A look at the Santiago de Com­postela cathe­dral

Dozens of pil­grim­age routes through Europe lead to the an­cient and awe-in­spir­ing Santiago Com­postela cathe­dral in Spain

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FROM the Mid­dle Ages to this day, thou­sands of peo­ple walk one of the trails of the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James) every year to visit the beau­ti­ful cathe­dral of Santiago de Com­postela in the Gali­cian re­gion of Spain.

Also known as the Pil­grim­age of Com­postela, it’s a long trek to the shrine of Saint James the Great, where the re­mains of Je­sus Christ’s apostle are said to be buried. There are a few ways to travel the re­li­gious or spir­i­tual pil­grim­age route, the most fa­mous of which covers 772km all the way from Sain­tJean-Pied-de-Port in France and across the north of Spain. All of them end at the cathe­dral of Santiago de Com­postela, which is con­sid­ered a mas­ter­piece of re­li­gious ar­chi­tec­ture.


Dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages the scal­lop shell be­came known as the sym­bol of St James. There are a few leg­ends that link him to the shell – one tells of how he res­cued a knight who’d plum­meted off a cliff into the ocean and emerged cov­ered in scal­lops – but the shell is also found on the coast of Gali­cia, the re­gion of Spain where Santiago de Com­postela is lo­cated. The scal­lops served a prac­ti­cal pur­pose for the pil­grims, who wore them at­tached to their cloaks or hats: they were used as bowls to hold their food or wa­ter on the long jour­ney.


The cathe­dral was built on top of the site of an old church, which had been con­structed on top of St James’ tomb. The orig­i­nal church was de­stroyed in 997 by a Mus­lim army.

Con­struc­tion of the mostly gran­ite build­ing be­gan in 1075. Ac­cord­ing to the Book of Saint James – a guide­book for pil­grims – the cathe­dral was built by Bernard the el­der, “a won­der­ful mas­ter”, and his as­sis­tant, Rober­tus Galper­i­nus, with help from Este­ban, mas­ter of cathe­dral works. The book also says the last stone was laid in 1122, but the cathe­dral was ex­panded many times in the 16th, 17th and 18th cen­turies.


The Botafumeiro is a huge censer (a me­tal con­tainer for burn­ing in­cense). It swings from the ceil­ing on thick chains to spread the in­cense smoke to the con­gre­ga­tion be­low. “Botafumeiro” means “smoke ex­peller” in Gali­cian.


The name is Gali­cian for The Por­tal of Glory, given to the Ro­manesque-style main en­trance to the cathe­dral. It was added to the build­ing in 1188. Its three arches are dec­o­rated with 200 fig­ures and mytho­log­i­cal creatures rep­re­sent­ing the apoca­lypse. Christ sits on the throne in the cen­tral arch, with a statue of Saint James be­low Him to greet pil­grims at the end of their jour­ney.

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