The Ways to Santiago

Altar maior da catedral de Santiago









Ana Anllo Carreira

The Iberian Peninsula forms part, according to some old texts, of the lands where St. James preached Christianity. After being beheaded in Palestine in the year 44 AD, his disciples, keeping up the tradition, took his corpse to Galicia by boat.

Difficult times and depopulation in the north of the Peninsula provoked that the place where his body was buried disappeared into oblivion, but in the year 820 some human remains were found that the ecclesiastical authorities considered to be James the Greater. This happened in a lost forest and it led to the birth of the current city Santiago de Compostela

The discovery of St. James’ supposed remains between the end of the 8th century and the 9th century was the beginning of a pilgrimage to the tomb of Christ’s sole disciple, along with St. Peter in Rome, who is buried in European soil; due to this fact thousands of people turned out to Compostela to contemplate and venerate the saint’s remains.

All around the Compostela sanctuary many shops spread justified precisely by this pilgrimage business as it is shown by the names like Praza das Praterias or Praza das Acibecherias. Years later, the apostolic nature of this church and the accumulated wealth thanks to the pilgrims would allow an enterprising bishop, Diego Xelmírez, to turn his see into Archbishopric

The pilgrims who arrived to Santiago came from everywhere guided by the Milky Way; following “O camino das estrelas” they arrived to “O campo das estrelas” (i.e. Compostela) where James the Greater rests.

There’s no doubt that the road to Santiago, in that period, was not only a religious pilgrimage route but the way for the culture and Art tendencies throughout Europe to get into. Galicia posses a great richness from both Romanesque (art which arrived in the 11th century) and Gothic styles.

Everything seems to point out that in the beginning there should have been several ways for the pilgrims to arrive to Compostela. When they arrived, they met the Cathedral of Santiago, which was started to being built in 1075 and it was finished in 1124, evolving from its Romanesque origin through a lot of different styles, mainly Baroque, which achieved its fulfilment with the façade of the Obradoiro (1738-1750).

Nowadays, while visiting the cathedral, the pilgrims use to practice a ritual in the lady chapel of the high altar to give the traditional embrace to the apostle Santiago (Romanesque style sculpture) and then they go down to the crypt where his remains are preserved (eighty-five bones, twenty-five of them completed) in a wooden box lined with velvet inside a silver urn engraved in the altar.

Another part of the ritual consists in visiting the Pórtico da Gloria, Mestre Mateo’s masterpiece, who placed Christ the King surrounded by the four evangelists. One of the most surprising aspects in this portico is the great variety of musical instruments the twenty-four ancients of the Apocalypse are holding in their hands, which are sculpted in the first archivolt of the central stretch

The ritual ends attending the Mass of the pilgrim, where it is usual to see how the “botafumeiro” works, which flies from the nave of the crossing.

When the pilgrim arrived to Compostela, he used to go straight to the cathedral following the light of the lamp in its roof. Nowadays, this lamp is lit only during the Holy Years. 

The streets were built so that the pilgrims could arrive to the cathedral wherever they would come. The reason why they were obliged to visit this place as soon as they arrived was that these men and women had been walking for months in unhealthy hygienic conditions.

In the decks of the roof we can find the “Pilón da Cruz dos Farrapos” where the pilgrim could be given new clothes as long as they burnt the dirty old ones, that’s to say, the rags they wore throughout the trip. This not only made happy the pilgrim but, thanks to this burning, there wasn’t diseases transmission inside the city. Nowadays, these decks are made of granite but in the old times they were covered by slates.

In this picture we can see the highest part of the cathedral, “a tribuna” where the pilgrims were allowed to attend the mass and spend the night after the long trip.

Currently the periods of a massive influx of pilgrims coincide

with the Holy Years which are celebrated every six, five, six, eleven years. During this period the “Porta Santa” is opened while it’s closed throughout the rest of the time. This door was built in the year 1611 in the Romanesque wall in the Praza da Quintana to make a passage to the Mosteiro de San Paio, in whose altarpiece we can see the twenty-four figures of the saints from Mestre Mateo’s original choir.

After being in the cathedral, the pilgrim can ask for the “Compostela” which is a document certifying the pilgrimage given by the cathedral chapter. In order to obtain this, the pilgrim has to show the Pilgrim’s document with the stamps (Credencial) which prove the pilgrim has walked through the several villages of the road. These stamps belong to Brotherhoods and Friends of the Road associations.

Due to the great variety of origins of the pilgrims, six main routes of arrival from Europe were designed:

In France we can point up four main ways which cross religious places like Chartres and Tours. These are:

  • Turonense way:
    It sets off from Paris and goes through Tours and Poitiers.

  • Lemovicense way:
    It sets off from Vezelay and goes through Limoges and Perigueux.

  • Podiense way:
    It sets off from Le-Puy-en-Velay and goes through Moissac and Conques; there it meets Via Gebennensis which starts in Geneva.

  • Tolosana way:
    It sets off in Arles and goes through Montpellier and Toulouse.

These ways finish in Saint Jean Pie-de-Port (Roncesvalles) or Urdos (Somport) in the Pyrenees. In Spain the road starts in Somport (vía Tolosana) and in Roncesvalles (Navarra).

The following are also considered Santiago routes:




















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