The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Written by Gail Delahunt

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is a Roman Catholic cathedral in the Archdiocese of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.

The cathedral is the resting place of the remains of Saint James the Greater who is one of the apostles of Jesus Christ.  As a result of this, it is the destination for pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) and has been since the Middle Ages. The building is a predominantly Romanesque structure with later additions adding both Gothic and Baroque features.

History of the Cathedral

Declared Historic-Artistic Monument in 1986.Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

After St James was beheaded his remains were returned to Galicia where he had been spreading the word of Jesus.  Over time the location of his remains was lost until the 9th Century when they where rediscovered by a hermit.  Bishop Teodomiro of Iria Flavia recognised the discovery as a miracle and informed  King Alfonso 2nd “The Chaste”  who ordered a modest church to be erected on the site.  Over the years various Kings wanted to leave their mark and so the church was expanded.  This was also recognition of the growing number of pilgrims to the shrine.

In 1075 after a period of increasing numbers of pilgrims and stability from Arab attacks a new construction was begun.  This was during the reign of Alfonso 6th and under the direction of Archbishop Diego de Peláez. Work started on the Romanesque cathedral, continued during the period of Archbishop Diego Gelmírez, and did not stop until it became the large building we can see today.

The cathedral is built in granite masonry with roofs in slabs of the same material. It is a Romanesque construction on a Latin cross ground plan, with a longitudinal arm and transept in three aisles, an ambulatory in the sanctuary and a tribune that runs along the whole perimeter; side chapels are arranged along the whole interior with their own individual space.

The Acibechería facade is Neo-Classical (Ventura Rodríguez and Lois Monteagudo). The Praterías facade is Romanesque and a paradigm of medieval religious art. The Baroque Puerta Santa, (1611) is only opened in Holy Years. The Obradoiro facade (Fernando Casas y Novoa, 1738-1750) is a combination of stone and glass, with a remarkable large window in the central section, among the largest prior to the Industrial Revolution.

The Cathedral has recently undergone restorations on its facade and many of the spectacular works of art inside. The last of the scaffolding that had surrounded sections of the cathedral for several years was removed in December 2020 – just in time for the 2021 Holy Year!

In special religious events, visitors may have the chance to see the unique ceremony of the botafumeiro, a spectacular incensory made of silver-plated brass, weighing eighty kilos, whose original purpose was to perfume the church which tended to smell rather strong during the pilgrim mass after 100s of pilgrims had made their way across the continent by foot for months at a time.

It hangs on a rope from the centre of the transept, and it is moved from its stationary position by being pushed. As it swings like a pendulum, eight men (called tiraboleiros) let out rope at the apex of the swing and pull on it at the lowest point. This amplifies the incensory’s oscillation swinging it to 21 metres up in the top of the vault, in a 65-metre arc along the transept from the Azabachería to the Praterias doorways. It passes along at floor level at a speed of 68 km/h, leaving behind it a fine trail of smoke and a fragrance of incense.

The Squares around the Cathedral

Ther are four impressive plazas in front of each of the four doors of the cathedral:

Plaza's of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
  • Plaza del Obradoiro

The main plaza was given the name of Obradoiro (workshop in English), as for nearly ten years, between 1738 and 1747, the Obradoiro, was where the stones for the Baroque facade were cut and carved. This part was the work of the Galician architect Fernando Casas e Novoa.  It replaced the early Romanesque facade. The towers on this side reach a height of 74 metres tall.

Along the other side the Palacio de Xelmírez, still thrives.  Built in the XII century at the same time as the early Romanesque cathedral. The canons now reside on the opposite side now which houses the Cathedral Museum.

  • Praza da Acibechería

The Praza da Acibechería is the first square you arrive in to when you get to Santiago by the French Road. It was known as the Puerta del Paraíso or Door of Paradise but, was replaced by the present neo-classical style square in the XVIII century. The craft of jet working which is closely linked to the Pilgrimage, prospered in Santiago from the XV century onwards. The square would have been buzzing with the workshops and stalls.

  • Praza das Praterías

On the opposite side, the door of the southern arm of the cathedral’s cross aisle preserves all the traditional and conventional images and symbols associated with St. James and the Camino de Santiago.  Also the richness of the Romanesque art of Compostela’s golden age is the Porta das Praterías. Beside it stands the Torre do Reloxo, (Clock Tower) or the Berenguela, of Baroque style, as are the other buildings surrounding this square, except the building of the old Bank of Spain, that is nowadays being prepared to house the Museo das Peregrinacións (Pilgrimage Museum) of Santiago.

  • Praza de A Quintana

Right behind the cathedral is the wide open space of the Praza da Quintana. The Porta Santa or Holy Door, which faces this square is only open in the Compostela Holy Year, when the festival of the Apostle St. James happens on the 25 July and falls on a Sunday.  This square is split over two levels.  The upper level is known as Quintana de Vivos (`Quintana´ of the Living) and the lower level and larger area is known as Quintana de Mortos(`Quintana´ of the Dead).  This area was until 1780 a burial ground.

Cathedral of Santiago: Virtual Visit

Virtually explore the stunning cathedral with Turismo Galicia!

Here are another three fascinating buildings from different periods and styles close to the square.

Historical Buildings Santiago de Compostela

Firstly, the Colexio de San Xerome, founded by Bishop Fonseca, with a Romanesque-ogival portal, the Palacio de Raxoi, of XVIII century neo-classical style, which was built as a confessors’ seminary, a choirboys’ residence and town hall for the city. And finally, the Hospital Real, which was ordered to be built by the Catholic Kings to take in pilgrims and where sick people were to be taken care of. It is a fantastic example of Plateresque style which is very unusual in Galicia and therefore has now been renovated into the modern day Parador (hotel).