(b. 1541, Candia, d. 1614, Toledo)

Apostle St James the Greater

Oil on canvas, 97 x 77 cm
Museo de El Greco, Toledo

Apostle St James the Greater was son of Zebedee, a fisherman of Galilee, and brother of John the Evangelist. He was among the circle of men closest to Christ, being present with Peter and John at the Transfiguration, and again at the Agony in the Garden, where the same three are seen sleeping while Christ prays. He was tried in Jerusalem in the year 44 by Herod Agrippa and executed.

Apostle St James the Greater in Art

The cycle of scenes of his trial and execution is represented in medieval frescoes and stained glass. The frescoes by Mantegna in the Eremitani chapel, Padua, were destroyed in 1944. A series of legends dating from the Middle Ages tells of his mission to Spain and burial at Compostella, both historically untenable, though the latter became one of the great centres of Christian pilgrimage. It is legend rather than Scripture that has been the chief source of inspiration to artists, especially Spanish. James appears as three distinct types:

(1) The Apostle. He is of mature years, thin-bearded, his hair brown or dark, parted and falling on either side in the manner of Christ. He holds the martyr's sword. In later devotional art he holds the pilgrim's staff which usually distinguishes him when grouped with other saints.

(2) The Pilgrim (13th century onwards). He wears the pilgrim's broad-brimmed hat and cloak. From his staff or shoulder hangs the wallet or water-gourd of the pilgrim. His special attribute, the scallop shell, appears on his hat or cloak, or on the wallet.

(3) The Knight and Patron Saint of Spain. He is mounted on horseback holding a standard, and is dressed as a pilgrim or wears armour. His horse tramples the Saracen under its hooves.

James' inscriptions are, from the Apostles' Creed: 'Qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria Virgine'; from the Epistle of James (1 : 19) (modified): 'Omnis homo velox est' - `Let every man be swift (to hear)'.

Apostle St James the Greater and Spain

The many Spanish legends about him, some of which are represented in painting, date from about the 10th century and were probably promulgated in order to encourage pilgrimage to Compostella. One tells of his evangelizing mission to Spain after Christ's Ascension. In Saragossa the Virgin appeared to him in a vision, seated on top of a pillar of jasper, and commanded him to build a chapel on the spot, a story that served to explain the foundation of the church of Nuestra Señora del Pilar. On his return to Jerusalem he converted and baptized a magician, Hermogenes, after each had tested his powers on the other, rather in the manner of the apostle Peter and Simon Magus. After James' execution his disciples took his body back to Spain and, guided by an angel, landed at Padron in Galicia. Near here, in the palace of a pagan woman, Lupa, who was converted to Christianity by several miraculous occurrences, James was buried. His supposed tomb was discovered in about the 9th century and the place was called Santiago (St James) de Compostella. It was well-established as a place of pilgrimage by the 11th century, next in importance to Jerusalem and Rome. The origin of the scallop shell as the badge of the pilgrim to Compostella is open to more than one explanation.