St James of Compostela

Anthroposophical Quarterly 9.2 (Summer 1964): 200-202

I imagine there are others like myself whose memories are lamentably unretentive of details acquired by reading and who, partly for that reason, and particularly in the domain of history, can only count themselves half-educated. In the lives of these unfortunates a peculiar experience often repeats itself. There are certain well-known phrases or names, generally with something striking or picturesque about them, with the sound of which they are familiar, but of which they continue to know nothing. Shamed by our ignorance, after about the tenth encounter with some piece of historical currency like Port Royal, or the Field of the Cloth of Gold, we at last go to the lengths of reading it all up in the Encyclopaedia or somewhere, and for a time we do know. But that knowledge quickly fades — and the eleventh encounter with the haunting phrase is much the same as the others, except that we feel a little guiltier.

So it had ever been with me with St James of Compostela. I do not know how many times I have acquired, and quickly lost again, the knowledge that there are two possible explanations of the name Compostela or Compostella: either campus stellae (the field or place of the star) or a corruption of San Jacome Apostol (St James the Apostle). Probably the first time was when I was ‘doing’ the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales at school, the second when I was correcting G.C.E. examination papers on the same subject, and three or four times subsequently.

It used to be a very different matter up to the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Perhaps not the derivation of the name but certainly the name itself and probably the whereabouts in Spain of the town Santiago de Compostela were as familiar then to even the less than half-educated as, let us say, ‘the Derby’ is today. Thus when Chaucer wrote of one of his Canterbury Pilgrims, that she had been in “Galice at St Jame”, he knew his readers would understand that the lady had been on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St James, or Sant-Iago, of Compostela in the province of Galicia near the North West coast of Spain. To that shrine for a period measured by centuries an endless stream of pilgrims from every part of Christendom had unceasingly flowed. So much so that the popular Spanish name for the Milky Way, with its innumerable hosts of stars, is “the Santiago Road”.

What was it that made this shrine so famous? The legend runs that St James the Greater, the son of Zebedee and one of the twelve apostles, carried the Gospel to Spain before he died. From that missionary journey he returned to Jerusalem, where he suffered a martyr’s death at the hands of the Jews. But his body was rescued by a group of his Celtic converts, who had followed him back to the Holy Land, and was by them transported to the coast of Spain in a marble ship without a rudder. It was not until the ninth century, however, that the remains were discovered there by a bishop who was guided to the spot by a star. A chapel was at once erected (which was later destroyed by the Moors) on the site where the majestic cathedral now stands. In 1884 the Roman Catholic Congregation of Rites declared that the shrine beneath its altar does in fact house the body of the apostle, and Santiago is still a place of pilgrimage, especially in ‘Holy Year,’ which is any year wherein St James’s day, the 25th July, falls on a Sunday.

It was probably during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that the stream of pilgrims reached its maximum flow and no doubt by then the cult had already become tainted with decadence. The author of Piers Plowman refers with contempt to those “shelles of Galice” which returned pilgrims wore on their hats, carried with them as talismans or relied on for a cheap indulgence, and it is not without significance that the Canterbury pilgrim to whom I have already referred was the Wife of Bath!

But it is one of the fallacies from which history has suffered much at the hands of modern historians, to suppose that the explanation and essence of a cult can best be approached by contemplating its decadence. No. If we would understand it, we must first endeavour to feel a breath of the ancient holiness which that decadence disgraced. And in the case of St James of Compostela this is somehow inseparable from those “shelles” at which William Langland girded. The coast between Vigo and Corunna, behind which Santiago lies a few miles inland, is particularly rich in shellfish and the scallop or ‘cockle’ shell has always been a sort of emblem, not only of pilgrims to the shrine itself but of St James himself as he is represented in Spanish iconography. You see it there in stone, decorating the walls of the Cathedral within and without. The gentle and rather touching statue of the saint attired as a pilgrim and carrying a pilgrim’s staff, which stands above the Puerta Santa or holy door at the Eastern end of the Cathedral, shews them attached beneath the turned-up brim of his humble hat. Once upon a time a hat like that, adorned with shells, was a common sight in many remote parts of Christendom. It was the badge of a wide fraternity who had made their way at some time across the mountains to the little town in the North West corner of Spain or were still perhaps on their way back. It was the way you recognised them:

How should I your true-love know
From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff
And his sandal shoon.

Common enough in nature, and on the dining table, the scallop shell is nevertheless very beautiful in the harmony of its shape, the stilled radiance of its outspreading grooves and the rosy blush often to be seen on its lower side. (How admirably it fills the splendid place of honour it occupies in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and how tenderly there the central figure springs from the fanned concave — or rather springs from its reverted convex tip, where the grooves converge and vanish in a root that seems also to be a frozen growing-point!) It is as if it partly held in its shallow curve and partly spread abroad a species of quiet — which is also in some peculiar way the essential breath of the spirit of St James of Compostela, a breath whereof the faint fragrance was long felt all over Europe by poets and populace alike. For his contemporaries I have no doubt it was there in the well-known poem of Sir Walter Raleigh written in prison, while he was awaiting execution:

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation…

and it sank so deep into the recesses from which folklore springs that in England it could survive in the form of “the grotto” even into the first decade of the twentieth century. One of my own earliest memories indeed is of a group of London children calling out in their shrill cockney voices:

Please remember the grotter —
Only once a year!

and exhibiting for inspection a kind of tray ornamented with shells and moss. Probably these were only oyster-shells. “Whoever eats oysters on St James’s Day will never want money” ran the old proverb, and in London it was once the custom to begin eating oysters on August 5th, the old St James’s day. The children of a still earlier generation would no doubt have built the discarded oyster-shells they picked up from the local fish-shops into a kind of pyramid with a lighted candle stuck in the middle of it, and in theory at least the pennies they collected would have gone to keep the candle going. But I think by my time the candle had already disappeared. Now the grotto has vanished too.

Last autumn it was my very good fortune to have to spend four or five days in Santiago, staying within a stone’s throw of the Cathedral. One could write much of that wonderful building, so unlike most of our English cathedrals, in which the Gothic style predominates; yet equally unlike the restrained eighteenth century classicism of St Paul’s. At Santiago the strong and severe Romanesque, with its plain, heavy round arches, has been miraculously wedded to the exuberant eighteenth century Baroque that characterises the Western façade and the tops, but only the tops, of the three great towers; while in the interior the two austere transepts introduce the enormous Baroque canopy and the elaborately ornate altar-piece (I do not know if it should be called ‘rococo’) that stands beneath it. It is impossible to do more than mention the Cathedral’s crowning glory, the Puerta de Gloria, the twelfth century West door, which now stands behind the façade as a second entrance; the elaborately carved pillars, the seated Christ of the Apocalypse above the main arch, the Chartres-like statues of Prophets and Apostles on either side of it and the arch itself lined, or toothed, not with the familiar ‘beak’ ornament of our own Norman arches but with the twenty-four Elders looked down in semi-circular benediction on all who cross the threshold over which they soar. In the whole building the two styles are inextricably blended, so that each of them, the one as adornment and the other as foil, seems to complement and redeem its fellow. In the light of the setting sun the Western façade with the two towers rising behind it — answering the splendour in the sky from their own brown or yellowish granite masonry, deepened here and there by the orange lichen that has fastened on it — is an unforgettable sight. It casts a benison on the paving stones of the vast and largely empty Square that lies before it.

Of the three to whom it was granted to witness the Transfiguration we are accustomed to think of St Peter as the apostle who, as our representative, carried aloft the human faculty of willing to the grace of that encounter. And we feel that we owe to St John the like benison bestowed upon man’s thinking. Of the three figures it is perhaps that of St James which is the least frequent in our reflections; so that to experience what Santiago de Compostela still has to give is, in a measure, to restore a balance. It is not only the Cathedral; the whole of the old town is in harmony with its quiet richness of feeling, and with this I fancy that the departed throngs of pilgrims whose feet have trodden its paven ways have something to do. Iron, silver, and gold — is it an accident, I wonder, that the nearest thing to an industry which Santiago possesses is the craft of the silver-smith, that silver-ware is everywhere in the shop windows and that one of the four Squares which lie round the Cathedral is called the Square of the Silversmiths — the Plaza de la Plateria, where still the silver-ware shops are thickest?

There is, however, another aspect of St James which is familiar to Spanish Catholics. If St James of Compostela is above all the gentle pilgrim, as the patron saint of all Spain he is a warrior figure. Even in Santiago, though the shells and the staff predominate, there is more than one representation of him as a knight on horseback fiercely brandishing a sword. Indeed one of his emblems is the blood-stained sword or dagger erected as a cross. He appeared, according to legend, at the crucial moment of the battle of Clavijo in 841, when the Spanish army drove back the Moors, and himself slew sixty thousand of the enemy. The sword, “charged” with a white scallop-shell, is the badge of the Knights of Santiago de Espada — who trace the foundation of their Order to that miraculous appearance at Clavijo. This combined religious and military Order of Chivalry was dedicated to the task of liberating Spain from the Moors, as the Knights Templar were dedicated to the liberation of the Holy Land from the Saracens. Its principal seat was in Santiago de Compostela.

Rubat ensis sanguine Arabum is the motto to the emblem — “the sword is red with the blood of the Arabs.” Europe is free to-day of the political dominion of the followers of Mohammed, but we have learnt how intellectual Arabism still rules over us, and has still to be cast out. We know how deadly is still that threat, and something too of the indispensable part which true feeling, as the shaper of will, must play in meeting it. As we stand before the Puerta Santa and, looking up, see for the first time the statue of St James the pilgrim with his cockle hat and staff, it is with a little lift of the heart and a rush of tenderness that the ancient simplicity of Ophelia’s ballad comes creeping back to haunt us; but we do not, for that, forget “the other St James”, or into what firmness of will true tenderness may be transformed — must indeed be ready at all times to be transformed, if tenderness itself is to survive on earth. It is a granite statue.

Owen Barfield
Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.