What can one say about the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the final destination of one of the most celebrated pilgrimages in the Christian world? The legend of how the body of the Apostle Saint James was brought to Galicia from the Holy Land in a marble boat in the first century, and then the underground tomb lay unnoticed for centuries before being miraculously rediscovered in the 9th century by a star in the distant field (campus stellae), is the object of great curiosity and veneration even today, as it must have heightened the enthusiasm for the faithful during the Middle Ages.
Remarkably, the history of the Cathedral is chronicled in half a dozen volumes in the Cathedral archive by Aymery Picaud who had visited Santiago in 1131 (some say 1120). “The Pilgrim’s Guide”, the fifth volume of the manuscripts that is sometimes referred to as Codex Calixtinus spells out the years of major construction milestone, information on the twenty-six other shrines of note on the four major routes from France: from Paris and Orléans via Tours, from Le Puy via Conques, from Arles via Toulouse, and from Vézelay via Limoges.
it was Diego Peláez, bishop of Santiago from 1071 to 1088, who had engaged master builders Bernardus the elder and Robertus Galperinus in 1075 during the reign of Alfonso VI of Castile and León to begin the construction on the Cathedral, and the first portion of the work had been completed by 1077. Diego Gelmirez, who succeeded Peláez, oversaw the construction of most of the present cathedral during his tenure from 1093 to ca. 1140 when he died. Although the bulk of the work was built by around 1122, it was consecrated only in 1211 during the reign of Alfonso X.
The first glympse a modern day visitor catches of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela when arriving at the Praza do Obradoiro is the magnificent Churrigueresque western façade, designed by Fernando de Casas y Novoa in 1740, whereas pilgrims during the centuries in the Middle Ages before the façade was constructed would have found a Carolingian western façade, as Professor Conant had persuasively reconstructed.
Most of the exterior as well as some aspects of the interior of the cathedral have gone through transformations to reflect the splendor of that golden age in Spanish art. The façade of the southern transept, called the Puerta de las Platerias, is about the only Romanesque design on the exterior of the Cathedral. It is recorded as the work of Master Esteban executed around 1103. The Cathedral is set approximately seven and a half meters above the Praza do Obradoiro (stone workers) up the Renaissance style diamond steps built in the 17th century. Just inside the western façade is the narthex where the Pórtico de la Gloria of ca.1168 executed by Master Mateo greets visitors.
The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is built on the Latin cross plan: eleven bays long nave with aisles; the crossing with a tower above; three bays long chancel; an apse with ambulatory with five radiating chapels; five bays long north and south transepts with aisles on three sides. The Cathedral is built of beige colored granite. One can marvel at the prowess of the stone carvers who had created one of the most remarkable sculptural ensembles of the period in granite.
On walking into the nave past the narthex where the Pórtico de la Gloria is ensconced, a visitor is greatly rewarded beyond expectation in finding the interior mostly left as the Romanesque architecture, unquestionably French in design and execution. It is nothing short of breathtaking to feel the palpable rhythm being created by elegantly proportioned compound piers with attached shafts and the aisle arches down the nave, and to take in the long vista toward the elaborate altar, with the Baroque organ pipes jutting out near the crossing as if trumpeters were at the ready.
All the architectural elements in the Santiago cathedral can be found in churches built north of the Pyrenees before 1070’s. Scholars of the Romanesque architecture seem to group five churches, variously referred to as “pilgrimage group,” or “Santiago group” as having common architectural features: they are Saint-Sernin, Toulouse, Sainte-Foy, Conques, two now demolished churches of Saint-Martin in Tours and Saint-Martial in Limoges, and finally, Santiago de Compostela.
The nave elevation shows the superiority of design by Bernardus and Robertus as well as the high caliber of workmanship of the stone cutters.
The view from the north transept entrance towards the south transept with double set of modern interior doors at the Puerta de las Platerias is as impressive as the view down the nave, if not more so because there is no elaborate altar to impede the vista.
A special feature of the pilgrimage churches, which is that the aisles are not only at either side, but also round the ends of the nave and transepts, is well illustrated at the north transept.
There are steps to the Puerta Francígena at the north transept connecting the Cathedral to Praza de las Azabacheria to mediate the difference in the level of the surrounding terrain. The view looking straight up to the transept vaulting from north to south also shows intricately decorated chancel ceiling.
The view of the aisle turning round the transept at the Puerta Francígena, with slightly angled placement of entrance doors, shows that the gallery also wraps the transept around. The widths of stairs leading to the gallery seem to indicate that the pilgrims were ushered up to the gallery level when the need arose.
“It is a great moment for the lover of the Middle Ages, when he finds himself in the soft light and shadow of that harmonious nave, gazing towards the high altar which has been the object of pilgrim devotion for so long.” – Kenneth John Conant –
This post by Jong-Soung Kimm has corrected a long-standing deficiency of Via Lucis’ survey of Romanesque churches, an appreciation of the ultimate medieval pilgrimage church at Santiago de Compostela. For that we thank him wholeheartedly.
Location: 42.880602, -8.544377