Catedral de Santiago de Compostela

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Catedral de Santiago de Compostela information

Santiago de Compostela , Spain
Praza do Obradoiro
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The grand heart of Santiago, the cathedral soars above the city centre in a splendid jumble of moss-covered spires and statues. Built piecemeal over several centuries, its beauty is a mix of the original Romanesque structure (built between 1075 and 1211) and later Gothic and baroque flourishes. The tomb of Santiago beneath the main altar is a magnet for all who come to the cathedral. The artistic high point is the Pórtico de la Gloria inside the west entrance, featuring 200 masterly Romanesque sculptures.

What we see today is actually the fourth church to stand on this spot. It has a traditional Latin-cross layout and three naves. The lavish baroque facade facing Praza do Obradoiro was erected in the 18th century, replacing the weather-damaged Romanesque one. This is the cathedral's main entrance, but owing to repair work on the towers and interior, it's likely to be closed until about 2021. In the meantime, most people enter through the south door on Praza das Praterías (beneath the only facade that conserves its original Romanesque structure).

The artistically unparalleled Pórtico de la Gloria (Galician: Porta da Gloria), just inside the Obradoiro entrance, features 200 Romanesque sculptures by Maestro Mateo, who was placed in charge of the cathedral-building program in the late 12th century. These detailed and inspired sculptures add up to a comprehensive review of major figures from the Bible, with the Old Testament on the left (looking from the Obradoiro doorway), the New Testament on the right, and glory and resurrection depicted in the central archway. The restoration work means, unfortunately, that you may find the portico partly obscured by scaffolding.

The main figure in the portico's central archway is a throned, resurrected Christ, surrounded by the four Evangelists plus angels and symbols of Jesus' passion. In an arc above are the 24 musicians said in Revelations to sit around the heavenly throne. Below Christ's feet is Santiago, and below him Hercules (holding open the mouths of two lions). On the other side of the central pillar is Maestro Mateo. For centuries, tradition called for visitors to bump heads with the maestro to acquire some of his genius. But countless knocks led to Mateo's notably flat nose, and he is now blocked off behind a metal barrier. Another tradition called for a brief prayer as visitors placed their fingers in five holes in the pillar above Hercules' head, created by the repetition of this very act by millions of faithful over the centuries. Hercules too is now blocked off.

The large, remarkably lifelike figures on the right-hand pillars of the portico are apostles; those on the left are Old Testament prophets. The very bright smile on the prophet Daniel's face is, in popular belief, caused by the tightly dressed figure of Queen Esther on the pillar opposite him. Local lore also has it that Esther's stone breasts were originally much larger, but were filed down on orders of a disapproving bishop – to which townspeople responded by inventing Galicia's cone-shaped tetilla (nipple) cheese in Esther's honour.

Towards the far (west) end of the cathedral's main nave, to the right of the fantastically elaborate, Churrigueresque Altar Mayor (Main Altar), a small staircase leads up to a statue of Santiago which has watched over the cathedral since its consecration in 1211. The faithful queue up to kiss or embrace the statue. From here you emerge on the left side, then descend some steps into the Cripta Apostólica , where we are assured Santiago's remains lie, inside a large 19th-century silver casket. Behind the Altar Mayor is the Puerta Santa , which opens onto Praza da Quintana and is cracked open only in holy years (next in 2021).

A special pilgrims' Mass is usually celebrated at noon daily, with other Masses usually at 9.30am or 10am daily, 1.15pm Sunday, 6pm Saturday and Sunday, and 7.30pm daily. Touristic visits are discouraged during these services.