Visiting the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
The Camino de Santiago ends in the Plaza del Obradoiro, where the imposing Cathedral of Santiago stands, of Romanesque origin. In this article, we want to tell you all the places and relics that you can see within the majestic Cathedral of Santiago.
The temple has a great historical value. Not only to house the remains of Santiago the Apostle, but also for its immense architectural richness.
It combines styles such as Baroque, Gothic, Neoclassical, Plateresque or Romanesque. So it is important to know what to see in the Cathedral of Santiago before arriving. But let’s start at the beginning!
A Cathedral made up of history, treasure and stone
To understand the importance and the charm of the Cathedral of Santiago, it is necessary to go back to the legend that gives origin to its construction. We refer to the legend of Santiago the Elder.
The origin of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
The story begins in the 9th century. In those days, Pelayo, a Compostela hermit, was resting in his home, when heavenly lights caught his attention. According to legend, the lights began to call from the depths of the forest.
Pelayo shared his experience with the Bishop of the area at the time, called Teodomiro. Both men decided to investigate the matter further and that’s how they encountered the remains of Santiago the Apostle.
The documentation of the time does not just confirm or deny this legend. But what is certain is that King Alfonso II had to build a basilica, where the remains were found. If you want to know more about what motivated the monarch to make this decision, don’t forget to check our article on the origins of pilgrimage to Santiago.
The bells that travelled 1000 kilometres
The pilgrims soon embarked on the adventure to visit the tomb of Santiago the Apostle. At once, the small basilica was insufficient to accommodate so many devotees, so another more modern temple was built in 829.
Shortly thereafter, in 899, this temple was replaced by a Romanesque church. In 997, the temple was devastated by flames, during the conquest of the Muslims. The remains of the apostle were saved, as well as the bells, which were taken as loot to Córdoba.
The modern-day Cathedral of Santiago
Finally, in 1075, a new Romanic cathedral was erected to honour Santiago the Apostle in the same place. However, its construction took place at a slow pace on several occasions, so it was not until the year 1211 that the consecration of the church was celebrated.
That is the temple that we can see today. Its construction was completed following the design of the Church of Saint Sernin of Toulouse. The original temple was basically made of stone.
Over the centuries the cathedral has undergone many renovations, although it retains much of its medieval style. In the Renaissance, for example, the cloister and its annexed spaces were added. In the Baroque, important renovations were made, such as the main chapel or the façade of the Plaza del Obradoiro, among others. Neoclassicism has left its mark with the Azabachería façade.
What to see on the exterior of the Cathedral of Santiago
After enjoying the emotional moments that you live in the Plaza del Obradoiro at the end of the Camino de Santiago, it is time to raise your eyes. In the eyes of pilgrims, the Cathedral of Santiago rises up. A silent witness who has seen thousands of hugs and tears, laden with sweat.
You don’t need to know anything about architecture to enjoy its imposing beauty. However, in order not to miss the detail of this impressive architectural work, here we provide you with information on each of the façades of the Cathedral of Santiago.
The façades of Obradoiro and the Pórtico de la Gloria
The façade of the Obradoiro and the Portico de la Gloria are the first places that all pilgrims know, after completing the Camino de Santiago. All pilgrim’s routes conclude there.
From the medieval construction of the Obradoiro façade, located on the western side, there are only a few drawings. In 1738 the old façade was demolished, which was very deteriorated, and the current one was built.
The reconstruction conferred his present Baroque appearance. We should highlight its rich decor and its large spans. Between this and the Portico de la Gloria is a covered vestibule.
The Portico de la Gloria was built after the primitive temple. Its construction began in 1168 and ended in 1188.
This part of the cathedral is considered one of the main Romanesque works in Spain. The portico is made up of three half-point arches. Each one corresponds to one of the naves of the temple.
The iconography of these arches represents various scenes of the apocalypse so that they serve as an illustration to the pilgrims who visited the cathedral. In the tympanum of the central arch, it is represented by a majestic Christ and crucifixion. A staging of the Final judgement is placed in the right arch. On the left, old testament scenes are appreciated.
The Azabachería façade
The Azabacheria façade is on the north face of the Cathedral of Santiago. The one located in the Plaza de la Inmaculada.
This façade was rebuilt in 1758 following a fire. The present façade combines Baroque and Neoclassical styles.
Some of the works of the previous medieval façade, known as the Façade of Paradise, were installed on the façade of the silversmiths. Others are in the Cathedral Museum.
La fachada de las Platerías
The façade of Las Platerias is located on the south side of the transept. This is the only Romanesque façade that is preserved.
It has hardly undergone changes to its original structure, except the incorporation, on its sides, of the clock tower and the façade of El Tesoro. Highlighted is the wide succession of reliefs, which, given their diversity of styles, suggest the participation of several authors.
The façade of la Quintana
Finally, the façade that faces the Plaza Quintana, is located on the east face of the cathedral. On this side of the temple shows the presence of two doors. Puerta Real, in Baroque style; and Puerta del Perdon, or Holy Gate, on which you can see the image of Santiago.
What to see in the interior of the Cathedral of Santiago
Once you have admired the exterior wonders that make up the Cathedral of Santiago, it will be time to see its interior. An exciting artistic, historical and patrimonial journey, full of fascinating relics.
The walk through its Latin cross plant and its three naves is a mandatory visit for all pilgrims. The interior of the basilica has a wooden chancel and a stone chancel; And with two organs, located in the central nave.
In the transverse nave, you can see the Gothic-style dome. It helps to illuminate and ventilate the temple.
Also noteworthy is the Ambulatory, located near the main chapel. This is made up of various chapels. This element functions as a corridor that allows fluid circulation within the basilica, even when there are many pilgrims venerating the remains of the apostle.
The Main Chapel and the crypt of the tomb
The current main chapel, in Baroque style, replaced another of Romanesque style. The famous figure of the saint is located on the altar, inside the dressing room. In the representation, Santiago appears seated, dressed as a pilgrim.
The sculpture dates from the 13th century and is made of polychromatic stone. The Apostle’s clothes look like rich jewels. It can be accessed by the back of the altar to give the traditional hug to Santiago, one of the most awaited moments for all pilgrims.
You can also see a sculpture of Santiago on horseback. This reflects the image of Santiago Matamoros.
Under the cabin lies the burial crypt that guards the remains of the saint. These are found on a marble altar. Inside a carved silver urn, in Romanesque style.
Long lines usually form to both hug the saint and to go down to visit his tomb. Without a doubt, these two spaces are the most visited in the Cathedral of Santiago.
The interior of the Cathedral of Santiago has a large number of chapels that you can visit. All of them of great artistic beauty. We cannot delve into the details of each of these little relics, but we do want to mention them and give details of each.
Many of them contain the remains of bishops and prominent characters. However, we don’t want you to get dizzy with names, so that part we leave for you to find out for yourself.
Capilla del Pilar
The Pilar Chapel began to be built in 1694 to function as a sacristy. In 1879, it ceased to fulfil that function and it was to function exclusively as a chapel.
Capilla de Mondragón
The Mondragón Chapel, also known as the Chapel of Piety, dates back to the 16th century. It is in a flamboyant Gothic style.
Capilla de la Azucena
The chapel of the Lily, formerly, was named St. Peter’s Chapel. It is situated by the Holy Gate. It also dates to the 16th century.
Capilla del Salvador
The chapel of El Salvador is located in the centre of the Ambulatory. It is the oldest chapel, here began the construction of the cathedral.
Capilla de Nuestra Señora Blanca
The Chapel of Our White Lady is also known as the Chapel of Spain, as it was donated by this family. The construction dates back to the 13th century, but its current structure belongs to the 15th century.
Capilla de San Juan
The Chapel of San Juan received, in the past, the name of Santa Susana. Its structure combines Romanesque style with baroque elements, the result of an extension.
Capilla de San Bartolomé
The Chapel of St. Bartholomew was previously known as the Santa Fe Chapel. It highlights the altarpiece made of polychromed marble, in a Plateresque style.
Capilla de la Concepción
The Chapel of the Conception is also called Prima Chapel. This is due to the fact that they celebrated the first mass.
Capilla del Espíritu Santo
The Chapel of the Holy Spirit dates from the 13th century. It highlights the magnificent burial tombs.
Capilla de la Corticela
The chapel of the Corticela constitutes a church in itself. This space was used as an oratory in homage to St. Mary.
Capilla de la Comunión
The Chapel of the Communion is also known as the Sacred Heart Chapel. Its construction dates back to the 15th century, although it has subsequently undergone several renovations.
Capilla del Cristo de Burgos
The Chapel of the Christ of Burgos receives its name from the carving that is located in it. It was built as a funeral chapel in the 17th century.
One of the main things you have to see in the Cathedral of Santiago is the Botafumeiro. The huge incense burner is in front of the main Altar. During the masses, the mobile structure flies over the heads of the parishioners, filling the room with smoke. Its working is a true spectacle, worthy of being witnessed.
The Botafumeiro does not work every day, only in solemn masses or when a group or individual requests it, paying for it. Fortunately, this happens quite often and it is common to find it in operation.
The museo catedralicio
During the 19th century, excavations were carried out in the heart of the basilica. Countless relics that can now be visited were obtained from that exploration.
Pieces of art of incalculable value, books, coins and other treasures are some of the jewels you’ll find in the Cathedral Museum, inaugurated in 1930. Some of them are the result of the excavations made and others are donations and gifts.
Therefore, we could not talk about what to see in the Cathedral of Santiago, without mention of the Cathedral Museum. It has five distinct zones. All of them of unequalled beauty: The chapel of the relics, the royal pantheon, the treasure, the archaeological rooms and the cloister.
La Capilla de las Reliquias
The Chapel of Relics keeps the donations made by pilgrims, kings and bishops from all over the world. It brings together a thousand years of offerings.
In the royal pantheon, you can visit the sepulchres of the monarchs of Galicia and León, who died between the 12th and 14th centuries.
The Cathedral Treasure is guarded in the Gothic Chapel of San Fernando. The valuable ensemble is made up of a rich collection of liturgical jewellery, which includes pieces from the 11th century to the present.
The archaeological rooms are located on the ground floor and accessed from the Obradoiro. In these spaces the findings of the excavations that were carried out under the cathedral are preserved. Among them are vestiges of the Roman past of the city and remains of the Romanesque basilicas that preceded the present cathedral.
Access to the cloister is through the archaeological halls. In it, you can visit different graves and the old bells of the clock tower.
From the cloister, you can access the Chapter House. The Botafumeiro is stored here when not in operation.
Other areas to see in the Cathedral of Santiago is the archive library. The interest of this space is that the manuscripts of the Codex Calixtinus are guarded, one of the most valuable documents on the history of the Camino de Santiago.
Palacio de Gelmírez
Gelmírez Palace is also part of the Cathedral ensemble. It is an episcopal palace located on the north side. Its construction took place in the 12th century, to replace the former palace that was in the Plaza de las Platerias.
Our secret about your visit to the Cathedral of Compostela
We recommend you to visit the cathedral during the afternoon. At the 19:00h mass, for example, the light that seeps through the Obradoiro’s windows gives the temple special magic.
In addition, the basilica is much less crowded in the afternoon and you will be able to walk it more quietly. If you want to know more details about the schedules and the entry prices, you can visit the official webpage of the Cathedral of Santiago.
We hope that now that you know everything there is to see in the Cathedral of Santiago, you will be encouraged to enjoy this medieval jewel that still is important these days. If you are looking for other ideas of things to do in Santiago de Compostela, do not hesitate to consult our guide about the Galician capital.
We do not want to say goodbye without congratulating you for having finished the Camino de Santiago. Hasn’t it been one of the best experiences of your life?
What do you mean, you haven’t started it yet? And what are you waiting for? Start to prepare it today with our manual on how to do the Camino de Santiago or write to us so that we can help you organize this fantastic adventure.