Tuesday, January 13, 2015



Sant Iago - Miraculous Myths, Fantastic Fables, and the Golden Legend - or "Will the real Santiago please reveal himself!"

Recently I put a post on Facebook listing the numerous places in Europe that claimed to have a relic of St James the Greater.  Santiago wasn't the first town to claim a relic of Saint James - various relics had been around for almost 300 hundred years before he was identified in Spain.

So far I have been able to find three bodies and fifteen heads, two pieces of heads, a number of arms, hands, fingers and other limbs.  I expected to be challenged with denials or disbelief.  But, there has been nothing like that and not one of the 30 or so people who have replied have shown any surprise or contradiction.  

One person wrote, “I don't know about you, but I'm walking to enjoy the spirit of Santiago, and most importantly the Spirit of Christ, whom he loved & served. I'm not walking for random relics or body parts. Just saying. But the research is interesting.” 

Perhaps this reflects what the majority of pilgrims feel about the Camino and about Sant Iago’s relics.  If people don’t know and don’t care, or feel that they do know and still don’t care about the relics being genuine or not, perhaps it is time for the present custodians of the Santiago cathedral to announce to the world that they too have accepted that the legend about the martyred apostle, killer of thousands on two continents is just that, a legend.  What is the point of touting the medieval legend in the 21st century?  

It wasn’t this generation of Santiago church leaders who propagated the legend, or the one that turned the simple fisherman, Apostle of Christ, into an avenging killer, first as a Moor slayer (seen at over 45 battles) and then as an Indian slayer when they took him to the New World.  Ironically, in Peru, the locals turned the iconography of the warrior saint into a killer of Spaniards.

 Santiago as a Moorslayer
 Santiago Mataindianos
Santiago MataEspanois
Santiago Peregrino 

In Spain it is the Moorslayer who they named as their Patron Saint - not the gentle pilgrim we see in stained glass or statues along the Camino.  They, like their medieval counterparts, have perpetuated the myth through the centuries about the apostle Yaakov ben Zebedee’s remains being interred in the cathedral named after him in Compostela and that this is Santiago the Moor Slayer.  What have they got to lose by telling the truth?   I doubt the pilgrim numbers will go down!

The spirit of Saint James the Greater will always be in Santiago de Compostela.  We don’t need a casket containing a collection of unidentified bones to draw us there.  All around the world there are thousands of churches named for Jesus.  None can claim to have a bodily relic but millions of people worship in these churches because His spirit lives there.  

Santiago de Compostela is one of five Holy Cities in Europe, three of them in Spain.  (The other two are Rome and Jerusalem.)  In Spain, Caravaca de la Cruz (Town of the Cross) and Camaleño (the Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana) have even more tenuous claims to Jubilee status than Santiago.   

 Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
 Caravaca de la Cruz
Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana
The Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana is one of the most important sites of Roman Catholicism in Europe housing the ‘Lignum Crucis’ believed to be the biggest surviving piece of the true cross.  Tradition has it that Toribio, the bishop of Astorga, brought the piece of the cross measuring 63 centimetres in length and 39 centimetres in width from Jerusalem in the 5th century. In the 8th century, the monks hid the relic in the Liébana valley to protect it from the Moors. Today the cross is embedded in a shrine decorated with gold and silver.

Oscar Solloa, a monk in the monastery, has been asked hundreds of times whether the fragment really comes from the cross on which Jesus was crucified.  'Analysis has confirmed that it comes from a Cyprus[sic] tree in Palestine that was over 2,000 years old, but that is not that important,' he says. 'Many people have found their way back to the faith by coming here.'

Caravaca de la Cruz was granted the privilege to celebrate the jubilee year in perpetuity in 1998 by Pope John Paul II.  It celebrates its jubilee every seven years; the first being in 2003, when it was visited by the then Cardinal Ratzinger who became Pope Benedict XVI.

The Holy relic here is two pieces of wood, also supposedly from the true cross, kept in a reliquary in the shape of a cross with two horizontal arms.  The cross and the wood fragments were given to the town in 1942 by Pope Pius XII to replace a 13th century cross that was stolen in February 1934.  (When the original cross went missing the townsfolk were so afraid of the implications that they dragged the priest into the square and executed him with a single shot to the head!)

The appearance of the original Caravaca cross has an uncertain foundation.  One story is that it was part of a miracle in 1232 when a chamber was flooded with a bright light and two angels appeared carrying a two armed cross containing a piece of the true cross. Overcome by this vision, the Moor steward of the area, Ceyt Abu-Ceyt, who was harassing the local priest, fell to his knees and converted to the Christian faith.  Another is that it was brought from the Holy Land by the Knights Templar, and the other is that it was carried here by the guardians of the true cross which was discovered in Jerusalem by St Helene, mother of Constantine, in the 4th century. 

So, here we have three of the world’s five Holy Cities in Spain, each with questionable relics based on miraculous mythology. 

A decapitated apostle is miraculously transported to Iberia in 44AD in a stone boat with no sails, blown across the seas by angels.

Helene Augusta, the ageing mother of Constantine, visits Jerusalem in the 4th century and miraculously discovers the three Calvary crosses. In order to determine which is the cross used to crucify Jesus, she brings a dead girl to the site. When the girl is laid down on top of the True Cross she comes back to life! 
Helene divided the cross leaving a part of it in Jerusalem and had other parts sent to religious leaders in Rome and Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul in Turkey. The first written records of the story of Helene finding the True Cross appear by the end of the fourth century.

This is only one of the legends about the cross; the 13th century Golden Legend, which became a medieval best seller, contains several versions of the discovery of the true cross, but it is the one about Helene that became the favourite in the middle ages.

By the end of the Middle Ages so many churches claimed to possess a piece of the true cross, that in 1543 John Calvin is was quoted as saying that there was enough wood in them to fill a ship.

"There is no abbey so poor as not to have a specimen. In some places there are large fragments, as at the Holy Chapel in Paris, at Poitiers, and at Rome, where a good-sized crucifix is said to have been made of it. In brief, if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it."
Calvin, Traité Des Reliques.

But, what about the relics of Saint James? 

The cult of Saint James was widespread across Europe and reports of his relics go back to the 6th century.  According to Prof. Leyser, an arm of James the Great was preserved in Torcello near Venice from about the 6th Century.  It passed through the hands of Bishop Vitalis, and then Germany via Archbishop Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen, the Emperors Henry 1V and Henry V. 

 In 1125 Henry V’s widow Matilda brought the left hand of Saint James to England (there is no proof that she did the pilgrimage to Santiago).  In the early 1190’s a list of over 240 relics in Reading Abbey in England included ‘the hand of Saint James with flesh and bones and the cloth in which it was wrapped’ and this became the most important relic in the abbey with many miracles attributed to it. 

The abbey was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538 during the dissolution of the monasteries and the relic disappeared.  In 1786 workmen digging at Ready Abbey found an old iron chest that contained a mummified hand believed by some to be the relic of Saint James.  It now resides in a glass case at St Peter's Church, Marlow. 

(Reading Medieval Studies by Brian Kemp, University of Reading. Studies in Medieval History presented to R.H.C. Davis: The Pilgrims Guide, CSJ London.)

 In his book “The Cult of Santiago: traditions, myths and pilgrimages” (1927) the Rev. James S. Stone writes about the many relics of St James found in Europe.

In addition to the body at Compostella, a body in St. Sernin at Toulouse and another in the church at Zibili near Milan are equally authentic. There are two of his heads in Venice - one in St. George's church, and the other in the monastery of St. Philip and St. James. A head can be found in Valencia, a fourth head at Amalfi, a fifth head at St. Vaast in Artois as well as part of a head at Pistoja.  In the Church of the Apostles in Rome are preserved a piece of the Apostle's skull and some of his blood. There are bones, hands, and arms in Sicily, on the island of Capri, at Pavia, in Bavaria, at Liege and Cologne, in Segovia, Burgos and elsewhere.” 

According to Armenian tradition, the head of James the Greater is buried in the church of Saint James the Less in Jerusalem and only his body is in Santiago. On the left side of the church, opposite one of the four square piers supporting the vaulted ceiling, is its most important shrine, the small Chapel of St James the Greater. A piece of red marble in front of the altar marks the place where his head is buried, on the reputed site of his beheading. (Church of St James the Less in Jerusalem)

 “In France alone, there were three tombs containing his body, nine heads and numerous limbs.   In 1354 the Saint-Sernin basilica in Toulouse was home to the head and the body of St. Jacques le Majeur.”  www.saint-jacques.info/anglais/spotlights.htm 

“In 1385 the body of St. Jacques was transferred to a luxurious arch-shaped church.  It was the most magnificent reliquary of the church after that of St. Saturnin.” http://ultreia.pagesperso-orange.fr/toulouse.htm 

Even America has a piece of the true cross and a Sant Iago relic.  St James the Less Catholic Church in Wisconsin houses a great collection of relics:  The most precious relics we have are those of the true cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ and of St. James the Less, our Patron. Just a few of the other relics are: ….and St. James the Great, Apostle.”  

In 1589 the relics of Sant Iago in Compostela were hidden to safeguard them from a possible attack by Sir Francis Drake – and were lost for almost 300 years.   They were finally rediscovered in 1879 and were authenticated by Pope Leo X111 five years later as being the genuine remains of the lost saint.  How he did this with no carbon dating or DNA testing is just another one of the mysteries of Saint James!
Perhaps the time has come to accept that the legend of James the Greater, and Santiago Mata Moros/ Indianos/ Espanois is just that, medieval legend and myth.  Pilgrims won't stop trekking to gawk at his silver casket or give him a hug!


  1. Everyone loves a good story reality or myth. Just let it be

  2. Anonymous9:52 pm

    Be that as it may....

  3. No way to really prove or disprove - soany effortto be "true"and accurate would be a waste of time