Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Legend of St James the Greater

In the Synoptic Gospels, St James the Greater appears as a particularly prominent figure among the Twelve Apostles. When the names of the Twelve are given as a group, he always appears in the first set of four, along with the brothers Peter and Andrew, and his own brother John. After his calling, which is described at the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry in all three Synoptics, he appears with Peter and John as a witness of several notable events: the healing of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration, when Christ first revealed His divinity to his Apostles, and the Agony in the Garden. The Gospel of St Mark (3, 13-19) tells us that Christ gave to James and John the nickname “Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder”; this transcription of the Hebrew “b’nê regesh” may be intended to suggest something like “boan ergon” in Greek, “the work of shouting.” St Luke writes (9, 53-56) that when the Samaritans did not receive Christ, “James and John … said: ‘Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them?’ And turning, He rebuked them, saying, ‘You know not of what spirit you are. The Son of man came not to destroy souls, but to save.’ ” (The words in italics are missing in many ancient manuscripts.)

The Transfiguration, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, one of the panels of the dismembered altarpiece of Siena Cathedral known as the Maestà, 1311; this one is now located in the National Gallery in London. (Public domain image from Wikipedia.)
In the Gospel of St Matthew 20, 20-23, it is recounted that their mother, Salome, came to the Lord, “adoring and asking something of him. Who said to her: ‘What wilt thou?’ She saith to him: ‘Say that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left, in thy kingdom.’ And Jesus answering, said, ‘You know not what you ask. Can you drink the chalice that I shall drink?’ They say to him. ‘We can.’ He saith to them, ‘My chalice indeed you shall drink; but to sit on my right or left hand, is not mine to give to you, but to them for whom it is prepared by my Father.’ ” This is the Gospel of St James’ feast, and also that of his brother John’s feast “at the Latin Gate”, which commemorates his martyrdom, in fulfillment of the Lord’s prophecy that “My chalice indeed you (plural) shall drink.”

In the Acts, James is named once again with the other Apostles right after the Ascension (1, 13), but then only once more, at the beginning of chapter 12. “And at the same time, Herod the king stretched forth his hands, to afflict some of the church. And he killed James, the brother of John, with the sword. And seeing that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to take up Peter also.” Concerning his martyrdom, the first among the Twelve, Eusebius of Caesarea records that “Clement (of Alexandria), in the seventh book of his Hypotyposes (a work which is now lost), relates a story which is worthy of mention; telling it as he received it from those who had lived before him. He says that the one who led James to the judgment-seat, when he saw him bearing his testimony, was moved, and confessed that he was himself also a Christian. They were both therefore, he says, led away together; and on the way, he begged James to forgive him. And he, after considering a little, said ‘Peace be with you,’ and kissed him. And thus they were both beheaded at the same time.” (Church History 2, 9)

15th century reliquary of St James the Apostle in the cathedral of Pistoia, Italy, which also contains relics of his mother, Maria Salome, as well as St Martin of Tours, and two early local martyrs, priests named Rufinus and Felix.
The tradition that St James went to Spain and began the work of evangelizing that country is a fairly late one; it was unknown to writers of the early centuries, and even explicitly denied by St Julian, the archbishop of Toledo and Primate of Spain in the later 7th century. The Golden Legend of Bl. James of Voragine devotes very little space to it, saying merely that “he went to Spain, to sow the word of God there. But when he saw that he was making no progress there, and had made only nine disciples, he left two of them there to preach, and taking the other seven with him, returned to Judaea.” These are traditionally known as the “Seven Apostolic Men”, Saints Torquatus, Ctesiphon, Secundus, Indaletius, Caecilius, Hesychius and Euphrasius; the Tridentine Martyrology has an entry for them on May 15th, which states that the Apostles ordained them as bishops and sent them back to Spain, where they preached the Gospel in various places. The Golden Legend goes on to give a lengthy account of St James’ martyrdom, which includes the conversion of a magician named Hermogenes; at the end, a story is told of how his relics were translated to Spain, one which does much to enhance the author’s reputation for excessive credulity.

Lest it seem that too much credulity is given here to the hagiographical skeptics, even the pre-Tridentine Roman Breviary shows great reserve about these traditions, giving no space to any part of the legend of St James, not even the very ancient story recorded in Eusebius. All nine of the Matins lessons for the feast are taken from a homily of St John Chrysostom on the day’s Gospel, in which he says much in praise of Salome as one who followed Christ, and was principally concerned with the eternal salvation of her sons. In the Tridentine Breviary, a new set of readings was composed for the second nocturne, which sum up the traditional story as described above. It also notes that James’ death took place around the time of the Jewish Passover, but that his feast day is kept on the day of the translation of his relics to the famous cathedral at Compostela.

The church of Rome was always very slow to accept new liturgical texts; one often finds that a Saint who was hugely popular in the Middle Ages had a proper Office elsewhere, but was celebrated in the Roman Use with a Common Office. Such is the case with St James. At Compostela itself, an Office was sung with a completely proper set of antiphons, responsories and hymns, which refer to the tradition of his coming to Spain, the presence of his relics, and his frequent aid to the Spanish kings in liberating the peninsula from the Moors during the Reconquista. One of the best of these antiphons was then received by the Dominicans for the Magnificat at First Vespers of his feast, although they did not take on any of the rest of the propers from Compostela.

O lux et decus Hispaniae, sanctissime Jacobe, qui inter Apostolos primatum tenes, primus eorum martyrio laureatus! O singulare praesidium, qui meruisti videre Redemptorem nostrum adhuc mortalem in Deitate transformatum! Exaudi preces servorum tuorum, et intercede pro nostra salute omniumque populorum.

A superb motet by the Spanish composer Ambrosio Cotes (1550-1603), with the first words of the antiphon given above.
O light and glory of Spain, most holy James, who among the Apostles holdest the primacy, the first of them crowned with martyrdom! Our special defense, who merited to see our Redeemer transformed in the Godhead while yet a mortal! Hear the prayers of thy servants, and intercede for our salvation, and of all peoples!

St James is traditionally depicted in the garb of a pilgrim, with a broad hat and a staff, even though he is the destination, and not the traveler. This is not done with other Saints whose tombs or relics were popular pilgrimage centers, indicating perhaps that to the medieval mind, a trip to Compostela was thought of as the pilgrimage par excellence. This may have something to do with its location at almost the westernmost point in continental Europe. Compostela is about 48 miles from a town on the Atlantic called “Fisterra”, which literally means “the end of the land”; pilgrims would often take an extra couple of days to go as far as the ocean itself, beyond which it was believed that there was nothing but more water to the other side of the globe. (Technically, Cabo da Roca in Portugal is 15 minutes of longitude further to the west.)
St James the Greater dressed as a pilgrim, by Ferrer et Arnau Bassa, ca. 1347; from the Diocesan Museum of Barcelona (Courtesy of the Schola Sainte Cécile).
The third element which identifies St James in art is a scallop shell, a custom which ultimately derives from the medieval laws collectively known as the Peace of God. These laws prohibited armed men from bothering various classes of people, including all women and children, clerics and monks, pilgrims, merchants and Jews. Women and children are obviously such, clerics and monks were identified by their tonsure; the other groups habitually wore something to identify them as members of one of the classes entitled to the protection of the Peace of God. For pilgrims, the hat and staff were not at first sufficiently distinct to serve that purpose, and so they would wear something else to indicate their destination. The scallop shell showed that one was traveling as a pilgrim to or from the shrine of St James, along the Galician coast where scallops grow in abundance. This became so well know that even today, the German word for “scallop” is either “Jakobsmuschel – James’ mussel” or “Pilgermuschel – a pilgrim mussel.”

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