For centuries, Catholics have believed that James the Apostle fought Moors in Spain during the so-called Reconquista. Let me explain that a bit more. James, one of the disciples, somehow found his way from Roman ruled Palestine to the Iberian peninsula. He died there. And went on to appear in ghostly form at battles against the Muslim rulers of Spain and Portugal in the Middle Ages.
An apostle of Jesus who went around slaying Muslim soldiers….sounds improbable? Well, not in the Middle Ages! Should say at this point that the medieval James became a Christian hero against the Moors. In more recent times he’s become a figurehead for racists. That is leading to questions about this saint and the iconography that often shows him on horseback slashing at Moors below. Not exactly in keeping with the tolerance we all aim for in our own time.
James, often known as Saint James the Greater, was a fisherman from Capernaum. To be distinguished from James the Just, the brother of Jesus, who was another apostle.
This James came from a well-to-do family. He had a burning hatred of the Samaritan community and when they failed to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, he suggested raining fire down on them from heaven. This suggestion was firmly turned down by Jesus.
James the Apostle ends up in Spain
The martyrdom of James is recorded in the New Testament. He was killed at the orders of Herod Agrippa. In the centuries that followed, stories began to emerge that James had found his way to what is now the province of Galicia in Spain, in the north-western corner. Opinions are divided whether he was alive or dead. Either his body was taken there for burial or he preached the gospel there.
Why did such a story develop? Well, what is now modern Spain and Portugal had been invaded by Muslim armies in 711CE. But slowly, small Christian kingdoms developed in the north of the Iberian Peninsula initiating a 700-year process of military re-conquest called the “Reconquista”.
At the outset, these kingdoms came under relentless attack from the caliphate to the south, which was richer and better resourced. But slowly they pushed forward. Being the Middle Ages, these crusaders needed divine inspiration and they got it by adopting Saint James as THEIR apostle.
Santiago de Compostela – burial place of James
The town of Santiago de Compostela was designated as the true burial place of James. The saint appeared as a vision to armies before battle. Miracles were attributed to him. And slowly but surely a basilica complex developed over his grave and the pilgrims began to swarm in from all over Europe. In fact, the cult of Saint James was second only to Jerusalem in the Templar period.
I’ve been twice to Santiago and the pilgrims are still coming journeying along the Camino de Santiago. They climb the stairs behind an enormous statue of the apostle to kiss his gold and jewel encrusted shoulders. They worship before statues of him trampling on the enemy Moor.
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He’s not the only biblical figure believed to have journeyed very far after the death of Jesus. There’s also:
- Joseph of Arimathea went to Glastonbury to convert the ancient Britons
- Thomas the apostle went to India to spread by the Christian faith
- Mary Magdalene fled to France with the child of Jesus