The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

The Asturian basilica that preceded the monumental Romanesque cathedral that still stands is scarcely known. It is possible that a single-nave building, built at the confluence of the Roman mausoleum and under the patronage of King Alfonso II, was succeeded by a three-nave basilica at the end of the 9th century, under the patronage of Alfonso III. This monarch also offered the new basilica a cross similar to the mythical Cross of the Angels, an unequivocal sign of royal patronage in Asturias, but also of the religious bond that definitively united Asturias and Galicia, Oviedo and Compostela, in the logic of that first peninsular kingdom after the Muslim invasion of 711.

The magnificent Romanesque building that replaced that complex started being built in 1075 by Bishop Diego Peláez.

Given the size of the undertaking, it was necessary to destroy not only the pre-existing structures, but also part of the São Paio de Antealtares monastery itself. This circumstance led to an agreement between the bishop and the abbot, signed in 1077.

The new chevet took 40 years to complete, being already inaugurated by bishop Diego Gelmírez in 1117. In addition to the ambulatory, which allowed for a multiplication of altars along the procession circuits inside the cathedral, the main chapel concentrated most of the investment, as it was positioned over the Roman mausoleum and over the chevet of the pre-Romanesque basilica, requiring the creation of a raised area. To render the altar even more monumental, Diego Gelmírez included a canopy, associated with two panels studied in detail by art historian Serafín Moralejo: one on the front of the altar and another on the back, which formed a true reliquary and thus hid the urn of Saint James, which was also surrounded by a several metal fences preventing access but not sight.

Behind the altar, for the first time, an area was structured exclusively for pilgrims to pray, where, according to the Codex Calixtinus, they could attend morning mass, especially intended for faraway travellers arriving to the city. It is possible that the liturgical instrument found by Gelmírez could have been based on the ceremonial observed at St. Peter's Basilica, in Rome. The closeness between the Bishop of Compostela and Calixtus II was evident and there are many testimonies attesting to the advantages of this relationship. For example, in 1120, Compostela was elevated to archbishopric and Gelmírez established for his auxiliary body the same organisation as in Rome, appointing seven cardinals - the only ones who could celebrate religious services on the apostle's altar, in addition to governing the city's parish system.

The transept and its grandiose doors are also the result of Gelmírez's work. His work should have been practically finished by 1112, the year in which the last walls of the Asturian basilica were destroyed. Works proceeded quickly and certainly with abundant funding, as ten years later the north transept was finished and, before 1135, work on the southern façade was finished. In addition to the effort involved in building the monumental transept with three naves and a tribune, the bishop also sponsored the construction of the episcopal palace, the fountain of paradise and the mint, elements that radically and irreversibly changed the Asturian locus.

The monumental doors of the transept, dating still from the second decade of the 12th century, were of transcendental importance. As underlined by art historian Manuel Castiñeiras, with these two works Compostela went from being on the periphery of Europe to being a centre of Romanesque art creation, due to the experimental, monumental, narrative and symbolic nature of those achievements. Despite being quite transformed nowadays, it was still possible to virtually rebuild both doors, which illustrate different approaches to the Romanesque universe and, in particular, to the Gregorian reform, of which Gelmírez was an outstanding protagonist.

Porta Francígena, also known as Paradise Door, highlighted Adam and Eve and the banning from Paradise, the metaphorical principle of human tragedy and, at the same time, the principle of the wandering human condition, which transformed Adam into the first pilgrim. The Fountain of Paradise was built in front of it in 1122, with its four mouths emulating the four rivers of Eden. Pilgrims arriving here could wash themselves before entering the cathedral. In contrast, the Porta das Platerías summed up redemption through the Passion of Christ. It was also known as the Bishop's Door, being located near Gelmírez's palace and before which the prelate publicly exercised justice. The two doors were thus in dialogue with each other, at the beginning and end of the narrative, but also linking the Old and New Testaments.

The remarkable and experimental iconographic programme of the transept doors was yet another instrument in the process of affirmation of the cult of St. James as a structuring element of all Christianity. It was in the service of this ambition that Bishop Diego Gelmírez led several processes, on many game boards, all of which with great symbolic significance.

One of the most remarkable achievements of his time was the writing of the Codex Calixtinus, so called because it was attributed to Pope Calixtus II himself. It was the first guide for the pilgrims, and that was its main mission: to be a product easy to circulate, that could reach the multiple religious environments of the time.

It may have been drafted in the circles of Diego Gelmírez, consensus being that it was written up to 1137, and it is made up of a codification of the many accounts and legends that circulated. Book V, the last of the codex, is the most important for pilgrims, as it contains the stages of the French Way, directions for walkers and a first overview of what the walkers could find when arriving in Compostela.

Works on the cathedral were halted between 1135 and 1168, but started again on that year with famous master Mateus at the head of the building site, to whom we owe the Portico da Glória.

The construction of this entrance to the west marked a longitudinal axis in the temple, which overlapped the previous Gelmirian logic, which accentuated a North - South axis, through the transept doors. On the other hand, the generic dedication of the portal to the Last Judgement completed the iconographic discourse of those previous entrances, making the access to the cathedral from the western side a true scenario of the paradise that believers would find after Judgement Day.

The apostle was included in the western portal, being carved in the portal's central column, symptomatically on a capital that has a representation of the Trinity (name of the door of the wall in front of the cathedral). He is an enthroned St. James, with a staff in the shape of a tau, which is basically the crosier that relates the apostle to the bishops and archbishops of Compostela.

The remaining iconographic programme illustrated the last day of humanity and the glory of Christ. On the left portal, the descent to the limbo, an act that rescued the patriarchs of the Old Testament into the Christological universe. On the right, there is Judgement for all time, at the end of times counted by the measure of men. However, there is something distinctive about this image of Christ: Contrary to what was customary in the 12th century, the Son of God presents the wounds of His Passion, accompanied by eight angels carrying eight instruments of His martyrdom. The path towards Gothic spirituality, in which the humanity of Christ gradually takes precedence over Judgement Day, the distant and timeless figure of a true heavenly king, was already felt here.

The last Romanesque intervention was the placing of the great image of St. James over the main altar in 1211, when the cathedral was consecrated. This gigantic statue still exists, although modified and redecorated in Baroque times. It is not known exactly when the custom of pilgrims hugging it, as is still the case today, began. A Dutch illumination from the late 15th century illustrates this specific liturgy of hugging the apostle. And although this deep-rooted custom cannot be associated to Romanesque times, there is no doubt that the placing of the image of St. James on the altar - a kind of stone double of the real body, hidden from everyone's eyes - marked the way in which the apostle was revered for ever. In one hundred years, the Compostela Cathedral turned Galicia into the centre of the world for Christianity.

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