A GUIDEPOST REPRINT: “SANTIAGO — Apostle, Saint & Moor-Killer,” 25 July 1969

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St James the Apostle in his role as Santiago Matamoros the Moor-killer





by Ester King
 25 July 1969

GUIDEPOST cover, 25 July 1969



On the 25th of July, Spain celebrated the day dedicated to Santiago, the Patron Saint of Spain, the inspirer of her Christian armies in their centuries-old struggle to oust the Moorish invaders, and the apostle whose venerated remains made Santiago de Compostela in Galicia the goal of millions of pilgrims.

According to the legend, Santiago came to Spain in the second quarter of the first century A.D. to preach the new gospel of Christianity to Hispania, one of the most prosperous provinces of the Roman Empire. The trip to Spain was not difficult. Numerous ships from the Near East came to the farthest western coast in Galicia, the end of the world at the time, to pick up products such as wool for which Spain was famous, tin and gold. In a land of polytheism, full of Greco-Roman myths mixed with Celtic legends of the original settlers that still exist in the Galicia of the peasants today, Santiago brought the novelty of an only God, the belief in immortality, a gospel that promised untold blessings to those that lived according to its tenets.

The Pentecost, an El Greco painting c. 1600 depicting the tongues of fire and a dove representing the Holy Spirit at Pentecost when the Spirit of God descended upon the Apostles

Communication with the natives presented no problem for Santiago, like the other apostles, had been granted the gift of tongues at Pentecost. . .

Santiago and his companions traveled cross-country through Castile to the eastern coast. In Zaragoza, then a rich, prosperous city, according to a record kept in the archives of the cathedral, a host of singing angels brought the Virgin Mary to the banks of the Ebro River and deposited her on a pillar from which she spoke to Santiago.

“I wish you to build me a temple on this spot,” she said, “which will live to the end of time, and never lack for worshippers.”

Santiago built a shrine of sticks and mud and that was the first place of worship dedicated to Mary in the world.

The basilica of Zaragoza today is a huge mass of architecture. . .

Soon after the appearance of the Virgin before Santiago. . . he left for Palestine where he suffered martyrdom. His friends, continuing the legend, brought his body to be buried in his beloved Spain. A painting in the Prado Museum, by an anonymous artist, shows the body of the apostle prone upon a fisherman’s boat, ready to travel towards Galicia which first heard his message.

Here, tradition says, they met a woman called Lupa who lived in a Celtic castle, possessed of immense wealth and interested in the occult arts, and probably anxious to add a new belief to her knowledge. . . She offered a site for the burial and some of her animals to draw the cart. The bulls that inhabited her woods were completely wild, but when the people brought the cart with the coffin, the bulls knelt and willingly took the yoke, whereupon Lupa became a convert. This part of the legend is reproduced in the altarpieces of several cathedrals and was added to the songs of minstrels in the plazas and courts.

A mausoleum was built on the spot with a funerary plaque and an altar. During the successive invasions of Vandals and Saracens the tomb of the Apostle was lost.

Almost eight hundred years later, a hermit praying in solitude, saw lights dancing over a mount, and heard a choir of angels singing over the place. He took this for a portent, called the bishop and started digging until they found a funerary marble urn which they thought contained the remains of the Apostle. . .

King Alfonso II communicated the discovery to the Pope and soon it became the most important news in the Christian world. The tomb of the Apostle had been discovered in Galicia and the place was called Compostela (Field of Stars).

St. Elizabeth, Queen of Portugal, on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela between 1530 and 1534

. . .The famous pilgrimages to the newly-found shrine started. Rome and Palestine now had a competitor. Many indulgences were gained by visiting Santiago’s tomb and nothing could stop the crowd. Over the tomb Alfonso II built a temple and a monastery around which the city of Santiago de Compostela began to grow.

In 997 Almanzor, the famous Moorish chieftain, razed the city but he respected the tomb saying that Jesús and Mohammed had been friends and he would not desecrate the remains of a friend of the Prophet. Not long after, reconstruction was underway and the pilgrimages continued.

All along the route to Compostela monasteries, hospitals and inns went up to take care of the pilgrims’ needs. The famous Military Order of Santiago was organized to protect the pilgrims from the bandits and highwaymen who infested the roads. . .The pilgrims wore a special robe of brown wool, sandals, a rain hat, and carried a purse, a staff, a gourd for water and a pilgrim shell. They followed the Milky Way, called El Camino de Santiago, trudging the long difficult road singing hymns which have been collected and published under the title of “The Pilgrims’ Songbook”.

In 1078 construction was begun on the church which was to be the romanesque basilica of Santiago, a nucleus of the cathedral that exists today. Monarchs over the centuries continued adding to it. . . with all the intervening styles of gothic and plateresque. It continued to grow until the XVIII century. . .

Silver reliquary in the crypt of the Cathedral of Santiago Compostela said to contain the relics of Santiago Apostol and his disciples, Saints Theodorus and Athanasius, made and put in place in 1886

The central point of interest in the cathedral is the silver sepulcher in a small crypt under the main chapel where among the silver and gold baroque ornaments the stone image of Santiago stands. The humble fisherman of Galilee has become in Spain the glorious symbol of the victory of a people often overrun by conquerors but always defeating its enemies with the aid of the champion of Christianity, Santiago the Apostle and Saint.

Now the legend changes and Santiago appears in a new role, a knight errant and defender of the faith. He becomes a formidable warrior who rides in the clouds over the heads of the Spanish armies, dressed in resplendent armor, mounted on a fiery white charger, and brandishing a double-edged sword, killing Moors right and left (as his title Matamoros implies) and creating panic in the enemy forces. After so many repeated victories [the Spanish armies] under the advocation of the Saint feel they cannot lose and become the invincible hosts that petrified the enemy for centuries, in Spain and in the [New World].

Santiago appeared thus at the famous battle of Clavijo in 842. The Asturian King Mauregato having lost a battle against the Moors was forced to pay a tribute of one hundred maidens for the harem of the Caliph of Córdoba. This tribute continued to be paid for years till King Ramiro I refused to comply. The matter was to be settled on the battlefield. The Spaniards lost and they retreated to Mt. Clavijo to escape the enemy. During the night while the [Ramiro] slept, he saw the Apostle in his dreams, who offered to lead him to victory the following day. As the Christians attacked, they saw the Apostle in the clouds riding his white horse and waving his banner.

It is said that the enemy losses totaled some 70,000 men fallen on the battlefield and many more who died in the retreat.

Ever since, as the Spaniards went forth to battle, they shouted the war cry [Santiago,  cierra España], an invocation to the Saint to boost the morale of their frightened troops.

Battle of Salado, 1340: legend has it that the appearance of Santiago Matamoros made it possible for the Christian troops of Kings Alfonso XI of Castile and Alfonso IV of Portugal to smash the armies of the King of Granada and the Marinid Sultanate in parts of Northern Africa and southern Spain

At the famous battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, Santiago again won a decisive victory. His appearance led to another military triumph at El Salado in 1340.

The tribute of the hundred maidens has inspired many masterpieces in Spain and abroad. The saint on horseback appears surrounded by worshipping maidens. It was also a popular theme on the stage, where the crowds thrilled to rhymed verses. It was as popular on the stage as it had been on the battlefield. Ballads were sung in the palaces and town squares, and even Cervantes quotes it in one of [Don Quixote’s] adventures.

The Spaniards took the Santiago legend wherever they went. . . Cortes’ march on Moctezuma, with a small army, was assaulted by an immense army of Indians. The invocation, “Santiago, go after them” gave the Spaniards the victory.

Francisco Pizarro with only forty horsemen and sixty infantrymen crossed the Andes, took the city where the Inca ruled supreme and added a rich new province to the Spanish empire.

There is Santiago city in every Latin American country, where the cult of the Saint has not diminished with their independence from Spain.

The Santiago legend survived after Spanish power became a thing of the past, and continues today to appeal to the imagination. The Santiago motif still appears in the arts, in tapestries, embroideries, paintings and especially in figures carved in jet, the semi-precious stone of Galicia. And the shell, the vieira of Galicia, continues to be used as decorative motif, the famous shell which some interpret as a symbol of eternity, from ancient times when Venus rose from the sea, her feet resting on a shell.



Featured image: Painting of El Apóstol Santiago a Caballo also titled  Santiago Matamoros by Francisco Camilo, painted in 1649, PD
Reliquary/Bjorn Christian Torrisen, CC BY-SA4.0 via Wikipedia
St Elizabeth/painting by Antonio de Holanda 1480 – 1571. Photo of painting from British Library. PD via Wikimedia Commons
Battle of Salado, 17th-century painting, painter unknown. Photographer/source: National Geographic. PD via Wikimedia Commons
El Greco’s The Pentecost, PD via Wikimedia Commons