Saint James the Greater

Born 1st century
Bethsaida, Galilee
Died 44 AD
Venerated in All Christianity
Canonized Pre-Congregation
Major shrine Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia (Spain)
Feast 25 July (Western Christianity)
30 April (Eastern Christianity)
30 December (Hispanic Church)
Attributes Scallop, Pilgrim's hat
Patronage Places
Acoma Pueblo, Sahuayo, Santiago de Querétaro, Galicia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Spain
Veterinarians, equestrians, furriers, tanners, pharmacists

Saint James the Elder by Rembrandt
He is depicted clothed as a pilgrim; note the scallop shell on his shoulder and his staff and pilgrim's hat beside him his symbol is also the carpenter saw.
James, son of Zebedee (died 44) was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. He was a son of Zebedee and Salome, and brother of John the Apostle. He is also called James the Greater to distinguish him from James, son of Alphaeus, who is also known as James the Less.

In the New Testament

James is described as one of the first disciples to join Jesus. The Synoptic Gospels state that James and John were with their father by the seashore when Jesus called them to follow him.James was one of only three apostles whom Jesus selected to bear witness to his Transfiguration. The Acts of the Apostles records that Agrippa I had James executed by sword. Nixon suggests that this may have been caused by James' fiery temper, for which he and his brother earned the nickname Boanerges or "Sons of Thunder".


His remains are said to be in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia (Spain). Saint James is the Patron Saint of Spain. The city where his remains are said to be held, Santiago de Compostela, is considered the third most holy town within Roman Catholicism (after Jerusalem and Rome). The traditional pilgrimage to the grave of the saint, known as the "Way of St. James", has become the most popular pilgrimage for Western European Catholics from the early Middle Ages onwards. 125,141 pilgrims registered in 2008 as having completed the final 100 km walk (200 km by bicycle) to Santiago to qualify for a Compostela. When 25 July falls on a Sunday, it is a ″Jubilee″ year, and a special east door is opened for entrance into the Santiago Cathedral. In 2004, the last Jubilee year, 179,944, pilgrims received a Compostela. The next Jubilee year is 2010, and the number of pilgrims is expected to exceed this figure.

The feast day of St James is celebrated on 25 July on the liturgical calendars of the Roman Catholic church.

James and Spain 

According to ancient local tradition, on 2 January of the year AD 40, the Virgin Mary appeared to James on the bank of the Ebro River at Caesaraugusta, while he was preaching the Gospel in Iberia. She appeared upon a pillar, Nuestra Señora del Pilar, and that pillar is conserved and venerated within the present Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, in Zaragoza, Spain. Following that apparition, St James returned to Judea, where he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa I in the year 44.

The 12th-century Historia Compostellana commissioned by bishop Diego Gelmírez provides a summary of the legend of St James as it was believed at Compostela. Two propositions are central to it: first, that St James preached the gospel in Iberia as well as in the Holy Land; second, that after his martyrdom at the hands of Herod Agrippa I his disciples carried his body by sea to Iberia, where they landed at Padrón on the coast of Galicia, and took it inland for burial at Santiago de Compostela.

St. James was executed by sword in Jerusalem, the first Apostle martyred
The translation of his relics from Judea to Galicia in the northwest of Iberia was effected, in legend, by a series of miraculous happenings: decapitated in Jerusalem with a sword by Herod Agrippa himself, his body was taken up by angels, and sailed in a rudderless, unattended boat to Iria Flavia in Iberia, where a massive rock closed around his relics, which were later removed to Compostela. An even later tradition states that he miraculously appeared to fight for the Christian army during the battle of Clavijo, and was henceforth called Matamoros (Moor-slayer).
St James the Moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had ... has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.
—Cervantes, Don Quixote

Anna Catherine Emmerick had a vision of St. James, which she described in this way :
“From Jerusalem, St. James went to Sicily and then to Spain, stopping in Cadiz for a while. He was not well received, and was saved from being murdered by an Angel. He left Spain to seven disciples.

"Later he returned to Saragoza, where a large number of conversions took place. Even with this good result, the dangers abounded. Often the enemies would throw vipers on him, and he would calmly hold them in his hand without suffering any harm. In Granada he and all his disciples and the neophytes were put into prison. St. James implored the help of Our Lady, who lived in Jerusalem. By the hands of the Angels he was saved, and Our Lady commanded him to preach in Galicia.

“Later, I saw St. James in danger because of the persecution against the faithful in Saragoza. I saw the Apostle praying at night with some disciples near the walls of the city. He was asking for enlightenment to know if he should stay in that region or go elsewhere. He directed his thoughts to Most Holy Mary and asked her to intercede with her Divine Son, Who could not deny her anything.

“ St. James in a vision with the Holy Virgin received a message interiorly that he should build a church on that site, and that the devotion to Our Lady would be established there, take root, and expand. The Holy Virgin told him that once the church was built, he should return to Jerusalem. Indeed, later, when the work was completed, the Apostle left it in charge of twelve disciples he had formed and left. 

“In Ephesus, he visited the Holy Virgin. Mary predicted his coming death, consoling and comforting him greatly. Then he said farewell to Our Lady and St. John, and left for Jerusalem. In that city he was taken by the Jews and brought to Mount Calvary. Along the way he continued to preach, converting and curing many. He was beheaded. Some time later, his body was brought to Spain.” 

Comments of Prof. Plinio:

St. James passed through all types of danger, and every attempt to kill him did not succeed. However, at a certain moment he received from Our Lady the warning that his life would end. She comforted him, and then he actually died. The design of Divine Providence was accomplished.

The apparition to St. James in Spain is also very beautiful. There is a contrast in the column ending in the shape of a lily spreading light and fire. The lily is delicate, fresh and white like snow. The fire is orange or red, hot and burns everything. But here the lily is both snow-white and spreading fire. It has a flame that does not burn, but enlightens and imparts spiritual ardor. It would be an interesting work for a painter to imagine what color to use to express such a flame coming from this lily.

The lily atop the elegant column is symbolic of the Christendom about to be born in Catholic Spain. The column was a support for a lily full of light and fervor – the virginal Heart of Mary - spreading flames in all directions since Spain would be a foundation for the devotion to Our Lady. Those flames set afire the sky all the way to Compostela, where the devotion to the Virgen del Pilar and St. James would flourish in the Middle Ages.

You also know that Santiago, St. James, became a war cry during the Reconquista. The Spanish warriors used to charge the Moors shouting “Santiago, Santiago” and obtain victory through his intercession. This has a great beauty and represents a glorification of St. James. I do not know of a greater glory for a combative soul. A man dies and his memory remains, not as a sign of reconciliation, but as a war cry. At the moment when the warriors enter battle, risking everything for the Catholic cause, they have on their lips as a symbol of fight, force and victory, the name of Santiago. The last name that many would enthusiastically cry out before dying was the name of Santiago. They end the course of this life under the protection of St. James, receiving the smile of Mary as they present themselves for their judgment. I think that nothing can be more beautiful than this.

It clearly demonstrates the glory of a man’s name. The Church commemorates the special feast days of the Most Holy Name of Jesus and the Most Blessed Name of Mary. Here we also understand the glory of the name of St. James, who gave birth to Spain, the combative nation par excellence, the arm of Christendom. This nation burning with zeal was born from that blazing lily, and became a nation of fire. This nation chose the name of the Apostle who founded it as a war cry in the Reconquista. I can’t think of anything more beautiful than this. 

Panel with scenes from the life of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago.
From left, Our Lord calls St. James; preaching in Spain; visiting Our Lady in Ephesus; his martyrdom; his body translated by boat to Compostela

Let us honor Our Lady for the glory she received from this great servant of hers, the Apostle St. James.


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