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Edition #1
Origins and Birth

Helena Santidrián Mas
Edited by Anna Mladentseva

The iconography of Santiago Matamoros in Compostela. A Paradox.

I was born in a small town in Galicia, in the North West of Spain, Santiago de Compostela. It is famous due to El Camino (‘The Way’), a pilgrimage that gradually developed over the Middle Ages to the hypothetical tomb of James the Great, one of the Apostles. One of the most common ways of representing this biblical character is while he kills “the unfaithful”. The origin of the iconography is supposed to be the Battle of Clavijo (figure 1), which took place in 844 AD. The Apostle is supposed to have appeared miraculously to help the Christian Kingdoms against the Muslims that had started conquering the Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD.

Santiago de Compostela has been said to be the city where everyone is welcome, a place of reconciliation... Though a sculpture of James the Great beheading the non-believers —who happened to be “Moors”  — is one of the first things one sees when entering the Cathedral of Compostela. The Catholic diocese of Santiago seems to avoid any controversy around the figure, eliminating statues from the Cathedral, choosing not to speak about the actual historical meaning of the iconography or even changing the way of describing it, making it sound heroic. This is a very contemporary and relevant paradox that can be linked to the Black Lives Matter issues and demonstrations in the United States and to the controversy raised by the damaging of conquerors’ statues: should they be left as they are, should the signs of vandalism be eliminated or should the monuments be completely removed? So the debate I propose here is whether the figures of the Apostle should remain in Compostela or be eliminated. In order to understand it better, I will start with the legend that explains why James the Great is buried in Santiago de Compostela.

James the Great, the Apostle. The legend, his burial place and the pilgrimage

The Apostle James the Great has also been called St. Jacob, Jack, Jacques, Iacobus, Jacobus, Giacomo, Jacopo, Yago, Iago, Diego, Thiago or Tiago...and Santiago! He was martyred in Jerusalem around 44 AD, but some sources say that for some time he went to Spain to preach (“Hic Spaniae et occidentalia loca predicat”, Breviarium Apostolorum, end of the 6th Century-beginning of the 7th Century; and after, De Ortibu et Obitu Patrum, attributed to Isidore of Seville, beginning of the 7th Century) (Carmona Muela, 2003). The possibility that James the Great may have been to the Iberian Peninsula, despite what these sources say, is very unlikely. It is, though, a useful —but very questionable— theory to justify the later discovery of his tomb in Spain.

Many texts were written about how the body of the apostle, who had travelled to preach and then had been killed in Jerusalem, had been moved again to Spain (for example, Traslatio Sancti Jacobi, 11th Century, Book III of the Codex Calixtinus) (Carmona Muela, 2003, p. 407). Some stories say that the corpse was brought to Galicia by some disciples and buried in the ancient town Iria Flavia, the current city of Padrón, a few miles away from Santiago. The exact burial place was then forgotten. The legend says that around 813 AD a hermit saw in the sky some strange lights or stars (a theory for the etymology of Compostela is campus stellae, ‘field of stars’, which refers to the strange lights the hermit saw above the burial place). He assumed they were marking the tomb of the Apostle and alerted the bishop Teodomiro. A marble sarcophagus with a body inside was found. The body was identified by the bishop as the Apostle’s and King Alfonso II of Asturias decided to found a church at that exact point. It gradually became bigger and bigger and pilgrims from all over Europe and all over the world started to visit it. This church is now the Cathedral of Compostela. The pilgrimage was established over the years and we now refer to it as El Camino. The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) said that Europe was born through pilgrimage to Compostela (attr.).

Santiago Matamoros, the iconography. A symbol and a national hero

One of the most famous iconographies of Saint James (Santiago) is the Santiago Matamoros, which means ‘Santiago killing Moors’ or ‘Santiago, the Moor-slayer’. The Apostle appears in many images (including paintings, sculptures, silver plates, medals and other artworks) riding a white rearing horse with a sword in his hand while beheading the unbelievers (the Moors). One of these sculptures, a wooden piece, is placed on top of the main altar of the Cathedral (figure 2), where pilgrims were invited to stay for the night if they didn’t have money. The Cathedral was, and is, supposed to be a place where foreigners and pilgrims are welcome. Another figure of the same iconography is placed on top of the organ (figure 3), and another two, a statue and a bas-relief of the Battle of Clavijo, overlook the Obradoiro Square (the main square of the city) from the City Hall’s facade (figure 4).

Besides, Santiago, the Apostle, and this particular iconography became a patriotic symbol after the aforementioned Battle of Clavijo and during the Reconquista (when, around 718/722 AD, Christian kingdoms came to (re)conquer the Muslim territories of the Iberian Peninsula). He was called Patrón de España, which means patron, protector, guardian of Spain, in the O Dei Verbum Patris, fourth quarter of the 8th Century (Carmona Muela, 2003, p. 409) —a hymn for the King of Asturias Mauregato, attributed to Beato of Liébana, a very important source of the cult of Santiago (Pérez de Urbel, 1952, p. 18). The Apostle was later proclaimed Patron of Spain by King Philip IV and Pope Urban VIII (López, 2008, p. 50).

“Santiago!” and “Santiago y cierra, España” became war cries. “Santiago y cierra, España” can be translated as “Saint James, come and close, Spain!”. It is a prayer to the Apostle to intercede in the war against the Muslims and help the Christians win (as he did in Clavijo). The phrase has recently been adopted by Spanish far-right political groups such as Vox, that see in the Apostle a leader, a guide (Vox, 2020), as they think the Peninsula should be “reconquered” again from immigrants.

During the Spanish colonisation of the Americas, Santiago became Mataindios, incentivising images where the Apostle kills “Indians” (figure 5), sometimes used as a way to give strength to the Spanish soldiers (Domínguez García, 2006, p. 48), or even Mataespañoles; native South Americans borrowed this iconography and turned it against the conquistadores, the invaders of their land, the españoles (figure 6).

During Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975) many historical and biblical characters of Spanish and world history were converted into symbols of patriotism, and they remained so in the collective imagination for decades. That is the case of, for example, Pelagius, a nobleman who is supposed to have started the Reconquista against Muslims, and the case of the Apostle Santiago. Matamoros turned into Matarojos as a result of Franco’s regime (Mullen, 2010); the rojos (‘red people’) being the communists that were persecuted and killed during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the dictatorship.

As one can see, every declination of this iconography is anything but coherent with a city that is supposed to welcome pilgrims, as Compostela should be.


An embarrassing paradox

Over the past decades, Santiago de Compostela has been a “victim” of many marketing operations aimed at boosting tourism. It has been said to be “the city where everyone is welcome”. However, it is quite a curious paradox that pilgrims from the whole world arrive at a place that “welcomes” them with several statues of Santiago Matamoros. Some months ago one of the wooden statues in the Cathedral was moved from one of the chapels of the transept, where it had been since the 50s, to a closed chapel that is being restored. The excuse given by the director of the Cathedral Foundation was that the piece did not originally belong to that space and that it had been placed there provisionally. But no other explanations have been declared (Luaña, 2021). However, during a quite politically correct guided tour I followed in December 2021, as part of my research for this piece, I asked what had happened with the statue and the guide answered that they were restoring it, and was not willing at all to speak about the iconography. Why the statue has been moved is not clear at all. Moreover, the words “Santiago Matamoros” were not pronounced once during the whole visit (110 minutes inside the Cathedral), instead, the guide preferred to use “Santiago Caballero”. It is worth mentioning that caballero in Spanish means both ‘knight' and ‘gentleman’. The exact same thing happens on the website of the Cathedral: any explanation about the actual meaning of this iconography is avoided. There is a section dedicated to the representation of Santiago, divided into three parts: “Santiago Apóstol”, “Santiago Peregrino” and “Santiago Caballero” (Santiago as the Apostle, as a pilgrim and as a knight). In the text where this last iconography is explained, the word “Moors”, or “Muslims”, or “Matamoros” do not appear once. Though the Apostle is described as a knight, as a warrior that rides a horse in an attack position, that wields a sword, that crowns the main altar, that dominates a chapel. Santiago is not mentioned as “Matamoros” on the whole website.

It is surprising how “Matamoros” has been replaced by “Caballero”, a word that has a rather positive meaning in any of its definitions. On the website all references to the murder of Muslims, to racism and to the symbol the figure has become have been completely eluded. So not only has Santiago Matamoros, meaning ‘the Moor-slayer’, suffered a proper damnatio memoriae, he has also been transformed into a gentleman, a knight, a warrior, a guide, a leader. The Church, which should be welcoming and tolerant, especially in a city like Compostela, is reluctant to discuss the symbol and seems to describe Santiago Matamoros in a surprisingly similar way as some far-right parties do. What an unfortunate coincidence. Furthermore, the chapel that used to host the statue has now been used to commemorate Teodomiro (figure 7), the bishop who “discovered” the tomb of the Apostle and to remember the visits of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI (Libertad Digital, 2021). It is nothing but an ode to tradition and a way to escape, once more, controversies around Santiago Matamoros. It is embarrassing that the city sells itself as “welcoming” and “peaceful” but does not have the courage to discuss the statue, its iconography, its history.

After all these legends, stories, names, texts, everything comes to one problem: should the statues of Santiago Matamoros be left there or should they be removed? All this is linked to some conversations I have had over the past months with my beloved friend and colleague Anna Ainio about the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and the demonstrations and vandalisation of many monuments dedicated to conquerors. We have debated the dilemma of restoring and removing graffiti from the statues, taking them down or leaving them in their place. Anna then turned this issue into her History of Art dissertation topic. Although the conqueror’s statues she discusses in her work had been vandalised and the figures of Santiago Matamoros have not, and even though her paper involves a different geographical area and a different political situation, the debate remains the same: are all these statues racist symbols? Should they, therefore, be removed? I do not think, as Ainio states in her dissertation (2021), that any statue should be completely removed, including the ones of Santiago Matamoros. Removing them, as the Cathedral of Santiago has done with the one that used to be in one of the transepts, and eluding any debate around them is nothing but denying the past. Not speaking about these symbols and not explaining them leads to forgetting our history. And it is, as I have said before, not only a damnatio memoriae to the iconography itself but most importantly, to the people that have been assassinated over the years as a result of religious wars and conflicts, that we now interpret as racism (this concept cannot be directly applied to a Medieval historical context). It is an offence to the people that still today suffer from racial and religious discrimination and that every year are killed because of it. The statues have to remain where they are, as a testimonial of our history, as proof of the racism that unfortunately still exists today. However, Santiago de Compostela and its Church owe an explanation to the people who visit the city and to its citizens. I believe the solution to the issue is to leave the statues as they are but to accompany them with a deep explanation, to speak about them during the guided tours, to add a special section on the website. Everyone deserves to know what those statues are and what they mean, so it absolutely has to be widely, broadly, deeply explained to every person that passes by, to all visitors, to all pilgrims. This way maybe everyone will, finally, feel welcomed.


1. The Iberian Peninsula was conquered in 711 AD by Muslims, who were called “Moors” (in Spanish, “moros”) by the Christian Kingdoms.

2. The Museum of Pilgrimage (Museo das Peregrinacións e de Santiago) does have almost a whole floor dedicated to explain the iconography and figure of Santiago Matamoros. It belongs to the regional government (Xunta de Galicia) and it is not linked to the Church in any way. The Chief Curator has sent me three of the images that can be found in the article. They were catalogued as “Santiago Matamoros”, “Santiago Mataindios” and “Santiago Mataespañoles”.


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Figure 1. Santiago Matamoros in the Battle of Clavijo, attributed to Gabriel de la Corte, second half of the 17th Century, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Museo das Peregrinacións e de Santiago (Xunta de Galicia) 


Figure 2. Santiago Matamoros, top of the baldachin, main altar of the Cathedral, Mateo de Prado, 1667 circa © Fundación Catedral de Santiago 


Figure 3. Santiago Matamoros, top of the organ of the Cathedral, Miguel de Romay, 1705-1708 circa © Fundación Catedral de Santiago 


Figure 4. Santiago Matamoros on top of the Pazo de Raxoi, City Hall’s facade, and Battle of Clavijo inside the tympanum, by José Ferreiro (1738-1830). Photo by Helena Santidrián Mas 


Figure 5. Santiago Mataindios, Colonial School (Peru), 1775-1800, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Museo das Peregrinacións e de Santiago (Xunta de Galicia) 


Figure 6. Santiago Mataespañoles, Colonial School (Cuzco, Peru), 1834-1866, chiseled silver. Image courtesy of Museo das Peregrinacións e de Santiago (Xunta de Galicia) 


Figure 7. The chapel that used to host the wooden statue of Santiago Matamoros, now used to commemorate Teodomiro. Photo by Helena Santidrián Mas 


Ainio, A. (2021) ‘Leave them as they are: Today’s Disfigurement as Tomorrow’s Artwork’. Unpublished undergraduate report in History of Art, University College London. To be published in 2022.

Berriochoa, A. (2021) ‘La guerra de las estatuas’, El Correo Gallego. [online] 21st December. Available at: [accessed 21/12/2021]

Carmona Muela, J. (2003) Iconografía de los santos. 2015. Madrid: Ediciones Akal, pp. 406-418.

Domínguez García, J. (2006) ‘Santiago Mataindios: la continuación de un discurso medieval en la Nueva España’, Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica, LIV(1), pp. 33-56. ‘La Iglesia manda al ostracismo la figura de Santiago Matamoros de la catedral de Santiago’ (2021) Libertad Digital. [online] 5th January. Available at: a-figura-de-santiago-matamoros-de-la-catedral-de-santiago-6695638/ [accessed 18/12/2021].

López, R. J. (2008) ‘La pervivencia de un mito bélico en la España moderna: la imagen de Santiago caballero’ in González Cruz, D. (ed.) Religión y conflictos bélicos en Iberoamérica. Sevilla: Universidad Internacional de Andalucía, Fundación Caja Rural del Sur, pp. 40-73. 1

Luaña, S. (2021) ‘Santiago Matamoros, retirado de su lugar de honor en la Catedral y trasladado a una capilla en obras’, La Voz de Galicia. [online] 3rd January. Available at: r-honor-catedral-trasladado-capilla-obras/00031609611144211595823.htm [accessed 28/11/21].

Mullen, R. (2010) Call of the Camino: Myths, Legends and Pilgrim Stories on the Way to Santiago de Compostela. Findhorn Press, Simon & Schuster. 

Pérez de Urbel, F. J. (1952) ‘Orígenes del culto de Santiago en España’, Hispania Sacra, V(9), pp. 1-31.

Vox (2020) [Twitter] 23rd July. Available at: [accessed 18/12/2021]

Footnote (The iconography of Santago Matamos in cmpostela. A Paradox.)
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