Pilgrim arriving on St James Day

Everything You Need To Know About the Apostle St. James the Greater



Written by Gail Delahunt

St. James is the patron saint of Spain and the namesake of the Camino de Santiago. How did he come to be so important?

Saint James the Apostle

Quick facts about St James the Apostle:

  • Patron saint of pilgrims and Spain
  • Memorial Day / Feast Day is July 25th
  • Named by Jesus as one of the Sons of Thunder
  • Executed in AD 44 by beheading

Listen below or read on…

To start, let’s go back to basics – a patron saint is considered to be a defender of a specific group of people or nation. There’s a patron saint for virtually every cause, profession, or special interest. For example, St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals and St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost items.

Patron saints are not specific only to Roman Catholicism but are also particular to Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and some branches of Islam. St James the Greater is the patron saint of both pilgrims and the nation of Spain.

St James the Great Statue in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

History of Saint James

St James the Greater was one of the disciples of Jesus Christ, and thought to be the cousin of Jesus himself, as the son of the sister of the Virgin Mary and the brother of St. Jude Thaddeus. He worked as a fisherman with his brother, John, his father, Zebedee, and his partner, Simon. John and James were followers of John the Baptist and later, Jesus.

James, along with his brother John, left life as a fisherman when Jesus called him to be a “fisher of men”. He followed Jesus as one of his disciples until Jesus was crucified by the Romans.

Following the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, James made a pilgrimage to the Iberian Peninsula to spread the word of Jesus. When he returned to Judea, he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa I in the year 44AD. This is detailed in the Bible in Acts 12 of the New Testament, “King Herod extended his hands to harm certain ones from the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword. Seeing that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to arrest Peter also,” (Act 12 Modern English Version).

St James on a Stone Boat

The remains, or relics, of St James the Greater, were then transported by his followers to the Iberian Peninsula (today’s Galicia in Spain) and are said to be buried in Santiago de Compostela, which is why St James the Greater is now the patron saint of Spain.

According to legend, his body, along with his followers, sailed to the Iberian Peninsula on a rudderless ship with no sail. Landing on the northwest coast of the peninsula they proceeded up the River Ulla to land at Iria Flavia, (modern-day Padron). The Celtic Queen Lupia ruled these lands, and when asked by James’ followers if they could bury his body she refused and sent troops after them. While chasing the followers of James with his body across a bridge, it collapsed, killing her troops.

Queen Lupia then converted to Christianity and provided an ox and cart for the followers of James to transport the body. Unsure of where they should bury the sacred remains, his followers prayed on this and decided to let the ox continue until it chose a place to rest. After pausing at a stream the ox finally came to rest under an oak tree at the top of a hill. It’s here that the Cathedral of Santiago stands today.

tomb of st james

The Legend of St James the Greater

St James in Battle

St James, or St lago with the Spanish form of his name, is also the great military patron of Spain. His mission to defend the Christian Church against invaders actually occurred after his death.

During the celebrated battle of Clavijo, he suddenly appeared on a milk-white charger, waving aloft a white standard, and leading the Christians to victory.

This manifestation was a response to the soldiers’ invocation of his name, “Sant lago!”, as the battle-cry of the day. Hence, the name of the ancient city (Santiago) where the cathedral was founded in his honour.

The Death of the Saint

There are two categories of saints – martyrs and confessors. A Christian martyr is regarded as one who is put to death for his Christian faith or convictions. Confessors are people who died natural deaths.

St James the Greater died in AD 44 after beheading by King Herod, making him a martyr. St James is also widely recognised as the first apostle to be martyred.

Why is he the patron of pilgrims and Spain?

St James the Greater is universally regarded as the patron saint of pilgrims because after he established the Christian religion on the Iberian Peninsula, modern Galicia, he returned to Judaea by pilgrimage and was beheaded. The scallop shell then became the recognized symbol of all pilgrims on the Camino, as it’s found on the shores of Galicia. When returning to their own countries, pilgrims displayed the scallop shell on their hats to show they had carried out their pious intentions.

St James became the patron saint of Spain as this is where his remains are believed to be buried. St James is also believed to have helped the Christians defeat the Moors in Spain – yet another reason he’s their patron saint.

How is St. James the Greater represented in Christian Art?

It’s helpful to be able to recognise iconic saints in paintings, stained glass windows, illuminated manuscripts, architecture, and other forms of Christian art. The artistic representations reflect the life or death of saints, or an aspect of life with which the person is most closely associated. St James the Greater is represented in Christian Art in the garb of a pilgrim, with staff, gourd, and scallop shell. St James is often also depicted riding a white horse into battle.

The Feast Day of St James

The Feast Day of St James the Greater is July 25th and is widely celebrated in Spain, especially in Santiago de Compostela. Each year, a firework display concludes the end of a two-week celebration.

When the Feast of St James falls on a Sunday, that year becomes a Camino Holy Year, also known as a Year of Compostela, or Jacobean Year. During these years, visitors to the Cathedral in Santiago can receive a plenary indulgence. The Camino routes also become quite busy during Holy Years, so advance planning for pilgrims is essential!

The origin of Feast Days

Most saints have specially designated feast days that are associated with a specific day of the year. Feast days first arose from the early Christian custom of the annual commemoration of martyrs on the dates of their deaths, at the same time celebrating their birth into heaven.

Why not experience the festivities of St. James’ Day in Santiago as part of our guided tour!

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Originally published on 27th April 2018

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