Saint James and Santiago de Compostela

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.Figure of St James, Museum no. 4845-1856

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.Effigy of Don Garcia de Osorio, Museum no. A.48-1910

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.

4 thoughts on “Saint James and Santiago de Compostela

George D. Greenia:

Mr. Frost,

A friend just sent me the link to your article on images of St. James in the Victoria & Albert collections and I was grateful for the timely notice. I am on the newly formed editorial board for Ad limina, a research journal being launched by the Sociedad Anónima de Xestión do Plan Xacobeo (roughly, the Foundation for the Development of Santiago Studies), a division of the Xunta de Galicia, the government of the Autonomous Region of Galicia, Spain.

The senior Editors will be looking for collaborators in Jacobean and pilgrimage studies and also researchers who can help them build their digital data base of the iconography of Santiago in all his representations. I know a contribution from you on the images in the V&A would be a welcome start, perhaps even in the form of an article (in English, of course).

I would be happy to answer any further question I can. They are still setting up parameters for submissions and a website, but the first issue is already in the planning stage for appearance early 2008. As editor of several serials myself – La corónica, an international research journal on medieval Spanish language, literature and cultural studies; and American Pilgrim, a magazine of public scholarship on the Camino de Santiago – I know something of the effort involved in getting new serials off the ground and the entire editorial board of Ad limina is making an effort to contact key potential contributors.

Please accept my own best wishes for your work.

gd greenia
Editor, La corónica & American Pilgrim
American Pilgrim


Dear George,

Thanks very much for your comments and for the information about the journal and the digital database. I’ve raised this with my colleagues and I’ll contact you directly in due course.


Gerald Reyna Tunches:

I’m trying to find out more information of the Order of Santiago. Since My 34th Great Grandfather Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez was a Knight of the Order of Santiago.

Tracy Saunders:

Dear Stuart,
I thought you might be interested in the following:
Permit me to introduce you to a forgotten pilgrim by the name of Priscillian. Forgotten by most, at least outside of his native Spain. There are those who would prefer that he remain forgotten.

In recent years, the Camino de Santiago has attracted people from all over the world. Some walk for their own reasons; some walk as a pilgrimage to the grave of the Apostle James. But what if someone else’s remains are buried in the Cathedral in Compostela. And what if those remains were those of one called “heretic” by the Roman church, and executed in 385 AD?
My new book Pilgrimage to Heresy is a novel which looks at these questions as it follows what may have been the last days of Priscillian, at one time Bishop of Avila, and a man who had a huge following in his native Galicia. It also follows a modern day pilgrim, Miranda, a Canadian professor of Philosophy who is looking for her own answers in a world where “Faith” has become harder and harder to keep.

I walked my own Camino in 1999 from the Pyrenees. There is still no doubt in my mind that it was perhaps the most important thing I have ever done, and, as it does with all pilgrims remains a constant influence in my everyday life.

For more information, see where you can read about Priscillian, my own Camino, and some links to Gnosticism, as well as ordering information. You can also read some pages from the book.
If you wish to read the Prologue and the first chapter, see also … 124&page=3
Pilgrimage to Heresy will not be to everyone’s taste. It challenges established ideas about the pilgrimage and particularly asks “Who is buried in Compostela?” Ultimately, perhaps it doesn’t matter: it is the Camino we experience in our hearts which lasts. Either way, it asks pertinent questions about the idea and rationale of going on a Pilgrimage in the 21st century.
I hope you enjoy reading about it.

Ultreia y Buen Camino
Tracy Saunders

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