There are no stained glass windows in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella. Well, there’s one, of St. James, over the Holy Door, which will be opened in 2021, the next Holy Year, when St. James’s day, July 25, falls on a Sunday.
The Cathedral is ancient, finished in the 1100’s, a solid Romanesque beauty.
It was built over an even older structure that sheltered the remains of St. James, which were discovered in 800. Pilgrims began arriving soon after that, and they’ve been coming ever since. And the spirit of the Camino permeates the place today.
I love Cathedrals: Chartres, Canterbury, and Grace are close to my heart. But I think Santiago takes the cake. It’s historic, ancient, and has a deep spirituality; it’s a place of living faith.
Along the Camino, there are numerous Cathedrals. Pamplona, Burgos and Astorga had beautifully artistic cathedrals, but they felt deflated and preserved. You needed a ticket to enter. In Santiago, the door was open to all from 7:00 am to 11:00 at night.
Santiago feels alive, busy with pilgrim traffic, and every Pilgrim mass was full to overflowing with Peregrinos in their hiking clothes, sandals and socks.
Most of all, it is the endpoint of the Camino, and the burial place of the Apostol, James.
In the movie, “the Way” The characters enter the Cathedral through the front door and encounter the Portico of Glory, carved by Maestro Mateo in the 12th Century. There, James greets the pilgrim atop a pilar carved into an exquisite Tree of Jesse, that links Christ back to Adam.
The traditional pilgrim ritual was: touch your hand to the Tree of Jesse, and then enter the cathedral, venerate the tomb of St. James, and climb the stairs behind the altar and hug the jewel-encrusted statue of the Saint. Quite a multi-sensory experience when you add in the flying of the Butafumiero!
These days, the front door is closed and the Portico of Glory is being restored. It’s behind a fence that requires a museum ticket.
About 5 years ago they stopped allowing pilgrims to touch their hands to the Tree of Jesse, to preserve it. The spot where pilgrims put their hands for 800 years wore 5 deep finger holes into the stone, like the grip in a bowling ball. Not being able to place my hand there was my only disappointment in Santiago.
But I completed the other rituals: hugging the statue of St. James, praying at his tomb, and attending the pilgrim mass and seeing the Butafumiero fly.
In the 17th and 18th centuries the Cathedral was remodeled in the Baroque style. A giant decorative structure, reminiscent of St. Peter’s in Rome, was erected over the altar. It’s upheld by a crew of massive baby angels with strong arms, one of my favorite features within the space. There’s an amazing amount of gold. Towers, and a new facade changed the outer profile in the 18th Century. Now it all looks unified by the overgrowth of lichen and ferns on the damp stone.