All roads in Santiago lead to the Catedral. You first appreciate the sheer grandeur of the cathedral upon venturing into the vast expanse of the Praza do Obradoiro. Directly ahead stands a fantastic Baroque pyramid of granite, flanked by immense bell towers and everywhere adorned with statues of St James in his familiar pilgrim guise with staff, broad hat and scallop-shell badge. This is the famous Obradoiro facade, built between 1738 and 1750 in the efflorescent style known as Churrigueresque by an obscure Santiago-born architect, Fernando de Casas. No other work of Spanish Baroque can compare with it, nor with what Edwin Mullins sublimely called its “hat-in-the-air exuberance”.
Behind the facade, the main body of the cathedral is Romanesque, rebuilt in the eleventh and twelfth centuries after a devastating raid by the Muslim vizier of Córdoba, al-Mansur, in 977. Although, perhaps not surprisingly, he failed to find the body of the saint, he forced the citizens to carry the bells of the tower to the mosque at Córdoba – a coup that was later dramatically reversed.
Pórtico de Gloria
The acknowledged highlight of Santiago’s cathedral – indeed, one of the great triumphs of medieval art – is the Pórtico de Gloria, the original west front, which now stands just inside the main doors, immediately behind the Obradoiro facade. As this guide was researched, it was undergoing extensive renovation, which may not be complete by the time you read this.
Completed in 1188 under the supervision of Maestro Mateo, the Pórtico represented both the culmination of all Romanesque sculpture and a precursor of the new Gothic realism, each of its host of figures being strikingly relaxed and quietly humanized. The real mastery is in the assured marshalling of the ensemble. Above the side doors are representations of Purgatory and the Last Judgement, while Christ presides in glory over the main door, flanked by his Apostles, and surrounded by the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse playing celestial music. St James sits on the central column, beneath Christ and just above eye level. To either side are the Prophets of the Old Testament.
So many millions of pilgrims have given thanks at journey’s end, by praying with the fingers of one hand pressed into the roots of the Tree of Jesse below the saint, that five deep and shiny holes have been worn into the solid marble. Finally, for wisdom, they would lower their heads to touch the brow of Maestro Mateo, the humble squatting figure on the other side.
The High Altar
The spiritual climax of each pilgrimage to Santiago comes when pilgrims climb the steps that lead up behind the High Altar – an extraordinary gilded riot of eighteenth-century Churrigueresque – embrace the Most Sacred Image of Santiago, and kiss his bejewelled cape. The whole process is rounded off by the pilgrims making their confession and attending a High Mass.
An elaborate pulley system in front of the altar serves to move the immense “Botafumeiro” (incense burner), which, operated by eight priests (tiraboleiros), is swung in a vast thirty-metre ceiling-to-ceiling arc across the transept. Originally designed to fumigate bedraggled pilgrims, the Botafumeiro is now used only at certain services – ask whether there’s one during your visit.
The saint’s bones, kept in a crypt beneath the altar, are also visited by a steady procession of pilgrims. Lost for a second time in 1700, after being hidden before an English invasion, they were rediscovered during building work in 1879. In fact, the workers found three skeletons, which were naturally held to be those of St James and his two followers. The only problem was identifying which one was the Apostle. This was fortuitously resolved as a church in Tuscany possessed a piece of Santiago’s skull that exactly fitted a gap in one of those here.
The cathedral museum
Santiago’s cathedral museum comprises several distinct sections, which you can visit in any order; each sells the combined admission ticket. The museum proper has its own entrance to the right of the main cathedral facade. Its ground floor holds archeological displays, while upstairs you’ll find assorted relics of the cathedral’s history, including the Botafumeiro itself when it’s not in use. From there you can walk into the late Gothic cloisters, the courtyard of which offers a wonderful prospect of the riotous mixture of the exterior. Back inside, the tapestry rooms on the topmost floor include pieces based on Goya paintings, and open onto a long open-air gallery with similarly good views over the Praza do Obradoiro.
Doors from both the cloisters and the cathedral itself lead into the Treasury, where the highlight is a huge carved altarpiece depicting the legend of St James. The final component of the museum is Mateo’s beautiful Crypt of the Portico, accessed beneath the cathedral’s main entry staircase (and distinct from the crypt that holds James’ relics). That, however, is currently undergoing a long-term restoration, so only a virtual version is on display.
Las Cubiertas and the Pazo de Xelmírez
A unique attraction of Santiago’s cathedral is that it’s possible to take a guided tour of its roof, known as Las Cubiertas. It’s an experience not to be missed; the climb up leads through the upper floors of the cathedral interior (when no service is taking place), while the roof itself, which consists of shallow granite steps, offers superb views over the rest of the city, as well, of course, as the cathedral’s own towers and embellishments. Every way you turn, it’s crawling with pagodas, pawns, domes, obelisks, battlements, scallop shells and cornucopias.
The tours start by visiting the Pazo de Xelmírez (Palacio Arzobispal Gelmírez), which adjoins the cathedral to the north and is entered to the left of the main stairs. Archbishop Xelmírez was a seminal figure in Santiago’s development. He rebuilt the cathedral in the twelfth century, raised the see to an archbishopric and “discovered” a ninth-century deed that gave annual dues to St James’ shrine of one bushel of corn from each acre of Spain reconquered from the Moors – a decree that was repealed only in 1834. His appropriately opulent palace features a vaulted twelfth-century kitchen and a thirteenth-century synodal hall, along with plenty of ancient statues.
Note that the standard tour features a quick-fire Spanish commentary that may well leave you floundering; to arrange an English-language tour, at no extra charge, call five days in advance in summer, or two days in low season.