The Idler: A Pilgrimage Between Two Worlds

And how should I know your true love?” sings a plaintive Ophelia in Hamlet. “O, by his cockle hat and staff, and by his sandals shoone.”

The cockle hat, a broad felt variety with brim upturned to reveal a scallop shell, was the common headgear of medieval pilgrims making their way through the mountain fastness of northern Galicia in Spain to Compostella and the church and shrine of Santiago (Saint James). This pilgrimage route—the Way of Saint James, well known to Shakespeare and Elizabethan Christians—was the third most heavily trafficked path of its kind, after the routes to Jerusalem and Rome. This same route, in some respects little changed from the time of Cervantes, has been captured in a stunning travelogue of black and white photographs by Joan Meyers (Santiago: Saint of Two Worlds, University of New Mexico Press, $25 in paper). Additional photographs record the cult of Saint James as it spread beyond continental Europe to reach Haiti, the southwestern United States, and the southernmost tip of South America. Thus this volume evokes a quincentennial mood as the Old World and the New World are juxtaposed.

As a complement to the photographs, three essays on Saint James and the Camino de Santiago greatly enrich the volume; the first is by Marc Simmons, an historian; the second by Donna Pierce, a curator and art historian; and the third by Meyers herself. The essay by Joan Meyers is also a diary of impressions that she recorded while traveling the original route—dryshod (thanks to a car)—with her large view camera and film rolls.

Meyers’s commentary is a confessio of sorts. She notes, “I too am a pilgrim. I feel it. I chase a myth. I go in search of answers for which I have only hazily formulated questions.” At journey’s end, six weeks later, she speaks of “an invisible change that has occurred… it has been the trip itself not the answers to questions that has been important to me.” There remains, for her, a very contemporary cloud of unknowing regarding the religious import of the journey. She stands, therefore, as an affectionate, if somewhat dispassionate, chronicler of the theological realities which undergird the subject of religious pilgrimage. Yet her modern-day ambivalence has the benefit of allowing the photographs to speak for themselves, and they are hardly silent. Whether it is a remarkably well preserved apse of a Romanesque church in Villafranca or the panorama of the high mountains shot from the primitive village of Penalba, the photographs have a way of inducing the stones to speak out.

Saint James, here, refers to the son of Zebedee, who along with his brother John was called by Jesus to be an apostle. The two brothers were favorites of the Master and were dubbed by him Boanerges or “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). Yet how did James come to be buried in the remote uplands of Galicia? And why would the presence of a crypt, believed to contain his mortal remains, so inspire an entire nation, indeed Christian Europe itself, leaving his imprint firmly established even in Spain’s far-flung colonies?

Historian Marc Simmons acknowledges the difficulty of proving the validity of the Apostle James’s evangelizing mission to Spain or the subsequent removal of his body from Jerusalem, via a fantastical Mediterranean voyage, to Spain, to be interred at a site where the splendid Cathedral Santiago de Compostella now stands. Still, he adds that “the tradition is not implausible that James Boanerges chose, or was allotted distant Spain as his missionary field.” At any rate, the dry bones of historical research ought not to distract us from the rich and variegated strands of legend which surround Saint James.

According to the tale, James landed on the coast of Andalusia about A.D. 38 and began a tour of the peninsula. Although the rustic Galicians were resistant to conversion, things went better with the residents of the city of Zaragosa when the Virgin Mary appeared, standing on a marble pillar near the Rio Ebro. Shortly after the miraculous apparition, James inexplicably returned to Jerusalem, where he was beheaded by King Herod and thus became the first apostle to undergo martyrdom.

Two disciples brought his remains back to Spain in a vessel made of marble with two angels navigating the Mediterranean waves. An abandoned crypt was found, in the remotest part of the western province of Galicia. The corpse of the Apostle lay all but forgotten until in 813 King Alfonso II, heeding the testimony of a religious hermit, rediscovered the tomb of Saint James. A church was built over the relics and became, from that time forward, a pilgrimage center.

The cult of Saint James received perhaps its most important impetus during the period of the Reconquista, as Spain sought to shake off the domination of her Moorish overlords. At the Battle of Clavijo in 844, King Romero’s troops were inspired by the appearance of Saint James the Warrior, mounted on a white charger, carrying a white banner with a red cross, and slaying Moors with his sword.

The Spanish Knights were aided not only by the supernatural manifestation of Saint James, but by their natural repugnance for the emir Abd-al-Rahman II, who had been demanding an annual tribute of one hundred virgins. To her credit, art historian Donna Pierce finds a felicitous nineteenth-century versicle which commemorates the battle:

The King called God to witness, that came there weal or woe,

Thenceforth no maiden tribute from out Castile should go.

“At least I will do battle on God Our Savior’s foe,

And die beneath my banner before I see it so.”

Yet, Saint James’s association as a warrior was tempered by his role as a pilgrim. Medieval iconography frequently represented him with staff and pilgrim’s hat, embarked on his pastoral journey through Spain. It was in his capacity as pilgrim that St. James fired so many persons, saints and nobility included, to brave the Pyrenees and cross the northern reaches of Spain to Compostella. The widow of Henry V of England, William of Aquitaine, Louis VII of France, Saint Dominic, Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Isabella of Portugal made the journey. Joan Meyers confides that, in her case, it was not Saint James Matamoros (moor slayer) that appealed, but Saint James as pilgrim, “trudging the hot, open plains, rocky passes and misty hills of northern Spain.”

The rocky passes and misty hills remain, beautiful in their stark and jagged simplicity. So also remain the foundations of many Romanesque churches, emerging from the very rocks of the Galician hillsides. Those who will never have the opportunity to travel the Camino de Santiago and see these things firsthand will, nevertheless, experience an immediacy of contact, thanks to the photographs in this book. And for those who imagine themselves too immersed in the secular order, too long separated from the saint and the apostle memorialized in these pages, you may be more connected than you think. As close as that corner bistro serving—Coquilles Saint Jacques.

James A. Sullivan is editor of Lay Witness, a monthly publication of Catholics United for the Faith.


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