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Religious Subjects > James of Compostella

St James the Greater/St James of Compostella.  1

James was the older brother of John the Evangelist and was present at the Transfiguration and the Agony in the Garden at Gethsemane where he was asleep with Peter and John while Christ prayed.  Known as "the son of thunder" by the other apostles because of his fiery temperament, he was the first apostle to die for the Christian faith when he was beheaded in Jerusalem in 44 A.D.

According to legend his apostles placed his body in a boat and took him to Galicia in Spain where they buried him in a forest.  At some point in the 9th century his tomb was "discovered" and a church built over it.  The place was called Santiago (St James) de Compostella and quickly became the third main centre of medieval pilgrimage after Rome and Jerusalem.  St James became famous for spreading the gospel, thus instrumental in reconquering Spain for the Christians against the Moors.  He supposedly made appearances on a white charger brandishing a sword in the midst of battle.  His cult was fostered by kings, popes and bishops alike who wanted to keep the Moors out of Spain.

In art St James appears in three guises.  As an apostle he carries a sword, emblem of his decapitation, and a book.  As a pilgrim he wears a large hat to keep off the sun and the rain, has a wallet or water gourd, a cape and one or more shells.  The scallop shell originated with St James but gradually became an emblem of all pilgrims.  It was possibly first used as an emblem because Santiago is within sight of the sea and the pilgrim could therefore prove that he had been there or, possibly, because a scallop shell made an ideal cup for drinking.  As conqueror of Spain St James is shown as a knight on a white horse, bearing a standard, the killer of Saracens.  He is the patron saint of Spain.


St James of Compostella  2.

This 16th-century oak panel shows St James holding his sword as he sleeps next to Peter and John while Christ prays in the Garden of Gethsemane.