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The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

→ 1. The Exterior  → 2. The Interior  → 3. History

Place to stay in Santiago de Compostela (

1. The Exterior

(Click photos to enlarge)

Santiago's cathedral is surrounded by four remarkable squares which together with the rest of the old quarter of the city have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. Three of those squares are named after trades. In front of the western facade there is the Plaza del Obradoiro which was named after the workshop ("obradoiro" in Galician) as which most of the square served to generations of stonemasons working on the cathedral during centuries. The square to the north of the cathedral, Plaza de Azabachería, received its name from the jet ("azabache" in Castillian) that has traditionally been turned into jewellery and sold there. To the cathedral's east lies the Plaza de la Quintana and the Plaza de Platerías to the south owes its name to the silversmiths who've had their shops their for centuries ("plata" in Spanish is, of course, silver).

Western facade of the cathedral

Standing (or sitting as the exhausted pilgrim might prefer) on the Plaza del Obradoiro one gets to look at the western facade of the cathedral which is bathed in a golden shine at dusk on sunny days. This facade is the most important work of Compostelan baroque and was created by the local architect Fernando de Casas y Nóvoa between 1738 and 1750. It corresponded to the baroque taste for lushness as well as to the need to protect the Romanesque Pórtico de la Gloria which had been exposed to the elements for nearly six centuries. The two towers rising to a height of about 75 meters are named after their function. The southern one (to the right) is called "Torre de las Campanas" for the bells it contains while the northern one receives the name of "Torre de las Carracas" for the rattles that are sounded from its top instead of the bells during Holy Week ("semana santa"). The central gable holds a statue of apostle St. James as a pilgrim who is accompanied, underneath to left and right, by statues of his disciples Athanasius and Theodore.

Northern facade of the cathedral

Pilgrims who enter Santiago on the camino francés arrive at the cathedral's northern gate. The "Puerta de Azabachería" and its adjacent square derive their names from the jet that's traditionally sold in the shops close by. The portal was initially called "Paradise" for the images represented in its original Romanesque arches. But both the name and the arches were lost with the demolition of the portal in 1759. Today's northern facade was begun in baroque style by Lucas Ferro Caaveiro and Clemente Fernandez Sarela and its upper half later continued in neoclassical style by Ventura Rodríguez and Domingo Lois Manteagudo. The facade is crowned by a sculpture of St. James as pilgrim by Máximo Salazar. To his feet there are representations of king Alfons III. of León and king Ordoño II. of León. The statue in the center is an allegory of faith by Gambino.

Holy Door - Puerta Santa

During Holy Years ("Año Santo") the cathedral can be accessed through the Holy Door ("Puerta Santa") from the Plaza Quintana to the temple's east. Above the portal we see another representation of Saint James as pilgrim. As in the western facade he's accompanied by two smaller statues of his disciples Athanasius and Theodore. The 24 sculptures positioned to the portal's left and right were taken from the cathedral's original choir around the year 1600 following the decisions from the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The original choir was made of stone by the creator of the Pórtico de la Gloria, Maestro Mateo, and later replaced by one made of wood (which was later transferred to the monastery of San Martín Pinario, across from the cathedral's northern gate). Further to the left and to the feet of the clock tower named "Berenguela" another door, the "Puerta Real" or "Royal Door", provides a further entry to the temple. It dates back to the first half of the 17th century and is considered the earliest work of baroque style in Compostela.

Southern facade of the cathedral

Finally, visitors approaching the cathedral from the southern Platerías square will enter the basilica by means of the Puerta de Platerías. It is the only one of the cathedral's portals which preserves its Romanesque structure and its depiction of Christ as Redeemer. However, it has to be taken into account that throughout the course of the centuries some of the portal's sculptures were removed or destroyed and others, from different parts of the cathedral, were added. The central figure is Christ as King with Abraham underneath him and possibly Moses further below. Of the five represented apostles only John, Peter and James remain recognizable. The left tympanum contains a representation of the temptations of Jesus while the right one is divided into two parts. The upper half shows the adoration of the Magi and the lower half parts of the Passion.

2. The Interior

(Photos can be enlarged by clicking them.)

Portico de la Gloria

Entering the cathedral from the Plaza del Obradoiro one first encounters the most prominent treasure of Romanesque art of Santiago de Compostela: the Pórtico de la Gloria. It was built by Maestro Mateo and his stonemasons who finished it in 1188. Passing through the central arch the 100m long, 8,5m wide and 20m high nave opens the view to the main altar which was erected above the Apostle's sepulcher.

The left aisle

Christo de Burgos

Starting a tour of the cathedral on the left hand (northern) side, and bypassing a little staircase leading downwards, the first chapel is the baroque chapel of the Christ of Burgos. Melchor de Velasco developed it's cross shaped floorplan in the middle of the 18th century. The chapel's name is derived from it's copy of a statue of Christ whose original can be found in Burgos. Next is the chapel of the Communion which is also called chapel of the Sacred Heart. Dating back to the 18th century also, it's floorplan has the shape of a circle. It was set up in 1770 to replace it's decayed Gothic predecessor (the chapel of Don Lope de Mendoza).

The left transept

Statue of Saint James as Moorslayer by Gambino

Turning left into the northern transept you come across a niche containing a statue of Santiago Matamoros (Santiago as a slayer of Moors) which was sculptured in the second half of the 18th century by José Gambino. The lower part of Gambino's work, showing the beaten Moors, is presently covered by a flower arrangement. A few steps further one reaches the chapel of Saint Catherine of Alexandria also known as Saint Catherine of the Wheel (capilla de Santa Catalina). It holds a sculpture of the Saint showing her with martyr's palm and wheel. On the opposite side of the portal leading to the Plaza de Azabachería there's the chapel of Saint Anthony (capilla de San Antonio). It is also dedicated to the remembrance of Saint Nicolas whose chapel was demolished in order to create a direct access to the neighboring chapel of Santa Maria la Antigua Corticela (capilla de la Corticela) which used to be a Parish church located outside of the cathedral. It is one of the oldest temples of Santiago de Compostela and was part of the nearby Benedictine monastery already in the 9th century.

The ambulatory

Interior view of the Holy Door

Entering the ambulatory to the left of the main altar one reaches the stairs leading downwards to the Apostle's tomb on the right. Passing by the sepulcher and following the stairs upwards, the opposite side of the ambulatory is reached. From this side another staircase can be followed upwards to visit the statue of the sitting Apostle created by Master Mateo and located in the center of the main altar. For many pilgrims it is an emotional moment to be able to embrace the sculpture of St. James at the end of their voyage. Passing by the Apostle one returns to the left (northern) wing of the ambulatory which leads to seven chapels and the Holy Door in the following order: chapel of St. Bartholomew, chapel of St. John, chapel of the White Virgin, chapel of the Saviour, the Holy Door, chapel of the Azucena, chapel of Mondragón, chapel of Our Lady of the Pillar.

The main altar

Main altar of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

The Romanesque Altar above the Apostle's tomb had been altered and added to in numerous occasions during the 15th and 16th centuries, before being completely replaced by the baroque one we se today. Its creator, Domingo Antonio de Andrade, obviously encountered some difficulty fitting the proportions, typical of his time, into the limited space provided by the Romanesque context. Especially the baldachin seems somewhat out of proportion. St. James is shown in three different representations in the main altar: at the inferior part we see him as teacher, right underneath the baldachin he's shown as pilgrim and towards the top there's a sculpture of the Apostle as slayer of Moors (Santiago Matamoros).

The right transept

Unlike its northern counterpart the southern transept has no chapels. It can be left eastwards passing through a souvenir shop and the Royal Portal ("Puerta Real") which leads to the Quintana square ("Plaza de la Quintana"). Another exit leads south to the Platerías square ("Plaza de Platerías"). Access to the sacristy is provided by a plateresque door to the west.

The right aisle

Returning to the nave one reaches the entrance to the cathedral museum and the cloister on the left hand (southern) side. This part contains the chapel of the relics, the archive and the library of the chapter as well as an archaeological and a Gobelin museum. The library of the chapter holds the two stands where the cathedral's enormous censers (botafumeiros) are stored when not in use.

3. History

Although the construction of the Romanesque nucleus of today's basilica began in the year 1075, even a short history of Santiago's cathedral must commence with the discovery of the Apostle's tomb. As per the Compostelan documentation the finding took place during the first quarter of the 9th century when Teodomiro was bishop of the close by Iria Flavia and Alfonso II. ("the Chaste") Asturian-Galician king. According to the documentation the eremite Pelayo notified Teodomiro of a light glimmering in the night over a hill. The bishop, guided by an angel, discovered the ruins of an arched chamber which he identified, with the help of oral and written tradition, as the sepulcher of the Apostle St. James.

Immediately King Alfonso II. ordered the construction of a first basilica. Today's investigators don't agree on the question whether remnants of the first temple can still be found at this time or whether its existence must be concluded from historic documentation. However parts of the second basilica, built by Alfonso III. and bishop Sisnando at the end of the 9th century are still present today.

In the 11th century two factors required the construction of a new house of God. On the one hand the steadily growing flood of pilgrims asked for a more generous church. And on the other hand the Moors had invaded and devastated Santiago under Almansur in the year 997 also destroying the temple. So work began in the year 1075 under king Alfonso VI. of León and Castile, under the initiative of bishop Diego Peláez (1071-1088) and under the instruction of Master Bernard the Elder ("Maestro Bernardo el Viejo"). The end of the first building period was marked by the removal of bishop Peláez by king Alfonso VI. which interrupted the construction temporarily.

The second period started when Ramón of Burgundy, count of Galicia, designated Diego Gelmírez administrator of the bishop's seat in 1095 and later named him bishop in the year 1100. The erection of the northern and southern facades in the year 1101 as well as the consecration of the chapels of the apse in the year 1105 give testimony of the rapid advances in the building of the cathedral under Master Steven ("Maestro Esteban" also known as "Maestro de Platerías").

In the middle of the 12th century it was king Ferdinand II. of León who decided to bring the construction of the cathedral to a conclusion. He employed the genius Master Mateo, who continued the works on the crypt, the choir and the western facade with the exceptional "Pórtico de la Gloria". On April 21. in the year 1211 archbishop Pedro Muñiz could consecrate the cathedral of Santiago.

But work on the cathedral did not cease then. During the 13th century - now in Gothic style - a first small cloister was assembled and later, in 1521, replaced by a more generous one in the style of the Renaissance. Finally the 17th and 18th century saw the baroque extensions - e.g. the Holy Gate ("Puerta Santa") to the east and the majestic facade to the west - that coin the cathedral's unique appearance until this day.