There was an unpleasant surprise waiting for me at the end of the Camino de Santiago (the Way of Saint James). Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised; after all, it’s a story that has been on repeat in the history of the Christian church.
My wife and I recently walked a portion of the Camino de Santiago with some friends. The Camino was delightful, and so was the company. The Camino extends across the north of Spain from its beginning in France to the city of Santiago, where stands the Cathedral of Saint James (Santiago), the endpoint of the Camino. We walked the last 75 miles, passing through the region of northwest Spain known as Galicia. It is beautiful country: rolling hills of lush fields and forests; farms with their characteristic Galician granaries; small villages centered around lovely Romanesque churches; ample cafes offering sandwiches and great coffee. It was May and flowers were blooming—azaleas, roses, hydrangeas, and camellias.
The Camino dates back over a millennium. We trod the trails that pilgrims have used for centuries as they made their way to the shrine of Saint James. Traditionally pilgrims walked to Santiago de Compostela to seek an answer to prayer, to show repentance, or simply to prove their piety, believing that the path to the tomb of Sant James would become a path to God himself. Not so for us. Our purpose for walking was not pilgrimage (none of us is Roman Catholic), but rather to see the country and experience the ancient route. Indeed walking is a delightful way to see a country: the countryside unfolds slowly, away from busy highways, tourist buses, and city noise.
The city of Santiago de Compostela is charming, a medieval city that has managed to exclude franchise food from the city center—not a Starbucks or McDonalds to be found! The Cathedral itself is vast and impressive. Although much of it was refashioned in Baroque style, the old Romanesque Portico of Glory is breath-taking. What’s not to like?
I was well aware that the Cathedral of St. James contained the purported bones of St. James the Great (i.e. James the son of Zebedee, a member of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples). The Bible tells us in the book of Acts (Acts 12:2) that James was beheaded by Herod in Jerusalem around the year 44 AD. Medieval Spanish legends build an elaborate story around these bare historical facts. James, at least so says the local legend, preached in Spain after the resurrection of Jesus, then returned to Jerusalem in time to be beheaded by Herod as described in the book of Acts. Details are lacking, but somehow his body ended up in the northwest corner of Spain, about as far from Jerusalem as it’s possible to find oneself in Spain. A Galician peasant named Pelagius, following a field of stars (Compostela in the local language), supposedly came upon the tomb containing the bones of St. James (presumably minus the head, which is said to be buried in Jerusalem) in the year 814 AD. The local bishop, Theodemir, verified that the tomb was indeed that of St. James, and thus it was so. A church was built on the site, and a tradition grew of pilgrimage to the shrine.
So far this sounds like a typical medieval story of religious veneration, one that brought prominence (and wealth) to the cathedral built at the site. Harmless enough, perhaps. But this brings me to the unpleasant surprise. The supposed discovery of the bones of St. James occurred in the context of efforts by King Alfonso II of Asturias to consolidate control over Galicia and stave off Arabs and Moors. This was the period of the Reconquista, the series of military campaigns fought by (supposedly) Christian kingdoms to reconquer regions of the Iberian Peninsula that were under Muslim rule. St. James was thus reborn in medieval Spanish legend as St. James Matamoros, which translates as “St. James the moor-slayer.”
St. James Matamoros is prominent in the artwork of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, inside as well as outside. Both the façade and the altar portray St. James in three ways: St. James the Apostle (with a halo), St. James the pilgrim (with a pilgrim’s staff), and St. James Matamoros, bearing a cross-shaped sword. This third version of St. James is said to have appeared on horseback during the Battle of Clavijo, bearing his sword to sway the battle in favor of the Christian army. In fact, in the cathedral chapel is a mural depicting St. James with his sword and a pile of dead bodies lying at his feet, discretely hidden behind pots of flowers.
It is hard not to see the discovery of the bones of St. James as a cynical ploy to invest a battle for territory with religious significance, all the while enlarging the coffers of the local bishop. The effort was so successful that St. James became the patron saint of Spain.
So, behind the history of devotion and pilgrimage one finds yet another iteration of the old temptation to exploit Christian symbols for purposes of conquest. It’s a story that echoes the legend of Constantine, the Roman emperor who saw a cross in the sky inscribed with the words “In this sign conquer.” Rather than following the camino—the way—taught by Jesus, this tradition follows the way of military force, spruced up with a veneer of Christian devotion, urging armies to fight in the name of Jesus, the one whom we call “prince of peace,” the one who preached love for enemies and nonresistance of the evil one. Those bones of St. James must have been turning in their silver reliquary.