Saint James. The Portico de la Gloria, Maestro Mateo. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela Saint James. The Portico de la Gloria, Maestro Mateo. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela Photography: Katarzyna Kostrzewska

Saint James Apostle was one of the first disciples to be called upon by Jesus, together with his brother John. He was a fisherman working with his father Zebedee in Galilee. According to the Gospel, James and his brother were repairing a net when Jesus approached. When he summoned them they left their job, father, hired hands and followed him. Both brothers must have been rather fiery characters as scriptures describe them as ‘sons of thunder’. A quite significant story is the one about the Samaritan city that refused to receive Jesus; in outrage, the brothers asked Jesus to allow them to command fire to come down from heaven and consume the city. Jesus rebuked them, explaining to the quick-tempered brothers that he came to save souls not to destroy them.

In another story, their mother, Salome, comes to Jesus with John and James asking him to give her sons a place on the left and on the right-hand side of God. Jesus refuses, but fully understanding human nature calmly explains to his disciples that those who want to be the first should be serving the others.

James was with Jesus throughout all his teachings and miracles. Moreover, he was in a privileged position – together with John and Peter he belonged to the select circle of Jesus. All three were chosen to exclusively witness three extraordinary events – Jair’s daughter’s resurrection, the Transfiguration and the Prayer in the Olive Garden. First James accompanied Jesus for the resurrection of Jair’s daughter. Jair was superior in the synagogue and his beloved daughter was seriously ill. He came to Jesus asking him to cure his daughter but before Jesus managed to come to the house, Jair’s servants arrived saying that his daughter had just died. Jesus said to Jair not to be afraid and to believe and went to his house taking only James, John and Peter with him. He let only this threesome and the girl’s parents enter the house. In their presence, he resurrected the girl. Then Jesus took James, John, and Peter separately to the Tabor mountain where he transfigured in their presence; ‘his face was shining like a sun and his clothes were dazzling white’ according to Matthew. The three chosen Apostles were lost for words on seeing Jesus in his Divine form. Jesus wanted them to see that he is God but knowing that they would only fully understand this vision much later, forbade them to talk about it until his own resurrection. James, together with his brother John and Peter also accompanied Jesus to the garden of Gethsemane. He asked them to keep watch with him while he was praying full of fear and sorrow and asking God to take away his suffering. Sadly they didn’t – in the darkest moment of their master’s and best friend’s life- they fell asleep three times.

Salome, the mother of James, is one of the women who accompanied Jesus on the cross-carrying road and on the third day early in the morning, goes with ointment to his grave. Together with Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James (the other Apostle bearing the same name, called the Less to differentiate them) they are the first witness of the Resurrection. Then her other son John and Peter come to the empty grave, alarmed by the women. John wrote later in his Gospel that he ‘saw and believed’. We don’t know when his brother James saw the resurrected Jesus for the first time although Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians where he details the appearances of Christ arisen, writes that Jesus ‘appeared before James’. I personally like to think that he was the first apostle to see Resurrected Christ, as he didn’t run to the grave with John and Peter.

According to the tradition dating back to Saint Isidore of Seville (6th/7thcentury), James is believed to have pilgrimed to the Iberian Peninsula to spread the Good News. During his rather unfruitful mission, at a moment when he was clearly distressed and praying in what is today’s Saragossa by the bank of river Ebro, Mary appeared before him, standing on a pillar and assuring James that against all odds the faith of the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula would be as strong as pillar she stood on. In the place where James saw Mary, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar was later built.

James returned to Jerusalem and is believed to have become the first bishop of Jerusalem. Because of his authority among the Christians, he became a target for the prosecutors of the early Church. According to the Acts of the Apostles, he and Peter were imprisoned by Herod. Peter was miraculously freed from the prison but James not. He was the first Apostle to die for his friend and Master. Beheaded on Herod’s orders in year 44, according to Eusebius of Caesarea the first historian of the Church (3rd/4th), in the hour of his death, he who was previously called the son of thunder pitied his hangman so much that he converted to Christianity.

We can only speculate that his last wish was to be buried in the land that during his lifetime he tried to convert because his two closest friends and disciples put his body in a stone sarcophagus, loaded it onto a ship and sailed it to Ira Flavia (today’s Padron), twenty kilometres from today’s Santiago. The sarcophagus was then put into a Roman mausoleum standing on the site where the cathedral is today. After their death the bodies of James’s disciples were also put into the mausoleum. Centuries passed, and place of the Apostle’s burial was forgotten until the year 813 when the hermit Pelayo observed an unusual phenomenon. From the star-filled sky, which if you happen to see it, is quite spectacular in that area, appeared a beam of light that pointed to a place on the hill. The hermit witnessed this unusual occurrence several times in a row and in the end, he found the courage to go and check out the brightly illuminated place. He realized that the sarcophagus he discovered there was that of Saint James and his two disciples and he immediately warned the local bishop Theodomir (bishop of Ira Flavia). The bishop came to the place and certified the hermit’s conjecture that this was the burial place of Saint James. On the order of King Alfonso II of Asturias, a church was soon erected above the grave and the rest is history.

Saint James as a patron Saint of Spain and Portugal

At the time of discovery of Saint James’ grave, most of the Iberian Peninsula was ruled by Arabs. The invasion had started in the year 711 and almost immediately afterward, Pelayo, the King of Asturias from year 718, started the Reconquista, a long combat of expelling the Muslims from the old continent, which took almost eight centuries. Constant battles were taking place between Christians and Muslims. The latter took with them the relics of the prophet Mahomet for important armed clashes. In the year 844, the decisive battle of Clavijo (La Rioja, near Logrono) took place between the army of Ramiro I of Asturias and Emir of Córdoba. Christian forces were outnumbered but the King was optimistic because on the night preceding the fight he had a dream in which Saint James promised him a victory. On the day of the battle during the cavalry attack, a man suddenly appeared on a white horse with a spear in one hand and a snow-white banner with a red cross in the other. The Christian army, recognizing Saint James as the mystery horseman raised its hope of victory and won the battle.

Reconquista took another 650 years however and in all those long years the figure of Saint James kept the Christians hope of final victory alive. Santiago Matamoros (Saint James the Moor-slayer) on his white horse with a sword in hand became a popular motif in art. In 1643 the Spanish king Felipe IV instituted an annual national offering to the Apostle on his feast day as thanksgiving for liberating the country from the Arab occupation. Each year ever since the King or his delegate makes a financial offering to Saint James, but more importantly, makes invocations in the name of the whole nation. The solemn ceremony is known as the Vow of Santiago.

Saint James in iconography

Saint James is depicted as an Apostle with a book in his hand on the Portico de la Gloria, chatting with his brother or with a scroll in the center of this said portal; sometimes he is shown as a martyr with a sword, an instrument of his torture.

In Spanish art, you will see him especially depicted as a knight on a white horse holding back the expansion of Islam in Europe. You will notice this image in many places; Santiago Matamoros is venerated in Villadangos del Páramo amongst others.

The most popular however is the depiction of Saint James as a pilgrim wearing a coat and hat with a shell and carrying a walking stick topped with a gourd. You will see him presented like this in many churches along the Way for example in Estrella.