James, the Patron Saint of Galicia

James, the Patron Saint of Galicia

Biography of St James / Priscillian and St James / Pilgrimage to Santiago / St James' Day

Galicia’s National Apostle

St James, the Patron Saint of Galicia'Saint James the Greater' is one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ and one of the world's most popular saints. Saint James, Saint Jacob or Sant Iago as he is known in the Galician language, is also the patron saint of Galicia. July 25th, St. James' Day, is Galicia’s National Day.

St. James and his brother St. John made their living as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Both apostles were among the first disciples to join Jesus. James is believed to have been martyred on AD 44 by king Herod Agrippa, grandson of king Herod the Great.

Tradition has it that after James’ death his relics were taken to Spain and laid secretly in Galicia, where they were eventually forgotten. During the 9th century AD his burial place was re-discovered and his shrine became one of the three most important Christian pilgrimage destinations in the world, together with Jerusalem and Rome.

The Life of Saint James - Biography

Very little is really known about Saint James’ life. The Bible tells us that James was a fisherman from Galilee, and that he and his brother John were among the first disciples to join Jesus Christ. As one of the Twelve disciples of Jesus, James was present at the Last Supper, witnessed the Ascension and shared in the gifts of the first Pentecost. He died in AD 44 at Jerusalem, martyred with a sword by king Herod Agrippa.

During the 7th century a small biography of the Twelve Apostles called the Breviarium Apostolorum started spreading the belief that 'James the son of the Zebedee' had been preaching the gospel in Spain. By the first quarter of the 9th century French deacon Florus of Lyon confirmed that the Holy Apostle was resting “contra mare Britannicum”, by the British sea. Tradition picked it up from there and between AD 818-843 the tomb of St. James was discovered where the city of Santiago de Compostella is located today.

Further details about Saint James' late whereabouts were given in the Historia Compostellana commissioned by Archbishop Diego Gelmirez of Galicia in the 12th century. According to the Historia, after St. James was martyred in the Holy Land his disciples carried his body to Galicia in a ship made of stone. Like St. James, many other Celtic saints such as St. Matthieu or St. Malo in Brittany navigated also across the Atlantic in stone vessels.

Priscillian and the resting place of Saint James in Galicia

Santiago Cathedral, built over a preexisting 5th century necropolis - Photo © J.P. Pouliquen conducted beneath Santiago Cathedral in 1878 and again between 1946-1959 revealed a large number of human burials aligned on an east-west orientation next to a small early Christian building dated around the 5th century AD. That confirmed that an early holy place was already attracting devotion to the very same shrine much before St. James’ cult was imported to Galicia.

The most popular Galician person in those early Christian days was Celtic bishop called Priscillian. Priscillian, who was allegedly born in the region of Santiago, mixed still his newly learnt Christian faith with traditional Celtic beliefs such as the devotion to water sources or to the stars. Priscillian also allowed women to be Church ministers on a equal foot than men.

In AD 385 Priscillian was accused of heresy and was taken to Trier, the capital of the Western Roman Empire which was at the time governed by another Galician-born Roman citizen: the charismatic general-emperor Magnus Maximus. Priscillian was defended by St. Martin of Tours, who was a relative of St Patrick's mother, but was eventually found guilty of using his magic against the emperor. Priscillian became the first Christian in history to be martyrised by other Christians. Magnus Maximus himself was also killed soon after and became the famous Macsen Wledig which is considered by many as the father of the Welsh nation.

After his execution in Trier Priscillian's disciples brought his body back to Galicia for burial, where he was reverenced as a martyr for the following centuries. Based on the archaeological evidence found beneath Santiago Cathedral, many academics and investigators believe that Priscillian was the unknown holy man buried in the early Christian shrine, and that the cult to the heretic bishop was covered-up and substituted for a more politically-correct and Roman one: Saint James.

Pilgrimage to Santiago: The St James' Way

King James III of ScotlandThe tomb of St. James was 'discovered' in Santiago in the 9th century and soon the shrine became a great international attraction. Europe wanted to believe that the remains of the Apostle were buried there. Christendom had now three great pilgrimage destinations: Jerusalem on the east, Roma in the centre, Santiago on the west.

Kings and queens, saints and bishops, dukes and counts, knights and noblemen, bourgeois and peasants, thousands of europeans pilgrimed every year to Santiago. By the 12th century, the pilgrimage to Santiago was more popular than the one to Rome or Jerusalem. Indeed, the pilgrimage was officially supported by the popes of Rome and cleverly marketed by the Galician royalty. Santiago was a vibrant, truly international city. The pilgrim guidebook "Liber Sancti Jacobi" accounted the nationality of the visitors: "Scoti, Hiri (Irish), Galli, (...) Angli, Britones, Cornubienses (Cornish)..."

Pilgrims on their way to Galicia were a common sight on the roads of medieval western Europe. They pilgrimed mainly by land through a road network that crossed France and northern Spain called "Camino Francés" or "French Way". The second most important pilgrimage route to Santiago was the "Camino Inglés" or "English Way", which was actually the Atlantic seaway that connected the Celtic nations of western Europe.

The pilgrimage to Santiago had far-reaching consequences for European civilization. Besides sharing their culture and fashions all across Europe, pilgrims also took a piece of Galicia back home with them. St. James and Galicia feature regularly in medieval literature from Iceland to Italy. Churches were built and dedicated to St. James everywhere in Europe. The scallop Shell of St. James, international symbol of the pilgrim to St James and one of the national symbols of Galicia, became a frequent feature in medieval European heraldry and guilds.

Eventually, Protestant Reformation and continuous warfare among the European nation-states caused the downfall of the pilgrimage from the 16th century. Since the late 1970's devolution, successive Galician governments have revived with great success the St. James' Way and pilgrims are flocking again to Santiago. Further recognition was achieved as the St James' Way was declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in October 1987 and the city of Santiago de Compostela was inscribed as one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites in 1993.

Saint James and Galicia's National Day

The Holy Grail, national emblem of the Kingdom of Galicia. Pilgrims traveling the 'Camino Inglés' contributed greatly to the introduction of Brythonic-Arthurian legends in GaliciaSaint James' day, July 25th, is Galicia's National Day. All special celebrations on that day are held exclusively on Santiago de Compostela, Galicia's capital city.

Revellers gather in Santiago on the evening of the 24th for a national celebration of Galician nationality and drinking culture. Those who survive the long night have a next-day public holiday packed with events such as exhibitions, music concerts, and the traditional political demonstrations. Official celebrations include the state mass at St. James Cathedral which is attended by the Galician government and by the Kings of Spain.

July 25th has been celebrated in Galicia for a very long time. St. James's feast-day on July 25th appeared as early as AD 865 in the Martyrology book of St. Germain. In 1120 famous Archbishop of Galicia Diego Gelmirez waited until St. James's day to announce the papal privileges which gave Santiago religious authority over all western Spanish churches.

Yet, despite such a long and strong tradition, Galicians haven’t taken any steps so far to export St. James’ Day as a global celebration of all things Galician. Considering the widespread number of Galician emigrant societies in the Americas and in Europe, the Gallegans should have it easy to start-up a world class festivity for those many millions of people of Galician ancestry. Perhaps one day we may see in Buenos Aires a St. James' day dedicated to celebrating Galician traditions and culture, with parades, bagpipe music and traditional dances, as the Irish already do with their St. Patrick or the Scots do with their Tartan Day, Burns' Night and St. Andrews.

Jean Pouliquen, May 2005

Do you want to know more about Saint James?

» The City of Santiago de Compostela
Galicia's capital city Santiago de Compostela is a World Heritage City developed around the medieval pilgrimage to St. James Cathedral.

» Xacobeo - The Way of St James
The Way of St James' official website.

» The Confraternity of Saint James
The Confraternity of Saint James was established by a group of people who had made the pilgrimage and wanted "to give something back" by giving help and advice to new generations of pilgrims.

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