Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, Spain
The nave and extraordinary high altar décor of Santiago Cathedral interior.
Glittering Santiago Cathedral
We have explored St Peter’s in Rome, Il Duomo in Florence, Notre Dame in Paris, Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s in London among other magnificent European religious insitutions and Santiago Cathedral is right there with the best, not so much in terms of quality (how can you compete with the Sistine Chapel! ) but for variety of bizarre sights, odd but moving chapels, intricate stonework and the joy of pilgrims at the end of their arduous, self-imposed task, walking the Way of Saint James.
Santiago de Compostela cathedral altar
Examine the boisterously baroque 17thC high altar from as close as possible. Much of the outrageous statuary was created at the behest of a Mexican Archbishop a few hundred years ago.
The catheral’s high altar is lavishly covered with Mexican silver and gilt (though guilt might be a better word considering the cultural destruction wrought on the Maya/Aztec peoples by Spain’s Conquistadores while collecting these precious metals).
At the top of this naive statuary rides Santiago Matamoros, St James the Moor killer, on his white horse appropriately decapitating Moors while giant cherubs lounge and big St James (not visible in this photo), sits stiffly in his gilded cape accepting hugs and kisses from the masses.
Two botafumeiros – incense burners – are visible, the more frequently used silver metal one and the top of a larger brass one (left of the cherub) that was originally a solid silver 17thC pot removed by Napolean’s soldiers as booty of war.
These censers are swung across the transept (perpendicular to the nave) with enormous force on ceremonial occasions, trailing perfumed smoke of course, but also comets of sparks. The larger botafumeiro takes 8 men to swing it via a rope system invented in medieval times.
On one famous occasion when Catherine of Aragon was in attendance the botafumeiro tore off and crashed through a stained glass window.
Puerta Santa, the Holy Door
The door engraved with scenes from the life of St James, including his execution, that connects to the cathedral’s east entrance in Plaza de la Quintana, Puerta Santa, the ‘Holy Door’.
The Holy Door is the east entrance to the cathedral which only opens on years when Saint James’ Day, July 25, falls on Sunday. The next year is 2021 (then 2027, 2032) but it’s worth waiting for because Catholic pilgrims entering the building through these doors – sometimes referred to Puerta del Perdon or Door of Pardon – will be granted a plenary indulgence from the Pope. No, we don’t understand! It’s complicated!
Portico da Gloria
Parents and children being consumed by demons in hell, high on the right of the main, west side, doorway of the cathedral’s outstanding Portico da Gloria, commissioned by King Ferdinand II and completed in 1188.
Arguably Santiago Cathedral’s most impressive artwork are the large, detailed, Romanesque sculptures representing moments from the Bible’s Book of Revelation and Old Testament, Triumph of the Apocalypse. These are carved across and around the three doorways facing Praza Obradoiro on the cathedral’s west side, the main entrance.
In fact most of the 200 faces on this ‘Doorway of Glory’ are of happy, smiling and even laughing people looking forward to a life in paradise, or actually having a life of paradise. One guidebook says “if the end of the world is like this, I want to be there”, but being a parent of a teenager I thought that the above representation of teen/family life was more realistic.
The ultimate aim of pilgrims finishing their walk along St. James’s Way is to arrive reasonably early at Plaza de Obradoiro in front of the cathedral, to enter the cathedral via the Portico da Gloria and to place their hand on the imprint of the central column under the statue of St James.
This action, through the centuries has marked the marble of the central column with the fingers of a million pilgrims, though now a low barrier has been installed around the column, not making it impossible to touch the marble, just more difficult, perhaps to discourage random tourists from despoiling a religious ritual?
Behind the Portico de la Gloria there is also a small statue known as ‘the saint with the hump’ (Santos do Croques). Pilgrims pressing their head against this saint increase their intelligence and memory.
Getting into Santiago Cathedral
The line of people in the photo above are waiting to visit either the crypt of Saint James or embrace his precious coat, so I repeat, get there early to visit those sights, 9 am is perfect!
If you don’t wish to visit either of these attractions then walk on in via any of the three main doors – west, south and north – unless there’s a mass taking place. If there is you can join in but strolling around taking photos during mass is not permitted.
Entry is free of charge.
The main Basilica is open from 7. 20am to 00. 30am, though museum hours are much more restricted.