Mark Nicholls visits the imposing cathedral and finds an atmosphere of quiet prayer

My pilgrimage was to be one of thanksgiving. An impending Silver Jubilee of ordination and having been brought up in a parish dedicated to St James the Great meant that I felt I needed to acknowledge in this way how much I owe to God and to the Blessed Apostle. However, I did not make the pilgrimage in the traditional way – on foot along the Camino – the centuries-old route, the Way of St James, which is still followed by pukka pilgrims today. I arrived courtesy of Easyjet, having been buffeted by an Atlantic storm descending into Santiago airport, and arrived on land to thunder, lightning and pouring rain.

Santiago is a fairly small provincial town in Galicia, the north-westernmost part of Spain and on the very edge of Europe. Nearby, on the coast, is Fisterra, the Spanish equivalent of Land’s End. Many of the great buildings in the old centre of the town are built of solid granite and are monumental in size. The streets are narrow and paved with stone and mainly pedestrianized, and parts of the town have long porticoes lined with columns which are wonderful for sheltering from the frequent showers. It rains a lot in Santiago! The crevices of buildings offer home and shelter to moisture-loving mosses, lichens and flowering plants.

Undergoing restoration

The narrow streets all lead to the cathedral and it is often hard to see it above the buildings which form the maze of the medieval street-plan, but when you arrive it is tremendously imposing. Pilgrims on arrival make for the Praza do Obradoiro, a great open square with the cathedral on one side and on another the ancient pilgrim hostelry, the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, which is now a Parador, a hotel for the five-star pilgrim. One disappointment was the fact that the twin towers of the cathedral façade are in the process of restoration and are covered with scaffolding and sheeting. Similarly the Romanesque carved portico of the cathedral, the Portico de la Gloria, is also hidden from view so that the conservators can carry out their laborious work.


In the square outside the cathedral pilgrims on their joyful arrival stand and congratulate one another, obviously relieved and delighted to be here. They arrive with their pilgrim staff and varieties of headgear. Most wear the scallop shell symbol of pilgrimage. They also sport an assortment of waterproof clothes, capes and track shoes for walking, and heavy backpacks. Many walk up to 30 kilometres a day. Along the route and at their destination they find hostels to give them rest, refreshment and a shower. Many appear to have been wearing the same clothes for the whole of their pilgrimage, which gives an added twist to the idea of the odour of sanctity. I confess to feeling something of a fraud in the face of these tired, wet and weather-beaten pilgrims and the efforts they have made. It is in the nature of pilgrimage that the journey is as important as the destination, if not more so – new friendships are made and the bonding of shared experiences, enjoying fellowship and many, many conversations.

Images of St James

The renovations to the façade of the cathedral mean that it has to be accessed by a variety of side doors. The building inside is unaffected Romanesque, but on arrival in the nave the sight of the high altar decked in gold and silver takes one quite by surprise. There is a huge baldacchino over the shrine and altar, and it is decked with grandiose baroque angels which support the canopy. The enormity of it is quite spectacular. The ensemble allows for three large images of St James. The main image behind the ornate silver altar is of the Apostle seated on a throne wearing a bejewelled cape, the traditional object of veneration for pilgrims who must climb narrow stairs behind the image in order to embrace and kiss it. Some way above this image is another. This second depicts St James as a pilgrim with his staff, pilgrim hat, scallop shell and water gourd. The top of the baldacchino is decked with the third representation of the saint known in Spanish as ‘Santiago Matamoros’ – St James the Moor-Slayer – still with his hat and his cape but this time also on horseback with sword in his hand hacking at hapless Moors, Muslims from North Africa who conquered Spain in the eighth century and who lived there until they were finally driven out in the early thirteenth century and against whom St James frequently app-eared in battle, so tradition has it. Needless to say it is not the most politically correct of images, but one that is difficult to change given the legacy of Spanish culture and history, art and architecture. Beneath the altar in a silver casket are the relics of the saint which were lost for centuries, and detail of how they came to be in this part of Spain is rather too long a story to tell here, but is enveloped in the mists of legend and tradition.

Devotion and faith

Santiago is a university town where students enter the mix with the ubiquitous pilgrim. Nevertheless, devotion and faith are clearly at the heart of the city and its cathedral. As with most pilgrimage centres there are many shops selling pilgrim tat, memorabilia and the all-important t-shirt. But there is also much more than that. Part of the pilgrimage tradition here includes making one’s confession and that was clearly apparent in the cathedral. In spite of the frequent footfall of pilgrims and visitors, there is an atmosphere of quiet prayer in its precincts, a chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for adoration during the day and concluding with benediction in the evening. During my visit the Major Seminary next to the Cathedral held an overnight vigil before the Blessed Sacrament to pray for vocations to the priesthood, well supported by laity and seminarians alike.

Special pilgrim masses

In the Cathedral masses are celebrated regularly, apparently by the cathedral clergy, and special pilgrim masses at midday. I was fortunate to be able to attend a pilgrim mass on the Friday evening when I was there. The cathedral was quite full thirty minutes before the mass was to start and many people were standing when it began. A nun introduced the music which was sung in Spanish and Latin, but the congregation took a while to warm up. Pilgrim groups from various places were named and welcomed, albeit rather fiercely by a lady who warned us against the use of mobile phones and cameras and pressed the need for silence before mass. Then the great double organ sprang to life and the mass was offered simply and without much ceremony.

Undoubtedly the climax of the mass, after the blessing, was the introduction of the cathedral’s great metre-high thurible, the ‘Botafumeiro’, suspended from the roof and swung by eight men pulling on ropes and rising almost to the vaulted ceiling of the transepts. It is said that it was introduced to offset the smell of pilgrims at the end of their journey, but nowadays it is a spectacular sight to be recorded on cameras for posterity. Impressive as it was, there are many more things here to delight and inspire the faithful pilgrim, whether you walk the Way or fly in from Gatwick. However you do it, may God speed you on your way, rejoicing. ND