It was long ago and no one knows for sure how this happened – but maybe the roots of modern Western Europe start exactly in Santiago de Compostela. According to legends here is buried Saint James who brought Christianity to this part of the world and the gorgeous Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is built over his grave.

Saint James

One of the first disciples to join Jesus was Saint James. Soon after the crucifixion of Jesus his apostles headed to different lands in order to spread the teachings of Christ to the world. Saint James came to Iberian Peninsula.

According to legends he saw a miraculous apparition of Virgin Mary in 40 AD and took this as a sign that he should return home, to Judea. This was unfortunate comeback – in 44 AD Saint James was beheaded as the first known Christian martyr.

And now comes the most amazing part of the legend: disciples of Saint James laid the corpse of apostle in a boat (without anyone else) and released it in the Mediterranean Sea at Judea. The boat somehow landed in Galicia (look at the map!) and other followers of Saint James brought his remains inland and buried.

Obradoiro facade, Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
Obradoiro facade / Yearofthedragon, / CC BY-SA 3.0

In the 3rd century AD the persecution of Christians started in Iberia and the grave was forgotten.

Rise of Saint James cult

According to yet another legend the grave of Saint James was miraculously rediscovered by hermit Pelagius in 814 AD. This holy man saw apparition of strange lights in the night sky and followed them until he stumbled upon the abandoned grave.

It seems that this occasion somehow was in time for the politics of these times. King Alfonso II of Asturias and Galicia ordered to construct a chapel in this site and was the first official pilgrim to the site.

In 829 AD the first church was constructed here, next one – in 899 AD. Not much is known about these structures now.

Praterias facade with exquisite Romanesque sculptures, Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
Praterias facade with exquisite Romanesque sculptures / Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez, / CC BY 3.0

Way of St. James

In medieval times many Christians changed the way of their lives through pilgrimage. Each pilgrim has his own reasons for pilgrimage – some want to see the important sites for their religion, others are in a quest for important answers or spiritual awakening and others may be just need some adventures or escape in their lives. The most important pilgrimage routes led to Rome and Jerusalem – but, as the time went, the grave of St. James rose as the third most important and lately – even the best known pilgrimge route.

This phenomenon may have both practical and spiritual reasons. Grave of St. James is located in Western Europe – there was no need to traverse hazardous far away lands. The scenery along the path is gorgeous and diverse, the walk is demanding but not too dangerous, the destination is valuable and of great importance to history of Christianity in Western Europe.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in the night, Spain
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in the night / Enrique Dans, / CC BY 2.0

There are many ways to reach Santiago de Compostela Cathedral – some are walking thousands of kilometres, while others arrive near the church and walk for a short distance.

Pilgrim’s Mass is held in the cathedral every day at noon – this event is the highlight of hard pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage started here already in the 10th – 12th century. It declined in the 15th – 16th century but has retained its popularity up to this day, with huge increase in the number of pilgrims since the 1990s.

History of cathedral

In 997 AD the church above the grave was burned down by the army of the caliph of Cordoba, leaving the tomb of Saint James intact.

Gates and bells of the church were transported to Cordoba and included in Aljama Mosque. Later, in 1236 AD, Christians took Cordoba and transported these gates and bells to Toledo and now these details are included in the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo.

Porta Santa in Quintana facade, Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
Porta Santa in Quintana facade / MarisaLR, / CC BY-SA 3.0

The construction of the present cathedral was started in 1075. This magnificent structure was modelled in Romanesque style after the Saint Sermin church in Toulouse, the structure was built from granite.

Works proceeded slowly and only by 1122 the structure was largely complete. Cathedral was consecrated in 1128.

As the pilgrimage of St. James Way evolved, cathedral grew in importance and city developed around it. University was built next to the cathedral in 1495, cathedral itself was repeatedly extended and embellished.

Architecture and art values

Like other great European cathedrals, Santiago de Compostela Cathedral has evolved throughout the centuries, incorporating diverse styles.

Acibecheria facade, Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
Acibecheria facade / Javier Habladorcito, / CC BY 2.0

The 97 m long structure has Romanesque forms with the typical barrel vaults. Its interior basically is austere except for the sumptuous organ and choir.

Most valuable treasure of Santiago de Compostela is located in the basement below the main altar. Here are stored relics of Saint James and his disciples – Saint Theodorus and Saint Athanasius.

Most noticeable though are other, later built elements of the cathedral – sumptuous Gothic and Baroque towers and facades.

Cathedral has four towers: two bell towers (the 12th century, with later rebuildings), Carraca tower in the northern part (1738, Baroque) and Clock Tower (1316 – 1680, with clocks added in 1833).

Each of the four main facades of cathedral are outstanding achievements of architecture and art:

Silver urn with relics of Saint James and his disciples, Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
Silver urn with relics of Saint James and his disciples / Lancastermerrin88, / CC BY-SA 3.0
  • Praterias facade (southern side of the cathedral) is built in Romanesque style in 1103 by Master Esteban.
  • Obradoiro facade (western side) in built in Baroque style in the 18th century and belongs to highest achievements of Baroque architecture in Spain. Great achievement of Romanesque architecture and art is Portal of Glory (Pórtico da Gloria), completed in 1188. It is adorned with sculptures of fantastic animals and many other sculptures, which were covered with colors.
  • Acibecheria facade (north side) is designed in Baroque and Neo-Classical styles.
  • Quintana facade (eastern side) has two gates – Porta Real (Baroque, 1666 – 1700) and Porta Santa.

Impressive tradition of this cathedral is fast swinging thurible – ornate, 1.6 m high censer, the largest in the world. This censer is named Botafumeiro and is used in specific ceremonies. It swings with a speed up to 80 km/h, leaving trails of thick fumes. It is considered that this powerful "air freshener" was used in order to mask the stench from the crowd of pilgrims who entered the cathedral after weeks long, exhausting pilgrimage without washing.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral on the map
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Location, GPS coordinates: 42.8806 N 8.5444 W
Categories: Churches
Values: Art, Architecture, History
Rating: 4.5 out of 10 stars
Where is located? Europe, Spain, Galicia, old town of Santiago de Compostela
Name in Galician: Catedral de Santiago de Compostela
UNESCO World Heritage status: Part of "quot;Santiago de Compostela (Old Town)", 1985, No.347
Architectural style: Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque
Architects: Bernard the Elder, Robertus Galperinus, Esteban, Bernard the Younger
Year of construction: 1075 – 1211
Branch of Christianity: Catholics
Height: 75 – 80 m

Landmarks of Spain

Alhambra, Court of Myrtles in the night
Alhambra, Court of Myrtles in the night / JunCTionS, / CC0 1.0

The wealth of cultural heritage in Spain is immense. Throughout the millenia this land has seen development and demise of many cultures, each leaving unique artworks and structures.


St.Peter's Basilica, Vatican
St.Peter’s Basilica / P.Landy, Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0
Throughout the history Christian churches have been the epitome of architecture and arts achievements in Western culture.

Recommended books

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is undoubtedly one of the most important and impressive buildings in the Christian world: its sheer size is awe-inspiring. To this day it remains a center of pilgrimage to the sarcophagus of St. James.

Cathedrals and Churches of Europe

This marvelously illustrated volume takes us to a journey throughout Europe’s most beautiful and magnificent sacred buildings. As the very heart and centre of most cities and villages, churches, cathedrals and basilicas have shaped the regional landscape in Europe to a great extent.

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