St. James the Greater

St. James The Greater, stained glass panel, 1618. Museum no. C.235-1934, Guthrie bequest

St. James The Greater, stained glass panel, 1618. Museum no. C.235-1934, Guthrie bequest.

St James the Greater is one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ. He is called 'the Greater' to distinguish him from 'James the Less', another Apostle. He was the first Apostle to be martyred, when Herod Agrippa ordered his death, about AD 44.

The saints of the Christian church can often be identified by a device, known as their attribute. Here St James holds a pilgrim's staff with a drinking bottle attached. He is usually depicted as a pilgrim, and often wears a hat with a cockleshell attached.

In the medieval period the story of St James was greatly embellished. In northern Spain a legend developed that he had travelled to the coast of Galicia in order to convert the local population. After he was martyred in Jerusalem, his servant brought his body back to Galicia by sea. As the boat approached the shore, a startled horse threw its rider to the ground, and the man drowned. The servant prayed, and miraculously the man emerged alive from the water, covered in cockleshells, hence James's shell.

In the early 9th century the bishop of the area claimed that God had told him where to find the body of St James. He built a church on the site. By the 11th century Santiago de Compostela was a major pilgrimage destination; it still attracts thousands every year. Saints were often thought of as protectors, and the possession of relics of an important one was to be ensured of divine protection.

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