The Way of Compostela
by Father Ramón Anglés, July 2004
When the feast of the apostle St. James the Greater, July 25, falls on a Sunday, the Spanish city of Compostela awakes from its noble sleep to become once more the rejuvenated protagonist of a multisecular tradition: the pilgrimage to the resting place of Santiago, Saint Yago, or better still, Yakob Boanerges, the Son of Thunder, whose name was given by Christ Himself.
Instituted by Pope Calixtus II in 1122, the Compostelan Holy Year, now regrettably called Xacobeo for publicity reasons, attracts to the Northwest of Spain, multitudes of pilgrims and visitors.
If a tomb is usually the abode of death and solitude, the one of St. James inspires a paradoxical combination of life, history, miracles, literature, art and music. Sidus refulgens Hispaniae, resplendent star of Spain, the apostolic sepulchre has originated and given continuous life to the Way of Compostela, 850 kilometres travelled by millions along twelve centuries of a fascinating aspect in Christian civilization.
2. Origins: St. James and Spain
The Son of Thunder
James, son of Zebedee and Salome, a fisherman of the lake of Galilee, was called by the Divine Master, along with his younger brother John, to become "a fisherman of men." Our Lord, sublime psychologist who alone pierces the secrets of the heart, gave him the revealing surname of Boanerges, Son of Thunder. Elect among the elect, always impetuous and vehement, it is James who accompanies Jesus to the glory of Mount Tabor, he who conjures heavenly fire over infidel Samaria; he who, after the daring petition of his mother Salome, fulminates an immediate possumus; he is the first one to leave Palestine and to reach the confines of the earth, the finis terrae; and it is James who shares first the chalice of the Lord by being martyred in Jerusalem.
Preaching in Spain under Mary’s protection
The Acts of the Apostles report his death under Herod Agrippa, in the year 43-44, but nothing is said there about his sepulchre or about his predication in Spain.
We know by an old tradition, confirmed by St. Clement of Alexandria and by the historian Eusebius, that the apostles remained in Palestine until the year 42, twelve years after the Ascension, and this by an express order of Our Lord. Before their final dispersion, St. Peter himself made a journey to Antioch, and nothing impedes that St. James could have preached in Spain for one or two years during the same period.
We must wait until the 4th Century to read in the works of Didymus of Alexandria that one of the apostles preached the faith in Spain; the same testimony is found in St. Jerome, in his Commentary of Isaiah, written in 412, and in his contemporary Theodoret of Antioch, both referring the very early mission of one of the Twelve in Spain. Since St. Jerome was for a time the secretary of the Spanish Pope St. Damasus, and an intimate friend of the also Spanish historian Orosius, he was well informed of the oral Christian traditions in the Peninsula.
Documentary testimonies of this predication of St. James are found also in the Mozarabic Mass and Office, containing the substance of the Hispanic primitive liturgy. A hymn of 783 mentions it explicitly. Beatus of Liebana, the defender of Spanish orthodoxy against the adoptianist heresy, repeats the Jacobean tradition in the year 780; the same is commemorated by Venerable Bede in his History of the Angles, written before the year 735. The Apostolic Catalogue, which Duchesne –an adversary of the Spanish belief- dates on the 7th Century, reports that "James, son of Zebedee and brother of St. John, preached in Spain." And the medieval literature abounds in identical references, faithfully repeated by numerous authors such as Isidore, Braulius, Aldelm of Malmesbury, and many others whose assertions constitute a coherent and constant testimony, confirming the ancient oral tradition.
Intimately connected with the preaching of St. James in Spain is the veneration of Our Lady of the Pillar in Zaragoza. Since the Blessed Virgin was under the care of his brother St. John -and one can legitimately assume that also their mother and Our Lady’s sister, Mary Salome, lived in the same house-, we can picture the apostle’s conversations on his first mission, and the farewells before starting the long journey by ship that took him to the Iberian shores. From Italica, the Son of Thunder must have crossed like a whirlwind the efficient Imperial roads from one corner to the other of Hispania: Emerita, Braccara, Iria, Lucus, Asturica, Pallantia, Clunia, and finally Caesaraugusta, now Zaragoza. There, by the banks of the river Ebro, our tradition says that he wept, deeply discouraged at the apparent lack of success of his predication. Our Lady herself, brought by the angels, came to encourage him and left as a token of her protection a mysterious pillar. Modern historians as unconvinced as Villoslada must report that, since at least the year 300, there was in Zaragoza a church in which Our Lady was venerated with great fervour and solemn worship. And there, enshrined within the first Marian sanctuary of history, remains the Holy Pillar of unidentified precious jasper, exuding until this date a powerful fragrance from time to time, whose inaccessible foundations are lost deep within the rock.
Awaiting a scientific analysis which may reveal new wonders, the Pillar of Zaragoza represents the granitic, tough faith of Spain that the Son of Thunder implanted with the blessing of the Mother of God. The noblest fruits of his preaching were the Innumerable Martyrs, the Church’s extraordinary name for the thousands who died martyrs in the city of Zaragoza in the year 303, under the persecution of Diocletian.
The last journey
Returned to Jerusalem with at least two of his few Spanish converts, Theodore and Athanasius, St. James underwent his martyrdom. In their return to Spain, his disciples took with them the body of the apostle, following the commercial route which took them from the port of Haifa to the Western part the Peninsula, in Iria Flavia, now the village of Padrón, Galicia. Iria was a very Romanized city under the governorship of a close friend of Caligula, Flavius Quintus. Having left Rome at the time of the emperor’s murder in the year 41, he brought his perversions and cruelty to that corner of the Roman empire. The disciples moved inland in the rural country, burying the sacred remains in the place later known as the Campus Stellae, a gift of a Roman noblewoman, Lupa, who converted to the faith by the example of the two disciples. They remained as custodians of the relic, while their companions dispersed to bring the Gospel into the continent. The original burial place is now the area directly below the main altar of the Apostolic basilica of Compostela.
The Apostolic Sepulchre
No records of the interment exist until the 9th Century, but this can be explained by the fact that, at the end of the 1st Century and during the two following ones, bloody persecutions by the Roman authorities forbade all meetings near Christian sepulchres, destroying all ecclesiastical acts and dispersing the faithful. Further persecutions by the Suevi, in the 4th and 5th Centuries, annihilated all vestiges of Christianity. Only after the conversion of King Recaredus, at the beginning of the 7th Century, the Church could be reorganized in Galicia for a brief period, stopped short by the Moorish invasion of the early 800’s, which brought chaos throughout the North. Bishop Teodomirus rediscovered the tomb soon after, in 814, and a chapel was built in the Campus Stellae the same year by King Alfonso the Chaste, which was enlarged by Alfonso III in 901 (the traces of both early churches can be seen in the foundations of the present basilica), then destroyed by the Moor leader Almanzor in 997, and finally rebuilt with magnificence in 1077 by Bishop Diego Peláez. It was Diego Gelmírez, first archbishop of Compostela, who completed the Romanesque magnificence of the basilica which the pilgrims to Santiago can still admire behind the welcoming Baroque facade and the external ensemble of 1738, unsurpassable masterwork of Fernando Casas Novoa.
The earliest available documents date from the 9th Century, a time from which we have a myriad of written testimonials consigning the belief that the remains of St. James were kept in that very place and sepulchre. They include, among martyrologies of the 808 and 860, royal charts and privileges to the clergy of Santiago de Compostela, a letter of Pope Leo III (795-816) –contemporary of the rediscovery of the tomb by Teodomirus-, and also a relation of the monastery of Glembours, probably at the end of the 9th Century.
An exotic yet surprising mention of the tomb is found much earlier, in the Byzantine catalogues of the 7th Century, where we read that the apostle was buried in archa marmorica, "in a marble coffer."
The topography and the archaeological findings in the region reflect as well the Jacobean tradition. Padrón ("the rock," reference to the one at which the boat arrived) is the old port of Iria Flavia, and very recent excavations in its collegial church of Santa María la Mayor de Adina have unearthed the remains of a Christian church of the late 1st Century. The Pico Sacro, only 200 metres from the apostolic basilica, is an archaeological golden mine covered with primitive churches testifying to the early devotion of both clergy and faithful.
But the most important discoveries were the ones made during the excavations that have been effected regularly since 1878. They revealed three marble sepulchres, the main one belonging without doubt to the 1st Century. They are enclosed with latericium, red brick of Roman facture, with fenestrellae martyriales, small openings for the purpose of dropping ribbons who will be used as relics, also dating from the 1st Century. A rich Roman mosaic in opus tessellatum depicting Christian symbols identifies the main tomb as the one of an important Christian personage. Finally, as recently as September 1988 an inscription was cleaned on the marble plaque of one of the adjacent sepulchres, uncovering the name of Athanasios, written in Greek and in Hebrew.
The three tombs were empty, but the bones of three men were found in a recess hidden behind them. This coincides with the fact that in 1589, when the English pirate Francis Drake approached the Galician coast, Bishop Juan Sanclemente removed the relics from the sepulchres and hid them in safety behind the sacred area. The bones, examined by scientists, are as ancient as the 1st Century, which prompted Pope Leo XIII to declare the authenticity of the findings in his Bull Deus Omnipotens, November 1, 1884. They are now preserved within the precious urn which can be seen in the crypt of the basilica, a masterpiece of silver work made in the 19th Century by Compostelan artists. The Pantokrator Christ, surrounded by the Evangelists and the apostles, welcomes there the prayers of the pilgrims.
The finding of the sacred remains by Bishop Teodomirus signalled the general call to war against the Moorish invaders, who had by then the control of the greatest part of the Peninsula, the Northwest excepted, and had even entered into France, menacing the rest of Christendom. A small militia under King Don Pelayo had already repelled the invaders at the battle of Covadonga, in 718, starting the Reconquista of Spain.
It was at Clavijo, in 845, that the forces of King Ramiro I defeated the far superior army of Abderraman II. The galvanizing cry of the Christian soldiers was ¡Santiago y cierra España!, "For St. James, and close ranks, Spain!" The General Chronicle of King Alfonso X the Wise reports a miraculous event during the battle of Clavijo, which gave the cult of St. James a dramatic configuration. According to witnesses, Santiago was seen descending from the sky mounted on a white horse, having in one hand a snow-white banner on which was displayed a blood red cross, and in the other a sword, en un cavallo blanco con una senya blanca et grand espada reluzient en la mano. We may interpret this intervention of St. James as a precise fact or as a poetic licence; what matters is the undeniable fact of the miraculous protection of the Son of Thunder, who will become from this time on the Patron of Spain. The imagery will present him thereafter as a knight on a white horse, carrying a banner with the Cross of Santiago and wielding a flashing sword. Protector of Christendom, he became Santiago Matamoros, the Moor slayer. And the Mozarabic Office salutes him from then on as Defensor Almae Hispaniae, Jacobe, vindex hostium, "James, defender of the soul of Spain, punisher of its enemies."
If Islam was able to subjugate the Visigothic monarchy with the help of the Prophet Mohammed, the small Christian troops will counterattack with the assistance of St. James. As Américo Castro put it, Cruzadas versus Alcoranadas, or the Cross against the Koran.
The vocation of the Son of Thunder for combat against the infidels manifested itself in countless occasions during the Reconquista and every war in defence of Holy Religion, up to our days. Caudillo de Cruzados, "commander of crusaders," he was invoked by the soldiers fighting the Reds during the Spanish civil war (1936-1939) and especially during the decisive battle of the river Ebro. Generalissimo Francisco Franco went as far as stating: "If one wants to get rid of Spain, take away Santiago."
Santiago Matamoros, in the words of Félix Sardá y Salvany, the great Catalan anti-Liberal apologist, "is the most perfect and adequate representation of the faith of our people; the faith of Spain is indeed a militant faith; this is what has characterized us always an even nowadays; this is what makes incomprehensible to foreigners the major part of our history’s pages, as well as the attitudes and events of today’s Spain. One must understand that we are and want to remain heirs and disciples of an armed apostle and of a Santiago fighting bloody battles on horseback: this is the key to decipher the enigma of our apparently strange national character."
Indeed, the Catholic history of Spain is founded upon the blood of countless martyrs, from the early disciples of Santiago until those who in the tragic and glorious epopee of 1936-1939 died with a smile, forgiving their assassins and crying ¡Viva Cristo Rey!
The restoration of Christendom requires, today as ever, a militant approach to every facet of life, and Santiago is perhaps our best model. Una manu sua faciebat opus et altera tenebat gladium. Work and combat, under Mary’s protection; we should make ours these two lessons of Santiago: constant work and militant attitude in order to defend the principles of Catholic civilization.
3. The Pilgrimage
Over the sacred remains of St. James, in the remote North-western corner of the Iberian peninsula, isolated from the world, a city grew and flourished solely by the power of religious belief, a fact unique in the world. This development was helped by the fact that the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was in the hands of the infidels, and Rome was going through a turbulent time. As news of the discovery spread throughout Europe, along with the many miracles that took place at the site, Santiago became the devotional destination par excellence.
King Alfonso II became the first royal pilgrim, as soon as the sepulchre was rediscovered. His son, Alfonso III the Great, found in the Order of Cluny the most efficient propagandists of the new pilgrimage. He had married Constance, daughter of the Duke of Burgundy, who grew up under the influence of the French Benedictines and brought them to Spain.
The monks of Cluny, who opened thirty monasteries in the North of the Peninsula, took over the management and protection of the pilgrimage. They kept the road in good repair, established inns and monasteries at regular intervals, and gave protection against attacks by bandits. Soon the dioceses throughout northern Spain were occupied by French bishops, mostly of Cluniac origin.
The first non-Iberian pilgrim recorded to visit the Shrine was the French bishop Gottschalk, who arrived in 950. England’s King Edward I, Portugal’s Queen Isabella, Pope Calixtus and many other personalities enkindle with their example a holy fire which soon extended in all Christendom. ...
By the 13th Century, the city of Paris alone sent each year some 35,000 pilgrims. In fact, so many French made the trip that the stretch from Puente la Reina to Santiago was known as the French Way.
The Pilgrim’s Way inspired Europe’s first guide, written by the French cleric Aymeric Picaud in the early 12th Century. It introduced the golden age of the cult, when the pilgrimage had become a world wide significance, the basilica was finished, the miracles celebrated all over the western world, the story of the journey of the Apostle’s acknowledged, the hostels for the pilgrims abundant, the roads leading to the apostle’s shrine established, and the hymns sung by the faithful along the road.
Aymeric described the crypt of the basilica this way: "There lies St.James in a marble ark in a fair vaulted sepulchre wonderful for size and workmanship. It is lighted heavenly wise with carbuncles like the gem of New Jerusalem and the air is kept sweet with divine odours; waxen tapers with heavenly radiance light and angelic service cares for it...."
To go to Santiago was also like going to Rome or Jerusalem. Like the crusaders were going to reconquer the Holy Places, here they would come to expel the Infidels from Christian land. The crusaders began to arrive in the Peninsula at the end of the 11th Century to participate in the Reconquista. The direct ancestor of this writer, Raymond called "the Angle" came to Spain with his half-brother Duncan from as far as Scotland in 1190, to follow the Way of Compostela and then figth the Moors; in his sepulchre and the one of his wife, Eleonor de Cabrera, one can still see the scallop shell which is St. James emblem, commonly know as the vieira of Santiago along the Galician coast.
And so the Jacobean road became a real riverbed of the European cultural current which came to fertilize Spain and take back the profound militant faith of the land.
The original road to Santiago led through the pass at Roncesvalles, via Pamplona and Asturias to Galicia. In the late 11th Century, the main route was moved farther south via Burgos, thus indicating the Christian expansion. At this time there were four roads in France: Paris, Vezelay, Puy and Arles, known as Via Tolosana, Via Podiensis, Via Lemosina, and Via Turonensis. They connected with other pilgrims’ roads coming from England, Scandinavia, Germany, Hungary and Italy. The three French northern routes came together at San Juan de Pie de Puerto, a French city, founded by King García Ximénez of Navarra in 716, and given to the French under Louis XIV. Once crossed the Pyrenees, one found himself in Roncesvalles, the first Spanish city of the road. The road coming from Arles would join the others after Jaca, in Puente la Reina, and together through Logroño, Burgos and León to Santiago. Different languages, different nationalities, but a common faith, one common goal, to arrive at Santiago and sing the Pilgrims’ Song of Ultreya!
Non s’intende peregrino se non chi va verso la casa di Sa’ Iacopo. Dante Alighieri, homesick and in exile, was the first universal writer to define the world pilgrim. In the Vita Nuova (XL, Commentary on sonnet XXII), he tells us that nobody is a true pilgrim unless he is journeying towards "the house of St. James."
Following the example of the old pilgrims, he that embarks seriously in the Way of Compostela, to be a guest in the house of James, throws himself into an adventurous voyage of faith, of grace, of penance, of fraternal charity and constant prayer.
The ancients were terrified by the finis terrae, where the sun god went to die every day in his tomb of the Atlantic. And yet, following the signs in heaven, they were guided by the stars of the Milky Way towards the Campus Stellae, the field of the star. The Son of Thunder, apostle of the Man-God, attracts to that very same spot millions of souls in search for the divine, showing them the answer: Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ through Mary, living pillar of our Faith.
The Way of Compostela reminds the pilgrim of today that a tired and discouraged apostle wept on his own way, having apparently failed in his mission. But now, Sidus refulgens, Jakob Boanerges is the resplendent star pointing the Way to Jesus through Mary. Is there a better reason to make the pilgrimage in our times?
Pope Calixtus II, great pilgrim and devoted client of Santiago, declared the pilgrimage to Compostela a "major" one, with spiritual favours similar to those obtained by the pilgrims to Rome and Jerusalem, adding the extraordinary concession of Jubilaeum Plenissimum Anni Sancti like the Holy Year in Rome. The privilege was confirmed again by Popes Eugenius III and Anastasius IV.
Pope Alexander III in his Bull Regis Aeterni, June 25, 1179, declared the privilege to be a perpetual one. Pope Paul VI, on March 1975, proclaimed the same Jubilaeum Plenissimum in perpetuity, answering to those who pretended it had been abrogated by the new laws concerning the Indulgences.
The Holy Year starts on December 31 and closes one year later, along with the Puerta Santa, the holy door by the apse of the Apostolic basilica.
This is the privilege accorded by the popes to the pilgrims:
• Holy Years are the ones in which the 25 of July falls on a Sunday• In order to gain the jubilee one must:1. Visit during the Holy Year the Apostolic basilica of St. James of Compostela,2. Pray for the intentions of the Holy Father (at least one Credo and one Our Father),3. Receive the sacraments of Confession and Communion within the period between fifteen days before and after the visit to Compostela.• The grace of the jubilee is a Plenary Indulgence which remits the temporal punishment due for all sins.All pilgrims who have walked for at least 100 kilometres of the Way of Santiago, or who have travelled at least 200 kilometres on horseback or bike riding, and who can accredit their journey with documentation sealed in the parishes and designated posts along the way (the credencial del peregrino), are eligible to receive the Compostelana, a beautiful document in Latin issued by the Chapter of the basilica, authentic testimonial of having visited Santiago as a true pilgrim.
It is traditional as well to enter the Holy Door, signifying the desire to receive God’s forgiveness; to embrace the statue of the apostle up in the main altar, accepting the Faith that he preached; and to visit the Apostolic sepulchre in the crypt to ask for special graces by the intercession of St. James.
Some visitors insist as well on touching the column in the Pórtico de la Gloria carved with the genealogy of Our Lord, and on putting their heads against the stone one of the santo dos croques, a small statue which probably represents Maestro Mateo, the genial sculptor of the Pórtico.
4. Compostelan Holy Year ...
And we will sing at the Pórtico de la Gloria the Ultreya of the Codex Callixtinus, echoing in every accent the old cry of Compostela: Onward! Keep on going! For God and the great St. James!
E ultreja e sus eja!
Deus adjuva nos!
[Father Ramón Anglés, of the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X, wrote this extensive article for the last Holy Compostelan Year, 2004; we publish it in this Holy Year of 2010 - the next one will be 2021! - and hope that it will provide spiritual profit to all our readers. May you all have a happy Feast of Saint James!]