The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: 16 facts

May 28, 2021 by
POSTED BY May 28, 2021

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the proud final destination of every pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. The beautiful cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and represents a truly grand finale to this pilgrimage. In this post, we uncover 16 amazing facts about The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and it’s fascinating history.

There are many myths and legends surrounding this imposing building and to this day, it is not entirely clear whether it really houses the bones of the apostle James. Nevertheless, the cathedral certainly impresses with its magnificent architecture and rare art treasures and is without a doubt one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Europe.

Cathedral Santiago de Compostela - Camino Frances
Cathedral Santiago de Compostela – Camino Frances

1. Construction of the cathedral began in 1057

Construction of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela began in 1057 on the foundations of a small church previously dedicated to the Apostle James. The first phase of construction took 36 years.

2. 1,200 visitors 

The cathedral can accommodate 1,200 visitors at the same time.

3. Mix of styles

In its almost thousand-year existence, the cathedral has undergone various modifications and additions. As a result, the original area was enlarged many times over. Today, the imposing structure combines various architectural styles, including Romanesque, early and late Gothic, and Baroque elements.

4. The handprint of thousands

The entrance from the west portal leads to the Pórtico da GloriaHere is a statue of the Apostle James and below him the Arbol de Jese,  a marble tree. For centuries, pilgrims have touched the left foot of their patron saint, leaving a handprint in the soft stone.

5. In the Middle Ages, the cathedral doors were always open

Pilgrims were expected to arrive at any time of the day or night. They traditionally spent the first night praying and contemplating in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The doors of the church were never locked.

Photo credit: flickr_Contando Estrelas

6. Several masses a day

Today, numerous masses are held every day in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. You can find the exact times here. There are even masses said in different languages throughout the day

7. Is it really the apostle James?

To this day there have been divided views as to whether the remains on display are the remains of Saint James. According to legend, the apostle’s body was brought by ship from Jerusalem to northern Spain. Martin Luther railed against a pilgrimage on the Way of St. James and doubted the authenticity of the bones. However, Pope Leo XIII confirmed this when he declared the relic to be authentic in 1884.

Around 1700, there was fear of an invasion by the British in Galicia and so the bones were hidden to be on the safe side. When the danger was over, three skeletons were found instead of one. However, two allegedly belonged to disciples of the apostle.

8. World Heritage Site since 1985

In 1985 the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the old town of Santiago .

9. The famous west facade is a baroque addition

The most famous view of the cathedral is the west facade, also called  Fachada del Obradoiro, which you enter from Obradoiro square. The lavish addition to the structure consists of two towers and a central section and was designed and supervised by the unknown architect Fernando de Casas in 1738-50.

The right tower is called ‘Torre de las Campanas’ (bell tower) and the left tower, ‘Torre de Carracas’ is the sound of the Holy Week when the bells fall silent.

The granite facade is richly decorated. One figure depicts Saint James as a pilgrim with a staff, scallop and broad-rimmed hat.

Apostle James. Photo: flickr_Simone Ramella

10. Master Mateo’s signature

Master Mateo, the artist who created the Pórtico da Gloria, signed his work. However, not with a profane signature or engraving in the stone. Instead, he chiseled a small figure representing himself and placed it at the bottom of the portico.

11. The  Pórtico da Gloria : showpiece from 1188

Behind the west facade is the Romanesque entrance portal Pórtico da Gloria. This was made in 1188 by Maestro Mateo and his journeymen and is considered the greatest art treasure in the entire cathedral.

The two arches of the portal are decorated over and over with figures carved out of stone. In addition to Jesus Christ and the Apostle James, these include the four evangelists, the 24 elders of the Apocalypse and various angels. They depict scenes from the Last Judgment.

Before the west facade was built, it was on the outside, but today it is inside the building, protected from the weather.

12. Cent coin motif

The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela adorns the Spanish cent coins.

13. The botafumeiro

The botafumeiro. Photo: flickr_Rob

The botafumeiro is a stately censer that is waved on a rope over the heads of the pilgrims in the cathedral. It is an impressive 1.60 meters high and weighs 80kg. Eight people are needed to swing the botafumeiro.

The use of incense was not only liturgical, but also served to drown out the smell of the pilgrims. After nearly half a mile on foot and a night of sleep in the cathedral, you can imagine that this was necessary.

14. From Santiago to Cordoba

When the Andalusian ruler al-Mensur (or Almanzor) conquered Santiago in 997, Santiago came under Muslim rule. Almanzor spared the church in which the relics of St. James were kept.

However, he ordered the residents of Santiago to bring the church bells about 800km to Cordoba, southern Spain where they should be used to build a mosque.

15. A sliver of the cross

Another art treasure, which is located in a crypt in the nave of the cathedral of Santiago, is a golden cross from the year 874. A supposedly original fragment of the cross of Jesus is embedded in it.

16. Star gazers

The tomb of the apostle James was forgotten from the third century after Christ. It was not until 814 that the saint’s final resting place was rediscovered. The hermit Pelagius discovered strange phenomena in the night sky, which eventually led him to Santiago. So he became the first person to make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

A small church later stood here, in a sense the forerunner of the cathedral.

The west facade of Santiago Cathedral. Photo: flickr_Contando Estrelas

Would you like to receive your pilgrimage certificate in the Cathedral of Santiago? Book your hiking tour on the Camino de Santiago with Hillwalk Tours today!