Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1715/Santiago de Compostella

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From The Academy.


Not more than seven days' journey from London by way of Paris, Bordeaux, and thence by one of the Pacific Company's magnificent steamships to Corufia, stands, on its mountainous site, the to Englishmen little-known city of Santiago de Compostella, the Rome, or the Jerusalem, of Spain. Take it all in all, Santiago is one of the most curious and strikingly situated cities I have ever seen. Like Siena, it is tumbled about upon lofty hills, but instead of being surrounded by the rich fields of fertile Tuscany, it is hemmed in by bare rolling moors covered with brown heather and russet ferns, from which, now and then, protrude huge boulders of dark grey granite. Like the Jerusalem that now is, Santiago is a holy city and nothing else, and as it owed its original existence to the possession of the relics of St. James, so it continues to exist now solely by the vast but now impoverished ecclesiastical establishments which grew up around them. Nothing but its being a vast reliquary can account for its being what it is. No commerce-laden river flows near it, there is no fertility of soil, no charm of position. From the midst of wild, wind-swept moors, dark, damp, and dreary, like those of Cornwall or Dartmoor, its vast grey-granite towers and pinnacles rise up in solitary grandeur, and its deep-toned, ever-speaking bells, heavy with the reminiscences of the past, sound forth over a howling wilderness which reaches to the very walls. Though the granite, especially in wet weather — and there is much rain at Santiago — is of too dark a tint for perfection of color, yet nothing can be more striking than the view of the huge cathedral and surrounding palaces and convents, when seen from the environs. Perched high up upon mountains, the hills nevertheless stand round about Santiago even as they stand round about Jerusalem. Amid its wild, heathery moors, the very rococo richness of the over-ornamented exterior of the cathedral, wrought as it all is in granite, does from its utter incongruity and unexpectedness add to, rather than diminish from, the general striking effect of the whole. We pardon the rudeness of the carving of a capital or doorway in a small parish church in Cornwall on account of the difficulty of the material employed. Yet, here we have a granite cathedral of the first class with carvings executed to a nicety, and in quantity absolutely superabundant. The great church stands on the steep sides of a hill, and the ground below it slopes down to a small brooklet, on the further side of which the wild moorland begins at once. Its main features consist of a nave, transepts, and choir proper, with radiating chapels around it, all in the round-arched, or what we should call the enriched Norman, style of architecture. In the nave and transepts there are simple round arches with a lofty clerestory without windows above, and a simple vaulted barred roof. The work of these portions is all original, but the effect of the clerestory is spoiled by an ugly late wooden gallery with balustrades. The coro, as is almost always the case in Spanish cathedrals, extends across the transepts and occupies several bays of the nave — a plan which may be seen at Norwich. It is fitted up with stall-work of richly-carved dark word, and has two over-gorgeously decorated organs, one on either side. The choir proper has its originally simple arches overlaid and encrusted with additions of barbaric richness, but the general effect of the profuse gilding, the precious marbles, the exquisite brass screens and pulpits, and the candlesticks of solid silver, is magnificent in the extreme. Over the high altar is a huge painted image of the patron saint, St. James, said to have been carved in the twelfth century. In the nave are numerous confessionals like those in St. Peter's at Rome, which so much affected the Puritan-bred novelist Hawthorne, with inscriptions in different languages inviting pilgrims of different nations — "Pro linguâ Gallica" "Pro linguâ Hungarica," and the like. The greatest glory, however, of the church, which alone would render it worth while to undertake a journey to Santiago, is the wonderful series of three portals called, and rightly, La Gloria, of which a cast exists in the South Kensington Museum. Scarcely a nobler entrance can be found in the world. It was executed in the thirteenth century by one Maestro Mateo. The material is granite, the work marvellously fine. Over the central door is a large figure of the Saviour with angels, saints, and prophets, and the side pillars rest on grotesque heads of great power and expression. The aureole around the Saviour's head is gemmed with large crystals. The sculptures around the right-hand doorway represent the blessed in charge of serene angels, and the wicked tormented by fiends. One big devil, who is biting off the heads of two of the wicked at once, is a marvel of force and expression. This extraordinary portal originally opened to the outer air, but it is now enclosed within a Renaissance front — a piece of barbarism which at any rate preserves the better and earlier work from decay. Much of the ancient color is still left upon the figures and interlacing ornaments, and adds greatly to their effect. The only other ancient front, which opens into a small plaza at the entrance of the Rua de Villar, with its two tiers of windows and enriched window-arches, bears a very striking general resemblance to the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. To the left of this front is the noble cloister, of late date indeed, but Gothic in feeling, and to the right rises the huge bell-tower. The bells of Santiago are very musical, and have that depth and richness of tone which is characteristic of the south of Europe, where the bells differ as much from those of the north as the climate does from that of England. The "ting-tang" of a cheap modern church is an impossibility in the south.