The History of the Camino de Santiago

Discover Santiago de Compostela, the city of the Apostle St. James, which has been the destination of pilgrims from all over the world, from the ninth century to the present day.

Santiago the Mayor and Temptations of Christof the Portico of Glory (ca. 1168-1188) by Master MateoThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

James the Great was a fisherman from Galilee, and one of the 12 disciples of Christ. Together with his brothers, John and Peter, he was part of Christ's inner circle. He was beheaded in around 44 AD in Judea, on the orders of King Herod Agrippa.

Evangelization in Roman Hispania (2019) by Juan Caamaño AramburuSpanish Federation of Associations of Friends of the St. James Way

According to tradition, the Apostle St. James traveled to the Iberian Peninsula, following the command of Jesus to preach the Gospel all over the world. Of all the possible places in which he could have arrived in Hispania, the city of Cartagena seems the most likely.

The Apostle Santiago and his disciples adoring the Virgen del Pilar (1775) by Francisco de Goya y LucientesOriginal Source: Zaragoza Museum

According to ancient tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to St. James and his disciples on a pillar on the banks of the Ebro River to encourage him in his work preaching the Gospel, and to commend the building of a church in his honor.

Boarding in Jaffa of the body of Saint James the Greater (15th Century) by Martín BernatOriginal Source: Prado Museum

The body of St. James was placed in a boat in Jaffa by his disciples, and taken by sea to Iria Flavia, which is now the town of Padrón. On arrival, he was taken to his burial place in a cart pulled by two bulls, whose shock on seeing the mythical Queen Lupa instantly tamed them.

Miniature of the "Tumbo A" of the Cathedral of Santiago (12th Century) by UnknownOriginal Source:

Ancient chronicles of the Camino de Santiago suggest that, on the advice of the hermit Pelayo, the bishop of Iria Flavia, Teodomiro, went to a forest. There, the location of the tomb of St. James and his disciples Theodore and Athanasius was revealed to him by some angels. These events took place between 820 and 830 AD.

Camino Primitivo (9th Century) by Valdés-Salas FoundationOriginal Source: Valdés-Salas Fundation

Once news of this miraculous discovery reached Alfonso II of Asturias, he set off from Oviedo toward Galicia, following the route now known as the Primitive Way. He ordered the building of a small church on the burial site, with St. James' tomb kept in the church's east end.

Compostela in the 10th century (2011) by José L. Serrano SilvaOriginal Source:

In the year 880 AD, Bishop Sisnando I moved his residence from Iria Flavia to Santiago de Compostela. Some years later, Alfonso III of Asturias ordered the building of a new, larger church to replace the old one. The town's population grew, as did the number of pilgrims.

The Romanesque Cathedral (1983) by Kennet John ConantSpanish Federation of Associations of Friends of the St. James Way

In 1075, when Diego Peláez was bishop, work began on the Romanesque cathedral. This involved demolishing the church built by Alfonso III. The work was eventually completed by Master Mateo, and the cathedral was consecrated in 1211 in the presence of Alfonso XI.

Liber Sancti Iacobi or Codex Calixtinus (12th Century) by Various authorsOriginal Source: Santiago Cathedral

The five volumes of the Codex Calixtinus are a 12th-century compilation of information relating to the Camino de Santiago. The books were instigated by the church of St. James in the time of Archbishop Diego Gelmírez. They contain liturgical texts, reports of miracles performed by the Apostle, the Liber de translatione corporis sancti Jacobi ad Compostellam, the history of Charlemagne, and a guide for pilgrims traveling from France to Santiago de Compostela.

Detail of the doors of the Hospital del Rey de Burgos (16th Century) by UnknownSpanish Federation of Associations of Friends of the St. James Way

Book V of the Codex records the peak of this pilgrimage in terms of numbers of pilgrims, and their diversity: "Countless people of all nations go there ... paupers, rich men, criminals, gentlemen, blind men, nobles ... they all go there, proclaiming E-ULTR-EIA, E-SUS-EIA."

Portrait of Juan de Sanclemente, Archbishop of Santiago (1599) by Pedro MadrigalOriginal Source: Floridablanca library

In 1589, facing the threat of the city being plundered by the pirate Francis Drake, the relics of St. James and his disciples were hidden on the orders of Archbishop Juan de Sanclemente. It was also feared that Philip II would want them for the monastery of El Escorial.

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

In the second half of the 17th century and during the 18th century, the interior of the cathedral underwent significant renovations. This included the Obradoiro facade. The architect Fernando de Casas Novoa was commissioned by the Cathedral's Chapter to work on this facade between 1738 and 1750.

Rediscovery of the relics (1926) by Kennet John ConantSpanish Federation of Associations of Friends of the St. James Way

Toward the end of 1878, Archbishop Payá y Rico requested that the canons López Ferreiro and Laín Cabello search for the relics of St. James beneath the Main Altar. Excavations in the area of the presbytery led to their discovery in January 1879, in an urn beneath the retroquire.

The Popes in Santiago de Compostela (1982)Original Source:

In 1982, Pope John Paul II visited Santiago de Compostela, becoming the first pope to visit the Apostle's tomb. He returned in 1987 for World Youth Day. In 2010, Benedict XVI visited the cathedral and celebrated mass in the Plaza del Obradoiro.

Holy Door of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (Primera mitad del siglo XVI)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

Today, the largest numbers of pilgrims flock to Santiago de Compostela during a Jubilee year. Jubilee Years occur when July 25 (the feast of St. James, commemorating his martyrdom) falls on a Sunday. All pilgrims and visitors who meet a series of spiritual requirements are granted plenary indulgence by the Church. It is traditional to enter the cathedral via its Holy Door.

Credits: Story

Federación Española de Asociaciones de Amigos del Camino de Santiago
Pilar de Luis Domínguez
Juan Caamaño Aramburu

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