Entering at the west entrance, it is the 12th century Portico de la Gloria that first greets the pilgrim.
It is rich with celebration, from the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse vibrantly plucking, banging, and blowing on their instruments in God’s orchestra with God, Jesus, and Saint James enjoying the whole scene, smiling down at you.
Right in the center, and the central column of the middle arches, is a pillar carved with the Tree of Jesse, showing Jesus’ lineage from King David.
At its base is the worn handprint from thousands, and millions of pilgrims who touched the pillar here, repeatedly, wearing away at the marble. It used to be possible up until a few years ago but since, to protect the soft stone, officials have cordoned it off so all you can do is look.
Below the hand imprint is the engraving of the creative Master Mateo himself. (Artists and other creatives try to touch their head to his to transfer some good luck!)
When you step in at the Portico de la Gloria, you stand at the oldest part of the cathedral before it was a Christian holy site. Directly under your feet is the older part of the crypt, inaccessible to visitors but well excavated by archaeologists. Those excavations took place between 1946-1959 under the cathedral.
Notice how high up you have to climb to arrive at the Portico de la Gloria. There is a lot of archaeology underneath, at Plaza level and below, that the visitor will never get to see. It also accentuates the cathedral’s holiness as an ancient sacred hill.
Here, archaeologists found evidence for an ancient Neolithic necropolis that predates the Celtic-Roman one that they found right under nave, and altar further ahead. This adds wonder and power to the story of Saint James being buried here. The tombs found near the altar date to the Roman and early medieval period.
While it is a mystery as to whether the venerated tomb really is Saint James’, excavations also discovered that during the Roman period the location of the purported tomb was possibly the location of an altar to Jupiter.
This hill, with these old burials from many eras, also adds color to the etymology for the name Compostela. It could derive from the hermit Pelayo’s vision of the trail of stars, the Milky Way, that marked for him the location of Saint James’ tomb in the early 9th century. For field of stars in Latin translates to campus stellae. But. As easily, it could refer to a long-term burial place, a burial mound, compostum in Latin. It could also be a word play that intends to capture both.
Soon after the tomb’s discovery in the early half of the 9th century, King Alfonso II commissioned a chapel that was built over the alleged tomb of Saint James. The chapel proved to be too small, and by CE 899, Asturias’ King Alfonso III (r. 866-910) had a larger church completed on the same site.
The new church and most of the city around it was destroyed in CE 997 during the siege from the southern Caliphate of Córdoba, led by the defacto ruler Almanzor (also known as Al-Mansur, r. 981-1002). One key event, though, documented in Christian and Islamic chronicles, was that Almanzor and his men refused to touch or violate the tomb of Saint James. They too held it as holy.
Muslims are one of the three Abrahamic peoples, and the Old and New Testament prophets are also theirs. Moreover, they held Christians and Jews as “Peoples of the Book” and as kin in the same tradition. Also important was the context of the invasion: these were not religious battles as much as historians on both sides later cast them.
Instead, they were about people seeking power, wealth, and prestige through imperialistic means. Almanzor had not singled out Santiago de Compostela to make a religious point. It was one of several other Iberian cities and regions he’d successfully sacked in the name of power and influence, including Barcelona in CE 985, Coimbra (Portugal) in 987, Zamora and León in 988, and Pamplona in 999.
While rebuilding the city took place almost immediately after the city’s destruction, it took another eighty years to begin construction of the Romanesque cathedral that laid the foundation of what you see today. That work began in CE 1075 and was finished in CE 1128.
This new structure marked the apex not only of the medieval pilgrimage but also of Santiago de Compostela as a political, cultural, and sacred destination. These golden years in the city were largely under the leadership of the Archbishop Diego Gelmírez (1100-1140), whose palace sits near the north wall of the cathedral.
The cathedral’s cloister, which he also commissioned, sits on the opposite, southern wall of the cathedral. The two structures form a sturdy flanking of the church.
Through the 13th to 15th centuries, chapels were added. In the 16th and the 18th centuries, the cathedral was further expanded and altered, adding the overwhelming Baroque exterior that was mostly about expressing power and influence in the here and now. Fortunately, the interior and several of the main doorways still retain the more spiritually attuned and original 12th Romanesque structure and sculpture. There can be no greater contrast for the pilgrim at the end of the road than the loud, frenetic and out-to-impress Baroque and the serene, quiet, and inspiring Romanesque.
In all this, my favorite part of the cathedral is the chapel, La Corticela, in the northeast corner at the end of the transept’s northern arm. It was originally a 9th century church that was separate from the cathedral but was eventually absorbed during its expansion and reconfigured with a 12th century Romanesque entrance, also by Master Mateo. It’s a nice serene place to decompress after all the excitement of arriving and taking in this immense place.
To return back outside to the city, follow here.