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A Grand Route of Christendom : Old Spanish Pilgrimage Survives

May 04, 1985|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

Most visitors, whether classified as pilgrims or tourists, come to see the medieval cathedral that has been built over the Romanesque church that, in turn, was built over what is regarded as James' tomb. A portico known as the Door of Glory, with magnificent sculptures by a 12th-Century artist known as the Master Mateo, leads down the nave. The Mateo sculptures are probably the only artistic work in Santiago that match some of the great art of Spanish cities like Toledo and Granada.

In a traditional ritual, visitors pass behind the ornate altar and either rest their hand gently on the jeweled, metal mantle of the 13th-Century statue of St. James or kiss it.

For many centuries, there was a good deal of controversy over the tomb of St. James. Many Spaniards, especially those in Catalonia, doubted the claims of the priests in Compostela. But prominent nobles and clergymen endorsed the legend by taking pilgrimages themselves. The controversy came to an end, for all practical purposes, when Pope Urbano VII consecrated St. James as the only patron saint of Spain.

By then, the great waves of pilgrimage were beginning to diminish. In 1589, Sir Francis Drake threatened to attack the city, prompting priests to hide the bones of James. Drake did not attack, but the bones remained hidden. In 1681, King Louis XIV of France decreed that no Frenchman could make the trip because the road to Santiago had become lined with so many thieves, pickpockets and robber priests. The idea of pilgrimage was dying out.

For 300 years, the remains of James seemed lost. But priests announced their rediscovery of his grave in 1879. The Vatican authenticated the discovery and decreed that the pilgrimages begin again. Not too many pilgrims have taken the way to Santiago de Compostela since then. But there have been enough to add romance to an old, old story.

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