The altars of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela were dedicated to those saints whose shrines lay along the pilgrimage roads. The emergence of the pilgrimage to Compostela in the eleventh century combining with the Great Schism which separated the Orthodox and the Catholic church in 1054 led to a redrawing of the sacred topography of the Christian world.
With Rome now in the centre and Jerusalem under an Orthodox patriarchate, the West was henceforth defined by the shrine of the Apostle James at Compostela.
The main altar at the cathedral was surrounded by eleven chapels which radiated around the tomb along the transepts and ambulatory. These formed a symbolic geography of the pilgrimage road itself by recalling some of the major stations along the way. The two chapels of the north transept were dedicated to Saint Nicholas and The Holy Cross, those of the southern transept, Saints Martin and John the Baptist.
Around the ambulatory were chapels dedicated to Sainte Foy, Saint John the Evangelist, the Holy Saviour, Saint Peter and Saint Andrew. Behind the main altar was an oratory of Mary Magdalene and in an upper chamber above the chevet there was a chapel dedicated to Saint Michael.
This deployment of chapels was a microcosm of the Compostelan pilgrimage. The most prominent saintly shrines of the road were hereby recalled, Saint John the Baptist at Angèly near Saintes, Sainte Foy of Conques in the southern Auvergne, Saint Martin of Tours on the Loire, Saint Peter of Rome and at Bari, Saint Nicholas.
The central position of the saint of Vézelay, Mary Magdalene was consonant with her function as Apostle to the Apostles and the positioning of her chapel pointedly alluding to the similar plan at the church of the Holy Sepulchre
The upper chapel dedicated to Saint Michael referred similarly, to the sanctuaries of the Archangel on the pilgrimage road on elevated sites of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe at the Puy-en-Velay, Monte Gargano and the Mont Saint Michel.
Although the Italian shrines are not included in the Pilgrim’s Guide which limits itself to the French routes, they are mentioned repeatedly elsewhere in the Jacobus. Book One makes reference to the Italian stations along the Via Francigena to Rome and the Via Traiana which led from Rome to Bari and thence by ship to Jerusalem.
More than any other saintly shrine of western Europe, Santiago de Compostela, being on the periphery, depended on the very notion of pilgrimage. When the Jacobus defined the road in terms of the saintly remains along the way, it was implicitly posing a challenge to the great sanctuaries of Christendom. The tombs of Saint Trophimus at Arles, or Saint Saturninus at Toulouse, were ultimately mere stations on the road to the ultimate goal.
This idea was perfectly realised by the layout of the chapels at Compostela, surrounding as they did the main altar of Saint James situated above his tomb.
Biblio: Santiago de Compostela in the time of Diego Gelmirez, Barbara Abou-El-Haj, Gesta XXXVI/2 1997
Reading Romanesque Sculpture: The Iconography and Reception of the South Portal Sculpture at Santiago de Compostela, Karen Rose Mathews, Gesta XXXIX/1 2000
The Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: A Reassessment, Christabel Watson, BAR International Series 1979-2009
The Codex Calixtinus as an Art-Historical Source, S Moralejo in John Williams / Alison Stones The Codex Calixtinus and the Shrine of St. James 1992
Manuel Castiñeiras: Didacus Gelmirez, Patron of the arts. Compostela’s long journey: From the periphery to the centre of Romanesque art. Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010.
Topographie Sacrée, Liturgie Pascale et Reliques dans les grands centres de pèlerinage: Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, Saint-Isidore-de-Léon et Saint-Étienne-de-Ribas-de-Sil, Manuel Antonio Castiñeiras González, Les Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa, XXXIV, 2003
The Basilica in Compostela and the way of Saint James, John Williams, Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010.