About Saint James

The Camino de Santiago is sometimes referred to as the Pilgrimage of Compostela, or in English as the Way of Saint James. It is a network of pilgrims’ ways that serves the pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James the Great at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.

Saint James was born approximately 3 AD and died 41 years later in 44 AD. James was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, also called the Twelve Disciples, and he is widely regarded as the first apostle to be martyred. James was the son of Salome and Zebedee, the brother of John the Apostle and is sometimes called James the Great or James the Greater to help distinguish him from James son of Alphaeus and James brother of Jesus. He is the patron saint of Spaniards and Portuguese.

The Legend of Saint James

According to legend, Saint James’ remains are held in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Northwestern Spain. The pilgrimage to his grave has been popular with Western European Catholics since the Early Middle Ages. The pilgrimage is especially special when July 25th falls on a Sunday as July 25th is the feast day for Saint James. It is considered a jubilee year when July 25th falls on a Sunday, or Santo Jubilar Compostelano as it is said in Spain, and the Santiago Cathedral opens a special east door its entrance. These special jubilee years fall every five, six and 11 years with the most recent taking place in 2010. The next three such Holy Days will occur in 2021, 2027 and 2032. It was at the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of St. James in the Armenia Quarter of Jerusalem where the head of Saint James is said to be buried. King Agrippas ordered James to be beheaded and his head is buried under the altar and marked with red marble surrounded by six votive lamps.

Saint James Returns to Spain

There are a couple of stories regarding how Saint James’ body ended up in Santiago. The most common is that after his martyrdom, James’ disciples carried his body by sea to Iberia ad they landed on the coast of Galicia. The disciples then took James’ body for burial at Santiago de Compostela. Another version of events is that James’ body was taken by angels after his beheading by Herod Agrippa and it sailed in a rudderless, unattended boat to Iberia where a massive rock closed around his relics and they were later removed to Compostela. Saint James is synonymous with the scallop symbol as it is believed that the boat he his body was sailing on back to Santiago hit rocks and when it was recovered it was undamaged and covered in scallops.

The symbol of Saint James, the scallop, is also called a cockle shell. Pilgrims often wear this symbol on their clothes. Three languages pay homage to Saint James in their name for cockle shells. The Dutch word for a cockle shell is “Jacobsschelp” or “shell of St. James.” Germans call cockle shells “Jakobsmuschel” or “clam of St. James” in English while the French refer to cockle shells as “coquille St. Jacques.

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