Cathedral of Santiago de Compostelo

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostelo is the reputed burial place of St James the Great in the west of Galicia, in Northern Spain. It has been a pilgrim destination since its creation and it is still the final destination for the thousands of ‘pilgrims’ who continue to walk the camino in its various forms today. Over 327,00 walked to Santiago in 2018!

History of the Cathedral

In 9C King Alfonso II built a chapel over the grave of St James, and then a church and small monastery. It was King Alfonso II who made the first pilgrimage, camino, to the holy place from his palace in Oviedo. The church was destroyed by Al-Mansur in 997AD but the Moors left the relics undisturbed. The relics of St James are now buried in a silver casket under the High Altar. Today’s building dates from the 1078-1211 with later additions over the centuries.


Exterior of the Cathedral

The West Front of The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is perhaps the most immediately familiar image, but the building was under wraps when we visited in 1914. This West front dates from 1740 and overlooks Obradoiro Square. The North facade overlooks the Praza de Immaculada.

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela west facade in 2014
West facade under wraps in 2014
North facade of the Cathedral
North facade of the Cathedral

The South facade faces the Praza das Praterias and is the only remaining Romanesque facade on the Cathedral. The Portas das Praterias (the Silversmiths Doorway) built between 1103-17 is the oldest doorway into the Cathedral and so an appropriate way to enter. Many of the figures on the doorway were apparently taken from the North Door and attached to this, south, doorway in the 18C, and if you look closely you can see the patchwork effect of different stone colours and unbalanced sizing. Beautiful nonetheless.

South facade of the Cathedral of Santiago
South facade of the Cathedral
South facade of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostelo on the Praterias Square, and the Clock Tower
South facade of the Cathedral on the Praterias Square, and the Clock Tower (R)

Bell Towers

There are four bell towers in the Cathedral: The Clock Tower or Torre de Berenguela (started in 1316); the Treasure Tower; Torre de Campas and Torre de Carracca on the facade facing the Praza de Obradoiro which were started in the 12C and changed or rebuilt in following centuries. These last two towers were being restored on our visit (2014) and under cover.

The Treasure Tower from inside the Cloisters
The Treasure Tower from inside the Cloisters

Views inside the Cathedral

The interior of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostelo is breathtaking – literally so. As you stand in the nave and look towards the high altar rich Baroque carvings are all round you. The soft lighting enhances the gold decoration and there is a scent of incense in the air.

And then there is the organ, built 1705-09; I would have loved to hear a recital.

Organ and the high altar
Organ and the high altar
Organ pipes in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Organ pipes in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

There are aisles on either side of the central nave.

Side aisle in the Cathedral of Santiago
Side aisle in the Cathedral
Carved capitals and wall painting in the Cathedral
Capitals and wall painting in the Cathedral

Important doors inside the Cathedral

In the transept, the Azabacheria Door (the north door), the cord for the Botafumeiro, and above – the dome. The Plaza de Azabacheria, which gives its name to the north door, is where jet jewellery (azabache) was traditionally made.

North door from inside the Cathedral
North door from inside the Cathedral
Dome above the transept
Dome above the transept

The Pilgrim’s Door, or the Holy Door, only opens when the Feast of St James falls on a Sunday. His Feast Day is 25 July.

Portico de Glorio

Master Mateo and his workshop were responsible for the Portico de Glorio but also the stone choir of 1200 in the cathedral, taken down in 1603. A reconstruction of this beautiful work is in the Cathedral Museum. This Romanesque doorway lies behind the West Facade of the Cathedral, and restoration has just been completed. In future there will be a charge to view it.

St James (Santiago) on the Portico de Glorio
St James (Santiago) on the Portico de Glorio

Chapel of Santa Maria La Corticela

This was a 9C church which was ‘absorbed’ into the Cathedral and it is another of those extraordinarily atmospheric sites.


Cloisters of the Cathedral

The Cathedral Museum is fascinating and includes models of the cathedral, reconstruction of cloisters, and beautiful tapestries. When you visit the Museum you can also access the Cloisters, built between 1521-59, which are quietly grand. I pictured the Cloister – from the inside – it was pouring with rain! (Spanish museums usually forbid photography so I have no other photographs.)

Door into the Cloister from inside the Cathedral
Door into the Cloister from inside the Cathedral

I loved the atmosphere in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostelo and returned on my own, with the camera, more than once. This is undoubtedly the grandest cathedral I have seen in Spain. [Re-edit of an article published in November 2014]

Further information

3D representation of the Cathedral
Santiago, including the Cathedral
The Cathedral and here and here

Renovation and restoration work, and here
A detailed tour of the Cathedral of Santiago – very good!