Platerías facade

Image by: Lancastermerrin88; no changes made to the original, which is available here (License: CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

For many peregrinos, undertaking the Camino and visiting the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela gives them a connection with pilgrims past, and much of their spiritual comfort comes from feeling part of a millennium-long continuum, rather than from visiting apostolic relics.[1]  In this vein, the Platerías facade (Pratarías in Gallego) offers them one of the most ‘authentic’ connections to the medieval pilgrim experience.

The Platerías is on the ‘right-hand side’ of the Cathedral, and it takes its name from the silver workers who had their shops on the square (plata ‘silver’), and for a medievalist it’s almost more interesting than Casas Novoas’ more famous work, because it is the only one of the four facades not to be obscured by early modern structures – what you see is the Romanesque entrance more or less as it was in the twelfth century.

Two doorways dominate the view, although on approach the eye is quickly drawn to the collection of sculpture above them.  At first glance you’d think it looks like an amalgam of rescued reliefs and stray stonework fixed into place rather than being left go to waste, and upon closer inspection you’ll find that you’re right!  It’s believed that a considerable number of the pieces date from the twelfth century and were rescued after a fire in the cathedral and then assembled above the doors, without too much rhyme or reason to their ordering.  So although they may not have been part of the original design, they’re very much of the era.

Detail of a centaur from this image by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez. License: CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As ever, the devil’s in the detail.  Winged monkeys like something out of the Wizard of Oz torment souls and show Jesus the riches of the world he could possess, if he bowed down the Satan (Matthew 4:8–11).  A delicious irony for the Silverworker’s Square?   Nestled among the heavenlies and the harlots are classical figures too.  A fragment of a centaur twisting backward to fire an arrow appears to be taking aim at a mermaid over the other doorway (who probably wasn’t his original target).  What are they doing here?  Most likely they’re allegorical figures.  In the middle ages, the halfman-halfhorse centaur frequently represented heretics, whose human front hid their inhuman nature,[2] and Dante made a demon of him, shooting arrows at sinners in a boiling river of blood in the seventh circle of hell.[3]  The classical world provided a frame of reference for much of medieval thinking, and images of classical gods or mythical figures in religious buildings were not blasphemous or ‘crypto pagan’, but rather part of the ‘visual vocabulary’ of artists (sorry to all the Templar nuts out there who think finding a piece of mythological sculpture in a church somehow reflects supposed arcane beliefs and rites).

Overall, the Platerías facade might not catch the eye in the same way as that of the Praza do Obradoiro at the ‘front’ of the cathedral does, but here silver need not mean second place.

[1] Sasha D. Pack, ‘Revival of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela: the politics of religious, national, and European patrimony, 1879–1988’, The Journal of Modern History 82:2 (2010), 335–67.

[2] [Anon.], ‘A Siren and a Centaur about 1270’, J. Paul Getty Museum, available at: (no date).

[3] Antoine Mac Gaoithín, ‘Mythical creatures at the Worth Library: Centaurs’, Edward Worth Library, available at: (no date).

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