The Bizarre life of a Dead Saint
From Portugal we were travelling against the clock as we‘d agreed to catch up with a couple of our friends who were holidaying in the Dordogne in France. It seemed like a good idea at the time, I mean it’s just over the Pyrenees! But when we looked at the map we suddenly realised it was quite a bit further than we thought and it looked like there were three quite long driving days ahead, so we didn’t tarry in Porto too long. Driving due north we soon bid adieu to Portugal and entered northern west Spain. The province of Galicia in Spain was a revelation - mountainous, heavily forested and nothing at all like central and southern Spain. These mountains provided the Christians sanctuary from the invading Muslims when a Visigoth prince called Pelayo and his small band of refugees fought off pursuing Muslim cavalry in a skirmish that would be later be elevated into one of Spain’s epic national myths. News of his ‘victory’ would draw together the disillusioned resistance but could not in the long run reverse their meagre fortunes. The trouble was, as it always had been, that few people were really that eager to fight or die for the Visigoths. Something else was needed.
Around 800, King Alfonso of Asturia stumbled on the solution. The Apostle James came to him in dream and revealed the whereabouts of his grave in the churchyard of Compestella. The grave was duly opened and the Pope certified that these anonymous bones did indeed belong to James. Exactly how James, who lived and died in Palestine, ended up buried in a Spanish churchyard was a question that did not bear asking, but no sooner than his bones were raised out of the ground than they began working miracles. In a battle with the Muslims James appeared in silver armour and riding a white horse, slaughtering Muslims left and right while hurling scallop shells (yes, it makes no sense). St James the Moor-slayer became The Symbol that united the forces of Christian Spain in a way that the Visigoths never could and “For Santiago!” became their battle cry. Soon pilgrims from all over Christendom began to make the long and arduous journey to the shrine of Santiago (as the Spanish called St James). The Camino de la Compostella is still a popular trek and we passed plenty of tourists and pilgrims walking the path. I must admit some of the legs seemed particularly dangerous, including long stretches along the shoulders of highways and main roads. In the process Santiago became very rich and a lavish gothic cathedral was built to house his relics.
We arrived during mass and but were still let in regardless. The interior wasn’t as impressive as I had expected, especially given that this is one of the top five pilgrimage churches in Europe, but in the early 13th century the Andalusian warlord Al Mansor “the Victorious” had smashed the Crusaders sworn to defend St James, pillaged the city of all its treasures and burnt the cathedral to the ground. St James tomb however was left intact as the Muslims would have considered its destruction just as sacrilegious as the Christians.
Behind the altar a silver and gold reliquary statue of St James, incongruously dressed like a 10th century prince, sits facing the crowd. Under the altar there is a narrow passage with streams of tourists filing through. So we joined them. All I had expected to see was maybe a glimpse of a coffin hidden behind curtains, but instead the passage leads right up to the statue. Obviously we did not show the appropriate devotion to the Saint as an attendant slipped into the tiny room and demonstrated how we should revere it. He approached the statue (which is about life size) from behind, threw his arms around the statue’s shoulders, pressed his head against its neck, kissed it, and made the sign of the cross. As an atheist I find all this devotion completely incomprehensible.
It was now late afternoon and we wandered around the old city centre. It was a pleasant and neat city, but not very large so we covered most of the sights within an hour. Perhaps ironically we had kebabs for dinner from an Iraqi Kurdish restaurant and then decided it was time to push on. We still had a lot of ground to cover if we were going to reach the Dordogne before the weekend. We drove until nightfall and stopped at anonymous roadside hotel. It was newly built and almost empty and we had a blessed night sleep.