The front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela – the Obradoiro façade

The Obradoiro façade of the cathedral (Image by Yearofthedragon – Own work, CC BY 2.5).

It’s the one in all the postcards and selfies, and anyone who has walked/cycled that far has almost certainly had their moment immortalized in pixels and probably taken a few photos for others too. Everybody say ‘Quesoooooo’!

The western façade of the cathedral was the brainchild of Fernando de Casas Novoa, who began construction in 1738 – yes, it’s only two-hundred-and-something years old. Casas Novoa was presented with a particular challenge. The two towers were already in situ, as was the double staircase leading up to the Pórtico de la Gloria, which had suffered over a half a millennium of weathering. Many an architect would have torn down and reshaped what didn’t suit them (St Peter’s anyone?), but Casas Novoa showed his genius by protecting, uniting and enhancing what he found. For those of us not trained in architecture or historic buildings, there is nothing to make the Obradoiro facade seem disjointed or the result of multiple periods of work.

Casas Novoa began at the bottom with a Roman triumphal arch, within which the structure of the double doorway evokes the sword-cross of Santiago. As we move upward we see a large window. Nothing too spectacular, right? Wrong! Remember this was the 1730s, and this window was one of the largest glass structures built prior to the industrial revolution. It allowed the light to penetrate the Romanesque rose window behind it and light up the interior of the cathedral.

Onward and upward! And that’s the point. Casas Novoa created a symmetrical and pyramidal structure that draws our eyes upwards. Above the window is a wreathed sculpture of Santiago’s tomb, flanked by statues of his disciples, Athanasius and Theodore, and crowned by a statue of the man himself, in pilgrim garb and two Spanish kings at his feet.

All in all, harmonious baroque architecture at its best – if you want proof, dig into your pocket. If you find a Spanish 1c, 2c or 5c coin, what do you see on the national side? Not a king, but a crowning piece of architecture.

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