Rituals of pilgrims entering the Cathedral

A detail that usually provokes the interest and curiosity of pilgrims who come to Compostela from other parts of Spain or outside the country, is the large number of traditions and rituals that have survived the passage of centuries and continue to be practiced today.

However, we must distinguish between those that have their roots in the liturgy and more or less preserved unadulterated until now, from those that come from popular traditions or superstitions of different times and have evolved to lose part of its meaning or give rise to confusion of all kinds.

In today’s article we will talk about these rites and ceremonies that are practiced in a devout way (both those spread by the Church itself and those that have something popular or folkloric).

* The opening of the Holy Door: the Holy Door or Door of Forgiveness has the peculiarity that it is only opened in Holy Year, that is, when the Apostle’s Day coincides with Sunday.

How is the ceremony performed?

The prelate, dressed as a pontiff, leaves through the door of Platerías accompanied by an entourage of bishops, canons and faithful and goes to the Plaza de la Quintana where the Holy Door is, closed with a weak stone wall that the prelate hits with a silver hammer while repeating: “Open to me the doors of the house in which the just man dwells”. The fall of the wall symbolizes forgiveness and the beginning of the Jubilee year. According to some scholars, this ceremony represents the descent of the soul of the Apostle Santiago to the tomb and his subsequent ascension to heaven.


* Indulgences: there are many texts on the numerous ways to obtain indulgences in the Cathedral of Compostela. What happens is that most of the authors of these books documented their impressions of the moment and the information seems very saturated.

This is the case, for example, of Nicola Albani, who made a pilgrimage to Santiago in 1743 and speaks in his guide of some holy places in the Cathedral. For example, he says that near the choir “there is a small bronze column, where they say there is the staff that was used by the apostle Santiago, and in this column there is a small hole, just so that the four tips of the fingers of the hand can enter, and by inserting the fingers and touching it many indulgences can be gained”.

Other places where it is possible to gain indulgences according to Albani are the chapel of Our Lady of Mercy, the chapel of the souls of Purgatory or the chapel of the Immaculate Conception. He also tells us of a marble with a hole in the middle that “is right above the cupola della cappella maggiore, dove giace il corpo di San Giacomo”. By inserting one’s fingers in it one gains many indulgences granted by various supreme pontiffs.

* The embrace of the Apostle: the famous “aperta al Apostolo” is the reason for the longest queues of people in the Cathedral. This tradition has not been exempt, however, from certain misgivings on the part of some pilgrims. For example, Cosimo de Medici records with astonishment how the Apostle changed his hat hundreds of times a day each time he was embraced (pilgrims formerly wore hats): “(…) and it is an indecent and ridiculous thing to see that people, not knowing where to leave their hats while embracing the statue of the Apostle, place them on the head of the Saint, who, seen from the church, changes his hat at every moment…”.

Nowadays to comply with this rite is much less picturesque although it is not without effort, since sometimes we must wait even hours in line before being able to approach the image of the Apostle.


* Praying at the tomb of the Apostle: after embracing the figure of the Apostle, we will go down some stairs that lead us to the sacred Crypt. Here the most devout pilgrims can address their prayers to the Saint.

The remains contained in the tomb have never been exposed to visitors. Jerónimo Munzer, a pilgrim in 1494, tells us that “(…) It is believed that he is buried there, but no one has seen his body, not even the King of Castile when he was there in 1487. We believe by faith, which is what saves us miserable mortals”.

And the truth is that, despite the fact that the authenticity of the Apostle’s remains has been questioned since Luther’s time, believers who visit the tomb claim to feel great energy and inner peace. For them, the prayer to the Apostle has a great significance compared to other pilgrims who undertake their tour to Santiago de Compostela for cultural reasons or for the vital experience that the trip itself provides.

* The croque al maestro Mateo: this is one of the most curious traditions that pilgrims fulfill when entering the Cathedral.

Master Mateo (creator of the imposing Pórtico de la Gloria), represented himself at the foot of the central mullion, kneeling and looking towards the main altar. His serene gaze and his curly hair attracted the attention of pilgrims since ancient times, confusing him with a saint. Thus was born the tradition of the “Santo dos Croques” which basically consists of banging your head against the hard granite of the image so that the intelligence of the supposed saint is transmitted to the pilgrim (the word “croque” in Galician language means “blow given or received on the head”). This curious ritual has its origin in a set of errors: first of all because as we said before, the figure of Master Mateo does not belong to any saint; but, in addition, there is a linguistic confusion: on this occasion the word “croque” comes from the language of Oc or Provençal, where it means “loop”, so it would actually be “the saint of the curly hair”, being totally unnecessary to give “croques” (blows in Galician) with the head (something somewhat uncomfortable and dangerous).

To make matters worse, many pilgrims get confused by hitting themselves against the wrong figure: the strong man holding the monsters under the mullion (remember that the figure of Master Mateo is on the inner side, facing the altar).


* Imposition of fingers: it has its origin in pagan traditions. The Portico de la Gloria is divided in two by a tree-shaped mullion. On its base are represented monsters, infernal forces contained by a strong man (referred to in the previous section), perhaps representing the pagan Heracles or the biblical Samson. Pilgrims have been running their fingers along this shaft for centuries, making it a ritual. It is thought that by doing so, one obtains five graces (one for each finger) or some kind of protection against evil demons.


* Pilgrim’s Mass: in Santiago de Compostela several pilgrim’s masses are celebrated every day (usually at 12:00 and 18:00 hours). Pilgrims are blessed in all languages and sometimes you can also see the “botafumeiro” a giant incense burner whose aroma is identified with many traditions and stories linked to the pilgrimage route.

We leave you to finish our article today with a video-documentary broadcasted in ‘España Directo’ where we see to what extent some confusions have spread about the traditions that pilgrims follow when entering the Cathedral.

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