Noel gave us a definition of pilgrimages which comprised a journey to a shrine for penance and by doing so penitents had an assured fast track to heaven.
The Crusaders, who were at that time in the South of France, saw the sign of a scallop shell pointing to North West. The scallop shell is on all signs and crossroads directing the way to the destination i.e. Santiago de Compostella.
The name Santiago is from Sant (saint) and Iago (James) Compostella is from Compo (field) and stella (stars) i.e. a field full of stars.
James was one of the twelve disciples. He travelled to Northern Spain to spread the gospel and subsequently returned to Jerusalem. He was then beheaded by Herod in 44 A.D. His body and head were transported back to Northern Spain by his followers and buried. In 813 A.D. a hermit had a vision of stars guiding him to a burial site containing a marble sarcophagus containing remains. Bishop Teodomiro declared that they were the remains of St. James. He declared it a holy site and a cathedral was built there in the name of St. James, patron saint of all Spain.
Pilgrims were attracted to the cathedral and so were the Muslim Moors who destroyed large parts of Santiago. The Muslims were driven out and the statue of St. James the Moor slayer was erected. A new chapel was built in 1075 and finished in 1211. Mass was said every day.
Pilgrims came from all over Europe including the British and, because of the treacherous route, they banded together and travelled in groups. When they arrived at the cathedral they confessed to the priest and were given a certificate and a scallop shell which had a red sword painted on it.
By 1140 there were four different routes from various European starting points, each route marked with scallop shells.
It was prestigious for a cathedral to have the relic of a saint (it brought prosperity to the city by the number of pilgrims). In 1589 Sir Francis Drake tried to steal the remains of St. James to bring them to England. The bishop hid the remains so he didn’t succeed. It was not unusual for this to happen – St. Mark’s remains were in Alexandria and Venice needed something to give it prominence so the remains of St. Mark were stolen and transported to Venice in a barrel of pork! Venice is thus world famous for its connection to St. Mark.
In 1400 an incense burner was installed in the cathedral. It was made of silver weighing 200 lbs. In 1500 they attached a device for swinging it, thus began the daily routine of swinging the burner above the heads of the pilgrims. This served as an air freshener as many of the pilgrims had not had the benefit of a good wash for months.
St. James’ relics, hidden for 300 years since the failed attempt by Drake to steal them, were found and placed in a silver casket behind the altar.
A few miles west of Santiago is the coast – Cape Finistere. Brian Sewell, the art critic, completed his pilgrimage and then travelled to the coast, burnt his dirty, smelly clothes and walked naked into the sea.
The 500,000 pilgrims a year are now accommodated in hostels along the route and in 1982 Pope John Paul visited, and it was declared a World Heritage Site in 1985.