It is barely three weeks since I joined other pilgrims filing through the Holy Door in Santiago de Compostela to pass before the silver reliquary in the undercroft behind the cathedral’s main altar. The casket contains the bones which were certified in the 19th century by the Catholic Church to be those of Saint James the Greater, apostle of Christ and the man whose mission it was to bring the Gospel to the Iberian peninsula, before he was martyred by King Herod.
There are many long and complicated mysteries surrounding the origins of the saint’s remains – and how they ended up in Compostela – and I am probably not the only pilgrim who has ever wondered how much truth there is in the tradition that the bones are really those of Saint James the Greater. In a sense, that has never really troubled me very much: the pilgrimage is about a tradition of Catholic truth, not so much a scientifically provable historical fact.
Nevertheless, as I walked to Compostela in September – starting on the Camino de Levante and later changed to the Camino Inglés – I was already thinking about a thread within the plot of a historical novel I am already writing, in which the remains of Saint James the Great are discovered to be somewhere else entirely (and have been for a thousand years or more!) After the return to El Parral from pilgrimage, the planning and writing of the book has been my main preoccupation. So imagine my delight when the story appeared in El País this week that a forensic analysis of the Compostela reliquary bones was carried out secretly – some twenty years ago – and only published this week in the Journal of Forensic Anthropology (Fernando Serrulla, University of Florida, October 2021.) The journal article is not available free to read in full, but the news article in Spanish gives the main abstract, and in a nutshell these results lead us to doubt the identity of the remains, based on discernible injuries sustained by the skull and neck compared with the details of the martyrdom of the Apostle in the New Testament accounts.
Intriguingly, what is suggested by Serrulla is that the forensic analysis shows injuries consistent with the record of the martyrdom of Saint James the Less, and the confusion over which James was in the reliquary (if indeed the reliquary contained an actual apostle) has long been brushed over by the Church, which issued a decree in the 19th century that no further examination should ever be made of the remains.
The story continues… I mean my story continues… for I now have an even better reason to continue with my own fictitious plot line pointing to the different whereabouts of the remains of Saint James the Greater, Apostle and Patron of Spain. Naturally, I am not going to publish the plot here! The news story feeds directly into the work I was already doing, and mulling over while walking to Compostela. Deo gratias! The rewards of pilgrimage to Compostela have never been quite so clear: but this time Saint James seems to have spoken to me in quite a definite manner!