Hidden behind an eighteenth century baroque outer casing at Santiago de Compostela, is a vast and intact twelfth century Romanesque pilgrimage basilica. In its time it was a building which for size and prestige stood on equal footing with perhaps only four or five others in Western Latin Christendom.
Many commentators believe that in the twelfth century Compostela eclipsed all saintly shrines as a pilgrimage destination. Ultimately, the manner in which it acquired such prominence may remain a matter of conjecture, the fact remains that the authorities there, both secular and ecclesiastical believed they were in a position to elevate the shrine of Saint James to a status equal with that of Rome and Jerusalem.
For a hitherto, dimly regarded and peripheral location in western Christendom, this seems on the face of it, a fairly startling presumption. In the preceding two and a half centuries only two fairly modest churches had successively existed at the site of the mausoleum which, it was said contained the relics of Christ’s Apostle.
For the pilgrimage, which had been long and arduous and was now a Europe wide phenomenon, a fitting goal was now required.
In 1075 the emperor king of León and Castile, Alfonso VI returned from a successful campaign against the Moors of Granada with a train of booty which he donated to the see of Compostela for the purpose of building a new church which would be commensurate with the status which was aspired to.
Construction began in 1077, as always at the eastern end and the finished building was consecrated in 1211. During that time there were several revisions to the original design.
The work commenced under the direction of bishop Diego Pelaez and was then continued, intermittently by his successor Diego Gelmirez who is regarded as the most dynamic promoter of Compostela, obtaining archiepiscopal status from Rome in 1120.
The fifth part of the twelfth century Book of Saint James offers us a detailed and extensive description of the church, its decorative elements and liturgical appurtenances even as it was under construction.
One of the intentions was to achieve a building whose symbolic expression was to represent the spiritual function of the shrine within. This would culminate in a massive stone relief of the theophanic vision of the Transfiguration, the New Testament scene attended by the same Apostle who was commemorated by the basilica, and which was a prefiguration of the Second Coming and the Apocalypse.
It was a narrative of redemption emanating from within the shrine itself, which contained that prodigious conduit with the celestial, the very body of the Apostle.
Biblio: Santiago de Compostela in the time of Diego Gelmirez, Barbara Abou-El-Haj, Gesta XXXVI/2 1997
Reading Romanesque Sculpture: The Iconography and Reception of the South Portal Sculpture at Santiago de Compostela, Karen Rose Mathews, Gesta XXXIX/1 2000 The Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: A Reassessment, Christabel Watson, BAR International Series 1979-2009 The Codex Calixtinus as an Art-Historical Source, S Moralejo in John Williams / Alison Stones The Codex Calixtinus and the Shrine of St. James 1992 Manuel Castiñeiras: Didacus Gelmirez, Patron of the arts. Compostela’s long journey: From the periphery to the centre of Romanesque art. Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010. Topographie Sacrée, Liturgie Pascale et Reliques dans les grands centres de pèlerinage: Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, Saint-Isidore-de-Léon et Saint-Étienne-de-Ribas-de-Sil, Manuel Antonio Castiñeiras González, Les Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa, XXXIV, 2003 The Basilica in Compostela and the way of Saint James, John Williams, Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010.