How on earth can a town in Spain claim to have the body of one of the apostles of Jesus Christ? But that’s exactly the assertion made by Santiago de Compostela. For over a thousand years, its cathedral has boasted of its ownership of the body of Saint James the Apostle.
Venerating Saint James at Santiago de Compostela
Saint James the Apostle is said to be buried in the Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela. A huge basilica has been built over the site of his remains. And behind the high altar, pilgrims climb a narrow staircase to kiss the shoulders of a huge statue of Saint James.
I visited Santiago de Compostela three years ago and it’s a fascinating place. During the Middle Ages, it was one of the top pilgrimage destinations in Europe after Rome and Jerusalem. Still today, people tread the so-called ‘camino’ to reach Santiago and worship at his shrine. Or they may simply want some exercise and sunshine!
How did James the Apostle end up in Spain?
In the year 813 CE, a shepherd followed a bright star (yeah, I know…you’ve heard that story before!) and it led him to a mysterious burial place. He reported it to the local Bishop of Iria, a man calledTeodomiro, who declared that the skeleton was the remains of Saint James the Apostle.
A hundred years before, Muslim armies had crashed in a wave across the Iberian peninsula. They conquered what is now Spain and Portugal. Muslim invaders even got into southern France. But the north of the peninsula was less economically attractive to the caliphate and difficult to control.
So, by 813, small Christian kingdoms had formed. Steadily, they were pushing southwards. The result was a peninsula divided between Christian and Muslim rulers. For 800 years, the so-called “Reconquest” continued until the fall of Grenada in 1492 (same year America was discovered by Columbus).
In 813, Muslim power was at its height. Emirs ruled from Cordoba, which was a glittering and wealthy city. If anything, they sneered at their poorer Christian neighbours. But kingdoms like Leon and Navarre were plucky and determined to succeed. What they needed were signs of divine approval. And the appearance of the relics of Saint James seemed to fit the bill.
Saint James becomes the symbol of Christian reconquest
Saint James became a symbol to the Christian kingdoms of their just cause and in one battle against the Moors, it was said that the apostle appeared in person and slew loads of Moors. This gave him the title of Saint James Moor Slayer – and James is still portrayed in Santiago on horseback killing terrified Moors.
Pilgrims still flood to Santiago and the journey is great fun. Here are some of my pictures from my visit three years ago.
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