The Camino de Santiago

The legendary origin of the Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) and the various routes leading to the Apostle's tomb.

By The Catedral de Santiago Foundation

Fundación Catedral de Santiago

The city of Santiago de Compostela was one of the most important cities in medieval Europe, and the third major place of pilgrimage after Jerusalem and Rome. Its pre-eminence and sanctity lie in the fact that it is the burial place of the Apostle Saint James the Greater, who was one of Jesus Christ's 3 closest apostles along with Saint John (his brother) and Saint Peter.

The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage rooted in medieval origins. It leads to the tomb believed to be that of the Apostle Saint James the Greater, in the crypt of Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. The Camino was, and still is, Europe's oldest, busiest, and most well-known route.

El origen del Camino de Santiago

El descubrimiento del sepulcro Jacobeo en la alta Edad Media en tierras de Galicia marca el origen de la peregrinación a Santiago de Compostela. El relato jabobeo, también conocido como el relato de la Inventio, narra el descubrimiento de sepulcro de Santiago de forma legendaria.

Tumbo A Tumbo A (h. 1129-1134) by Compostelano ScriptoriumThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

According to the Concord of Antealtares (1077), a hermit named Paio who lived in San Fiz de Solovio (today in the old town of Santiago de Compostela), saw some lights above a nearby forest and sent for Bishop Theodemar from the Diocese of Iria Flavia. There, they found 3 tombs, later identified as those of the Apostle Saint James and his 2 disciples, Theodore and Athanasius.

The discovery took place in the early 9th century and Alfonso II built an initial, modest basilica, which would be replaced in 899 A.D. by a larger one, built by Alfonso III.

News of the discovery spread around the world and the first pilgrims arrived in Santiago soon after. A city grew up around the Apostle's shrine, and would become what is now Santiago de Compostela.

Saint James' Preaching in Hispania (1594-1596) by Gregorio EspañolThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

Saint James the Greater

Saint James the Greater, son of Zebedee and brother of John, was the first apostle to be martyred in Jerusalem between 42 and 44 A.D., on the orders of Herod Agrippa.

According to the Apostolic Breviaries, Saint James the Greater had preached in Roman Spain and been buried in Ake Marmarike: a legend that grew in the centuries that followed and led to the discovery of the Apostle's tomb between 820 and 840.

PedrónThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

A number of anecdotal texts, dating from the 10th to the 12th centuries, describe the arrival of Saint James' body on the Galician coast in a boat that was miraculously steered by the "hand of God." It was moored at the famous "Pedrón de Padrón"—a Roman altar stone dedicated to Neptune.

Pico SacroThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

At that time, Galicia was ruled by the legendary Queen Lupa, who decided to trick those who had brought the body by offering them some tame oxen, which she kept on a hill, to help them move it to the tomb. On mount Illicinus (now known as Pico Sacro), they found an enormous dragon waiting for them, which they defeated by making the sign of the cross. The oxen that the queen had given them were, in fact, wild bulls that they managed to tame to help them return to Lupa's palace.

Astonished, the queen converted to Christianity and destroyed all the pagan idols and temples, building the Apostle's tomb where they had stood.

Theodemar's Tombstone (847)The Catedral de Santiago Foundation

Theodemar of Iria, the 15th bishop of the diocese, played a part in the tale of the "Inventio," or discovery, of the Apostle's tomb. The tombstone had been re-used in the construction of the second Santiago de Compostela basilica, built by Alfonso III, and was discovered in 1955.

According to the inscription on the tombstone, Theodemar died on October 20, 847.

The tombstone is vitally important to the story of Saint James, since Theodemar discovered what is believed to be the Apostle's tomb and is perhaps the most pivotal character in this story.

The discovery of the tomb cleared up any doubts about the existence of this bishop, who had been buried in the emerging town of Compostela rather than in the episcopal see of Iria Flavia.

Saint James the Pilgrim, previously owned by Archbishop Álvaro de Isorna (1445) by Francesco MarinoThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

In the centuries that followed, the image of Saint James would change with his growing status as an object of worship in the Iberian Peninsula. Saint James came to be thought of as a pilgrim and a knight.

Several things came to be associated with pilgrims. Just as in various medieval ceremonies, there was a ritual that all pilgrims went through before setting off, in which they were given a walking stick and a pouch. Then there was the pilgrim's staff, satchel, and scallop shells, as described in the rites and metaphors in the sermon "Veneranda Dies" (Liber Sancti Iacobi, I, 17):

"The pouch was a symbol of the generosity of alms and the mortification of the flesh; the staff, as a third foot, was a symbol of the Holy Trinity; and the scallop represented charity or good works, as the grooves in the shell resembled an open hand."

St James's ShellThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

The scallop shell became a symbol of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the 12th century, during the time of Archbishop Gelmírez (1100–40), probably as a result of the need to find a distinctive emblem.

Scallop shells soon came to be thought of as sacred objects. Book III of the Codex Calixtinus describes the miracle of a man from Apulia, who cured his sore throat by holding a scallop shell near it, given to him by a pilgrim friend who had returned from Santiago de Compostela.

The relief "Christ with Disciples on the Road to Emmaus" (ca. 1120–1235), in the cloister of the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos, alludes to the scallop as a symbol of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. "The oldest scallop shell found in Santiago de Compostela dates from before 1120, and was found during excavations at Santiago Cathedral in the sixth section of the nave, next to the old Cresconio tower."

Codex Calixtinus Codex Calixtinus (1150-1200) by Scriptorium compostelanoThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

The Network of Routes

The origins of the Camino de Santiago lie in the Liber Sancti Iacobi or Codex Calixtinus, which was probably written in Santiago de Compostela during the time of Archbishop Diego Gelmírez (1100–40), over a number of years.

Codex Calixtinus - Book II DetailThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

The French Way

The "Camino Francés," or French Way, is the most traditional route in Galicia and is the one set out in Book V of the Liber Sancti Iacobi (1137). The part of the French Way that goes through Galicia corresponds with the last 3 days of the Codex Calixtinus. This would obviously have been completed on horseback, since it would take almost a week to complete these 3 final stages on foot.

The route enters the "Land of the Galicians" at O Cebreiro, a place full of buildings evocative of the pre-Roman or Celtic past, such as the traditional stone dwellings called "pallozas." The church of Santa Maria a Real is located in O Cebreiro. It has a basilican layout with 3 square apses at the end, and was founded in the late 9th century.

Archaeological Remains of the Apostle's Shrine (400)The Catedral de Santiago Foundation

The Original Way

The "Camino Primitivo," or Original Way, is one of the oldest routes to Santiago de Compostela, since it had already been used by Sancho III and Alfonso VI before the French Way was established.

Starting in Oviedo, it follows one of the first routes established shortly after the discovery of the Apostle's tomb, and is the one taken by Alfonso II the Chaste to found the first basilica between 820 and 830.

The route enters Galicia at O Acevo (3,379 feet), where there was once a pilgrims' hospital. This is where the route divides into 2. One path goes north, passing through A Pobra de Burón, where there were 3 hospitals.

The other passes through A Fonsagrada, which is a key location on the Roman route between Ovetum and Iria. It is a route that pilgrims had already been traveling since the 12th century, and is home to the Fons Sacrata, or Sacred Fountain, where one of the Apostle's miracles took place.

The Northern Way

The "Camino del Norte," or Northern Way, is considered to be one of the original routes. Since it runs along the Cantabrian cliffs, there are natural obstacles along its entire length, also making it one of the most difficult. The first recorded journey along this route dates from the end of the 15th century.

The Northern Way enters Galicia at Ribadeo, a small coastal town that was a commercial port in the 18th century, and where there was at least one pilgrims' hospital.

The English Way

Although there are records of a pilgrimage from the British Isles to Santiago de Compostela in the 12th century, it did not become a tradition until the 15th century. That was when John Goodyear arrived in Santiago de Compostela, bringing with him his famous altarpiece depicting scenes from the life of the Apostle Saint James.

The "Camino Inglés," or English Way, now runs from A Coruña to Santiago de Compostela. However, to receive the Compostela certificate awarded by the Pilgrims Office for completing the route for religious purposes, pilgrims must take another route, on foot, which has less of a historic tradition.

This short 73-mile route goes from Ferrol to Santiago de Compostela, passing the monastery of San Martiño de Xubia (a priory of Cluny Abbey since 1113). It also runs through the town of Neda, where the Sancti Spiritus Hospital took in pilgrims traveling to Santiago de Compostela and San Andrés de Teixido.

Altarpiece with Apostle Saint James' life scenes (h. 1456) by Nottingham workshopThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

This altarpiece, commonly known as the Goodyear altarpiece, was an offering from the pilgrim John Goodyear (a parish priest from the south coast of England) in 1456.

The altarpiece depicts episodes in the life of the Apostle Saint James the Greater: his vocation, mission, preaching, martyrdom, and the transferral of his body. This is clear from the Latin inscription in gothic characters at the bottom.

The reliefs are arranged symmetrically, highlighting the central one showing the "Preaching in Hispania" scene, indicating that they should be viewed from left to right, in chronological order.

There is symmetry in the scenes and it is worth noting the narrative of the compositions, emphasized by Biblical quotes of the words of Jesus on the first and second panels, and Saint James on the third—both with the same message.

The Portuguese Way

The "Camino Portugués," or Portuguese Way, runs along various inland and coastal roads in Portugal, entering Galicia at Tui.

A great many Portuguese people made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela during the Middle Ages, and there are numerous links to them in the stories of St James and the Apostle's miracles.

Annunciation Annunciation (h. 1325) by Mestre Pero, Coimbra workshopThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

The cathedral contains a considerable number of items that were brought as offerings from Portugal, such as the Annunciation.

There are several suggested explanations for this. Some believe they are the result of Spain's strong ties with Portugal, but they may also have formed part of the offerings made by Queen Isabella of Portugal on her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in 1325.

Vía de la Plata

La vía de la Plata es una prolongación de la originaria via romana que unía Emerita Augusta y Asturica Augusta. Este camino también es conocido con el nombre de camino mozárabe pues fue utilizado por los mozárabes para peregrinar a Compostela e incluso por el propio caudillo musulmán Almanzor en 997.

Aquí lo vemos a su paso por el puente romano de Salamanca.

Codex Calixtinus Codex Calixtinus (1150-1200) by Scriptorium compostelanoThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation


As well as the Codex Calixtinus, there are also some written documents that are closely linked to the emergence of the Camino de Santiago. The different contexts in which these documents were written offer a better understanding of the process of construction and alteration of Santiago Cathedral, both architecturally and spiritually. They also provide an overview of the rites that took place there.

The Breviary of Miranda The Breviary of Miranda (1450) by Scriptorium compostelanoThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

The Miranda Breviary is considered one of the main sources of information on the ancient liturgy of Santiago de Compostela, and its "psalter" (collection of psalms) follows a particular version of the Mozarab tradition. Its miniatures also contain a great wealth of examples of initial letters and borders, based on the Castilian script of the time.

Tumbo A Tumbo A (h. 1129-1134) by Compostelano ScriptoriumThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

Tumbo A, which was produced during the time of Archbishop Gelmírez, is one of the Iberian Peninsula's main and most outstanding medieval cartularies. It is also one of the best records of the development of Santiago Cathedral, from its origins to the 13th century.

Cartularies were books that recorded the privileges and belongings of churches and monasteries.

Credits: Story

An exhibition by the Catedral de Santiago Foundation
Photography: © Santiago Cathedral Museum
Texts: Marina Pérez Toro

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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