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Category Archives: Tomb of the Apostle

The emergence of the pilgrimage to Compostela in the eleventh century combining with the Great Schism which separated the Orthodox and the Catholic church in 1054 led to a redrawing of the sacred topography of the Christian world.


With Rome now in the centre and Jerusalem under an orthodox patriarchate, the West was henceforth defined by the shrine of the Apostle James at Compostela.

The main altar at the cathedral was surrounded by eleven chapels which radiated around the tomb along the transepts and ambulatory. These formed a symbolic geography of the pilgrimage road itself by recalling some of the major stations along the way. The two chapels of the north transept were dedicated to Saint Nicholas and The Holy Cross, those of the southern transept, Saints Martin and John the Baptist.


Around the ambulatory were chapels dedicated to Sainte Foy, Saint John the Evangelist, the Holy Saviour, Saint Peter and Saint Andrew. Behind the main altar was an oratory of Mary Magdalene and in an upper chamber above the chevet there was a chapel dedicated to Saint Michael.

This deployment of chapels was a microcosm of the Compostelan pilgrimage. The most prominent saintly shrines of the road were hereby recalled, Saint John the Baptist at Angèly near Saintes, Sainte Foy of Conques in the southern Auvergne, Saint Martin of Tours on the Loire, Saint Peter of Rome and at Bari, Saint Nicholas.


The central position of the saint of Vézelay, Mary Magdalene was consonant with her function as Apostle to the Apostles and the positioning of her chapel pointedly alluding to the similar plan at the church of the Holy Sepulchre

The upper chapel dedicated to Saint Michael referred similarly, to the sanctuaries of the Archangel on the pilgrimage road on elevated sites of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe at the Puy-en-Velay, Monte Gargano and the Mont Saint Michel.

Although the Italian shrines are not included in the Pilgrim’s Guide which limits itself to the French routes, they are mentioned repeatedly elsewhere in the Jacobus. Book One makes reference to the Italian stations along the Via Francigena to Rome and the Via Traiana which led from Rome to Bari and thence by ship to Jerusalem.

Platerias-Col-9-WPMore than any other saintly shrine of western Europe, Santiago de Compostela, being on the periphery, depended on the very notion of pilgrimage. When the Jacobus defined the road in terms of the saintly remains along the way, it was implicitly posing a challenge to the great sanctuaries of Christendom. The tombs of Saint Trophimus at Arles, or Saint Saturninus at Toulouse, were ultimately mere stations on the road to the ultimate goal.

This idea was perfectly realised by the layout of the chapels at Compostela, surrounding as they did the main altar of Saint James situated above his tomb.

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.

santiago-78Saint James the Greater was one of Jesus’ twelve Apostles. A Galilean fisherman, he was with his brother of John and their friend Peter the first disciples recruited by Jesus and they formed his inner circle. Always closest to him, they alone witnessed the Transfiguration on mount Tabor when Jesus revealed his divine apsect for the first time.

According to the Acts of the Apostles he was executed on the orders of Herod Agrippa in AD 44 , the first Apostle to be martyred.

By the time of the discovery of the mausoleum at Compostela, the burial places of all the major Apostles were known with the exception of Saint James. Peter and Paul at Rome and John at Ephesus. It was generally believed that the Apostles were buried in the lands which they had evangelised.

Already before the discovery of the tomb, there had been a growing interest in the cult of Saint James in Spain and a tradition that he had fulfilled his Apostolic Mission there.

santiago-48In the first century, the apochryphal Gospel of the Twelve Holy Apostles describing the gift of tongues which had been given to the Apsotles at the Pentecost so they could carry the gospel to the the world, ascribed to each one the language of the land he was destined to evangelise. James was given the gift of Latin, implying lands to the West.

A Greek language account of the Apostles and the lands where they had preached was written and translated into Latin some time in the seventh century and was known as the Breviary of the Apostles. Here it records that Saint James had preached in Spain. A short time later another text, again of indeterminate date and attributed at the time to Isidore of Seville dealing with the lives of the Apostles and Prophets confirmed the belief that James had preached:“to the peoples of Spain and the western places, at the world’s edge”.

teodemir-21At some time in the first half of the ninth century an ancient mausoleum was discovered in a field in the isolated northern Spanish Christian kingdom of Asturias. A large number of stone tombs were found aligned in an east west position. The mausoleum was divided in two and the western end appeared to be designed as an atrium or entrance hall to the more substantial eastern half. This latter was decorated with mosaic tiles and marble and contained an impressive sarcophagus. Here was the burial place and shrine of a Christian holy man whose disciples were also buried alongside.

afonso-rex-1Theodemir, the local bishop was called to investigate the new discovery and very quickly pronounced it to be the tomb and the relics of the Apostle Saint James. The king of Asturias, Alfonso II, had a small church built over the site and on his death in 842, Theodemir was buried there.

The site was called Compostela, meaning little burial and very quickly a cult of veneration was established there which was soon known beyond the Pyrenees. In 865 when the monk Usuard of Saint-Germain-des-Près composed his Martyrology, listing the lives of the martyrs he was already aware of the cult at Compostela. Of Saint James he wrote: “his most holy remains were translated from Jerusalem to Spain and deposited in its uttermost region, they are revered with the most devout veneration by the people of those parts”.

portico-de-la-gpsd8At the Romanesque cathedral of Compostela, a sculpted image of Saint James is presented on the trumeau which supports the central narthex tympanum of the main entrance – the Portico de la Gloria. The tympanum represents the Apocalypse – Christ in Majesty surrounded by the Twenty-Four Elders. The image is direct and clear – Saint James is the direct conduit to the Christ of Final Judgment.

At the base of the pillar the sign of the pilgrims of the past has been worn into the stone, visible by the marks of the hands they have pressed against the cold stone down the ages.portico-de-la-gpsd18

The Book of Saint James tells us: “Whosoever is truly penitent, and is from faraway shores, and has sought to request with all his heart forgiveness from the Lord and help from Saint James in Galicia, without doubt will have the slate of his sins wiped clean in eternity”.

Saint James was considered the brother of Saint John the Evangelist and significantly, John the author of the Book of Revelation.

“In this revered basilica, as it is reported, in his honour rests the venerated body of the Blessed James. It is enclosed in a marble casket placed in a most precious vaulted tomb. His body is immovable.”

Twelve hundred years ago on the westernmost margin of the European continent, an ancient mausoleum was found. One of the skeletons inside the stone tomb was identified as Christ’s apostle James. The burial place was Compostela and it was the goal of the supreme pilgrimage of medieval Europe.

“At this place the barbarous and civilised peoples of all the regions of the world arrive. Some go with bare feet, some without their own goods, some bound in irons for the sake of penitence. Some bring iron or lead in their hands for work on the Apostle’s basilica. This is a chosen race”santiago-36 As the only Apostolic tomb in medieval western Europe, the lustre of Compostela was very great. There, was buried one of Christ’s closest disciples. Saint James, together with his brother John and Peter were the three disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration. He was the first Apostle to suffer martyrdom. According to sacred text he had performed his Apostolic Mission in Spain before returning to Jerusalem where he was beheaded in A.D. 44 on the instruction of King Herod, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. His body was transported by boat on a miraculous wind to Galicia where it was buried by his disciples and lay forgotten for eight hundred years.