In 1486, the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand visited Santiago. Sick pilgrims wandered the streets. Medical assistance was given in small hospitals promoted by institutions or even in private houses, except for the case of lepers, who were shut up in the outskirts.
The monarchs’ visit was not a coincidence. Due to this deficiency, Isabella and Ferdinand decided to found a Royal Hospital, not only in order to centralize and update medical services, but also to consolidate their presence both in the city and in the not-always-obedient Kingdom of Galicia. They built a monumental seat strategically located in front of the Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace, surrounded by chains.
The project was entrusted to the architect Enrique de Egas and construction started in 1501. The hospital was built in the late Gothic and Renaissance styles. The façade was conceived as an altarpiece. If we look at the top part, we’ll see the Apostle Santiago, Jesus, Our Lady and St John the Evangelist. Underneath them there is a depiction of the twelve apostles. At the bottom part of the vertical rows, the naked figures of Adam, to the left, and Eve, to the right, signal the arrival of the New Classicism.
To the sides, we find huge coats of arms –the royal one to the left and the imperial to the right. Both testify to the monarchical presence, as well as the medallions above the front door representing the founders, Isabella and Ferdinand. The rest of the façade is made up of fine ornamentation called Plateresque (which comes from the word for silver, “plata”) since the stone is carved as if it were pieces of silver. The balconies were added later, in the 17th century.
Apart from the size of the building, one of the things that most impressed people about it was the ornamented cornice. The stone chain around the hospital was often described by visiting pilgrims; also the gargoyles, representing strange creatures and animals, and even human beings in obscene positions.
Life in the hospital was organized in such a way so as to locate men in the left half and women in the right half. Accommodation for healthy pilgrims was located on the ground floor; the infirmaries occupied the upper floors, and were also separated according to gender and social class. Three of the infirmaries had the particularity of being disposed in a T shape with respect to the chapel and overlooking it, so that sick people could see the two-story-high altar while mass was being celebrated. This chapel, in Gothic and Renaissance styles, is a historical and artistic monument surrounded by four beautiful cloisters, two of them in Renaissance style and the other two in baroque style.
The rotating door that we see to the right of the façade was the place where orphans and unwanted children were abandoned. During the 18th century, more than 800 children were left at this door. After being christened, the children were distributed among women in the villages, who were paid to breastfeed them until the age of two. However, they did not always do so, and because of the sanitary conditions of that time, only 10% of these children reached the age of seven. This was not the case of the writer Rosalía de Castro, who was christened in the Hospital’s chapel. Despite being registered as having unknown parents, she escaped from the orphanage when her godmother took her in.
These facilities were gradually enlarged in order to cope with the city’s sanitary needs, which reached a climax during the 1769 famine, when more than 4 thousand 300 hundred people fell ill.
The building was used as a hospital until 1954, when it became part of the National Chain of “Paradores” (hotels). Therefore, in a broad sense, the hospital can be considered as one of the oldest lodgings in the world.
Today, in remembrance of so many centuries of hospitality, pilgrims enjoy an interesting privilege: the first ten to arrive with the so-called “Compostela” certificate and a voucher issued by the Pilgrim’s Office, can enjoy a free meal in the elegant five-star hotel.