Altarpiece of the altarpiece of the main chapel
Altarpiece of the altarpiece of the main chapel

El Trasaltar

Resumen:

The Trasaltar puts us in immediate visual contact with the apostolic urn, the Locus Sancti Iacobi from which the Jacobean phenomenon was born. It is accompanied and closed by large stained glass windows framed and decorated in bronze. The little angels that surround the trasaltar and main altar with their extended hand carried lamps that would illuminate these spaces.

An altarpiece illustrates episodes of the Jacobean life, and recalls with some granite and marble fragments the Arca Marmorica and the first altars of the Cathedral. On the sides of this altarpiece, there are two urns that were used as a deposit of the sacred forms in the World Youth Day of 1989.

Apostolic urn seen from the trasaltar
Apostolic urn seen from the trasaltar


History of Trasaltar

The Cathedral is a "pilgrimage church". Its design and construction were conceived for pilgrims, who flock to it by the millions since its first years, in the 11th century. This model of church, of which the basilica of Santiago is paradigmatic, is shared by other French temples located on the Camino. They are the church of Saint Faith of Conques, Saint Saturnin of Toulouse, Saint Martial of Limoges and Saint Martin of Tours.

They are large churches, with three or five naves covered with vaults, and with a main chapel surrounded by the ambulatory, an aisle that allows pilgrims to circulate around the relics without interfering with the worship of the main altar. In the ambulatory there are other smaller chapels where private celebrations for groups, worship of other saints or as burial places.

In these chapels of the ambulatory an important event of the pilgrim's journey took place: the delivery of the certificate of having completed the pilgrimage, the so-called "Compostela", sealed and signed by the prelate. The ceremony took place in the Chapel of the Savior. In front of this chapel, at the back of the presbytery, there was formerly another chapel, called the Chapel of the Magdalena.

We have evidence of the existence of the Chapel of the Magdalena from times prior to the Baroque reform of the Main Chapel, in the 17th century. Gelmirez, when erecting his baldachin in the 12th century, levelled the ground by demolishing the upper part of the Roman mausoleum in which tradition places the body of St. James.

It seems that, at that time, this chapel was already in its back part. This would have been closed with bars, since the first archbishop of Santiago took refuge in it when a mob assaulted the works of the great cathedral, still under construction. The attackers tried to stone the prelate from the upper part, which indicates the existence of some kind of tribune. This "tribune" at the back of the main altar of Santiago would be a constant throughout the history of the Cathedral.

From its consecration in 1211 to the present day, a figure of St. James, from the workshop of Master Mateo, was - and is - venerated by pilgrims. From the altar and by means of simple wooden ladders, the medieval pilgrims climbed up to have a certain "physical experience" with the saint. It seems that with the work of the altar of Gelmirez, all access to the sancta sanctorum, the apostolic tomb, was closed, although its main altar allowed a certain visual contact with that sacred place.

But it was the moment of embracing the figure of the saint that was the true end point of the pilgrimage. In addition to this embrace, the pilgrims placed on their heads a silver crown fastened with a chain with the Apostle, a privilege reserved for pilgrims according to some chronicles. Here were also venerated some relics that tradition associates with the pilgrimage and Santiago himself, such as a knife, the staff or the hat.

When the pilgrims embrace the Apostle of the high altar they see the naves of the cathedral.
When the pilgrims embrace the Apostle of the high altar they see the naves of the cathedral. Detail of the replica of the baroque chasuble and one of the chandeliers in the presbytery.
Detail of the capulin on the shrine of the embrace of the Apostle.
Detail of the capulin on the shrine of the embrace of the Apostle.
Access door to the stairs of the embrace. They open to the ambulatory of the cathedral.
Access door to the stairs of the embrace. They open to the ambulatory of the cathedral.

This space of the altar occupied by the chapel of the Magdalena was also the place where the first mass of the day took place, so it also received the name of "Capilla de Prima". The "Prima", the first mass of the day was a minor mass for the common people, as opposed to the choir mass celebrated later in the morning at the main altar, which was for the chapter and ecclesiastical dignitaries. The function of Prima Chapel was later moved to the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, in the north arm of the transept. For the "major" celebrations, the part of the transept was used as a sacristy, appearing in the sources as the "High Sacristy".

In the 16th century, during the reign of Alfonso III de Fonseca, it was decided to remove the other altar dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament from the back of the main altar, moving it to the central chapel of the ambulatory in 1522. Ten years later, the definitive dismantling of that chapel, already in poor condition, was ordered. That back part was left as a simple "high sacristy", surrounding the whole enclosure with a grille by Guillén de Bourse and Pedro Flamenco, of which only some fragments have come down to us, converted into a tenebrarium and a candlestick for the paschal candle.

However, in the fifties of the 16th century the monstrance made by Antonio de Arfe, which today is conserved in the Museum, was placed again in this part of the chancel, and at the same time the space was retouched. However, most of the main altar and the altar rail from the time of Gelmirez are still preserved.

In the same 16th century, new transformations of the space were made in Renaissance style with the tables of Juan Bautista Celma, made for the later closing of the main chapel around 1569. As we can see in the example preserved in the Cathedral Museum, and in spite of having almost completely lost the closing composition, these were five large panels painted on both sides, with a great quality and Italian mannerist style.

The double face allowed the diffusion of an iconographic program towards the part of the ambulatory and another towards the interior of the presbytery. Thus, on the inside the episodes of the life and passion of Christ are narrated; and on the outside, the glorious mysteries of the rosary. As a whole, this would be the appearance of the Cathedral's trasaltar in 1589.

Because of the fear that the English pirate Sir Francis Drake would assault the temple and steal the relics, thus attacking Catholicism and the papal authority of Rome, this same year the archbishop Juan de Sanclemente hid, by candlelight and with the approval of the chapter, the remains of Santiago and his two disciples. Drake was repelled in A Coruña by the troops commanded by the Marquis of Cerralbo with the popular help led by María Pita. Saint Clement, who always refused to let the relics leave his sanctuary, took the secret of the hiding place to the tomb in 1602.

The remains remained hidden until the excavations carried out by Canon López Ferreiro in the time of Cardinal Payá, in 1879, which brought to light such important relics. They had been hidden not far from their original location, the trasaltar, just where today the paving of the basilica shows a big star. They had been buried, as tradition would have it, with traces of wax around the hiding place from the candles used in the turbulent moment of their concealment.

The present marble floor of the cathedral marks the site of the rediscovery of the bones of St. James.
The current marble floor of the cathedral, laid in the mid-20th century, marks the site of the rediscovery of the bones of St. James in the ambulatory, behind the high altar.

The rediscovery was certified by Pope Leo XIII and his bull Deus Omnipotens which marked, along with other events, the resurgence of the apostolic cult and the pilgrimage to Compostela. The relics were moved to their original mausoleum, under the main altar. López Ferreiro directed the works, aimed at transforming the space and opening it to the public by means of small stairs right on the border between the main altar and the altarpiece.

Right there, an altarpiece by Pedro del Valle illustrates episodes of the Jacobean life, and recalls with some granite and marble fragments the Arca Marmorica and the first altars of the Cathedral. On the sides of this altarpiece, there are two urns that were used as a deposit of the sacred forms in the World Youth Day of 1989, celebrated in the Monte del Gozo of Santiago.

Altarpiece of the altarpiece of the main chapel
Altarpiece of the altarpiece of the main chapel

Thus, the Cathedral's ambulatory is not only a place of passage from one side of the basilica to the other. As we have seen, it underwent important transformations until it reached its present appearance. The open transept did not lose its great importance because it was less important than the main altar. Let us not forget that it is the first thing we see of the interior of the temple when entering through the Holy Door.

The transaltar puts us in immediate visual contact with the apostolic urn, the raison d'être of the church. It is accompanied and closed by large stained glass windows framed and decorated in bronze, cast in Ferrol in 1818 by Andrés Antelo and paid for by Archbishop Rafael Muzquiz. The little angels that surround the transaltar and main altar with their outstretched hand carried lamps that would illuminate these spaces. These lamps, like an old botafumeiro, disappeared during the War of Independence against the French, at the beginning of the 19th century.

Closure of the main chapel seen from the ambulatory.
Closure of the main chapel seen from the ambulatory. The Solomonic columns, the stained glass windows with their bronzes and the angels carrying lamps.
Detail of one of the angels on the Solomonic columns of the main chapel closure.
Detail of one of the angels on the Solomonic columns of the main chapel closure.

Inside the Cathedral

Enter a world of wonder and splendor where history comes alive! The interior of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is a feast for the senses, a sanctuary of heavenly beauty that leaves everyone who has the privilege of crossing its thresholds speechless. From the moment you step inside, you are enveloped by an atmosphere of mysticism and grandeur, with its high vaults that seem to touch the sky and its columns that tell stories of forgotten times. Every corner oozes art and devotion, from the impressive golden altarpieces to the delicate stained glass windows that filter divine light. Walking through its corridors is like walking through a labyrinth of wonders, where each chapel and altar reveals treasures of faith and culture. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is not only a place of worship, it is a portal to the transcendental, an experience that transforms hearts and elevates the spirit, a visit that leaves an indelible mark on the soul!