Postcards Home | Camino de Santiago … A Modern Pilgrimage


Entering the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the smell of incense seeped into my body.  

I was taken by the expanse of the sanctuary.  Ornately painted gold and intricately carved with statues and symbols, I was in awe.  Carven angels seemed to proclaim the sanctity of the space. A few months prior, I jumped at the opportunity to travel with a group of fellow graduate students from Boston University School of Theology to Galicia, a region in Spain just north of Portugal.  We were there to learn about the history of the region and explore practices of pilgrimage.

Resting just behind and above the Cathedral altar perched a depiction of St. James the Greater, often known in the New Testament as the son of Zebedee.  His image sat surrounded by opulently decorated silver, a seat fit for divinity.  In front of the altar hung an incense censer from the transept roof, the Botafumeiro.  

Made from brass and bronze and covered in silver, the Botafumeiro was elegant.  Above, in the central dome, was a pulley system that would allow eight officials to hoist and swing it.  Although I’m not a Christian, I’d been waiting years to witness this unique ritual performance.

Santiago de Compostela, the third holiest Christian city in the world, is widely considered to be the final resting place of St. James the Greater, one of the twelve Apostles (not to be confused with St. James the Lesser, the brother of Jesus). 

Following the death of Jesus, James ventured to the region of Galicia to spread the news of Jesus.  After a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared to him on the shores of Muxía, he returned to Jerusalem, where he was executed.  Early followers of the Jesus movement took his body back to Galicia, where they buried him.

Beginning in the medieval period, Christians would make their way to the site of St. James’ body.  A small community flourished as pilgrims from across Europe made their way to the sanctified location.  In 1075 construction began on the Cathedral, directly over the body of St. James.

Today, pilgrims from across the world walk (and occasionally bike) designated traditional paths ranging from about 62 to 500 miles.  The French Way, the most popular route, generally takes five weeks to travel.  Pilgrims stop off at designated locations and get a passport stamped, this passport is then used to demonstrate their completion of the pilgrimage and earn them a certificate from the Cathedral.  Nowadays, pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago for a wide variety of reasons, both religious and non-religious.  

I first learned of the Camino in high school when I saw The Way (Emilio Estévez, 2010), a film starring Martin Sheen.  For myself, Santiago de Compostela presented an opportunity to engage directly with the cult of relics and of saints within the Catholic tradition.  With a background in the study of religion and materiality (by which I mean “stuff”), I was primed to engage with the iconic elements of ritual.  Indeed, the ritualization of walking is of central importance to the Camino pilgrimage.

During the medieval period, walking the Camino could earn one the forgiveness of sins and almost guaranteed the pilgrim entrance into heaven.  Medieval pilgrims would be buried with the iconic scallop shell, the symbol of the Camino and the Cathedral.  Maria, our guide, said it would prove to St. Peter their completion of the pilgrimage in case the heavenly angels had a clerical issue and forgot to include their name on the list!

After spending some time in Santiago, pilgrims occasionally travel another 50 miles to Cape Fisterre, known as the “end of the world.”  

This coastal location is, in many ways, the true end of the Camino.  North along the coast lies Muxía, reputedly the site of yet another holy event that might be of particular interest to those in Manchester who spend time on the water. According to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared in a stone boat to St. James at this site.  The remains of the stone boat can still be seen near the Our Lady of the Boat Church.  During the medieval period, these kinds of miracles were not examined in the same way we do today—I would not advise building a boat out of stone!  Similarly, I’ve heard it said that there are enough pieces of the True Cross (the cross Jesus was crucified on) to build a few houses—what a miracle!

In the Cathedral, our group found a spot to stand off to the side, just as a processional began.  In the middle of the processional were the relics of St. James the Lesser, the brother of Jesus.  The reliquary, containing the head of James the Lesser was carried by four devotees.  The swinging incense sanctified and blessed the congregation, the procession, and the relics.

As the relic procession encircled the congregation, it seemed as though the incense and relics of James the Lesser also consecrated and sanctified the pilgrims and all present.  Relics and reliquaries (the box holding the relics) are often believed to hold great power.  Throughout Christian history, relics have been a key mediator between humanity and divinity.  During the fifth century, when St. Simeon the Stylite (a Catholic saint who lived atop a pillar for 37 years) died, his casket was carried in a procession to its final resting place in Antioch.  As the procession passed a man, taken with a demon, thrust himself upon the casket and the demon fled his body.

It is clear that the presence of relics in Santiago de Compostela is intertwined with the Camino pilgrimage. The relics of St. James prompted the pilgrimage to start, which in turn grew the city. This, then, raised the city’s stature within medieval Christendom, allowing the Cathedral to acquire (today, we might say, steal) more relics from smaller churches across the region.

While it declined significantly in the modern period, the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage has seen a kind of renaissance in recent years.  Routinely seeing upwards of 250,000-350,000 pilgrims a year, Santiago de Compostela has maintained its status as one of the most sacred sites in Christendom.  For anyone interested in hiking, rural Spain, spiritual journeys, or medieval Christianity, Galicia is a must-see location packed with cultural history.  Beyond merely the location, traveling with this group of peers was a rewarding experience.  It allowed me to experience the trip through the eyes of others with different interests and backgrounds.  Just as the pilgrims of the Middle Ages would, we journeyed together, grew together, and learned together.

When he’s not traveling and working on his postgraduate degree, you can find John B. Newhall at Manchester By The Book, where he works most days.

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