The art essay

Saint James the Greater (1489–1493) by Gil de Siloe

“We have walked out of our lives
To come to where the walls of heaven
Are thin as a curtain, transparent as glass,
Where the Apostle spoke the holy words,
Where in death he returned, where God is close,
Where saints and martyrs mark the road…
Holy Saint James, great Saint James,
God help us now and evermore.”

Robert Dickinson, “Path of Miracles”

This alabaster statuette portrays a traveler leaning on his walking staff, as if taking a momentary pause from an arduous journey. He is well-equipped with a heavy cloak, water gourd, and satchel; his sober visage is crowned with thick, long locks and a broad-brimmed hat. Delicately articulated eyes gaze outward toward the viewer with an expression of pathos. Who is this man? What has he seen in his travels, and where is he going?

In Christian iconography, saints are typically identified by attributes relating to their life or martyrdom. For example, Saint Peter is often pictured holding the keys to the Kingdom of heaven promised him by Christ; else he is associated with the upside-down cross upon which he faced his final test at the hands of the Romans. Saint Paul carries the sword with which he was martyred and the book of his epistles; Saint Bartholomew bears either his skin or the knife used to flay him alive. Dozens of such examples from the Church’s artistic tradition readily come to mind.

What we see here, however, is remarkably ­different. Our traveler is Saint James the Greater (so called to distinguish him from the other Apostle James, sometimes called “the Lesser,” from Mark 15:40). Visual references to the Apostle’s 1st-­century life and death are absent. James, the first of the Apostles to be martyred (Acts 12:2), does not bear the instrument of his execution. Nor does he carry the nets he was holding when Christ first called him to become a fisher of men (Lk 5:10). Instead, the saint takes on the guise of a medieval pilgrim en route to his own shrine of Santiago de Compostela on the northwestern coast of Spain. Indications of this sacred destination adorn his accessories: the cockleshell, crossed walking staffs, and water gourd that decorate his hat, clasp, and satchel are emblematic of pilgrimage to Santiago. In fact, the statuette itself—though now on display at the Cloisters in New York City—originally hails from a Carthusian monastery located in the Spanish city of Burgos, a prominent staging post along the famed “way of Saint James.”

The Camino de Santiago

Stretching hundreds of kilometers across the French and Spanish countryside, this maze of ancient pilgrim routes converges upon the tomb of Saint James, marked by the great cathedral bearing his name (in Spanish, Sant Iago). The road extends slightly beyond this shrine; its terminus is the shore at Finisterre (from the Latin for “end of the earth”), where pilgrims often seek out a cockleshell to commemorate their journey or burn an article of clothing to recall the renunciation of their former way of life.

Tradition holds that James brought the Gospel “to Spain and the Western places” (Breviarium Apostolorum, 7th century). James’ preaching was largely unheeded; he converted only nine disciples. After his death, however, these disciples planted his body like a seed in the soil of Spain. It was only then that faith blossomed amongst the inhabitants of Iberia.

Pilgrims have embarked on the physically and spiritually rigorous trek to venerate the Apostle’s remains since the 9th century. It was at this time, according to medieval hagiography, that the tomb was discovered by the Bishop of Iria Flavia in the campus stellae, now known in Spanish as Compostela. To this day, pilgrims who have lost their bearings are instructed to follow the great swathe of the Milky Way to ensure their arrival at this “field of stars” on the Galician shore. Poetic travelers across the centuries have imagined the Milky Way as a cloud of dust rising up from the feet of millions of pilgrims.

The initial trickle of pilgrims to Compostela in the 9th and 10th centuries became a torrent by the 12th due to the promulgation of Codex Calixtinus, a detailed travel guide of the route attributed to Pope Calixtus II. This book includes liturgies, polyphonic chant, and miraculous stories associated with Saint James. It also proffers advice regarding lodging, and descriptions of must-see art along the way. Santiago’s popularity as a pilgrimage destination soared during the Middle Ages, becoming second only to Rome and Jerusalem. To this day, nearly three hundred thousand people walk the Camino annually.

Saint James, Patron of Pilgrims

Pilgrimage is physical travel in pursuit of a spiritual goal. It is a microcosm of the soul’s lifelong journey to God—the greatest of all adventures. A pilgrim lives each day with radical intentionality and utter dependence upon divine providence. When he leaves the comforts and security of home behind, illusions of self-sufficiency and control quickly dissipate. He traverses unfamiliar terrain, encounters new people and customs, and sleeps each night in a different locale. He is vulnerable to the elements and the road’s many pitfalls. He experiences his own physical limits, his dependence on others for aid, and the necessity of paring down his baggage to the bare essentials. At the same time, his spirits are buoyed by prayer, progress, and the natural beauty that surrounds him. He is encouraged by the charity of strangers and enjoys a deep camaraderie with fellow travelers striving toward the same goal. These plights and perils, ecstasies and elations involved in the pilgrim’s physical journey point to greater spiritual realities, thus imparting life-changing lessons.

Saint James, the patron of pilgrims, intimately understands the fears and difficulties of life in pursuit of the way (Jn 14:6). His own pilgrimage began when he stepped out of his father’s boat—representing all that was familiar, safe, and predictable—to follow Christ. While on earth, he traveled from the heart of the world in Jerusalem to the ends of the earth with single-hearted purpose. Now, from heaven, he faithfully accompanies those who dare to embark on their own great adventure.

Amy Giuliano

Former student of theology in Rome and current student of sacred art at Yale.

 

Saint James the Greater (1489–1493), Gil de Siloe, The Met Cloisters, New York, N.Y. Public domain.