with a hat, cape and staff.
The double-section stairway was built at the beginning of the 17th century, in order to overcome the difference in ground level between the square and the Cathedral floor. This is the function of the crypt, whose doorway is located between the first steps. This Romanesque stairway also serves as the architectural and conceptual foundation of the Pórtico de la Gloria.
Apostle Festival Fireworks
If the light of the sunset reflected by the stone –and contemplated, for example, from the hundred-year-old eucalyptus tree in Alameda Park- has made many people believe that Obradoiro means `Obra de Oro´ (Work of Gold), it is the fireworks of July 24th that really take the volumes into a magical realm. On the eve of St. James’ Day, which forms part of a two-week festival declared to be of International Tourist Interest, a son et lumière show recalls the supernatural vision of the hermit Paio, who was led by heavenly lights and singing to the undergrowth where St. James the Greater´s tomb was hidden for almost eight centuries. The screening of multimedia images about the city´s Jacobean tradition and history onto the magnificent backdrop of the Cathedral, is followed by the burning of the so-called `Gothic façade´ and, at midnight, fireworks that are visible throughout the city.
The verticality of the Cathedral´s main façades contrasts with the horizontal weight of the side buildings: on the left, the Archhisop´s Palace of Xelmírez; on the right, the Cathedral´s Gothic-Renaissance cloister. The latter is one the largest in Spain and was built between 1521 and 1590, by the best Castilian architects of the late Gothic and early Renaissance style (Gil de Hontañón and Juan de Ávila), to replace a Romanesque cloister. The bright space, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is crowned by pinnacles and crenellations.
The cloister forms part of the Cathedral Museum, which is a must for understanding the history of the Cathedral and the city. Archaeological pieces, tapestries, images, books and relics fill the cloister annexes, two of the basilica´s chapels, the crypt and the archbishop´s palace.
Archbishop´s Palace of Xelmírez
Santiago´s first archbishop, Diego Xelmírez, had this residence built starting from 1120, after his palace was destroyed by a popular uprising due to his opposition to the first civic assemblies. The result is an extraordinary example of civil Romanesque architecture. The present-day façade, which was added in the 18th century, protects a medieval palace featuring a kitchen, stable, a courtyard bordered by the Cathedral and rooms that were remodelled during the following centuries. One of its most outstanding rooms is the 12th-century synodal hall, whose immense vault depicts scenes from a medieval banquet. The interior may be visited by buying a ticket for the Cathedral Museum.
Hostal de los Reyes Católicos
Construction on the Royal Hospital began in 1501 by order of the Catholic Monarchs, who had visited Santiago in 1486 and saw the need for better healthcare for residents and pilgrims. The architect Enrique de Egas erected the hospital in harmony with the late Gothic style and the beginning of the Renaissance. The altarpiece-like façade features plateresque ornamentation bordered by large royal and imperial coats of arms, a symbol of the monarchy´s power standing up against the church and the archbishop´s palace. On the inside, surrounding the Gothic chapel, there are four cloister-like courtyards: the two front ones date from the 16th century and the back ones from the 17th century.
The original installations –several rooms for patients divided according to sex and social class, collective dormitories for healthy pilgrims and a wing for abandoned children- were gradually extended to meet the city´s healthcare needs until 1954, when it became a National `Parador´. In memory of centuries of hospitality, the Hostal still gives a free breakfast, lunch and dinner to the first pilgrims that arrive each day.
If you go to the Hostal´s terrace, where it forms a corner with Palacio de Raxoi, you will discover the Church of San Fructuoso, decorated with the four cardinal virtues (although locals call them the four “jacks” of Spanish playing cards); the contrasting background is made up of the green colour of urban vegetable gardens, Alameda Park on the left and the nearby Monte Pedroso on the right.
Colegio de San Xerome
Colegio de San Xerome now houses the office of the University of Santiago de Compostela´s chancellor, on the south side of Plaza del Obradoiro. Erected in the 16th century by the bishop Fonseca for poor arts students, this Renaissance building features a late-Gothic portal that originally belonged to the Azabachería pilgrim hospital. Its jambs depict the figures of St. Dominic, St. John the Evangelist, St. James, St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Francis of Assisi and, on the tympanum, Our Lady with Baby Jesus.
Palacio de Raxoi
This neoclassical building, which is called after the archbishop who founded it, finally enclosed the square in the 18th century; thereafter, the square´s name was changed from `Plaza del Hospital´ to `Plaza Mayor´. It was erected by the French engineer Charles Lemaur between 1767 and 1787, to be used as a seminar of confessors and residence for the boys of the Cathedral choir, as well as a civil and ecclesiastical prison. However, the building became Santiago City Council´s third town hall. Today, it also houses the Xunta de Galicia President´s Office. Its tympanum is decorated with a relief of the Battle of Clavijo, which was, according to legend, the first conflict in which the figure of the Warrior Apostle appeared, to fight against the invasion of the Moors. St. James, represented as the patron saint of the Reconquest, crowns the construction.
It is worth mentioning the modest granite slab in the centre of Plaza del Obradoiro. Pilgrims consider it `kilometre zero´, the point where all of the roads leading to the Apostle converge. The slab´s inscription informs us that, in 1987, the Council of Europe declared the Way of St. James the `First European Cultural Itinerary´.