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Obradoiro square in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia (Spain), Saint James the Greater.

Who is Buried in the Famous Shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela?


The legend of the Apostle John’s brother is one of the most important stories in Spanish Christianity. According to legend, a man who was a friend of Jesus is buried in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

Legends say that the remains of St James were transported from Jerusalem to Galicia, where he was buried in the small city of Pradon, and later transported to the church in Santiago de Compostela, which is now one of the most important religious centers in all of Europe. However, many researchers still question the identity of the remains buried in Galicia.

The crypt of power in Santiago de Compostela

It is not easy to enter the crypt in the cathedral. Due to the popularity of the site, numerous people wait for the moment when they are able to take a look at the coffin or to pray to St James. Inside the little crypt, where only a few people can stand at any time, there is a small coffin.

In the oldest part of the cathedral, in a small niche, there are human remains, which some people believe answer prayers and makes dreams come true. To them, St James resides within the cathedral walls and listens to their prayers then turns them into reality.

Saint James on the middle pier.

Saint James on the middle pier. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The church has been visited by many famous people. Catherine of Aragon went there to ask St James for help before she left for London, and Jacques de Molay also visited the church at the end of the 13th century. Kings and queens of Spain have asked St James for support during the most important political events - creating the history of Spain and its colonies. From the 9th century until today, people from all over the world have traveled to the crypt. All of these people believe that they worship the real remains of a man who knew Jesus within the shrine.

The Man in the Coffin

James was the son of Zebedee and Salome and brother of John the Apostle. His date of birth is unknown, but he apparently died in 44 AD. He is known as James the Greater and is the patron of Spain. He was the first apostle who was martyred. In the Bible, he appears as James, but he is also known in texts also as Iago, Tiago, Sanctus Iacobus, and Santiago. James and John were nicknamed as the ''Sons of Thunder'', due to their impulsive temperaments. James was allegedly one of the closest people to Jesus and the only apostle who was with him during the two most important moments in his life. He appeared during the transfiguration on Mount Tabor and the prayer in the Garden, but also during the resurrection on the shores of Lake Tiberias.

Statue of St. James the Greater in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran by Camillo Rusconi.

Statue of St. James the Greater in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran by Camillo Rusconi. (CC BY 2.5)

Numerous scholars suggest that the cult of St James in Spain has not been around longer than the 9th century AD, this suggests that it is unlikely that the remains belong to the apostle from the times of Jesus. There is also no record connected with his grave from a period before early medieval times.

Who is in the Coffin?

James is believed to have been killed in Jerusalem. Sources say that his remains were traveling to Galicia. However, it is hard to say for certain who is buried in the catacombs in Santiago de Compostela. More than a few possible answers are reasonable. Some archaeological studies suggest that the skeleton in the silver coffin may come from a pre-Christian cemetery located near the current cathedral. Another hypothesis suggests that it could be the remains of Prisciliano of Avila, a Spanish bishop accused of heresy.

Relics of St James, Photo by Diego Delso.

Relics of St James, Photo by Diego Delso. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Apart from the coffin with the remains of St James, there is one more biblical artifact in Galicia. In the Romanic church in Cambre, near A Coruña is a nearly 2000-year-old artifact. Legend says that it was transported from Jerusalem to Galicia. Research performed by Galician archaeologists suggests that it may be true. Is this object connected with the remains of St James? It seems unlikely, although the story of the ancient remains still brings more questions than answers.

According to another story, which is dated to the 16th century, the relics had to be hidden to prevent pirates from taken them. For example, it is possible that Francis Drake wanted to steal the remains and transport them to the harbor in A Coruña, which is located in the north of the region, and then take them to London.

The excavations performed in the 19th century proved that the remains of St James had been misplaced, and reappeared under the main altar of the church. In 1884, Pope Leo XIII visited Santiago de Compostela and officially identified the remains. The Pope described it in the Bull Omnupotens Deus, published on November 1, 1884.

Continued Pilgrimage

Regardless if the relic of St James is real or not, thousands of people visit the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela each year to hold a statue of St James and ask him for help in their obstacles, thank him for support and make a wish. The cross of St James continues to be the most important symbol of the region. The symbol of the shell, worn by pilgrims, is an iconic motif for all of the people who follow the cult of St James or of those who journey the Camino de Santiago, which begins in many parts of Europe, but ends in one place – the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

Pórtico da Gloria, Collotype 1889.

Pórtico da Gloria, Collotype 1889. (Public Domain)

Featured image: Obradoiro square in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia (Spain) (CC BY-SA 3.0), Saint James the Greater. (Public Domain)

By Natalia Klimczak



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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