The tomb of the Apostle Santiago the Great in the town of Compostela has led to one of the greatest pilgrimage phenomena in Christendom, the Camino de Santiago. Along with Rome and Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela represents one of the three great pilgrimage destinations of the Christian faith, although, currently, the Jacobean Route goes far beyond that religious significance. From the Middle Ages on, millions of pilgrims have come to Santiago de Compostela. Nowadays, other motivations have been added to its religious origin.
The Saint James Way is an adventure, an experience in contact with nature, a path of knowledge, a cultural journey, an inner journey, a spiritual journey, an odyssey for your body, a place to meet people or a transit to enjoy solitude, even a gastronomic route. But we must not forget that the original reason that has given rise to the Camino was the discovery, in the s. IX, from the tomb of the Apostle Santiago in the Libredón Forest.
From the beheading in Palestine to the Galician burial
Many are the questions about the presence in life of the Apostle Santiago the Great in the Iberian Peninsula. Some legends place him around Zaragoza, where the Virgen del Pilar would have appeared to him, or even in the middle of the Costa da Morte, where the Virgen de la Barca would have appeared to him. What is known is that the Apostle Santiago died in Jerusalem in the 1st century, beheaded by order of King Herod of Agrippa. How then did he end up buried in the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula?
The Traslatio, from Palestine to Padrón in a stone boat
After having captured and given the order to behead Santiago, the first Apostle to suffer martyrdom, King Herod forbade him to be buried in Palestine. Therefore, two of his disciples, Theodore and Athanasius, decided to move his body. Where? Well, according to the story, the farthest he had reached in his evangelization, although it is also said that none of the crew of that boat made any decision, since it would have sailed without a guide or rudder to the shores of Gallaecia.
The head of the Apostle Santiago remained in Jerusalem, and it is currently in the Cathedral of Santiago in the Holy City. The boat that carried his body, which was accompanied by Theodore and Athanasius, docked on the Galician coast, and was tied to a granite post in the then Roman town of Iria Flavia. This landmark, which was an ancient Roman altar, is known as Pedrón and is preserved in the Church of Santiago in the town of Padrón, which owes its name to this fact.
There are many stories that are told about the journey that Theodore and Athanasius made through Galician lands before they managed to bury the Apostle Santiago, most of them related to the tricks to which they were subjected by Queen Lupa, a pagan lady of those territories.
The destination and first burial of the body of Apostle Santiago would be a Roman necropolis that, over the centuries, would remain hidden under the thicket of the Libredón Forest. At their death, Theodore and Athanasius would also be buried next to the Apostle Santiago.
The discovery of the tomb of the Apostle Santiago, eight centuries later
From the 1st to the 9th century, this first tomb of the Apostle Santiago would have remained hidden, until a hermit named Paio who lived in San Fiz de Solivio discovered the burial. Immediately, he notified Bishop Teodomiro of the diocese of Iria Flavia, who once visited the place, certified that it was the tomb of the Apostle Santiago. In turn, Bishop Teodomiro called for King Alfonso II the Chaste, who left the seat of the court in Oviedo to walk towards Compostela. Alfonso II the Chaste is considered the first pilgrim in history and this route started by him, between Oviedo and Compostela, is therefore called the Primitive Way.
It was also the King who gave the order to build a small church in the place where the tomb of the Apostle Santiago was located so that the believers could honor his relics.
The Cathedral that houses the tomb of the Apostle Santiago
It was in the year 1075 when the current Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela began to be built on that small church that King Alfonso II the Chaste ordered to raise on the tomb of the Apostle Santiago. Begun in the Romanesque style, which is the one that it preserves inside, it has undergone different reconstructions over the centuries, incorporating different styles in accordance with each of the times.
The disappearance of the body of the Apostle Santiago
During those centuries, Santiago de Compostela was consolidated as a pilgrimage destination, but the geographical situation of Galicia and its many kilometers of coastline have made it vulnerable to attacks by sea throughout most of its history and also a battlefield of the geopolitical and religious conflicts between Spain and England. Thus, in the s. XVI, Francis Drake was heading to Galicia to undertake a looting backed by the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, which would include the looting of the relics of the Apostle Santiago.
But apart from the fear of the attack by the pirate Francis Drake, it was around in the 16th century another threat that could keep away the relics of the Apostle Santiago from Compostela, and it was none other than the desire of King Felipe II to gather the largest number of relics in the Monastery of El Escorial. This Spanish king, described as tremendously devout, maniac and even obsessive, came to collect almost seven thousand five hundred pieces, mostly from Spain, but also some from other European countries.
To protect the rests of the Apostle Santiago from these threats, Archbishop San Clemente hid them so efficiently that, after his death, it was impossible to know where they were.
It took almost three centuries for the crude sarcophagus in which the remains of the Apostle Santiago were hidden, along with those of his disciples Theodore and Athanasius, were rediscovered.
Until that moment, and throughout almost three hundred years, the pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela decreased in a more than considerable way, since visiting a Holy place without relics to venerate, makes no sense.
The construction of the current crypt
At the end of the 18th Century, Cardinal Miguel Payá gave the order to carry out an excavation around the main altar of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, trying to locate the lost relics. On January 29th, 1879, these excavations led by Antonio López Ferreiro and José María Labín Cabello managed to find three sets of bones. A forensic study identified them as three men from the 1st century. Of all of them, it would be known which one would belong to the Apostle Santiago because it was missing a piece of bone that Archbishop Diego Xelmírez would have sent to Italy during the 12th century. This finding not only meant the recovery of the lost rests, but also meant that the certification of their authenticity was launched, with the bull of Pope Leo XIII Deus Omnipotens in 1884.
Next, the reconstruction of the crypt would start, which would result in the construction that we can currently visit under the main altar of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The workshop of the silversmith of the Cathedral, José Losada de Dios oversaw making the urn, designed by Antonio López Ferreiro himself. On July 27th, 1886, the rests of the Apostle Santiago, together with those of Theodore and Athanasius, were deposited in this silver urn.
Since that time, the tomb of the Apostle Santiago continues to be visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year, a sepulcher that supports the base of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and the existence of the city itself.