The First Pilgrims

Discover the origins of the St. James Way between the 9th and 12th centuries.

By Regional Government of Galicia

Cathedral of Santiago of Compostela (1075)Regional Government of Galicia

Today, the St. James Way is the most international pilgrimage in Europe. But how did it all begin?

World map of the Blessed of the Cathedral of El Burgo de Osma (1086)Regional Government of Galicia

The Tomb of Saint James the Great at the End of the World

Around the year 820, the tomb of Saint James the Great was discovered near the western edge of Europe. A sacred space developed around it to protect and pay homage to his remains: known as the Locus Sancti Iacobi (Place of Saint James), it was the origin of the city of Santiago de Compostela.

Collegiate Church of Iria Flavia (12th-17th Centuries)Regional Government of Galicia

Multiple legends, oral traditions, and written sources show the beginnings of the worship of Saint James the Great in the Iberian Peninsula and the discovery of his tomb in that isolated part of the medieval diocese of Iria Flavia.

Discovery of the Tomb of the Apostle Santiago el Mayor by Bishop Teodomiro in Tumbo A of the Cathedral of Santiago (12th Century)Regional Government of Galicia

This miniature of the Tumbo A of the Cathedral of Santiago, an important documentary codex from the 12th century, recreates the discovery by the bishop of the diocese of Iria Flavia, Teodomiro, of the tomb of the apostle Santiago and his disciples, Teodoro and Atanasio.

Puerta Santa, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela (1075)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

The Locus Sancti Iacobi was the first center of population to grow around the place where the Apostle's remains were discovered. Its organization marked the beginnings of the city and the start of medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

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

Legend holds that the tomb of the Apostle was discovered by Bishop Theodemar of Iria, whose existence was confirmed by the discovery of his mid 9th-century tombstone. The bishop was buried beside the first basilica, built by King Alfonso II of Asturias in Santiago de Compostela.

Alfonso II the Chaste in Tumbo A of the Cathedral of Santiago (12th and 13th Centuries)Regional Government of Galicia

The First Pilgrims

The first pilgrims to arrive in Santiago de Compostela, from the end of the 9th century, were Asturian monarchs and French and German abbots and monks. From the 11th century, Santiago de Compostela experienced one of its most successful periods.

Monumental ensemble of Soutomerille (2020)Regional Government of Galicia

According to tradition, the first notable pilgrims to visit the tomb in the 9th century were the Asturian kings Alfonso II and Alfonso III, bringing the court of Oviedo with them on the journey. This would become the origin of the route that is now known as the Original Way (Camino Primitivo).

Model of the Basilica of Compostela of Alfonso III (1997) by Fernando Palacio Edreira [Armadillo Taller]Original Source: Museum of Pilgrimage and Santiago

In these early stages of the Way, the worship of Saint James was promoted by the Asturian monarchy. They awarded land and benefits to the church in Santiago and pushed for the first basilicas and the Antealtares monastery to be built around the Apostle's tomb.

Urna del Apóstol SantiagoThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

The Antealtares monks were responsible for attending the worship of the Apostle's tomb until the Cathedral Chapter was established for this purpose, between the 11th and 12th centuries.

Monastery of San Paio de Antealtares (1599)Regional Government of Galicia

There is still a Roman altar stone in the current monastery of Antealtares that was part of the Apostle's altar in the first basilicas of Saint James. The Bishop Diego Gelmírez gave it to the monks. 

Puerta Santa, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela (1075)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

From the 11th century, Santiago de Compostela experienced one of its most successful periods, becoming an established center of pilgrimage. During the 11th and 12th centuries, the Gregorian Reforms created a new spirituality around the worship of relics, which helped promote the growth of the Way.

Monastery of San Xulián de Samos (6th Century - 18th Century)Regional Government of Galicia

The infrastructures for the pilgrims' travels were paid for by kings, noble laypersons, bishops, military orders, and particularly monasteries: a dense network of religious establishments, supported by the Order of Cluny, such as the Samos Monastery (Monasterio de Samos), grew up along the pilgrimage routes.

Banner of Santiago in the Liber Sancti Iacobi (12th Century)Original Source: Wikimedia Commons

History views the 11th and 12th centuries as the golden age of pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims are recorded arriving in large numbers, not only from the Iberian Peninsula, but also from France, Italy, Central and Eastern Europe, England, Germany, and even Iceland.

Diego Gelmírez before Fruela Alfonso and Pedro Muñiz. Tombo de Toxos Outos (13th Century)Regional Government of Galicia

Diego Gelmírez, The First Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela

Diego Gelmírez (1100–40), was one of the most brilliant political minds of the 12th century. He also became one of the most influential figures in the promotion of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, interior (1075)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

Gelmíres became the first archbishop of the city in 1120, thanks to his diplomatic skills. He strategically pushed to restart construction of the Romanesque cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. He oversaw the completion of the chevet and the construction of the entirety of the transept (the transverse arm of the cathedral) as well as beginning the main nave. 

Torre da Berenguela in the Platerías square in Santiago de Compostela (2021)Regional Government of Galicia

During his time, the Silversmiths' façade (fachada de las Platerías) was also built. It served as a backdrop for public trials and represented his power in the city. The sculpture on its tympanums (decorated surfaces above the doors) refers to the dual nature of Christ: human and divine.

Codex CalixtinoRegional Government of Galicia

Gelmírez also supported a project to become a city of pilgrimage, as well as the creation of promotional materials for Saint James. These included a book relating the main acts of Gelmírez's government, known as the registrum or the Historia Compostelana, and the famous Codex Calixtinus.

Códice Calixtino, folio 1 rectoThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

Codex Calixtinus

The Codex Calixtinus is a compilation of five books. The first, and longest, is a collection of the cathedral's liturgical texts. The second recounts Saint James' 22 most popular miracles.

Códice Calixtino, folio 162 versoThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

The third is about the transfer of the Apostle's body from Jerusalem to Galicia. The fourth is dedicated to the adventures of Charlemagne on the Camino de Santiago. The fifth describes the routes of Saint James in France and the French Way (Camino Francés).

Códice Calixtino, folio 101 versoThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

The musical appendix to the codex is also of great historical value. It contains some pieces that could be the first examples of polyphonic music (with two independent melodies) in Europe.

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