St. James, lead us to Christ

Juan de Juanes' 'St. James the Pilgrim' painting depicts the apostle as a pilgrim

"St. James the Pilgrim" by Juan de Juanes (circa 1523–1579), Pilgrimage Museum, Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Photo: alamy

St. James holds an important role in the Catholic faith. Not only was he one of Jesus’ original Twelve Apostles who was present at the Transfiguration, he is believed to have carried out Jesus’ ministry to the far reaches of Europe, spreading Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula.

“St. James the Pilgrim” by Juan de Juanes (circa 1523–1579), Pilgrimage Museum, Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Photo: alamy

After St. James’ martyrdom in Jerusalem in the year 44 A.D., St. James’ body was brought to present-day Santiago de Compostela, Spain, which became a major pilgrimage sight in the Middle Ages. Since then, St. James has become the patron saint of Spain and the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is one of the most well-known pilgrimage routes in the world.

Due to St. James’ importance to Spanish culture, many Catholic artists have created works featuring their interpretation of the saint. Although there are many of note, one that is a particularly interesting representation is St. James the Pilgrim by Spanish artist Juan de Juanes (circa 1523–1579), which is located in the Museum of Santiago and the Pilgrims in Santiago de Compostela.

Here, as in many depictions of the saint, James is dressed in the traditional garb of a pilgrim. He holds a walking stick to help him along the often-treacherous terrain through the Pyrenees Mountains and a wide-brimmed pilgrim hat, which serves to protect the pilgrim from the harsh sun.

The artist also chose to depict a scallop shell on St. James’ hat, which is one of the symbols not only of St. James, but of the entire Camino de Santiago. There are many different theories that may explain the link between St. James and the scallop shell, but the most likely explanation is that these shells are very common off the coast of Galicia, the northwestern region of Spain where Santiago de Compostela is located.

The scallop shell was also an important tool for pilgrims, as they often used them to gather drinking water and as a spoon to eat food out of makeshift bowls. Today, the scallop shell is the official symbol of the pilgrimage and is used to direct pilgrims along the path.

Juan de Juanes also used the humanism of the Renaissance to give this painting of St. James an emotional complexity that often was not present in earlier Christian art. Here, St. James is depicted staring directly at the viewer. He wears an expression of deep thought and almost sadness that is truly meant to affect those looking at the painting.

De Juanes uses this emotional aspect to make the saint appear more human and sympathetic in order to draw a sense of devotion from the onlooker. Essentially, when we look at St. James in this painting, we may be able to see ourselves reflected in him.

While I have never personally walked the Camino de Santiago, I have had the opportunity to encounter pilgrims walking the path. I was impressed by their devotion and desire to walk hundreds of miles, following the long and often uneven path laid out before them that so many others had taken before them and that hopefully many others will take after them, as well.

This long and uneven road reflects the experiences of the faithful who follow Christ. Like St. James, who dropped everything to follow Jesus on a path that was in no way easy and the pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, our faith is a hard and uneven path. We can, however, look at figures like St. James,  and be inspired by their faith and their perseverance in even the hardest of circumstances.

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