tomb of Santiago

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an angel and Santiago with shields depicting his symbols

another important part of completing the Camino and visiting the Cathedral is ascending the steps behind the altar to embrace a statue of Santiago and then descend into the crypt to see relics of the Saint and two of his (also saintly) followers, Teodoro and Atanasio.

even though much of the crowd attending the noon mass cleared out rapidly once the botafumeiro stopped swinging, our burgeoning hunger diverted us from visiting the tomb the day we arrived in Santiago de Compostela. (after all, we’d been up since 5:00 a.m. and walking for nearly all of it.) I felt particularly desirous of some kind of huge (vegetarian-friendly) victory luncheon, as standing during the mass had left me somewhat flushed and rather watery in the leg department.

Santiago Peregrino in glass

it was drizzly when we returned to the Cathedral the following day. whereas numerous people milled about on the morning when we arrived — tourists snapping pictures of the Cathedral, peregrinos grinning madly as someone took a picture of them in their Camino gear, a school group visiting the government building on the opposite side of the plaza — weather dissuaded people from lingering and the hour (about 10:00) meant that most peregrinos arriving to Santiago that day hadn’t made it to the Praza do Orbadoiro yet.

this meant, fortunately, that there wasn’t much of a line to visit the altar and crypt. we briefly explored the areas of the Cathedral we hadn’t seen the previous day, headed for the roped off queue that wrapped around behind the altar. while shuffling forward, we saw one of the few stained glass windows in the Cathedral, depicting Santiago holding his scallop-topped staff and distinct cross emblazoned on his chest.

the Altar Mayor is an explosion of Baroque-era decoration, with numerous pieces venerating Santiago, both the warrior and peregrino, and depicting all manner of heavenly creatures and other Biblical themes. there’s an 18th-century baldachin depicting the cardinal virtues, with Santiago Peregrino standing beneath; there’s a statue of Santiago Matamoros from 1677. and up the narrow stairs in a camarín (a tiny chamber still visible from the altar), there’s a painted stone sculpture of Santiago, seated on a silver throne.

unlike many other religious shrines, peregrinos (or any visitors) are welcome to embrace this depiction of Santiago and pilgrims to Compostela have always been allowed to touch or embrace the statue. one account from the late 15th century describes how peregrinos would climb the stairs of the then-wooden shrine and place the silver crown gracing Santiago’s head on their own, to facilitate the reception of religious goodwill. the crown was later reported as gold but at some point disappeared and peregrinos took to embracing the statue instead. I didn’t feel moved to embrace the statue as I passed through the camarín but could readily understand why some people might be moved to do so.

from the tiny upstairs chamber we descended to a tiny underground chamber — the crypt containing the relics of Santiago and his followers. the crypt mimics the Roman mausoleum in which Santiago’s bones originally resided, and illuminates the substructure of a 9th century church that stood on the site prior to construction of the existing Cathedral.

as previously discussed, over the course of centuries the location of Santiago’s bones has gone in and out of focus; once they were rediscovered, political and religious turmoil frequently threatened their safety. in an effort to protect them from Dutch and English incursions, the relics were “relocated” from their place on the altar to a “safe location” in 1589. sometime thereafter their location got even “safer” as they went undiscovered until 1879. following this rediscovery and authentication of the relics by Pope Leo XIII in 1884, the silver reliquary which now houses them was crafted in 1886 by Jose Losada, who had designed the botafumeiro three decades earlier.

while most people simply walked through, pausing briefly to look at the reliquary, there was one man taking his time before the relics, kneeling on a prayer bench. there was a small box for offerings, though no items left behind by peregrinos, such as their scallop shells or walking sticks; I don’t know if the Cathedral has cracked down on the practice of bringing and leaving items from your Camino in the crypt, but at one time enough got left behind that they had to haul everything out at night and develop a plan for dispensing items to appropriate  parties. frankly, I couldn’t shake a feeling of slight claustrophobia — the means of entrance and egress from the crypt were narrow and steep. moreover, despite the fact that the Cathedral has stood on its current foundation for nearly a millennium, I couldn’t shake the feeling that all those tons of marble pressing down from above, onto this low ceiling, could collapse and pulverize anyone or anything in that tiny space. as fascinating as it was to see and be in that space, I was hugely thankful to get out, and back into the open air plaza in short order.

Author: Erica

born in the midwest with wandering feet.