- St James Way -Photographic journey
Tradition has it that the apostle James the Elder, brother of John the Evangelist, travelled to western Europe after Christ’s death in order to spread the Gospel in the Iberian peninsula, from the North to Galicia; once his mission was accomplished, he went back to Jerusalem.
King Herod Agrippa condemned him to martyrdom in the year 44. A few Disciples took James’ mortal remains away to put them on a boat that went to sea and guided by an angel”, navigated “till it reached the Iberian shores of Iria Flavia, now known as Padrón. History and legend merge in time but some texts, dating back as far as the 7th and 8th. century, prove the existence of the sepulchre of Saint James in Spain. Sometime around the year 813, Pelagius the hermit saw an illuminating star every night, as if it were a signal, a field (campo). It became the “field of the star”, campus stellae; the etymology of Compostela is therefore obvious. A premonitory dream, or rather, the apparition of Saint James inviting him to find the sepulchre, led the hermit to discover the tomb thanks to the help of Theodore, the bishop of Iria Flavia. In a difficult period for relations with the advancing Arabian culture, Christianity fostered the worship of Saint James and more frequent pilgrimages to strengthen the bulwark of a religion and followers against the spread of Islamic doctrines.
During the first half of the 12th.century, Aymerico Picaud, a French monk - maybe a Cluriac monk - wrote the “Liber Sancti Jacobi”, also known as the Callistine Code (Codex Calixtinus), the pilgrim’s guide, and authentic historical treasure, now kept in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
Such a book became a fundamental comfort to travellers for centuries; it traces the routes that converged, coming from all of Europe, maps down the pilgrims’ way, takes them through the sedimentation of history and legend, mysticism and worship, and to the sepulchre of the Saint. It bears a shell for symbol; or it could be the pilgrim’s primary symbol for this journey. It is a “Pecten pilgrimea” shell, commonly called scallop, but also defined “pilgrim” for its funded tradition of the pilgrim’s symbology and, especially because it is a characteristic of the devotee travelling to Santiago de Compostela. There are a number of different reasons for that.
It is clear that in antiquity the shell was a metaphor for birth and life, concept that may be extended to the soul, to purification and to the life of the spirit. In the frescoes of Pompei, as it can also be seen in Botticelli’s painting, Venus comes to life in a shell. The shell, or rather its content, represents the basic nourishment of the costal populations, therefore life. But Christian tradition also considered the shell as the symbol of a tomb that closes. The radius structure of the shell can be compared to the radius of the star that indicated the field of the Saint’s grave. And, finally, one must bare in mind that such shells could easily be found along the shores around Santiago de Compostela; there where the world seemed to end, last stretch of land before the endless ocean, that last stretch called Finistère, which obviously derives from finis terrae. That is where the pilgrims would go at the end of their journey; tradition has it that they would pick up a shell as a proof that they had achieved their goal.
Then the shell became the symbol of the pilgrim and a public declaration of faith; it distinguishes the traveller and the feeling of the pilgrims’ way, it becomes an emblem and a pass along the stages of the route and the rest stops.
The origins of Saint James’ Way can be traced back to the ninth century; then the news spread, the finds of the apostle’s mortal remains were officially recognised, and the pilgrimage became customary for the European Catholics. They would reach Santiago de Compostela from different parts of the continent: from the North, from the East, travelling by sea along the French and Italian coasts, and then starting to walk along the pilgrims’ way. The pilgrims that came from Northern Europe, Belgium, Germany and from beyond the English Channel, would travel along the “via turonselle”, the route that came from the city of Tours and crossed Paris, and which still is rich with treasures from the passage of the Scandinavian devotees.
The “via lemovicense” passes through Flemish villages, the extreme north of the continent and crosses Limoges. From Bourgogne and central German regions, the pilgrims would continue along the “via podense”, named after Notre Dame de Puy. And finally, the “via tolosana”, named after the city of Toulouse, leads to the pass of Somport; and from there on, in Spain, the way took its real name: “Camino de Santiago” (Sant Iago) – Saint James’ Way.
It was the most suitable route for the Italian pilgrims, and the city of Arles served as a meeting point. With time, an alternative route emerged, also as a result of Charlemagne’s legendary exploits. This lead the pilgrims to cross the Pyrenees, through the pass of Roncisvalle, reviving the gestures and myths of the paladins and Charlemagne. These main and established routes were joined by other routes that became increasingly important, both from a historic and social-economic standpoint.
The “Niederstrasse” that passed through Brussels, Amiens and Paris, forked in with the “via turonselle”. In the south, the “Oberstrasse” ran from Einsielden’s Sanctuary, through Bern, Lausanne, Genève, Chambery and Valence, and met with the via tolosana in Saint Gilles. The Italian pilgrims, and many others from overseas, would reach our coasts, and take the two main routes. The “via delle Alpi, from Milan, Avignon, Novara, Vercelli, Turin, Susa, Monginevro and Briançon. Or, the “via costiera”, which would also lead to Avignon, travelling along the Ligurian coast, on the via Aurelia.
In the south, the Pilgrims would take these arterial roads and follow the plotted routes of the “via francigena”, the route taken by devotees coming from the North and from the West to Rome; they would cross Siena, Lucca, Fidenza, Piacenza, Pavia, all the way to the Great San Bernard Pass. The eastern devotees, coming from the Adriatic coast and from Countries beyond the Balkans, would take the “via postumia". The pilgrims would begin their long journey following the example and the tradition of their predecessors, almost repeating, through symbols, gestures and customs, an obligatory route that would represent less space for freedom of faith, fascination and cultural growth. The journey held the promise of encountering people of other nationalities, languages, and customs; such contacts and relationships were favoured by their common devotion, and would bring people closer despite their ethnical and cultural differences. Traditions, tales, myths and legends blended with the travelling experiences, and each and everyone became its bearer, witness and propagator through the intensity of the message.
Solidarity and the shared experience of the Way fostered a sense of community ; it broke down barriers and racial differences. Hostels, hospices, monasteries, hospitals, churches and markets were built along the routes of the pilgrimage; commercial activities proliferated, and places of worship multiplied. A benevolent and sympathetic social fabric, which later on became organised and structural, emerged along the various stages of the Way, and added an increasingly developed and modern social aspect to the religious one. The plotted route that used to be defined as “iter Sancti Jacobi” and which then became “Camino de Santiago” would develop along the European route into a site for trade, meetings, communication and information: a prelude, centuries ahead of time, to dialog and cooperation between people. But the spread of trade and crafts along Saint James’ Way not only fulfilled an economic purpose; it also represented a constant and increasing comfort and support for the pilgrims who over the centuries, more than ten centuries, have walked along the plotted route, devoted to a choice and hoping for an encounter. The mysticism of the way is obviously made of personal motivation, but it is also increased, even nowadays, by the awareness that millions of precursors, ideal travel companions, have travelled along that route beset with difficulties and dangers, especially if we think back in time, but which is at the same time full of natural charm, interpretative freedom, absolute dreams, images and imagination, oral and literary traditions of epic gestures, myths and legends.
The traditional iconography passes down the image of the pilgrim wearing a huge mantle with an empty calabash gourd around his waist to serve as a water flask, robust shoes, a large brim hat, both for the sun and rain, and long stick, called “bordón”, to help him on the steepest stretches of the Camino and to defend himself from snakes, dogs, wolves and ne’erdowells. The shell, symbol of the pilgrim, is the emblem hostels and refuges would use as a sign of hospitality and rest for the traveller. Nowadays, the pilgrim recognises the traditional iconography even though it has undergone some changes. He still travels long stretches of the Camino by foot, bicycle, horse back riding, as prescribed by the liturgical rule for the concession of indulgence, which has gone through various distinctions and levels over the years, and which is plenary with special prerogatives for Saint James’ Way, since Saint James is celebrated on Holy Years, each time the 25th. of July falls on a Sunday. Nowadays, a thousand years after the first pilgrimage, devotees from all over the world still walk those routes; they have the best equipment but they still are looking forward to contemplating the Milky Way which was thought to end in Finistère; they are able to communicate through most sophisticated technologies but most of all determined to find an answer in the most simple shared values of humanity: faith, belief, the conviction of promptings of their soul. One after the other, thousands of proofs, first legendary and then historical, demonstrate the importance of Saint James’ Way. In conclusion, here are two or three quotes that provide accurate accounts of what it means to travel to the end of Saint James’ Way. Dante Alighieri, in Vita Nova, writes: there are two meanings to the word pilgrim; a broad and a strict one. The broad sense is used to indicate anyone who has left his own homeland; the strict sense is used to indicate none other than those going to Saint Iago’s (James in Spanish) place, or those laughing. One should know that there are three proper ways to call those who go to the service of the Almighty: they are called palmers when going overseas, where they more than once carried a palm; they are called peregrines when going to the house of Galicia, even if Saint James’ grave were farther from his homeland than from any other apostle’s; they are called romeos when they are going to Rome….” testifying and representing a relevant source of the historical and religious roots of Saint James’ Way. And with the sudden leap from the profane to the sacred, in 1982, Pope John Paul the 2nd. said before thousands of followers gathered in Santiago de Compostela: “From Santiago de Compostela, I launch an appeal to you, old Europe, an appeal full of love, to discover yourself, to be yourself. To go back to your origins and to live once more those values that made your history glorious…” The Pope’s words were filled with thousands of years of history that belongs to the worship of Saint James, with devoted pilgrims, and with the history of Europe which is encountered and founded around the routes of civilisation, beyond the barriers of different cultures and of nations. Finally, to conclude with the simplicity of the man in the street, because it is there that you will find the pilgrim, history, religion, ethnical, political, social and cultural diversities; there people meet, and personal gifts become community, a simple and true witness, a sentence from the great message enunciated with sincere spontaneity : “Dios me dió mas de lo que como”, God gave me more than what I eat. That is the genuine expression, authentic in its synthesis and form, of a peasant offering us hospitality and who insisted, before all our timid hesitation, on offering us a place to rest in his house. When we asked why he was so forthcoming and so open to others, he tackled a great theme with but a few words: the fortune of having a lot, the moral need to share with others.
One more teaching from Saint James’ Way. Before achieving the goal, the sepulchre of the Saint, the closest place to the intensity of worship and prayer, even more than the sacredness of the places and of the historical and religious heritage, the way is about encounters between men. It is rooted in geography, time, in man’s itinerary. As if repetition of gestures, travelling along the same routes, had stopped the calender in order to sanction a dateless reality.