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Myth of the Way of St. James

Destination of longing Santiago de Compostela

For more than a thousand years, the paths of the pilgrims of St. James have attracted travelers from all over the world via the European routes to the burial place of the Apostle James in Santiago de Compostela. The latter is said to have been a missionary on the Iberian Peninsula and, after being beheaded in Jerusalem by Herod, was transferred to Spain around the year 44. There are many variations on the discovery of the tomb, which was thought to have been lost. According to one version, the tomb was discovered around 813 by a hermit who was guided by stars, on the so-called Campus Stellae (Latin for Field of Stars) in Galicia. However, the discovery of the tomb on the Iberian Peninsula in Galicia and the pilgrimage movement it triggered can only be read in the context of the reconquest that began in the 8th century, the so-called Reconquista. The Arabs from North Africa, the Moors, had conquered in a single battle in 711 this part of Spain, which already belonged to the Christian Visigoth Empire. This “Holy War” overshadowed Spain and the Pilgrimage of St. James for 800 years until the year 1492.

Santiago de Compostela is located in northwestern Spain in the province of La Coruña, 35 km from the Atlantic Ocean, and was one of the three most important pilgrimage destinations of the Middle Ages, along with Rome and Jerusalem. St. James’ Day is celebrated on July 25. Whenever the birthday of the Apostle James falls on a Sunday, it is a “Sacred Year”, called “Año Santo Jacobeo”. Not far from Santiago de Compostela is the last destination of the pilgrims of St. James: the Atlantic coast. From its beaches at Cap Finisterre, at the “end of the world”, also comes the symbol of all St. James pilgrims, the scallop shell.

Deckengewölbe mit steinernen Jakobsmuscheln

Scallop - attribute of the apostle

The scallop shell has been the central attribute of the apostle James since the Middle Ages. By it one recognizes the messenger of faith and in his succession all pilgrims of St. James. “Pecten maximus” is the name for this flat shell from the European Atlantic coast, which can be seen as a scallop shell in depictions of St. James pilgrims and was brought home from there from the 12th century at the latest. At the same time, it is the most important symbolic attribute in the medieval representations of St. James.

Artisanal reductions of the scallop shell, e.g., made of gagat, a semi-precious stone of fossilized wood, were also strung on strings and carried along on the pilgrimage or brought back from the pilgrimage as devotional objects. Such agate beads with scallop shells were found in a medieval burial in the collegiate church of Saarbrücken. The equipment of a medieval pilgrim of St. James also included a weather coat, the so-called pelerine, a wide-brimmed hat, a pilgrim’s staff and a drinking bottle, the so-called Gurde. The scallop shell carried along could also be used to draw drinking water.

Vergoldetes Relief

“Starry Path” - “Caminus Stellarum”

The designation of the St. James pilgrimage routes as the “Starry Path” is historically inspired: In the starry sky, on clear nights, you can see a ribbon-like arm of our spiral galaxy, also commonly referred to as the Milky Way. It describes an arc stretching across Europe from northeast to southwest, pointing to Spain. In the Middle Ages, it was also seen as a cosmic reference to the tomb of St. James, which also served as an orientation guide for the pilgrims of St. James on their way towards Santiago de Compostela. In Galicia, the paths of the pilgrims of St. James are also called “El Camino de las estrellas”. In various traditions, reference is made to this connection between the cult of St. James and the guiding stars: Charlemagne, for example, is said to have appeared in a dream the apostle James and a path marked by stars to the tomb of the saint.

Ways of knowledge - Spirituality

A pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela has always been a path of knowledge and initiation into the spiritual world. The historical paths of the pilgrims of St. James have shaped the spiritual roots of Europe. To this day, being on these paths is one of the great cross-border and unifying experiences in Europe. Every year, about 800,000 people from Germany alone set out on the paths toward Santiago de Compostela.

In view of the climate crisis, the ecological aspect is also becoming increasingly important. The multifaceted natural and cultural landscapes of the project area in particular create an awareness of the need to preserve creation. The special aura and history of the medieval cultural monuments, which are located along and around the routes now signposted for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, facilitate access to this spiritual dimension.