The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, built over the supposed resting place of the Apostle James/Santiago, is one of the most incredible medieval buildings on earth. I, quite frankly, love it. The first time I entered it was on a late evening in August 2016, after a friend from America and another from Germany and I had walked 52km that day. I experienced the kind of nerdgasm that only an exhausted medievalist could know. It was not as good for them.
Loaded with symbolism and steeped in history, it is still a place of intense worship, even when many other cathedrals like those of Burgos and León have increasingly become more like museums, and regular cultic practice has been confined to particular chapels. If indeed no one stone is to be left upon another, hopefully these will be among the last to fall. In the next four posts, I want to take you on a tour around the four facades of the cathedral, each unique and worthy of note, beginning with the most famous — the western Obradoiro façade, or ‘front’, as many of us consider it.
Christian churches are usually orientated east-west, with the main altar at the east and principal doorway at the west, and so too this cathedral. Although it is primarily a twelfth-century Romanesque masterpiece, its ‘front’ is occluded by an eighteenth-century façade. Plonking a new façade in front of an older building was a something of a habit of that period, and at least it meant that the older architecture wasn’t torn down, even if it meant that you could occasionally end up with a disproportionate chubby mess, like that which squats like a caganer in front of the otherwise attractive austere French gothic of Pamplona’s cathedral of Santa María de la Asunción.
The four façades each have a square (Gallego praza, Spanish plaza), and each have their own particular feel. The first side of the cathedral we will look at will be the façade facing the Praza do Obradoiro (‘Square of the Craftsmen’), one of the happiest places on earth.