By Stuart Frost
I wonder how many people in England today are aware that the 25th July is the feast day of St James? This celebration of this feast day began in the middle ages and is still the focus of impressive celebrations in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. I’m determined that at some point in the future I’ll be in the city to enjoy the festivities, hopefully after I walked all of the way to Santiago from the French side of the Pyrenees.
St James was a popular saint throughout the middle ages and his shrine in the cathedral of Santiago became a major focus of pilgrimage, giving way only to Rome and Jerusalem in terms of popularity. The donations of pilgrims helped turn the cathedral into a treasure house of religious art and architecture. Thousands of pilgrims still journey every year from St Jean-Pied-de-Port in France up into the Pyrenees down into Roncesvalles and Spain, through villages, towns and cities, across vast plains and over the Cantabrian mountains towards the shrine of St James. The scallop shell was adopted as an emblem by those who walked along numerous pilgrim routes to Santiago.
The painted oak figure of St James above and to the left holds a scallop shell in his left hand. The garments of the figure were originally gold. This sculpture was once part of an altarpiece from the Johanneskirche in Lüneburg Germany and is testament to the popularity of St James outside of Spain.
The photograph to the right shows a detail of the tomb effigy of Don García de Osorio who died shortly after 1502. Dressed in armour and holding a sword, his hat is decorated with a scallop shell which in this instance indicates his membership of the Order of Santiago. Click on the image for a closer view and more information about the effigy.
There are a numerous other objects in the V&A’s collections that have a connection to St James and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Many examples can be viewed via the V&A’s database, Collections Online. Click on the link below and enter an appropriate search term like Santiago or St James.
In my next update in two week’s time I’ll focus on what I think is one if the most impressive objects in the V&A’s collection, a vast nineteenth century plaster-cast copy of the Portico de la Gloria. Pilgrims entering the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela via the main entrance in the vast west façade pass through the Portico de la Gloria, a masterpiece of later twelfth-century sculpture.
To explore many objects from the V&A’s collections online visit Collections Online
If you’re interested in finding out more about the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela you may find the website of the Confraternity of St James helpful.