The Way of St James

The Way of St James:From religious pilgrimage to cultural tourism

Santiago in VanderAa

The pilgrimage route known as the Way of St James consists of a number of walking trails that converge on Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, North-West Spain. The most popular and oldest of these is the so called Camino Frances that starts traditionally in St Jean Pied de Port in France and finishes in Santiago (about 780 km). Those pilgrims who walk the entire route are expected to spend approximately one month on the road.

The Christian tradition tells us that the remains of the apostle James were transported by ship from Jerusalem, where he had been executed by King Herodes, to the Roman port of Iria Flavia in North-West Spain where they were rediscovered in the 9th century. The place that hosts the supposed relics of the Saint is the city of Santiago de Compostela. The name Santiago derives etymologically from the vulgar latin Sanctu Iacoby (Saint James), while Compostela was believed to be an evolution of Campus Stellae (Field of the Stars), which evokes the bright star that according to the legend guided the hermit Pelayo to the secret tomb of the apostle in 813 AD. Others, however, claim that Compostela derives from compositum, the Latin word for burial place.

Modern excavations underneath the basement of the cathedral of Santiago that hosts the supposed tomb of the Saint revealed indeed the existence of hundreds of tombs from different epochs. The construction of the cathedral started in the 11th century on the very place where stood the remains of a previous church dating back to the 9th century. The discovery of the famous tomb soon turned this place into an emblematic centre of Catholic pilgrimage and a symbol of Christian identity during the times of the Crusades. The earliest records of pilgrims arriving from Britain date to the 11th century and as soon as the 12th century the pilgrimage to Saint James’ tomb was already a regular and well-organised phenomenon in Christendom.

Despite the decline of Catholic pilgrimage following the Black Plague and the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe, St. James’ Way continued to attract travellers from all over the world. In the wake of the Grand Tour boom in the 18th century, travellers’ books started to show an interest in this ancestral route and its legend. The image selected here is from Beschryving van Spanjen en Portugal, printed in Leyden by Pieter vander Aa. in 1707.

It shows a long procession of traditionally dressed pilgrims and other travellers heading to the cathedral of Santiago, waiting to touch the statue of St James located behind the main altar of the cathedral. This is a ritual still in place today, along with others such as the tapping three times of the pilgrim’s head on a column inside the arched entrance of the church, the Portico de la Gloria; or the very famous “botafumeiro”, the huge incense burner that swings over the head of worshippers inside the temple.

Pilgrims were recognised also by the use of a long crooked staff topped with a clam shell. This symbol, the origin of which is still a mystery, also adorned buildings across the Way. A possible logical explanation is that the shells were used to collect water or as food dishes.

Owing to its worldwide popularity and the importance of its history, in October 1987, St James’ Way was declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe and a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1993.

[Sam Bowen Williams and Samantha Edwards]