And they say that he got crazy once and that he tried to touch the sun…

By mLu.fotos from Germany – Perseids 2015 – Compilation 1 (All in One), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42351494

One of the most beautiful sights on the Camino is the sky above.  I recall lying in a field one night in August 2016 along with my friend Jay and a group of five or six other companions outside Carrión de los Condes, watching the annual Perseid meteor shower over the Meseta — the inspiration for the line ‘I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky’ in John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High.  The clear darkness was streaked with flecks from a cosmic arc welder and we sat eating cheese and bread, all wrapping up against the heavy dew and sleeping briefly and fitfully, before hitting the road with dawn lighting upon our backs.  At Tardajos, west of Burgos, in 2018 the warlike Mars showed red in the sky as the town prepared for a night-time concert that would start long after we peregrinos were peacefully tucked up in bed.  And like so many others I remember the sun setting over the ocean at Finisterre, and sharing a cigar with my friend Tyler on the pleasant walk back to the town in the evening gloom and deepening night.  But the sky is filled with more than just lights (there’s rain too, and by God plenty of it in Asturias!), and it’s also home to some of the Camino’s most interesting inhabitants.  Not least among these is the Red Kite (Milvus milvus), which was once native to Ireland until driven to extinction in the nineteenth century, although a breeding programme has helped reintroduce it to the Wicklow mountains using birds from Wales.[1]

By Charles J. Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90658674

The Red Kite is a reasonably large bird of prey, with a reddish-brown body about 60 cm long and a wingspan of 1.8m. You’re most likely to spot a Red Kite in the sky above you than on the ground or trees, so its profile rather than colour is what to look for, especially as it may look dark when silhouetted against the bright sky.  You’ll probably see it glide on outstretched wings that are white toward the edges and have five dark feathers, almost like fingers, at the end of each wing.  Its wings are angled (the leading edge is flat farthest away from the body but then angles in toward it), and these along with its deeply-forked tail give it a distinctive profile.  Other large birds of the Pyrenees include the Griffon Vulture, which is much bigger (body of about a 1m long and wingspan of 2.5m), which presents a much straighter wing edge when gliding (indeed its wings look almost rectangular),[3] and of course the large Golden Eagle, which also presents a flatter wing profile and seemingly more ‘fingers’ at the ends.[4]  The tail is the real giveaway, as the Griffon Vulture’s rounded diamond tail and the Golden Eagle’s longish flat tail both look nothing like the deep-v shape of the Red Kite.

If you do walk along the Camino in the regions around the Pyrenees, make sure to look up, and you’ll probably agree with John Denver:

And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
I know he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly
Rocky mountain high

[1] Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, ‘Red Kite’: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/red-kite.

[3] Image: https://www.rondatoday.com/griffon-vulture-of-the-serrania/ Image:

[4] Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, ‘Golden eagle’: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/golden-eagle.

[5] John Denver, ‘Rocky Mountain High’, https://youtu.be/eOB4VdlkzO4.


A recipe for pleasure: Tarta de Santiago (Santiago’s Cake)

By Katrin Gilger – Tarta de Santiago, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89958476

Tarta de Santiago (or Torta de Santiago in Galego, the language of Galicia) is one of my favourite deserts and is a wonderful expression of what is best in Spanish cooking — good ingredients used simply but effectively.  Essentially, it’s a flat cake of almonds, eggs and sugar, in roughly equal measure, which mightn’t sound very adventurous, but I always get excited when I see it on the menu and I’m willing to risk a diabetic shock every time for that crumbly sweetness.  Since 2009 it has had Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, meaning that only tartas made in Galicia and adhering to certain quality guidelines (e.g. percentage of almonds) are permitted to be sold as Tarta de Santiago.

During the first lockdown in 2020, my friend and fellow peregrina Zoe and I had a remote bake off, where she clearly put my effort in the shade.  I’m not going to embarrass myself by putting up the photos. We both followed the same recipe by the Galician chef Alfonso López Alonso, which you can watch here on YouTube, or read here from the website of the Spanish newspaper El País.  I’ve translated it below, with a few additional notes.


  • 250g peeled almonds
  • 5 large eggs
  • 250 g sugar
  • 1/2 lemon [My note: rind only]
  • 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
  • 1/2 shot of spirits [My note: Galicia is known for spirits like orujo (grappa to Italians), if you don’t have anything similar just use something dry, like gin]
  • Icing/powdered sugar for decorating


  1. Heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
  2. Toast the almonds in a pan over a gentle heat, taking care not to burn them.  Remove and let them harden.
  3. While they are frying, beat the eggs with the sugar until they turn a pale colour.  Grate in the lemon and add the spirits and cinnamon.
  4. Blend half of the almonds thoroughly, until they’re like flour.  Blend the other half for less time, so that they retain a coarser texture.
  5. Add the almonds to the eggs with the sugar and mix with a spatula until smooth.
  6. Grease a detachable tin or flexible mould of 28cm diameter with butter.  [My note: make sure it’s well-greased, as this is a crumbly cake and you want it to be able to get it out of the tin without falling apart on you].  Put the mixture in the oven for 30 minutes until the surface is golden.  Cover with aluminum foil and bake for another ten minutes.  The exact time varies depending on the oven.  The best thing to do is check it by pricking it with a skewer or fork: if it comes out clean, it’s ready.
  7. Take out of the oven and leave it to cool for ten minutes before removing from the tin.
  8. When it is completely cool, sprinkle with the icing/powdered sugar.  If you want, make a stencil of the Cross of Santiago, which you can download from this blog. [My note: make sure it really is completely cool, otherwise the icing sugar will melt into it, instead of giving it the snow-covered appearance you want]

Azabachería, the final façade…

Image of the Azabacheríá facade by Sebbe xy, available CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Azabachería, the final façade… it sounds like the opening of a Patrick Steward Star Trek monologue.  We might well say ‘boldly going where no peregrino has gone before’, because although this north façade of the cathedral is the first that most peregrinos pass as they finish the francés/primitivo/norte/ingles routes, it’s usually ignored in the rush to enter the Praza do Obradoiro outside the ‘front’ of the cathedral.  Maybe the next day you might give it a look.

If you do, you’ll find that it has an architectural style unique among the four facades.  The Obradoiro and Quintana are solidly baroque – that post-Council of Trent artistic style characterised by decoration, exuberance and appeals to the senses (the opposite end of the pendulum arc from the plain austerity of Protestant religious architecture).  The Platerías retains its twelfth-century medieval demeanour – solid no-nonsense Romanesque arches and winged monkeys aplenty.  But the newest façade (dating from the second half of the eighteenth century), on the north of the Cathedral, is deadly neo-classical with its smooth columns and medallions with the faces of Christ and the Virgin over the windows, and takes its name from the craftsmen who worked in azabache (jet/lignite) in the facing square.  

Santiago and Kings Alfonso III and Ordoño II. Close up of the Azabacheríá facade by Sebbe xy, available CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As with most of the other façades, its dominated by a statue of Santiago as a pilgrim, and kneeling at either side of him the crowned kings Alfonso III of Asturias and León (848?–910) and his son, Ordoño II of León (872?–924).  Alfonso the Great, as he was known, is historically seen as one of the first significant figures of the Reconquista (‘reconquest’), the gradual Christian takeover of lands ruled by the Muslims in the Iberian peninsula since the early eighth century.  He divided his kingdom between three of his sons, García (León), Fruela (Asturias) and Ordoño (Galicia), and left the cathedral 500 pieces of gold in his will (which García probably pocketed).[1]  One of Fruela’s first actions as king was to journey to Santiago de Compostela to ask the saint’s help for his new responsibility,[2] while Ordoño (who had already ruled Galicia under his father) was also a generous patron of the early medieval cathedral, as he and his wife gave it two chests of gold and thirty-five Muslim prisoners of war.[3]

The job of designing this façade and replacing the earlier Romanesque exterior was entrusted to Domingo Antonio Lois Monteagudo from Pontevedra (1722–85), an architect who shone as a student in Madrid and Rome, but has traditionally been seen as the epitome of a frustrated talent, chafing at having to implement the works of other.[4]  But you would never imagine that, looking at the most architecturally coherent of all the four facades of one of the most impressive medieval-early modern buildings in the world.

[1] José María Manuel García-Osuna y Rodríguez, ‘El astur rey de León Fruela II Adefónsiz “El Leproso”’, Argutorio: revista de la Asociación Cultural ‘Monte Irago’ 20 (2008), 25–8: 25.  https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=2501667

[2] José María Manuel García-Osuna y Rodríguez, ‘El astur rey de León Fruela II Adefónsiz “El Leproso”’, Argutorio: revista de la Asociación Cultural ‘Monte Irago’ 20 (2008), 25–8: 26. https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=2501667

[3] César Álvarez Álvarez, ‘Ordoño II’, Diccionario Biográfico electrónico (DBe) de la Real Academia de la Historia, https://dbe.rah.es/biografias/7299/ordono-ii.

[4] Enrique Fernández Castiñeiras, ‘Domingo Antonio Lois Monteagudo’, Diccionario Biográfico electrónico (DBe) de la Real Academia de la Historia, https://dbe.rah.es/biografias/22021/domingo-antonio-lois-monteagudo.

Royal Pilgrims

Soldiers in Santiago de Compostela, 25th July, 2022 (image: author’s own).

The last time I was in Santiago de Compostela, it was crowded with Germans, most of whom were named Heckler & Koch.  I could almost hear Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It in my head swearing that there were enough goons hovering around to stage a coup d’état.  In fact I probably haven’t seen that many guns since I was defending the armoury in Ballymullen or Sarsfield barracks during my late teens in the FCA (Irish military reserve).  It was 25th July 2022, the feast of Santiago, and the cathedral and much of its surrounds were off limits for several hours, as King Filipe VI and his family were visiting.  There were even five soldiers outside the bar on the Rúa de San Francisco where I stopped in for tortilla.  I imagine nobody was going to try a dine-and-dash that day.

The Spanish monarchs make a tradition of visiting the cathedral during Jubilee years (those in which the feast day of Santiago falls on a Sunday), and it got me thinking about why this might be so.  Historically, royal pilgrims’ reasons for journeying were not that different from those of people much farther down the social ladder, which may broadly be divided into two (somewhat self-focused?) categories – asking for help, and acknowledging help received.

Alfonso II of Asturias (d.842) in the twelfth-century Libro de los Testamentos. Public Domain image available here, on Wikimedia Commons.

The earliest pilgrim to Santiago whose name is known was an early ninth-century king – Alfonso II of Asturias – whose supposed route from Oviedo (modern Asturias) through Lugo (Galicia) is now known as the Camino Primitivo (‘The First/Original Way’).  Alfonso ‘the Chaste’ is a figure of incredible importance for the history of Spain, possessed of deep religious conviction and the first great benefactor of the cult of Santiago.  Perhaps he went to ask for help?  His northern kingdom had come under considerable pressure from military campaigns by Hisham I of Córdoba (d. 796) and his son Al-Hakam I (d.822), but he weathered the storm. People have a tendency to think that modern actions and historical figures are more important than those of the remoter past, but it could easily be argued that in the longue dureé of Spanish history Alfonso II is more significant than Franco.

Fast-forward six hundred years and Isabella of Castile (1451–1504), famous with her husband Ferdinand of Aragon as the ‘Catholic Monarchs’ (Los Reyes Católicos) and sponsor of Columbus’ voyage to the New World, supposedly went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela to pray for an heir.  Their successor as monarch of a newly created/unified Spain was their unfortunate daughter Joanna the Mad (Juana la Loca), who was muscled out of power and kept in confinement for most of her adult life, but who is nonetheless an ancestor of the current kings of Spain. 

Maybe Filipe went to say a prayer of thanks?

Platerías facade

Image by: Lancastermerrin88; no changes made to the original, which is available here (License: CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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: https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/object/103SAW (no date).

[3] Antoine Mac Gaoithín, ‘Mythical creatures at the Worth Library: Centaurs’, Edward Worth Library, available at: https://mythicalcreatures.edwardworthlibrary.ie/ancient-world/centaurs/ (no date).

Santiago/St James in the Last Supper

Given that it’s Easter weekend I thought Santiago in the art of the Last Supper might make an interesting post.  When we think of artistic representation of the Last Supper, the first painting that comes to mind is undoubtedly Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco in the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan.[1]  But can you spot Santiago/St James in it?  Zoom in and give it a shot.

By Leonardo da Vinci – High resolution scan by http://www.haltadefinizione.com/ in collaboration with the Italian ministry of culture. Scan details, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3032252

Can’t find him?  Don’t worry, neither did I.  In much of medieval and renaissance art apostles are recognisable by particular symbols, a kind of visual vocabulary that allowed anyone of any language or no literary ability to identify a statue or painting of a saint.  Peter frequently has a set of keys, Mary Magdalene carries an urn or ointment box, and Bartholomew, who was supposedly flayed alive, even carries his own skin!  Santiago, of course, is frequently recognisable by the shell, broad hat, and pilgrim staff.  But in representations of the Last Supper, these symbols are frequently absent, and it’s hard to identify one apostle from another within a ‘crowd’ of them (is there’s a collective noun for apostles?!).

A few different incidents at the gathering were seized upon by artists over the centuries as their subject, such as the washing of the feet, the initiation of the eucharist, and – in Leonardo’s case – the dramatic moment in which Jesus announces that one of them would betray him.  For renaissance artists who wanted to experiment with representing human emotion, this was an ideal opportunity to depict a variety of sensations: disbelief, anger, incredulity, confusion and resignation.  In Leonardo’s Last Supper there’s a triad of figures immediately to Jesus’ left (our right), where a largely-obscured figure is pointing upwards (possibly ‘Doubting’ Thomas) and the third figure on Jesus’s left (believed to be Philip) seems to be pointing at himself and pleading with Jesus as if to say ‘Don’t say it’s me!’  Identification in this case is possible thanks to notes in Leonardo’s surviving notebooks and sketches.  

By Leonardo da Vinci – High resolution scan by http://www.haltadefinizione.com/ in collaboration with the Italian ministry of culture. Scan details, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3032252

So where is James?  He’s the third figure in this triad, sitting directly to Jesus’s left.  His position – the physically closest apostle to Jesus – is unsurprising, as the gospels indicate he was within the ‘inner circle’ of the disciples (I’ve discussed this here in a history of the Camino).  Decomposition of the painting has made most of his body a blur, but he seems to have open and outstretched hands, his right reaching up toward Jesus’s shoulder and his left almost touching the table.  It’s hard to read his expression, but he appears open-mouthed with eyes downcast.  Is he holding back Thomas and Philip?  Is he shouting ‘Whoa!  Back off guys!’?  Is he remonstrating with Jesus?  Not unlikely, given Jesus had nicknamed him ‘Son of Thunder’ on account of his temper. 

[1] The official page of the museum: https://cenacolovinciano.org/en/museum/the-works/the-last-supper-leonardo-da-vinci-1452-1519

The Cross and the Camino: the Crucifix of Santo Domingo de la Calzada

Crucifix in the cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada (La Rioja). Image by Anxo Regueira López, La Vanguardia (Logroño edition) (17/01/2020)

Apologies to the sculptor and commissioners, but the newly installed crucifix of the cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada in La Rioja (a town I really like and featured previously) – it looks like it was made of Playmobil (a Lego-like product, manufactured in Spain).  It did get me thinking about what a crucifix should look like though, and of course you’ll see many styles from many eras along the Camino.

The earliest Christians did not possess crucifixes, partly because they came from a Jewish tradition of non-anthropomorphic art and partly because crucifixion was still a common method of capital punishment; it might have seemed somewhat shameful or at least distasteful (just as a hypothetical modern religion might not adopt as its symbol the electric chair in which its founder was executed).  It took time.

Early representations of Jesus on the cross depict Him wearing a long robe and leaning out toward the viewer, with bulging eyes.  The emphasis is clearly on His triumph over death.  As time went on, more ‘natural’ representations were developed, with the five wounds more visible and His head tilted to one side.  Of course none of these representations are strictly natural, and all have a message and tell us something of the world of the creators.  Certain liberties are taken, most specifically Jesus’ face is still visible.  Upon death, His head would most likely have flopped down and so the face would not have been visible in the upright manner we are used to seeing.  While dying, or immediately after death, His bowels and bladder would have voided, and a realistic representation would probably show a corpse soiled with faecal matter and urine.  Lastly, the loin cloth probably wasn’t present either.  It’s near-universal presence on crucifixes speaks to our (and not just Christianity’s) complex views on nudity, sexuality and the human body, while simultaneously obscuring the most obvious sign of Jesus’ Jewishness – His circumcised penis.[1]

Gothic crucifix in Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puenta la Reine (Navarra). Image author’s own.

Interesting crucifixes along the Camino Francés include the fourteenth-century Y-shaped cross brought by pilgrims from Germany to Puente la Reine (Navarra).  Crucifixes in the Gothic style from this period are characterised by an emphasis on human agony.  No obvious triumph over death here.  Instead a bruised, bloodied and tortured man.  But it would be a mistake to see this as solely an attempt at Gospel-based realism.  These are expressions of a bruised, bloodied and tortured world — the world of the Black Death/Bubonic Plague.

So where does that leave ‘Playmobil’ Jesus in Santo Domingo de la Calzada?  If art partly reflects the culture that produces it, what does it tell us about the world we live in?  And if its interpretation reflects the worldview of the viewer, what does that tell you about me?

[1] One of the great treatments of early Christianity’s developing views on the body and their social contexts is found in Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (1988; new edition 2008).  It is a work of immense learning, beautifully written.

Rattle and hum: the towers of the Obradoiro façade

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

Following on from my last post on the Obradoiro façade, where we looked at the central portion in particular, let’s now take a little closer look at the sides.  In fairness, as you face the façade, your eyes are drawn to the centre such that it’s sometimes hard to appreciate the two flanking towers that frame the central early modern baroque masterpiece.  Or rather perhaps it’s hard to appreciate them individually, because part of the beauty of Fernando de Casas Novoa’s design is the harmony with which the façade works as a unit. 

The north tower (to the left) and the south tower (right) now stand at 74m in height, and are taller than the central body of the cathedral is long; for most peregrinos they were probably the tallest manmade structures they ever saw in their lives.  The towers were parts of the original Romanesque design of the cathedral; sturdy monumental architecture that could also provide a place of refuge in times of trouble and were probably largely unchanged until the seventeenth century, when a series of interventions began that saw them heightened and altered in decoration.  Individual interventions are hard to spot at a glance, but what you might notice is that the bottom two-thirds of the towers look rather cubic, and then they begin to taper into a design that’s both ornate but quite ephemeral, with space for leaving light, wind and sound flow through.  Tip: If you draw a horizontal line to either side from the statue of Santiago in the centre of the façade, you will see a balustrade (stone railing) on both towers, and this marks the point of change, the point where the lower original Romanesque towers meet the early modern additions.  What are the towers’ functions?  Making noise!

Image: by Fernando – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=108259683

A question for you: what’s the loudest thing you’ve ever heard in your life?  Maybe it was the sound of a jet engine taking off?  Maybe you were at a high-intensity sporting event, like Irish boxer Katie Taylor’s 2012 Olympic gold medal campaign in London, when the decibel level at her first bout reached 113.7  ― above the average human pain threshold![1]  Or maybe you were at a concert by a band whose amps ‘go up to 11’ (you know who I’m talking about).  For most of us, the loudest things we hear are artificial sounds or electronically enhanced.  In the medieval and early modern world, unless you had been in battle, the loudest sounds you ever heard were probably thunder and church bells ― both of which could be signs of disaster.  The bell was the ‘background sound to life in the middle ages’, marking times of day, beckoning worshipers, announcing celebrations, deaths, and invasions (for example, in Britain, church bells were temporarily silenced in 1940 and only to be rung in the event of a German invasion), while as George Greenia and Xosé M. Sánchez Sánchez discuss in the journal Ad Limina, the Camino had its own particular soundscape.

The ratchet (carraca) of the left/north tower of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Image from La Voz de Galicia (20 March 2015).

In the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the right/south tower is the ‘bell tower’ and the left/north tower the ‘ratchet’ tower.  The ratchet (carraca), pictured above, is a giant wooden noise maker, shaped like a cross, that is used in particular during Semana Santa (Holy Week, leading up to Easter).  Ratchets for religious ceremonies come in a huge variety of designs, and here’s an example of a cross-shaped ratchet in action.  Its grating and eerie sound is used on Good Friday to mark the death of Jesus – a solemn and disquieting reminder to the medieval ear that even God had to die.

[1] Laura Bleakley, ‘Ireland’s most successful Olympics for almost 60 years’, BBC News  11 August 2012 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-19205892.  See this table of noise levels and effects, from the Department of Chemistry, Purdue University https://www.chem.purdue.edu/chemsafety/Training/PPETrain/dblevels.htm.

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.

The four façades of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Praza do Obradoiro – the western square of the Cathedral de Compostela (image author’s own)

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.

The Camino and the Spanish Civil War (part 6 – Santiago de Compostela)

At the east end of the cathedral (the ‘back’, so to speak) the square known as Praza da Quintana is divided into two levels, the lower Quintana de Mortos (‘Square of the Dead’) used to be a cemetery until the end of the eighteenth century, and above the steps lies the Quintana de Vivos (‘Square of the Living’). It’s a good place to meet old and new friends, and those who are not necessarily friends. I caught up with one of the latter there – José Antonio Primo de Rivera.

The Third of May 1808, by Francisco de Goya, from Prado in Google Earth (2022, July 1), via Wikimedia Commons

At the east end of the Praza da Quintana (directly facing the cathedral) is a former monastery, now a museum, the Mosteiro de San Paio de Antealtares. It was a forerunner of the University of Santiago de Compostela, and high on the wall is a plaque dedicated to scholars of the university who formed the Literary Battalion and fought against Napoleon’s army in the Peninsular War/Spanish War of Independence (1807-14). To non-Spanish audiences that war is probably most famous from Goya’s paintings, most notably the groundbreaking The Third of May 1808 (above), the first western painting to depict the horrors of war from the victims’ point of view.

The inscription on the monastery wall reads:


To the heroes of the Literary Battalion of 1808, [from] the Compostela scholars of 1896 and the city councils of 1822, 1865, and 1896

Plaque to the Batallon Literaio and inscription to José Antonio de Primavera in the Quintana de Mortos (‘Square of the Dead’), Santiago de Compostela (image: author’s own)

Directly above it, carved into the monastery wall (also in capitals), is the name ‘Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera’. The desire to associate him with the Batallon Literario and to present the fascist struggle as a new Spanish War of Independence is pretty obvious. Both are located in the Quintana de Mortos, but as I hope to show in future posts, the ideology is still quite alive in the territories of the Camino.

Medieval Mapping – a superior technique for a modern pilgrim?

A hodological map from John Brierley’s Pilgrim’s Guide
available to purchase here.

When chatting about guides and maps to the Camino, John Brierley’s A Pilgrim’s Guide is often spoken of approvingly, particularly for its maps.  Indeed, a separate smaller maps-only versions of his guide to the Camino Francés and Camino Portugués are also available.  Part of the reason they are so successful is that they follow a design principle found in many medieval maps – they are hodological, rather than cartographic.

What do I mean?  Well let’s start with cartographic maps, which we take as a default.  These have three common characteristics.  Firstly, they are usually orientated with north at the top of the page, second they are usually to a fixed scale (e.g. 1cm = 1km), and third they are comprehensive (e.g. they include every road).  Although we take these characteristics as a given, they are simply inventions and conventions, and measured by these standards, Brierley’s maps fare poorly.  Let’s take the example of his Map No 2 (covering 21.9km between Roncesvalles and Zubiri) and No. 25 (covering 30.6km between Molinaseca and Villafranca).  Firstly, the exact same size page, without a scale, is used for covering distances that differ by 8.7km.  Secondly, the orientation differs – north in No.2 is at 4 o’clock, but it is at 2 o’clock in No. 25.  Thirdly, both maps are blank where a number of small settlements should be inserted.  But for a peregrino Brierley’s maps are superior.  Why?  Because they follow a common medieval principle, they were not conceived of in cartographic terms but rather in hodological terms.

Hodos is Greek for a ‘path’ and that’s what his maps do, they outline the route that one would take in a day.  Many medieval maps do likewise, especially pilgrim maps.  The aim was to help you get from A to B, not to inform you about C to Z on your right or left.  As many of you who have used Camino maps that are simply overlays onto cartographic maps will know, they quickly become confusing.  Maps, like the pioneer of graphic design Edward Tufte suggested of charts, should give the maximum amount of information for the minimum amount of ink.  The average medieval pilgrim map, like that of thirteenth-century Matthew Paris, gave you the route in daily sections – the English word ‘journey’ is from medieval French meaning a day’s travel.  You will already be familiar with the hodological mapping principle if you have ever used an underground rail map (like the Tube in London, or Metro in Madrid or Paris).  You will know that it bears a limited resemblance to the surface, but is perfectly useful and indeed superior to a cartographic map for getting you from A to B.

All we need to do now is stop focusing on the maps – paper or Google – and take a look at what’s around us.