This is the twelfth installment in “Postcards from the Camino” by Gareth Thomas, a series of reflections on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain.

The pilgrim traveling through Spain to Compostela will find many images of Saint James in the churches along the Camino. Known as Santiago (Sant Iago) in Spanish, he is more commonly depicted dressed in medieval pilgrim dress with a wide-brimmed hat and carrying a staff. There is, however, another image of Santiago which is now often hidden away or removed completely. It is considered offensive in these times when controversy meets art history, so how should we judge the polemics of the case?

When the unsuspecting pilgrim enters a church on the Camino and comes face-to-face with the image of Santiago Matamoros it can be shocking. Saint James is portrayed in helmet and armor, on a white horse with hooves flying and underneath this fiery charger – prostrate on the ground – is a ‘Moor.’ That is the pejorative Spanish term for the Muslims and their medieval armies in the battle of faiths in the Spanish Peninsula, prior to the Reconquista, the re-taking of the Muslim territories and most famously the fall of the Islamic capital in Granada. In paintings, reliefs, and statues, a white-skinned Saint James ‘the Moor-slayer’ plunges his lance into the prostrate figure (or group of figures) usually portrayed as black, and often with grotesquely exaggerated racial features.

The defeated ‘moors’ under the Apostle’s horse.

I remember seeing reactions to one such statue from a small group of pilgrims in the cathedral at Burgos. After an overnight stop in the old sprawling pilgrim refuge in a city park, I went with a small Catholic group of mixed nationalities to assist at the early morning Mass, before continuing our day’s walk. After Mass, we looked around the cathedral, which contains the mortal remains of El Cid, the great warrior of the Catholic Reconquest, popularized in the classic Hollywood epic with Charlton Heston as the Campeón de Vivar, favorite knight of King Alfonso. So it is unsurprising to find a prominent figure of Saint James the Moor-slayer in the cathedral.

“Strewth! What the heck is that?” remarked an Australian pilgrim, clearly revolted by the statue. I explained briefly what the image represented and how it became a popular representation of Saint James. The short version of this story is simply that the Apostle, as the Patron of Spain, appeared at the mythical 9th century battle of Clavijo, riding a white charger out of the sky and slaughtering the Muslim enemy troops to give victory to the Christian forces of reconquest.


Matamoros statue, Burgos cathedral.

Our little group of pilgrims continued out of the cathedral, through the suburbs, and out into the baking heat of the Meseta, the wide dusty flat lands beyond the city. As we walked, I explained the longer version of the story of Santiago Matamoros. Its history goes back to the 14th century where we find the first such images, copied from a marginal illumination in a manuscript in Compostela. The original version had seven prostrate figures under the hooves of Saint James’s charger, but they were white and clearly Christians. They represented the seven leaders of a revolt against episcopal power in the time of Archbishop Berenguel de Landoria (1317-1330) who had been appointed by the Pope at Avignon. The rebellion prevented the new prelate from entering the city of Compostela, so the rebels were excommunicated and put down by a military assault from the forces of the Avignon papacy, under the banner of the Apostle Saint James.

Pennant of the Order of Santiago

That was the way the equestrian image of the Apostle began, and it was adopted by a new order of knights, the Orden de Santiago. In the churches and monasteries of these santiaguistas – from the late 14th century – the figure of Saint James appeared in reliefs, sculptures, and retables, and the iconography was adapted to the wider military message of the Order: the conquering Apostle was now depicted with a spear or sword, riding over the fallen soldiers of the Muslim army in retreat. The myth of the battle of Clavijo in the 9th century –which has no historical substance – was invented to explain the origin of the image in Saint James’s miraculous military intervention. This fable became one of the most powerful myths in forging the national identity of Spain out of various kingdoms. The image of Santiago Matamoros was its enduring icon.

Caballería española, coat of arms (19th c.)

The patronal adoption of the ‘Moor-slayer’ by the Spanish military is relatively recent: it can be traced to the Feast of Saint James, 25th July 1846 when Santiago Matamoros was made patron of the cavalry.[1] Their adoption of the distinctive cross/sword of Saint James in their coat-of-arms led to its widespread usage as an emblem of the national patron saint.

It hardly needs explaining how such an image has now become deeply embarrassing, both for the individual churches where such images reside and for the wider institution of the Catholic Church in Spain which manages the cult of the national patron saint, focused in his shrine at Compostela. As the papacies of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis increasingly emphasized interfaith dialogue, the Catholic rejection of any remaining triumphalism concerning the crusades has erred on the side of great caution.

We only have to remember the controversy over Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address in 2006 to realize that even a carefully framed reference to Islamic thought can provoke outrage when misunderstood, or indeed misrepresented in order to fuel a culture war. In that lecture about Faith and Reason, Benedict drew extensively on a 14th-century dialogue between a Christian and a Muslim and quoted some remarks about the Qur’an and holy war. Benedict explained why he was quoting that dialogue, for it contained “reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.” He went on with his address to the University of Regensburg, elaborating important points that developed the Faith & Reason teaching of the Catholic Church.

After delivering his lecture in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI entered a storm. Many commentators, Muslim and other, did not read the complete lecture. It was not, in any case, chiefly about Islam. It was a critique of Christian thinkers who separate faith and reason. Read it again, for it is a powerful call to Christians to ground their faith in rationality. The irony was that Benedict was criticized for reckless provocation by citing a 14th-century discussion between a Byzantine emperor and a Muslim intellectual in which some uncomplimentary remarks were made about Islam. That was to illustrate a philosophical and moral point, that violence has no place in the advancing of religion. Benedict’s argument was that if we act against reason we act against the nature of God.

Perhaps even more ironic was the way that press commentators on the speech chose to present Pope Benedict as a pope who was more “hard-line” on Islam than his predecessor John Paul II. Yet the hard question raised at Regensburg was simply a quotation from a medieval Byzantine emperor, not a judgment by Pope Benedict, and in fact Pope John Paul II had said something far harsher concerning Islamic thought (and it was very prominent, not delivered in a rarefied academic context, like Regensburg.) In his 1994 worldwide bestseller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. John Paul expressed respect for “the religiosity of the Muslims and their fidelity to prayer,” but then he went on to say this:

“Whoever knows the Old and New Testaments, and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation. It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God said about himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament through His Son. In Islam, all the richness of God’s self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside.

“He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God with us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and the Resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but… redemption is completely absent. For this reason, not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.”

Nobody, reading such remarks, could doubt that the interfaith dialogue with its impressive visual set pieces such as world religious leaders meeting in Assisi, goes hand-in-hand with rational criticism, delivered from the standpoint of Catholic theology and developed from one pope to another. There is clear continuity in the teaching on Faith & Reason from one pope to another. At Regensburg Pope Benedict developed the thought of Pope John Paul II in the encyclical Fides et Ratio:

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

We seem to have come a long way from Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moor-slayer, but that’s pilgrimage: we walk and we meditate; we observe and we consider. I mentioned how my fellow pilgrims responded to the statue in Burgos cathedral. Sometimes on the Way of Saint James pilgrims meet up in a hostel or on the road, walk together for a while, then disperse and meet up again a few days later. So, in this way I met the Australian pilgrim again after Mass in the cathedral at Logroño a few days and many miles later. As we left the cathedral after Mass we saw there was another Santiago Matamoros statue above the main entrance: a hideous baroque piece of triumphalist art.

Matamoros, Logroño cathedral, La Rioja (exterior)

“Sometimes, I find the Catholic faith has a repulsive side to it,” said the Australian pilgrim, scowling at the bloodlust in the eye of the Apostle, “This is such a moment.”

“This is not the Catholic faith,” I replied, without hesitation and with a sure conviction that surprised me. “So don’t worry about it too much. It’s a product of a time when the faith was distorted and this imagery serves a different purpose.”

“How can you be so sure?” asked my fellow Catholic pilgrim. “Your understanding of the faith might be subjective. You reject this kind of image from a modern liberal standpoint. A more traditional kind of Catholic would say it expresses how we should fight heroically for the faith.”

“If you listen to the interventions of the recent popes, they demonstrate how the use of reason to evangelize is far more in line with our ancient faith than coercive approaches like the one shown in this statue,” I said. “Fides et Ratio. Listen to the popes: they are there to help us know the faith.”

I briefly outlined Benedict’s Regensburg address. This statue was ‘reverse Regensburg’! We sometimes look back with longing at an age of faith, before modernity, when Catholic piety was supposedly so much greater than our own feeble attempts to follow Christ. There are times on the pilgrimage to Compostela when a romantic view dominates: we think of past pilgrims having greater tenacity, walking vast distances to and from the shrine, and filled with deeper faith. Such a view of the past can be misleading. We have better access to papal teaching and arguably better-teaching popes. In many ways, both before and after Vatican II, we have been given a gift in papal continuity of thought, together with modern communications to disseminate it.

When we look at Santiago Matamoros we see a national and mainly secular symbol, not a religious one, and even as a political and military figure, this version of the Apostle is both embarrassing and consigned to a backwater of faith history. The Spanish cavalry headquarters still has its oil painting of Saint James the Moor-slayer prominently displayed in the entrance stair-well, for he has been their patron since the 19th century, but elsewhere he has been removed, covered with a sheet, or weakly labeled with apologetic notices ‘interpreting’ the reason for the image.

There is no place for Santiago Matamoros in any Catholic church. We should be clear on that. It is not a question of aesthetic taste, nor bowing to the expectations of a rival faith. Toppling this statue would not be a politically correct gesture to throw out ‘Saint James the Islamophobe.’[2] It would be a positive statement expressing true understanding of the nature of God and the way we communicate through faith and reason what we have learned about Him. His Apostle cannot rationally be the ‘Moor-slayer’ whether in the 14th century or the 21st.


[1] Gaceta de Madrid, num. 4332, 25 July 1846, pages 2-3. I am grateful to my fellow Compostela pilgrim here in Alicante, Manuel José Aliaga Martínez, ex-special forces veteran and my reliable source for military history.

[2] Dr. Simon Cotton, who sometimes provides photos for my posts, replied to my inquiry: “No I don’t have any of ‘Saint James the Islamophobe.’” This amused me, so I stole his phrase!

Images: All photos of Santiago Matamoros are from Wikimedia creative commons.

Discuss this article!

Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liked this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).

Share via
Copy link