Standing in the Plaza de la Azabacheria, you face the north façade of the cathedral. The old 12th century Romanesque façade was pulled down in 1757 and substituted by the existing neoclassical façade, which was built under the supervision of the famous Ventura Rodriguez.
Some of the components and statues salvaged from the Romanesque façade, described in minute detail by Picaud in the Pilgrim’s Guide, are recognizable in the museum or grafted on the other parts of the cathedral. Walking from here around the cathedral through the Arco del Obispo below the Palacio del Gelmirez, you come to the grandiose Plaza del Obradoiro, which is lined with some of the greatest monuments in Santiago de Compostela.
As you face the cathedral, on your left stands the Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, the splendid Pilgrim’s Hospital founded in 1492 after the reconquest of Granada, and one of the most important and elegant examples of the Spanish plateresque style (it was a functioning hospital until 1954). To your right stands the Colegio de San Geronimo, founded by Archbishop Fonesca (1507 – 1523), the late 15th century façade of which was salvaged from the former Hospital de la Azabacheria. It is now the seat of the Rectorate of Santiago University. Behind you is the impressive neoclassical façade of the Palacio de Rajoy, built by the illustrious archbishop Bartolome Rajoy y Losada (1751-1772) following plans by the French architect, Charles Lemaur. It is now the townhall and a part of the Xunta de Galicia (the autonomous regional government of Galicia) is also housed there.
The history of Santiago Cathedral goes back many centuries. Between 830 and 840, King Alfonso II “the Chaste” commissioned a modest church to be built over the recently discovered tomb of the Apostle, and in 899, Alfonso III the Great had a grander basilica built over the original construction. Around the year 1000, bishop San Pedro de Mezonzo ordered the construction of a new church after Alfonso III’s basilica was raised to the ground by the Moorish hordes of Almanzor in mid-August 997.
Finally, in about 1075 work began on the present building promoted by bishop Diego Pelaez which was consecrated on April 3rd, 1211 by archbishop Pedro de Muniz (who is buried in the cathedral). The cathedral is a synthesis of the techniques and styles to be found in the other great Romanesque temples along the pilgrim’s way: Toulouse Cathedral, the very early cathedral at Jaca, the church of San Martin at Fromista, the church of Santiago de Carrion de los Condes (with its superb carved frieze) and San Isidoro at Leon.
Prominent artists and architects worked on the building including Bernardo, Esteban and the great Master Mateo and the touch of some of them is often thought to be apparent in some of these other great Romanesque monuments. The cathedral is latin cross shaped measuring 98 meters long and 67 meters wide at the crossing, with a three-aisled barrel-vaulted nave divided by semicircular arches. A gallery runs around the whole building. Above the crossing there is a 32 meter high center cupola. The ambulatory links the aisles behind the high altar, characteristic feature of pilgrim’s churches, of which this cathedral must be the supreme example. As Picaud describes it:
“In this church there is no fault; it is admirably constructed, large, spacious, light, with harmonious dimensions, well-proportioned as to length, width and height; it is more splendid than words can express. Anyone who walks around the upper parts and who started off unhappy would have happy and contented after having contemplated the perfect beauty of this church.”