In this revered basilica, as it is reported, in his honour rests the venerated body of the Blessed James. It is enclosed in a marble casket placed in a most precious vaulted tomb. His body is immovable.

The Pilgrim’s Guide

 

Twelve hundred years ago on the westernmost margin of the European continent an ancient mausoleum was found. One of the skeletons inside the stone tomb was identified as Christ’s apostle James. The burial place was Compostela and in time it was to become the goal of the supreme pilgrimage of medieval Europe.

As the only Apostolic tomb in medieval western Europe, the lustre of Compostela was very great. There was buried one of Christ’s closest disciples, James who, together with his brother John and Peter, were the three disciples chosen to witness the theophanic vision of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. James was the first Apostle to suffer martyrdom.

The mausoleum was discovered in a field in the isolated northern Spanish Christian kingdom of Asturias. Legend had it that the site was first discovered by a shepherd who had observed a shooting star fall towards earth. Investigating the site of the star’s landing, the shepherd found a site of burial.

Inside the mausoleum he found a large number of stone tombs aligned in an east west position. The edifice was divided in two with the western end appearing to be designed as an atrium or entrance hall to the more substantial eastern half. This latter was decorated with mosaic tiles and marble and contained an impressive sarcophagus. Here, apparently was the burial place and shrine of a Christian holy man whose disciples were also buried alongside.

Theodemir, the local bishop was called to examine the new discovery and very quickly pronounced it to be the tomb and the relics of the Apostle Saint James. Alfonso II, king of Asturias quickly arranged for a small church to built over the site and on his death in 842, bishop Theodemir was also buried there.

According to the New Testament, Jesus’ disciple James had been executed on the orders of King Herod Agrippa in the year 44 AD. In order to explain the seemingly contradictory facts of his death in Palestine and his burial in Spain, a legend was composed. James had fulfilled his Apostolic Mission by evangelising Spain and then had returned home to Palestine. After his death, his disciples sailed wuth his body to Galicia on a raft of stone borne by a miraculous wind and buried him on Spanish soil.

The site was called Compostela, meaning “little burial place” and very quickly a cult of veneration was established there which was soon known beyond the Pyrenees.

When, in 865 the monk Usuard of Saint-Germain-des-Près composed his Martyrologium, listing the lives of the martyrs, he was already aware of the cult at Compostela. Of Saint James he wrote: “His most holy remains were translated from Jerusalem to Spain and deposited in its uttermost region, they are revered with the most devout veneration by the people of those parts”.

A succession of increasingly larger churches were built over the tomb as the cult acquired greater status and the bishop’s see was transferred there. The process culminated in the construction of the Romanesque pilgrimage church under the sponsorship of emperor of León-Castile, Alfonso VI in the 1080’s. In the middle of the next century the Jacobus, a text devoted to the cult of the Apostle was compiled.

The text declaimed that, “At this place the barbarous and civilised peoples of all the regions of the world arrive. Some go with bare feet, some without their own goods, some bound in irons for the sake of penitence. Some bring iron or lead in their hands for work on the Apostle’s basilica. This is a chosen race”