What happens next has, over the centuries, become a highly ritualized set of actions. After climbing the cathedral stairs and entering its doors, the first sight that greets pilgrims is the spectacular Portico de la Gloria, an entryway of carved stone that is considered one of the masterpieces of medieval art. The entryway was created over a twenty-year period by the master sculptor Mateo, who finished the remarkable frieze in 1188. Carved into its center column is the figure of St. James, while above him Christ sits surrounded by his disciples and dozens of other religious figures and motifs, a work one could easily spend a day contemplating (indeed, in the Middle Ages such works were said to be the Bible of the poor).
Pilgrims are instructed to place their hand on the pillar where St. James stands, finding the deep grooves formed by the hands of the millions of travelers who have come here before them. As they touch the pillar, they are to say the prayer of petition that has brought them on pilgrimage. Then they walk to the other side of the column where a small statue stands, a figure that is believed to be the self-portrait of the stonemason Mateo. To receive some of the master’s wisdom, they must knock their forehead three times gently on his head.
And then, at last, one can contemplate the interior of the cathedral. At the end of the long center aisle, a dazzling Baroque altar blazes with gold. It includes three depictions of St. James: as teacher, pilgrim, and knight. But this magnificent, overwhelmingly ornate altar welcomes pilgrims in a surprisingly intimate way: visitors are invited to climb the stairs that lead to an area behind the altar, where they can embrace the gilded statue of St. James from behind, wrapping their arms around him in a hug. After this familial embrace, pilgrims descend into the crypt where the saint’s relics are kept in a silver casket. The final pilgrim’s task is to attend a mass in the cathedral.
If pilgrims are fortunate, they can time their visit to coincide with a service during which the cathedral’s botafumeiro, a huge incensory made of silver-plated brass, is used. During special services at the cathedral, the 170-pound censer swings like an enormous pendulum through the sanctuary, leaving behind a trail of smoke and the fragrance of incense.
In this hushed sanctuary, an air of holiness is palpable. The cathedral seems filled with the petitions of the millions of pilgrims who have journeyed here over the centuries, bringing their prayers, hopes, dreams, and pleadings for mercy. After traveling so far to arrive here, many people spend hours in contemplation in the church, clearly reluctant to end their pilgrimage.