Catedral de Santiago de Compostela

Top choice cathedral in Santiago de Compostela

Image by John Harper Getty Images

The grand heart of Santiago, the cathedral soars above the city in a splendid jumble of spires and sculpture. Built piecemeal over several centuries, its beauty is a mix of the original Romanesque structure (constructed 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 here. The cathedral's artistic high point is the Pórtico de la Gloria inside the west entrance, featuring 200 masterly Romanesque sculptures.

Over the centuries the cathedral has suffered considerable wear and tear from water seepage, settlement and humidity. With restoration work now completed on the main Baroque façade facing Praza do Obradoiro, and the Romanesque Portico da Gloria, this western section has been returned to its original glory after damage caused by centuries of damp and disrepair. The stone figures of apostles and angels glow in renewed technicolour, part of a 10-year, six-million-euro programme. Still underway are works on the interior of the 11th-century building, including the central nave and the statue of Santiago, as well as the roof. These works are expected to continue until in 2020.

The cathedral has a traditional Latin-cross layout and three naves, separated by majestic lines of Romanesque arches. The lavish baroque western facade facing Praza do Obradoiro was erected in the 18th century, replacing the weather-damaged Romanesque one. The only facade that still conserves its original Romanesque structure is the southern one from Praza das Praterías, which now serves as the main visitor entrance.

The artistically unparalleled Pórtico de la Gloria (Galician: Porta da Gloria) stands just inside the western facade. The Pórtico features 200 Romanesque sculptures by Maestro Mateo, who was placed in charge of the cathedral-building program in the late 12th century. These detailed, inspired and remarkably lifelike sculptures add up to a comprehensive review of major figures from the Bible, with the Old Testament and its prophets on the north side, the New Testament and Apostles on the south, and glory and resurrection depicted in the central archway.

The main figure in the 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). Visitors arriving in the cathedral traditionally said a brief prayer while placing their fingers in five holes above Hercules' head, created by the repetition of this very act by millions of faithful over the centuries. On the other side of the central pillar is a sculpture of Maestro Mateo. For centuries, tradition called for visitors to bump heads with the maestro to acquire some of his genius. These countless knocks led to Mateo's notably flat nose, and both he and Hercules were blocked off behind metal barriers even before the Pórtico acquired its scaffold covering in 2013.

Among the Old Testament prophets, the very bright smile on Daniel's face is, according to one legend, caused by the tightly dressed figure of Queen Esther on the pillar opposite him. Legend 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 east end of the cathedral, the fantastically elaborate, Churrigueresque Altar Mayor (High Altar) rises up from the central crossing where the transepts intersect the nave. From the right side of the ambulatory (walkway) that runs round behind the Altar Mayor, a small staircase leads up to a statue of Santiago that has watched over the cathedral since its consecration in 1211. The faithful queue up here to kiss or embrace the statue. From the statue 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).

Mass is usually celebrated at the High Altar at noon and 7.30pm daily, and at 10am and 6pm on Saturday and Sunday, and at 1.15pm on Sunday. Touristic visits are discouraged during Mass. The number of masses held in the cathedral, as well as the number of people who can attend them, will be affected by the restoration effort. When the pilgrims’ mass cannot be held in the cathedral, the service will be offered in an alternative location.

Be aware that the ongoing restoration work will mean access to some parts of the cathedral is restricted, although visitors will always be able to enter the basilica.

For wonderful views of the cathedral's interior from its upper storeys, and of the city from the cathedral roof, take a cathedral rooftop tour.