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December 6, 2012

Spain: Santiago de Compostela


Catedral de Santiago de Compostela

Catedral de Santiago de Compostela

The web of routes that make up the Way of Saint James have one thing in common; they all lead to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia Spain.

DSC_9620-Edit-EditSantiago de Compostela’s name is a description of a place.  “Iago” in Galician corresponds to James in English and thus “Sant-iago” is Saint James, one of the twelve apostles.  “Compostela” possibly comes from the Vulgar Latin expression Composita Tella, meaning “burial ground,” or more simply from Latin compositellam, meaning “the well-composed one”.  Either way, the meaning is apparent:  Santiago de Compostela is by name and legend the burial place of Saint James.

Legend has it that Saint James who was martyred in Judea in 44 AD was buried at the present day location of Santiago de Compostela.  The formal history of Santiago de Compostela dates to the 9th Century.  Some time between 818 and 842, Bishop Theodemar of Iria attributed human remains found in the area to Saint James.  A shrine was built about bones of undeterminable provenance and a town developed.  As the shrine grew into a cathedral, Santiago developed as a popular pilgrimage destination for European Catholics.

The Pilgrimage has shaped Santiago.  In the UNESCO-listed old town are numerous religious buildings.  Churches, abbeys, colleges, and monasteries are distributed through the warren of gray toned streets.  Not surprisingly, the largest and most impressive structure is the cathedral.

Completed in 1211, the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela was built in the Romanesque style with later Gothic and Baroque additions.  The mix of styles and the odd arrangements of the church’s towers give the building a sprawling haphazard appearance.  While many other cathedrals on the pilgrimage route, like León and Burgos, have been freshly restored, this is not the case in Santiago.  The buildings in Santiago de Compostela’s old town, including the cathedral, retain a dark weathered veneer.

Catedral de Santiago de Compostela viewed from Praza das Praterías

Catedral de Santiago de Compostela viewed from Praza das Praterías

Inside the cloister of Catedral de Santiago de Compostela

Inside the cloister of Catedral de Santiago de Compostela

On all sides of the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela are expansive cavernous courtyards.  The high walled plazas have the sheltered feel of arenas; they echo with the sounds of the visitors.  The plazas buffer the church from the rest of the city and allow clear views of the decorative stonework on the facades, porticos, and tympanum.

With its meandering medieval street plan and aging buildings there is the impression of timelessness in Santiago.  It must appear today as it did twenty, fifty, or a hundred years ago.  Though the city is not particularly photogenic, it is completely atmospheric.

Pazo de Raxoi

Pazo de Raxoi viewed from Praza do Obradoiro

The inside of Santiago’s cathedral is Romanesque; it is smaller and darker than many of Europe’s grand cathedrals that were built later.  Nonetheless, when packed with the intensity of the visitors, Catedral de Santiago de Compostela has a compelling feel of power and importance.

There is one thing we had to see before we continued on our road trip.  Inside Santiago’s Cathedral, at the end of certain masses, the Botafumerio is swung like a massive pendulum through the nave.

The name “Botafumeiro” translates from Galician as “smoke expeller”.  In practice the Botafumerio is a 175-pound silver-plated brass and bronze censer.  After filling the Botafumerio’s chamber with 80 pounds of a burning mixture of incense and charcoal and attaching it by a rope to a pulley mechanism first installed on the dome of the roof of the church in 1604, the smoking ball is propelled over the congregation.

Inside the cathedral the Botafumerio attaches to the rope at the center of the transcept

Inside the cathedral: The Botafumerio attaches to the rope at the center of the transcept

Baroque facade of Santiago's Cathedral.

Baroque facade of Santiago’s Cathedral.

The Botafumeiro spectacle begins with a push on the five-foot tall censer.  With the shove the smoking Botafumerio swings back and forth several feet.  Next eight tiraboleiros dressed in red robes start tugging rhythmically on ropes attached to the pulley.  Hauling on the ropes in time raises the incense ball.  When the ropes relax the potential energy gained by shortening the pendulum arm is converted to kinetic energy and the censer’s swinging arc is increases.  At the peak of its swing the Botafumerio is nearly 70 feet above the congregation and just eight degrees from horizontal.  As the arc widens, the Botafumerio’s speed increases.  The burning 250-pound warhead ultimately reaches 42 mph as it sweeps chest high over the altar trailing a cloud of gray smoke.

In motion the Botafumerio is a scene worthy of a pyromaniac’s convention.  Unfortunately this time the camera was back in the room as posted signs prohibit picture taking during mass.  But apparently “mass” is over when the Botafumerio flies.  Seemingly everyone in the cathedral, including the priests on the dais, snapped pictures or took video as the smoking urn ripped through the air.  Next time, I too will bring a camera.

Monastery and Church of San Martiño Pinario

Monastery and Church of San Martiño Pinario

Monastery and Church of San Martiño Pinario viewed from Praza da Inmaculada

Monastery and Church of San Martiño Pinario viewed from Praza da Inmaculada

The cathedral viewed from the splendid Praza da Quintana

The cathedral viewed from the splendid Praza da Quintana

Becky and Gigi make new friends in Santiago

Becky and Gigi make new friends in Santiago

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Inside the cathedral’s cloister

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4 Comments »

  1. I enjoyed the interesting angles of the photos. The architecture is amazing.

    Comment by Traci — December 6, 2012 @ 7:18 pm

  2. […] Santiago de Compostela (Old Town) (Spain, 2012) […]

    Pingback by The List « Another Header — December 19, 2012 @ 6:56 pm

  3. […] us to impressive cathedrals in Bordeaux and Angers France.  In Spain, the cathedrals in León, Santiago de Compostela, Salamanca, Oviedo, and Segovia are all pilgrimage-worthy.  Porto Portugal and Canterbury England […]

    Pingback by France: Amiens | Another Header — November 16, 2013 @ 6:08 am

  4. […] Away from the forest and adjacent to the château is the comfortable town of Compiègne.  The town’s church, L’Eglise Saint-Jacques de Compiègne, is included in the Les Chemins de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle en France (The Way of Saint James in France) UNESCO World Heritage listing.  It is another historic stop on the way to Santiago de Compostela. […]

    Pingback by France: Compiègne | Another Header — November 20, 2013 @ 7:27 pm


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