Who is Santiago?
You probably already know that ‘Santiago’ is Spanish for ‘Saint James’, and that Saint James was one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus. No doubt you have also heard the legend that his remains are kept in the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. For many people this is now where they reach the limits of their knowledge! So what is so great about this person that everyone is walking so far to see?
In the Bible
Saint James was one of the 12 Apostles chosen by Christ, and the brother of John the Apostle. They were from a Jewish family. His father was a fisherman, but would have been reasonably well off since he also hired other men to work for him.
He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat mending their nets. Then he called them. So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him (Mark 1:19-20).
Saint James had a special place among the Apostles since he was chosen by Jesus, along with Saint Peter and his brother John, to bare witness to His Transfiguration on a mountain. The miracle of the Transfiguration is regarded by many biblical scholars as perhaps the greatest miracle and a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus. Apparently the brothers had a fiery temper, Jesus called them the ‘sons of thunder’.
Eleven years after the death of Christ, Saint James was martyred for his Christian beliefs in Jerusalem. His is the only execution of an Apostle mentioned in the New Testament. It is said (colloquially, not in the Bible) that his accuser was so moved by his strength of faith and conviction in the trial, that they publicly converted to Christianity and were martyred alongside him.
About that time King Herod laid hands upon some members of the church to harm them. He had James, the brother of John, killed by the sword, and when he saw that this was pleasing to the Jews he proceeded to arrest Peter also (Acts 12:1-3a).
What Happened Next?
According to local tradition Santiago had been preaching in Iberia – modern Spain and Portugal – before his death. It is said that Mary appeared to him on a pillar, encouraging him in his evangelisation of the faith. Following his execution, his remains found made their way through miraculous circumstances to the coast of Galicia, from where his followers took them to Compostela.
Around the start of the 9th Century the relics of Saint James were rediscovered and a shrine created in Compostela. The shrine became hugely popular very quickly, and pilgrims flocked on foot, horseback or boat from all around the Christian world.
It was later said that Saint James miraculously appeared in the 9th Century battle of Clavijo against the Muslim moors. The legend goes that he suddenly appeared and lead an outnumbered Christian army to victory. It is clear that this battle was fictitious, and it was most likely a fraud to get increased funds for the Cathedral or war propaganda.
The Saint Today
Santiago is a patron Saint of modern day Spain and Portugal. There remains doubt over whether the relics at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela are in fact the authentic remains of Saint James. However what really matters to the tens of thousands of pilgrims walking towards the Cathedral each year is the spirit of pilgrimage itself, and a common goal steeped in history.