Pilgrim legends: the Cross of Santiago

One of the most international symbols of Compostela is known as the “Cross of Santiago”.

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Pilgrims and tourists who have the opportunity to visit the city are surprised by the peculiarities of this cross, which has the shape of a sword with arms topped with fleur-de-lis.

It appears on all kinds of souvenirs: T-shirts, pins, pens, caps… but what is its origin?

There are several theories:

For some, the Cross of St. James has a Christian symbolism. St. James the Apostle died beheaded as a martyr and therefore the cross would have the shape of a sword.

Many accounts, however, trace its origins to the battle of Clavijo between Moors and Christians (which took place in 844 under the reign of Ramiro I of Asturias). The Christians were victorious thanks to the miraculous intervention of the Apostle, who carried a white flag with the mythical red cross.

Centuries later, in 1160, the cross became the emblem of the Religious Military Order of Santiago. This Order was founded to protect the pilgrims who came to venerate the remains of the Apostle. The warrior-monks were easily distinguished by their clothing, on which the Cross of St. James was embroidered both on the standard and on their white cloak.

Álvaro de Luna con la capa de la Orden y cruz de Santiago al pecho, del retablo la capilla de Santiago en la Catedral de Toledo

Before them, the crusader knights carried small crosses during their campaigns in the Holy Land. These crosses were very similar in shape to the Cross of Santiago. The lower part was somewhat tapered so that they could anchor them to the ground and perform their daily devotions.

Other curiosities:

There are many traditions and historical evidences of the importance of the Cross of Santiago.

Almost all of us know the mythical painting of Las Meninas by Velázquez. Its author portrayed himself in the work carrying the Cross of Santiago on his chest, but since he received this distinction in 1659 and the painting was completed in 1656, some historians think that he “retouched” the work later to incorporate this detail.

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Within the rich Galician pastries, we have the Santiago cake, decorated with the unmistakable cross. The recipe dates back to the 16th century (the Royal Cake had very similar ingredients). However, it was not until the 20th century when the cake acquired its current appearance with the silhouette of the Cross of Santiago, the work of José Mora Soto (founder of the Moracuando house) who sought to give a different touch to almond cakes by combining them with one of the distinctive symbols of the city.

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Finally, in the sports field, the city’s soccer team (Sociedad Deportiva Compostela) also carries the Cross of Santiago on its shield, on a white and blue background.

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A symbol that we will soon identify in many aspects of everyday life during our visit to Santiago de Compostela.

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