Images of Medieval Art and Architecture

Saint James the Greater

General Information


Saint's Day :July 25

Patron Saint of Spain

Text from Sacred and Legendary Art
by Anna Jameson
Third Editon: London, 1911, pages 230-9

Headings added, and references to Renaissance art deleted by Jane Vadnal

ST. JAMES the Great, or the Elder, or St. James Major, was nearly related to Christ, and, with his brother John (the evangelist) and Peter, he seems to have been admitted to particular favor, traveled with the Lord, and was present at most of the events recorded in the Gospels. He was one of the three who were permitted to witness the glorification of Christ on Mount Tabor, and one of those who slept during, the agony in the garden. After our Savior's ascension, nothing is recorded concerning- him, except the fact that Herod slew him with the sword. In the ancient traditions lie is described as being of a zealous and affectionate temper, easily excited to anger: of this we have a particular instance, in his imprecation against the inhospitable Samaritans, for which Christ rebuked him: ' Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. The Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them.' (Luke ix. 55.)

Medieval additions to the legends of Saint James

As Scripture makes no farther mention of one so distinguished by his zeal and by his near relationship to the Savior, the legends of the Middle Ages have supplied this deficiency; and so amply, that St. James, as St. Jago or SANTIAGO, the military patron of Spain, became one of the most renowned saints in Christendom, and one of the most popular subjects of Western Art. Many of these subjects are so singular, that, in order to render them intelligible, I must give the legend at full length as it was followed by the artists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

According to the Spanish legend, the apostle James was the son of Zebedee, an illustrious baron of Galilee, who, being the proprietor of ships, was accustomed to fish alone, the shores of a certain lake called Gennesareth, but solely for his good pleasure and recreation for who can suppose that Spain, that nation of Hidalogos and Caballeros, would ever have chosen for her patron, or accepted as the leader and captain-general of her armies, a poor ignoble fisherman ? It remains, therefore, indisputable, that this glorious apostle, who was our Lord's cousin-german, was of noble lineage, and worthy of his spurs as a knight and a gentleman;-so in Dante:-

               Ecco il Barone
               Per cui laggiu si visita Galizia.'

But it pleased him, in his great humility, to follow, while on earth, the example of his divine Lord, and reserve his warlike prowess till called upon to slaughter, by thousands and tens of thousands, those wicked Moors, the perpetual enemies of Christ and His servants.

Life of Saint James

Now, as James and his brother John were one day in their father's ship with his hired servants, and were employed in mending the nets, the Lord, who was walking on the shores of the lake, called them; and they left all and followed Him; and became henceforward His most favored disciples, and the witnesses of His miracles while on earth. After the ascension of Christ, James preached the Gospel in Judea; then he traveled over the whole world, and came at last to Spain, where he made very few converts, by reason of the ignorance and darkness of the people. One day, as he stood with his disciples on the banks of the Ebro, the blessed Virgin appeared to him seated on the top of a pillar of jasper, and surrounded by a choir of Angels; and the apostle having thrown himself on his face, she commanded him to build on that spot a chapel. for her worship, assuring him that all this province of Saragossa, though now in the darkness of paganism, would at a future time be distinguished by devotion to her. He did as the hole Virgin had commanded and this was the origin of a famous church afterwards known as that of Our Lady of the Pillar (' Nuestra Senora del Pillar'). Then St. James, having founded the Christian faith in Spain, returned to Judea, where he preached for many years, and performed many wonders and miracles in the sight of the people: and it happened that a certain sorcerer, whose name was Hermogenes, set himself against the apostle, just as Simon Magus had wickedly and vainly opposed St. Peter, and with the like result. Hermogenes sent his scholar Philetus to dispute with James, and to compete with him in wondrous works; but, as you will easily believe, he had no chance against the apostle, and, confessing himself vanquished, he returned to his master, to whom he announced his intention to follow henceforth James and his doctrine. Then Hermogenes, in a rage , bound Philetus by his diabolical spells, so that he could not move hand or foot; saying, ' Let us now see if thy new master can deliver thee' and Philetus sent his servant to St. James, praying for aid. Then the apostle took off his cloak, and gave it to the servant to give his master, and no sooner had Philetus touched it, than be became free, and hastened to throw himself at the feet of his deliverer. Hermogenes, more furious than ever, called to the demons who served him, and that they should bring to him James and Philetus, bound in fetters ; but on their way the demons met with a company of Angels, who seized upon them, and punished them for their wicked intentions, till they cried for mercy. Then St. James said to them, 'Go back to him who sent ye, and bring him hither bound.' And they did so; and having, laid the sorcerer down at the feet of St. James, they besought him, saying, 'Now give us power to be avenged of our enemy and thine' But St. James rebuked them, saying, 'Christ hath commanded us to do good for evil.' So he delivered Hermogenes from their hands; and the magician, being utterly confounded, cast his books into the sea, and desired of St. James that he would protect him against the demons, his former servants. Then St. James gave him his staff, as the most effectual means of defense against the internal spirits; and C, Hermogenes became a faithful disciple and preacher of the Word from that day. But the evil-minded Jews, being more and more incensed took James and bound him, and brought him before the tribunal of Herod Agrippa; and one of those who dragged him alone, touched by the gentleness of his demeanor, and by his miracles of mercy, was converted, and supplicated to die with him; and the apostle gave him the kiss of peace, saying, 'Pax vobis!' and the kiss and the words together have remained as a form of benediction in the Church to this day. Then they were both beheaded, and so died.

Relics of Saint James go to Spain

And the disciples of St. James came and took away his body; and, not daring to bury it, for fear of the Jews, they carried it to Joppa, and placed it on board of a ship: some say that the ship was of marble, but this is not authenticated ; however, it is most certain that angels conducted the ship miraculously to the coast of Spain where they arrived in seven days; and, sailing through the straits called the Pillars of Hercules, they landed at length in Galicia, at a port called Iria Plavia, now Padron.

In those days there reigned over the country a certain queen whoosh; name was Lupa, and she and all her people were plunged in wickedness and idolatry. Now, having come to shore, they laid the body of the apostle upon a great stone, which became like wax, and, receiving the body, closed around it : this was a sign that the saint willed to remain there; but the wicked queen Lupa was displeased, and she commanded that they should harness some wild bulls to a car, and place on it the body, with the self-formed tomb, hoping that they would drag it to destruction. But in this she was mistaken ; for the wild bulls, when signed by the cross, became as docile as sheep, and they drew the body of the apostle straight into the court of her palace. When Queen Lupa beheld this miracle, she was confounded, and she and all her people became Christians: she built a magnificent church to receive the sacred remains, and died in the odor of sanctity.

But then came the darkness and ruin which during the invasion of the Barbarians overshadowed all Spain ; and the body of the apostle was lost, and no one knew where to find it, till, in the year 800, the place of sepulcher was revealed to a certain holy friar. Then they caused the body of the saint to be transported to Compostella; and, in consequence of the surprising miracles which graced his shrine, he was honored not merely in Galicia, but throughout all Spain. He became the patron saint of the Spaniards, and Compostella, as a place of pilgrimage, was renowned throughout Europe. From all countries bands of pilgrims resorted there, so that sometimes there were no less than a hundred thousand in one year. The military Order of Saint Jago, enrolled by Don Alphonso for their protection, became one of the greatest and richest in Spain.

Miracles of Saint James

Saint James Appears to King Ramirez

Now, if I should proceed to recount all the wonderful deeds enacted by Santiago in behalf of his chosen people, they would fill a volume. The Spanish historians number thirty-eight visible apparitions, in which this glorious saint descended from heaven in person, and took the command of their armies against the Moors. The first of these, and the most famous of all, I shall now relate.

In the year of our Lord 939, King Ramirez, having vowed to deliver Castile from the shameful tribute imposed by the Moors, of one hundred virgins delivered annually, collected his troops, and defied their king Abdelraman to battle:-

     The king call'd 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 !'

Accordingly he charged the Moorish host on the plain of Alveida or Clavijo: after a furious conflict, the Christians were, by the permission of Heaven, defeated, and forced to retire. Night separated the combatants, and King Ramirez, overpowered with fatigue, and sad at heart, flung himself upon his couch and slept. In his sleep he beheld the apostle St. Jago, who promised to be with him next morning in the field, and assured him of victory. The king, waking up from the glorious vision sent for his prelates and officers to whom he related it; and the next morning, at the head of his army, he recounted it to his soldiers, bidding them rely on Heavenly aid. He then ordered the trumpets to sound to battle. The soldiers, inspired with fresh courage, rushed to the fight. Suddenly St. Jago was seen mounted on a milk-white charger, and waving aloft a white standard; he led on the Christians, who gained a decisive victory, leaving 60,000 Moors dead on the field. This was the famous battle of Clavijo; and ever since that day, ' SANTIAGO!' has been the war-cry of the Spanish armies.

Miracle of the Hanged Pilgrim

But it was not only on such great occasions that the invincible patron of Spain was pleased to exhibit his power: he condescended oftentimes to interfere for the protection of the poor and oppressed, of which I will now give a notable instance, as it is related by Pope Calixtus II.

There was a certain German, who with his wife and son went on a pilgrimage to St. James of Compostella. Having, come as far as Torlosa, they lodged at an inn there; and the host had a fair daughter, who, looking on the son of the pilgrim, a handsome and a graceful youth, became deeply enamored; but he, being virtuous, and, more over, on his way to a holy shrine, refused to listen to her allurements. Then she thought how she might be avenged for this slight put upon her charms, and hid in his wallet her father's silver drinking- cup. The next morning, no sooner were they departed, than the host, discovering his loss, pursued them, accused them before the judge, and the cup being found in the young man's wallet, he was condemned to be hung, and all they possessed was confiscated to the host.

Then the afflicted parents pursued their way lamenting, and made their prayer and their complaint before the altar of the blessed Saint Jago ; and thirty-six days afterwards as they returned by the spot where their son hung on the gibbet, they stood beneath it, weeping and lamenting bitterly. Then the son spoke and said, 'O my mother ! 0 my father ! do not lament for me, for I have never been in better cheer; the blessed apostle James is at my side, sustaining me and filling me with celestial comfort and joy ! ' The parents, being astonished, hastened to the judge, who at that moment was seated at table, and the mother called out, 'Our son lives!' The judge mocked at them: 'What sayest thou, good woman ? thou art beside thyself! If thy son liveth, so do those fowls in my dish.' And lo! scarcely had he uttered the words, when the fowls (being a cock and a hen) rose up full -feathered in the dish, and the cock began to crow, to the great admiration of the judge and his attendants.' Then the judge rose up from table hastily, and called together the priests and the lawyers, and they went in procession to the gibbet, took down the young man, and restored him to his parents, and the miraculous cock and hen were placed under the protection of the Church, where they and their posterity long flourished in testimony of this stupendous miracle.

Other Miracles

There are many other legends of St. James; the Spanish chroniclers in prose and verse abound in such ; but in general, they are not merely incredible, but puerile and unpoetical ; and I have here confined myself to those which I know to have been treated in Art.

Portrayal of Saint James

Previous to the twelfth century, St. James is only distinguished among the apostles by his place, which is the fourth in the series, the second after St. Peter and St. Paul. In some instances he is portrayed with a family resemblance to Christ, being his kinsman; the thin beard, and the hair parted and flowing down on each side. But from the thirteenth century, it became a fashion to characterize St. James as a pilgrim of Compostella: he bears the peculiar long staff, to which the wallet or gourd of water is suspended; the cloak, with a long cape the scallop shell on his shoulder or on his flapped hat. Where the cape, hat, and scallop-shells are omitted, the staff, borne as the first of the apostles who departed to fulfill his Gospel mission, remains constant attribute, by this he may be recognized in the Madonna pictures, and when grouped with other saints. The single devotional figures of St. James represent him in two distinct characters

1. As tutelar saint of Spain, and conqueror of the Moors. In his pilgrim habit, mounted on a white charger, and waving a white banner, with white hair and beard streaming like a meteor- or sometimes armed in complete steel, spurred like a knight, his casque shadowed by white plumes- he tramples over the prostrate infidels ...

2. St. James as patron saint in the general sense.

3. Saint James seated; he holds a large book on vellum (the Gospels) in his left hand- and with his right points to Heaven;

Pictures from the life of Saint James singly, or in a series, are not common ....

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Updated by Jane Vadnal, June, 1998