Romanesque to Baroque

Guide to Santiago

A Cathedral with over 800 years of history

Romanesque to Baroque
Catedral románica / @ Arturo Franco Taboada

Catedral románica / @ Arturo Franco Taboada

General information about the Cathedral of Santiago

Hundreds of years of history

We are facing the great monument of the Camino de Santiago, in fact, the end point of the famous route in any of its aspects. See the imposing facade of the Cathedral, one of the most beautiful in the world, after a long effort and Camino, without a doubt, it is worth it. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was first a chapel built on the remains of the tomb of the Apostle Santiago, ordered by King Alfonso II of Asturias.

The chapel was followed by several constructions and extensions over the years: a first church in 829 and a pre-Romanesque church in 899. The construction of the current cathedral began in 1075 under the reign of Alfonso VI, consecrated in 1128 It was not the end of its historical and medieval construction. In 1168 the crypt and the famous Pórtico de la Gloria were commissioned to the master Mateo, officially finished in April 1211. Due to this, in the Cathedral of Santiago you can see many different architectural styles (Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque).

Unesco World Heritage Site since 1985

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, although it remains a very important monument for centuries for the Catholic tradition. It is here that the tomb of the Apostle Santiago is located, which is why it has been one of the largest places of religious pilgrimage in the world for hundreds of years.

Some of the most interesting aspects of the Cathedral are its imposing and detailed Facade of the Obradoiro, the famous Romanesque-style Pórtico de la Gloria, the facade of Azabachería, the facade of the Silverware, the Clock Tower, the main chapel, the crypt Sepulcral or the famous Botafumeiro. The cathedral presents various internal and external structural problems, so it is possible that part of the facade is hidden behind some scaffolding.

Catedral de Santiago

Catedral de Santiago

When did the cathedral of Santiago begin to be built?

In the early XI century the mitre of Compostela planted a seed, expressing the need for Santiago to have a basilica, as was considered appropriate given the number of walkers received by the city and its status as a Jacobean sanctuary and beacon of Christianity. Thinking of similar models of the great cathedrals on pilgrimage routes, like several of the French locations where the route departs. A vision of a sanctuary with a Latin cross layout, allow for the orderly circulation, inside, of the faithful and pilgrims and, to facilitate, at the same time, the celebration of mass.

From the initiative of bishop Diego Peláez and King Alfonso VI and, overall thanks to the decisive push of the Archbishop Diego Xelmírez, who focused much of his spirit on the construction of the Cathedral, building of the Romanesque temple began in 1075. Work began with the apse and transept, and, the end of the XI century saw the most fruitful time with the completion of the ambulatory chapels and main altar, the episcopal palace was erected and work started on the Roman facades of Azabachería (jet gemstone) and Silver. The exterior structure and the fortifications of the portals were completed in 1128 while the Romanesque cloister was finished six years later. Construction work of the cathedral of Compostela was undertaken by the best builders of that time, such as the Maestro Esteban (constructor of the Romanesque cathedral of Pamplona and sculptor of the portals of San Isidoro in León) and, years later, Maestro Mateo, was the architect of the crypt and solved the problem of height difference in the Plaza del Obradoiro and, more importantly, was responsible for the Romanesque masterpiece, the Portico de la Gloria. The portal, without doors that hide its exterior, presented sculptures to pilgrims in all their glory.

On the 3rd of April in 1211 the great Romanesque cathedral was established in a ceremony presided over by the Compostela born Archbishop Pedro Muñiz and also benefited from the presence of King Alfonso IX, a great devotee of Santiago and a regular pilgrim. The consecration of the temple confirmed the golden age of pilgrimages to Compostela.

Access through the Francigena portal, currently Azabechería

Fachada de Azabachería / @ María Moldes

Fachada de Azabachería / @ María Moldes

Much has changed in the cathedral and the view seen by pilgrims compared to the middle Ages. Although the temple preserves its Romanesque layout and some places that existed during its consecration, the original basilica has received, over the centuries a number of contributions Gothic, Renaissance and especially Baroque, which have altered its exterior appearance and changed the means of access and the coexistence of pilgrims within. Thus, for example, since the XII century, the pilgrims arriving to Santiago on the French Camino accessed the cathedral by the famous Puerta Francigena, situated at the north side, currently Azabachería. The facade is not the same as the original one, of Romanesque style, that was demolished in the mid- eighteenth century. The first major pilgrimage guide to Santiago in the Codex Calixtino, allows readers to imagine what the square of the Immaculate Conception was like previously, popularly known as Azabachería for its traditional presence inside of art work dedicated to the jet gemstone.

When we, the French nation, want to enter the basilica of the Apostle, we do so through the northern gate. In front of this entry, next the Camino is the hospital for poor pilgrims in Santiago, and at the other side of the street, there is an atrium, reached by going down 9 steps. At the bottom of the staircase of the atrium, there is a remarkable fountain, incomparable to all others worldwide. This fountain sits on three stone steps, which hold the most beautiful cup of circular stone, and, concaves, like a bucket or bowl, of such great size that I imagine fifteen people can comfortably swim inside.

Chapter IX of Book V of the Codex Calixtino

The granite Romanesque fountain as cited, la Fons Mirabilis can be seen today in the centre of the cloister of the cathedral.

One curiosity surrounding the temple and, that a modification has also altered, was the former possibility to sleep in it. Although just outside of the Francigena door the pilgrim hospital was located (as mentioned in the Codex), no longer in existence, many weary pilgrims spent the night in the temple after having travelled many kilometres. The Cathedral remained open both day and night, something that only changed after the installation of the exterior doors in the XVI century. Even so, the possibility of spending the night in the cathedral remained in force until 1768.

The powerful attraction of the Baroque façade, which was relocated centuries later in Obradoiro, and encourages pilgrims to enter the temple through it, and the precarious conservation Roman façade of Azabachería may be two of the reasons for its demolition. It depicted scenes of Paradise, the fall into sin and the promise of redemption. The existing, baroque and neoclassical facade depicts various Jacobean motives, such as Santiago the pilgrim worshiped by kings. Even today it is where the French and English Caminos lead.

Facades of A Quintana and Berenguela

Next to the Plaza of A Quintana a long baroque wall topped with pinnacles stands out, which in the XVII century attempted to blend in with the façade. Within the wall is the door, Puerta Os Abades, Only opened in Holy Years to facilitate the exit of the faithful from the temple, the famous Puerta Santa and the Portico Real, the current entrance to the cathedral shop. Among these portals, most attention is paid to the Puerta Santa, which only opens in Jacobean years, and which was built in the XVI century. Those who pass through it, on fulfilling the conditions of confession and communion, receive in exchange the official blessing. The door is framed by 24 statues recovered from the Romanesque stone choir of Maestro Mateo, which was dismantled in the XVI century. Situated at the highest part it is notable for its sculptures of Santiago and his disciples Atanasio and Theodore.

Torre del Reloj - Puerta Santa / @ Xoán A.Soler

Torre del Reloj - Puerta Santa / @ Xoán A.Soler

Joining the squares Praterías and A Quintana the clock tower stands majestically, the most beautiful part of the cathedral, and known to all the locals as Berenguela named after the French archbishop Berenguel from Landoira who completed the lower part of the tower, Gothic in style, it was completed in the XIV century. On this construction the architect Domingo of Andrade raised the octagonal tower, which is adorned with Jacobean motifs and plant forms. The top lantern is lit during holy years to lead the way for pilgrims. The tower houses the largest bells of the cathedral, also known as Berenguela.

Facade of Praterías

On continuation from Berenguela visitors eyes are opened to the only Romanesque façade still conserved from this medieval cathedral, the façade to the south, known as Praterías, surrounded by various workshops selling silver souvenirs with Jacobean motifs. Built between 1078 and 1103 it is attributed to the maestro Esteban. For this reason, it is the access to the temple for pilgrims arriving to Santiago from the Via de la Plata (the silver way) and the Portuguese Camino. On the façade there are various scenes representing the life of Jesus such as, the Incarnation, Passion and Preaching. A fire occurred in the XII century and consequently it has not retained its slender profile and, due to the reconstruction and later additions to the Romanesque facade of Azabachería – that can be seen on the lateral walls -, its iconography could be described as a little messy. In the centre, and next to Christ, Santiago is located, while on the double portal the focus is on human nature and the divine Sons of God.

Baroque facade of Obradoiro

Fachada del Obradoiro / @ Xoán A. Soler

Fachada del Obradoiro / @ Xoán A. Soler

The journey around the outside of the cathedral leads to the most iconic image, the facade of the Obradoiro, a name that proceeds from the large number of stonemasons who worked (obradoiros in Galician) during the XVII and XVIII centuries focused on building the great baroque portal, at that time its construction was considered necessary to show the world the importance of this religious symbol (and criticized in the XIX century for being excessive). During the first centuries of the cathedral its western side was very different from today. Two Romanesque towers of unequal height crowned a portal that was left open day and night and that exposed the great Portico of Glory, visible from the outside. The Baroque remodelling, which ultimately served to renew the outside of the temple, started in the year 1650. Several builders such as, Domingo de Andrade, Peña de Toro and Casas y Novos erected the uniform towers 74 meters high. On the right stands the Bell Tower, and to the left, la Carraca (the Rattle or Ratchet), its name derives from the musical instrument installed in it, which was rung during Easter celebrations as a symbol of mourning for the death of Christ. The instrument was used to Substitute the sound of bells although, at present, it is rarely used. The cathedral recovered this sound in 2011 to mark the 800th anniversary of the consecration of the temple.

The facade consists of four bodies decorated with divine Jacobean motifs, such as the ark and the star, the cross of Santiago and, above all, the image of the pilgrim Apostle that crowns the temple worshiped by two kings Spanish.

To enter the temple pilgrims should climb the steps of Obradoiro built in the late XVI century and which, at the base has two staircases on either side to facilitate the entry and exit of the faithful to the temple. Behind its gates lies the crypt, built by Maestro Mateo between 1180 and 1200 to act as a base to support the weight of the Portico de la Gloria. It symbolizes the Earth located at the foot of the Portico of Christ. With its construction the prolific builder also managed to level the unevenness of the Obradoiro. This space can only be visited with the entrance ticket to the Cathedral Museum (with which you can also enter the cloister, the Chapel of Relics, the Royal Pantheon and the Treasury). Inside there are reproductions, in various showcases and, the instruments played by the 24 elders of the Apocalypse of the Portico.

Also from the Obradoiro there is access to the Renaissance cloister, XVI century and plateresque in style. Before arriving visitors go through a few rooms containing discoveries from excavations performed at the tomb of the Apostle and below the temple. As a historical curiosity a section of an ancient street or road has been conserved. In this place they also rebuilt the stone choir area of Maestro Mateo, situated for centuries in the central nave of the cathedral.

The Portico of Glory

Pórtico de la Gloria

Pórtico de la Gloria

Once inside the cathedral the pilgrims stand before the Portico de la Gloria, another masterpiece of this Romanesque temple. Currently the sculptures cannot be admired in all their glory due to on going restoration work undertaken by the Barrié Foundation in an attempt to prevent further deterioration. Despite this, pilgrims can appreciate the stone lintel of Maestro Mateo and enjoy a guided tour of his work (check prices and times / (+34) 902 557 812).

Maestro Mateo completed the Pórtico de la Gloria in 1188. His sublime work provides a dense theological message etched in stone. It shows, to the faithful, heavenly Jerusalem reached after the Last Judgment. The work, which includes more than 200 granite figures of great realism and expressiveness, among which, some of them appear to be having a secular conversation, the collection consists of a large central arch divided by a column or mullion and two lateral arches. The central one depicts iconography based on the Apocalypse of San Juan, with Christ surrounded by the four Evangelists and a host of angels with the instruments of the passion. In one of the Archivolts the 24 elders of Revelation with musical instruments can be seen. The central column of the portal holds a seated statue of Santiago the Apostle, patron Saint of the cathedral, who welcomes the pilgrims. In this mullion, the mark left by pilgrims can be seen, one of the most popular rituals which, only recently they have managed to restrict. For centuries walkers arriving to the temple sank their fingers into a cavity, now deformed by centuries of custom.

Behind the mullion there is a figure of what seems to be a Maestro Mateo, kneeling and facing the altar. Popularly this figure is known as Santo dos Croques because of an ancient custom of Compostela students to hit their head against the forehead of the Saint three times in an attempt to take a part of his wisdom. This ritual does not remain today.

The left arch of the Portico reserves the Old Testament, with scenes of Paradise and the captivity of the tribes of Israel while the one on the right represents the New Testament and the Last Judgment. The image that receives the most attention and, interpretations by scholars and pilgrims is the face of the young prophet Daniel, who is giving a natural, candid – and playful? – Smile. Some claim they have seen him wink at the figure of beautiful Esther, which is situated opposite.

A tour of the inside

The temple, of considerable size and freely accessible, preserves on the inside, vestiges of different architectural styles that have helped to support it. Similar to the French model of a pilgrimage church, it has a Latin cross floor plan with three naves on each side and an ambulatory, which facilitates the transit of pilgrims to the radiating chapels. The centre of the main nave, until the sixteenth century, was home to a stone choir constructed by Master Mateo, part of which can still be seen in the Cathedral Museum.

On a leisurely tour pilgrims can admire the successive chapels of the ambulatory. With Jacobean themes, two of great interest include the Chapel of the Salvador, where an inscription reads that it was here that the Roman temple began in 1075 and, where for centuries there existed the tradition of giving communion to pilgrims and where the hikers received the credit for their pilgrimage, and the plethoric chapel of Pilar, decorated with motifs of secular pilgrim tradition.

Next to the main nave, another one with artefacts related to the pilgrimage is the Chapel of Corticela, the oldest in existence, and today, the most popular of the Cathedral. Originally it was not located inside the basilica, rather between the temple and the first wall. This chapel was built in the IX century, constructed by the Benedictine monks responsible for guarding the tomb of the Apostle. The monument was incorporated in the basilica in the XVIII century and since then many pilgrims have decided to get married here after meeting one another on the Camino. This chapel also has a special significance among students in Santiago, they would leave requests and academic desires of all kinds and place them before the image of Jesus in the Garden of Olives.

The tour of the inside of the cathedral makes another stop before the main altar to a baroque collection raised on a considerable pyramidal canopy supported by spiral shaft columns and eight angels. This piece is crowned by Santiago on horseback and a smaller Santiago pilgrim, space is reserved for the small chapel where the famous medieval image of the Apostle rests, (adorned with a staff and a tippet-a narrow scarf worn round the shoulders) a statue to which all pilgrims and visitors do not hesitate to give a hug. This tradition of embracing the Apostle appears to have begun in the XIII century.

After this ritual pilgrims would descend to the apostolic crypt, located under the main altar, where the remains of Santiago and his disciples Theodore and Athanasius rest. The Apostle’s relics were hidden in the XVI century due to a fear that some English pirates would take them. In the XIX century, and while the pilgrimage to Compostela was suffering its biggest decline, the need to locate the remains arose (they were lost in the temple). The search began in 1879 and bones were found in the chapel of Mary Magdalene. Pope Leon XIII confirmed the authenticity of these findings just five years later following official research undertaken to determine the number of walkers to Santiago.

The botafumeiro

Vuelo del botafumeiro / @ Sandra Alonso

Vuelo del botafumeiro / @ Sandra Alonso

In front of the main altar is one of the greatest symbols of the cathedral of Santiago, the popular botafumeiro (thurible-metal censer). It is a huge incense burner (53 kilos in weight and 1.5 meters high) of silver plated brass that requires the attention of eight specialists or thurifers (the individuals responsible for controlling and holding the thurible) to swing the contraption inside the cathedral. Suspended 20 meters high it functions using a pulley system and reaches a speed of 68 km per hour.

The use of the botafumeiro (Turibulum magnum) already appeared in the Codex Calixtino. It was used as a purifying element for the crowds that gathered inside the temple. The spectacle and mass include the hymn of the Apostle (Himno del Apóstol) being played on the baroque organs, beginning after the Eucharist. This relic, once loaded with charcoal and incense exceeds 100 kg, to date, there have only been a handful of accidents over its long history. One on July 25th in 1499, with the presence in the mass of Catherine of Aragon, it came loose and went flying through the air before crashing against the door to Plaza de Praterías. Later in 1622 the rope that holds it snapped and it fell to the floor, and in the XX century it fractured the ribs and broke the nose of a pilgrim who had come too.

A walk around the roof of the Cathedral

Catedral / @ Álvaro Ballesteros

Catedral / @ Álvaro Ballesteros

Since the last decade one possibility available to pilgrims and tourists is to visit the roofs of the temple, an option previously only permitted to selected groups. In the Middle Ages, however, hikers could freely access these open spaces, an exceptional viewpoint that rewards travellers with a beautiful view of Santiago and allows them to know interesting hidden places in the Basilica. Constructed of stone and full of stairs cases, the roofs surprise travellers with its different styles that characterize and show examples of the construction history of cathedrals.

Those who visit above the naves of the gallery, although they go up feeling sad, become happy and joyful after seeing the splendid beauty of the temple

Chapter IX of Book V of the Codex Calixtino

From the open roofs the temple acquires a more human dimension. Also, hikers can near, for example, the Cross, Cruz dos Farrapos (Cruz de los Harapos) where, in the Middle Ages, pilgrims, having prayed before the apostle, burned their habits, dirty after the long journey, as a sign of purification. Immediately after they would put on something new as a symbol of inner mutation.

Cruz dos Farrapos / @ Xosé Castro

Cruz dos Farrapos / @ Xosé Castro

During the tour visitors can also see, up close, the known clock of Berenguela. The only disadvantage of this visit is the characteristic tendency for it to rain in Santiago and, in winter, can tarnish this walk through the skies of the cathedral.

One peculiarity of the basilica and these high spaces is that until 1962 the Cathedral bell Ringers lived in houses built on its rooftops. The last family that lived there confirmed to the newspaper La Voz that they even had chickens and a rooster in a hen coup, installed in one of the side naves. Here you can read this curious story.

Information of interest

Pilgrims who want to can embrace the Apostle daily from 09.30 to 13.30 and from 16.00 to 19.00. The grave with the remains of Santiago also opens on a daily basis from 07.00 to 20.30. The basilica opening hours are from 07.00 to 20.30 hours. Admission is free. To access the spaces in the Cathedral Museum requires the payment of an entrance fee. For more information:


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