Shrines & Places

Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela floorplan
Statue of a pilgrim from Santiago de Compostela.

Statue of a pilgrim at Santiago de Compostela.

Above: Floor plan of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela as it appeared in the Middle Ages.

One of the most important pilgrimage sites of the Middle Ages, Santiago de Compostela has become the object of renewed interest in recent decades. In 1993, when UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site, 100,000 pilgrims visited the cathedral, said to house the remains of Saint James. Like the pilgrims that came before them, these individuals received a certificate if they completed the grueling journey on foot.

Located in the region of Galicia, in northwestern Spain, the road to Santiago de Compostela is famous for its rugged terrain and changeable climate. The twelfth century Pilgrim's Guide contains detailed instructions on how to navigate the extremes that one encountered along the four major routes that lead to Compostela from the rest of Europe. Part of a manuscript, known as the Codex Callixtinus, the Pilgrim's Guide is complemented by stories related to the life of James and an account of the translation of his body to Galacia.

After James's martyrdom in Palestine, his disciples sent his body out to sea. By divine providence, the boat made its way to the northwest coast of what is now Spain: a region where James had preached the Gospel. Discovered and buried at Compostela, James's body was ignored until the ninth century, when a star led Bishop Theodomir of Iria Flavia to a large field, where he unearthed James's remains.

Soon after, the Asturian king Alfonso II built the first church dedicated to James. Royal patrons continued to visit James's shrine throughout the Middle Ages, as they saw him as a precursor to their own efforts to introduce Christianity into a region that was subject to repeated Muslim invasions. Their political agenda even extended to the shrines located along the way, with the church of St. Madeleine-en-Vezelay serving as the launching point for the Second Crusade.

Gabriella Szalay