Monday, July 25, 2011

Santiago de Compostela y Santiago Matamoros: The Apostle St James (the Greater)--Patron Saint of Spain, and Moorslayer


I had originally planned to do this post last year, as part of a number of posts related to Saints on their Saint's Day, with a focus on those who have had an impact particularly in the Arab world. July 25, the feast day of St James the Greater in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and other Protestant religious calendars, passed well before I could complete my draft.

Anders Behring Breivik's ~1500 page manifesto (AFP/Getty)

In a way, it is more fitting to do the post on this "Crusader saint" this year, in light of Norway bomber and shooter Anders Breivik's identification of his actions as part of a crusade to rid Norway of Norwegians deemed sympathetic to immigration and Muslims by their affiliation with the centre-left Labour Party, a Knight Templar fighting to rid Europe of Muslims. As negative as the Medieval Crusades were in many aspects, this perversion of their narrative is worse.

St James the Greater, Rembrandt

St James the Greater was one of the first of Jesus' disciples, and one of 2 Apostles named James (the other being called James the Lesser to distinguish the 2, and also a saint). James the Greater is also called James, son of Zebedee (and Salome), as another way of identifying and distinguishing him. Both he and his brother John were at the seashore with their father when Jesus called them to Him, and both became his disciples. Along with the Apostles Peter and John, James was one of the 3 Apostles to whom Jesus appeared after his Transfiguration, having risen from the tomb, in order that they might bear witness to His divinity.

After Jesus' death, St James continued to spread the teachings of Jesus, the Gospel in the Roman Province of Judea. He was imprisoned in city of Jerusalem and then beheaded by the Roman King Herod Agrippa 1 in 44 CE. He is considered the first Apostle martyred for the Church, and is the only one whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament (in the Book of Acts).

The above aspects of  St James life are considered historically factual, based on the congruence about them in the 3 Synoptic Gospels (the Books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and the Book of Acts in the New Testament of the Bible. The other aspects of his life are considered legend, as there is much belief but no textual or material evidence.

St James wearing his symbol, the sea scallop, Carlo Crivelli 

The first of the legends is that St James' ministry took him to the Iberian Peninsula and the Roman Province of Hispania. The second, closely related one, is that the Virgin Mary appeared to St James in 40 CE while he was preaching in Zaragosa (then Caesaraugusta) on the bank of the Ebro River. As she appeared to him on a pillar, she was venerated there as Our Lady of the Pillar, Nuestra Señora del Pilar, and the pillar kept as a relic in the Basilica dedicated to her in Zaragosa. After this apparition, St James returned to Judea, and met his end.

The third legend is that after his death, St James' own disciples carried his remains back to Iberia, arriving by sea on the coast of Galicia in the northwest corner of the peninsula. They brought his remains inland for burial at a site now know as Santiago de Compostela, which became a destination of Christian pilgrimage beginning as early as the 9th Century, after the rediscovery of the relics. It remains the most popular Christian pilgrimage, with routes stretching across France then the north of Spain, and up from the south of Spain.


Pilgrims follow tributary routes marked with the scallop symbol of St James.


The fourth legend is that there was a battle between Christians and Moors in 844 CE near Clavijo, in northeastern Spain. St James supposedly appeared on the side of the Christians under Ramiro I of Asturias and helped them triumph over the Muslims under Abd ar-Rahman II of Córdoba, hence his name Matamoros or Moorslayer.

Santiago Matamoros ("Saint James the Moor-slayer")

The legend was written down in the 12th century, by which time the Medieval Crusades led by different Popes against Muslims in the Holy Land were well underway. The Battle of Clavijo would have been part of the Reconquista, or Reconquest of Spain by the Christians, which took 7 centuries from the time the Moors first began their conquest of Spain in 711 until their expulsion in 1492 by the Catholic Rulers, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The Reconquista is considered a precurser and an ancillary part of the Medieval Crusades proper, where Popes and Kings together led wars against Muslims in the the Holy Land itself.

I used the term "Crusader saint" in quotes above as, unlike some other saints, who were an active part of the Medieval Crusades to take back the Christian Holy Land from the Muslims, St James the Greater was more of an inspiration than a participant. The legends of his ministry, the apparition to him of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Pillar, his burial at Compostela, and his participation in the Battle of Clavijo made him both the Patron Saint and military leader of Spain. Spanish armies adopted the battle cry "Santiago y cierra España"--"St James and strike for Spain". The Crusader soldier, Algerian captive, and then great writer Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra wrote:

“St James the Moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had ... has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.”—Cervantes, Don Quixote

The military religious Order of Santiago was formed in the 12th century in Spain to fight against the Moors and exists to this day, though in much diminished numbers. Only members of the nobility are admitted and the Order serves under the Spanish Crown. Notably, for those who cling to the idea that Jerusalem and the Holy Land still belong to the Christian Crusaders and have been occupied since, the current King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, is also the current King (or one of the claimants) of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1291).


The Quran speaks of disciples of the Prophet Messenger Isa or Jesus, as "helpers",  but does not name any. Some Muslim commentators name Peter, Andrew, Matthew, Thomas, Philip, John, James, Bartholomew, and Simon.

Your comments, thoughts, impressions?


The red cross of St James (a cross fleury fitchy, with the lower part fashioned as the blade of a sword), worn as a symbol on the clothing of the Knights of the Order of Santiago, and part of the crests of Zaragoza and of Gallicia.

3 comments:

Susanne said...

Interesting. I didn't know about James' role(s) in legends! Thanks for the lesson!

Chiara said...

Thanks Susanne. The human imagination and political interest in maximizing his Crusader potential can go a long way! Or...well no scientific evidence has emerged thus far, but I would still like to visit the pilgrimage route and sites.

Sil said...

Read 'The Moorslayer and the Missionary' by Kate van Liere. The importance of the chronology of the miracles are somewhat different. The relics came first, then the Moorslayer, then the 'evidence' of him evangelising in Spain(to substantiate the other two legends.)

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