St James the Patron Saint of Spain

In the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church November 1st is All Saints Day and a holiday in Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Croatia, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, Hungary, Italy, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Seychelles, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.

The national Saint of Spain is St James and if El Cid represents the secular aspects of heroism and military conquest during the Reconquista the spiritual hero representing the religious justification and the Christian ethos of the crusade against the Muslims was Santiago, St James the Apostle, and the patron Saint of Spain.

In ‘Don Quixote’ Cervantes 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.’  Since the reconquest ‘Santiago y cierra España’, which means St James and strike for Spain has been the traditional battle cry of Spanish armies.

Santiago was one of the twelve disciples and a devout disciple of Christ but in 44 A.D. he became the first of Apostles to suffer martyrdom when Herod Agrippa I arrested and personally beheaded him in Jerusalem.   According to legend Santiago had preached for a while in Iberia prior to his execution and after his death his own disciples returned his body back to the peninsula. On the way they were caught in a storm and almost certainly doomed when a ship miraculously appeared, led by an angel, to guide them to land and safety.  They buried the saint near Compostela, ‘field of stars,’ where Santiago lay forgotten for nearly eight hundred years.

The tomb was conveniently rediscovered in the ninth century in a time of great need when Christian political and military fortunes in Spain were at their lowest ebb after they had suffered defeat time and again at the hands of the Muslims, until that is God revealed the Saint’s remains, and inspired them with the confidence that he was on their side, fighting in the battlefield with them through the heroic figure of Santiago.

The truth was that as the Northern Kingdoms began to assert themselves they needed spiritual assistance and justification and in this era of crusading reconquest there was a need for the living presence of a religious-national figure as an emblem of Christian strength and supremacy that was capable of rallying around themselves the Spanish Christian forces.   This was to be Santiago whose image fulfilled the desire of the Iberian Christians for heroes to emulate, and unite them in their struggle for political and religious independence from Muslim rule.

An important manifestation of the crusading mentality during this time was the creation of an iconic patriotic creation of Santiago and the mythical military contribution of St James to the Reconquista was the inspirational presence of the Saint on the battlefields of the peninsula.  The most famous of these was the legend surrounding the battle of Clavijo in 844, where the vastly outnumbered and demoralised Christian forces were inspired by the appearance of St James in a full suit of armour riding on a galloping white horse with a sword in the right hand and the banner of victory in the left.  Modern historians dispute that there ever was such a battle but the story goes that the night before the encounter, Santiago appeared in a dream to the leader of the Spanish forces, King Ramirez of Castile, and promised him a victory over the Muslims.  The following day, at the height of battle, the warrior-saint appeared on the battlefield, leaving behind him the defeated infidels that he has slaughtered and crushed to the ground and in front of him what remained of the terrified enemy promptly surrendered.  Thus was born the legend of Santiago Matamoros, the Moorslayer.

According to legend, the Saint came to the assistance of the Christians at least forty times in earthly warfare during the campaign and this became embodied in the assertion of faith in St. James and the patron saint’s pastoral care for Spain.  The Christian defenders created and developed the story of Santiago as the embodiment of God’s support who would sustain their courage and this strong faith identified Santiago with the religious element of the reconquest and the revival of Spanish fortunes.

By the end of the eleventh century (a period corresponding to the military contribution of El Cid) a decisively religious element had entered the issue of the Reconquista.   Santiago de Compostella became a place of great pilgrimage and after Jerusalem and Rome the third most holy city in Christendom.   The Cathedral of St James (which is depicted on Spanish eurocent coins) is the destination today, as it has been thoughout subsequent history, of the important ninth century medieval pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James.

By the twelfth century Santiago and El Cid became increasingly identified with one another as Christian heroes and the myths became inextricably intertwined as the story of the battle of Clavijo was first written down and recorded and theEl Poema del Cid was composed.   The Christians attributed identical symbols to them and their images merged in the artistic depictions of them both in the eleventh through to the thirteenth centuries.   This imagery was even recreated in the final scene of the film El Cid where shortly before he died he allegedly saw a vision of St. Peter, who told him that he should gain a victory over the Saracens after his death.   So he was clothed in a coat of mail and mounted upon his favourite white horse, Babieca, fastened into the saddle and went into battle accompanied by a thousand knights holding in his left hand a banner representing reconquest and in the other a fiercesome sword.

Through this process Santiago practically becomes El Cid, a heroic figure riding upon a horse, leading the Christians to victory.   The similarities in the depictions of these national religious heroes revolve around the use of four primary symbols: the sword, the banner of victory, the white horse, and the Muslims who lay dead at the feet of the victorious crusader.   The banner of victory, like the horse, is usually white because this colour symbolizes the spiritual purity of the Christians who will spill the red blood of the Muslim infidels.   The most important of these symbols is the instrument of death, the sword, generally attributed to gods, heroes of unconquerable might, and Christian martyrs and it signifies military might, power, authority, and justice.

The Cross of St. James includes the lower part fashioned as a sword blade making this a cross of a warrior and in crusading terms the symbol of taking up the sword in the name of Christ.   Most notably, it was the emblem of the twelfth-century military Order of Santiago, named after Saint James the Great.

These days we are a bit more sensitive about religious wars and killing each other in the name of God or Allah and in 2004 a statue in Santiago Cathedral showing St James slicing the heads off Moorish invaders was removed and replaced with a more benign image of him as a pilgrim to avoid causing offence to Muslims.   A Cathedral spokesman in a classic understatement said that the Baroque image of a sword-wielding St James cutting the heads off Moors was not a very sensitive or evangelical image that can be easily reconciled to the teachings of Christ.

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More posts about El Cid: 

El Cid and the Spanish Reconquista

El Cid and Alvar Fáñez de Minaya, another hero of the Reconquest

El Cid and his Horse, Babieca

El Cid and his Wife, Ximena

El Cid and his sword, La Tizona

El Cid and Alfonso VI:

El Cid and Belmonte

El Cid, the Film, Fact & Fiction

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2 responses to “St James the Patron Saint of Spain

  1. Fascinating history of Santiago, Andrew. I visited his tomb in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela a couple of years ago. What an amazing building!

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