25 July is the feast day of Saint James the Greater. The title ‘the Greater’ was added to St. James’s name to distinguish him from the Apostle James ‘the Less’, who was probably shorter of stature.
St. James the Greater was one of Jesus’ first disciples. According to the Synoptic Gospels, he and his brother John were fishing when Jesus called them to follow him. Later, with Peter and John, James was one of the witnesses of the Transfiguration, as he was also of the agony in the garden. Following Christ’s Ascension, St. James spread the Gospel across Israel and the Roman kingdom. Back in Jerusalem, he was beheaded on the orders of Herod Agrippa. He is traditionally considered the first apostle to be martyred.
A tradition asserts that the saint preached in Spain, of which James is the patron saint. His remains are presumed to have been miraculously traslated from Judea to Galicia, in Santiago de Compostela. From the Early Middle Ages up to our days, the pilgrimage to the saint’s grave, known as the ‘Way of St. James’, has been very popular and frequented.
Although St. James the Greater was revered greatly during the Middle Ages, his popularity was particularly concentrated in Spain because of the legend of Santiago de Compostela. Nevertheless, images of him populate manuscripts and church walls in Italy throughout the medieval period. Portraits of him are found most often in programs that detail the Apostles, in scenes depicting his martyrdom, and in episodes of the Transfiguration. St. James also appears alongside St. John in one of the few illustrated manuscripts containing Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Further readings: The Miracles of Saint James by Linda Kay Davidson, Thomas F. Coffey; The Lore of the Camino de Santiago: A Literary Pilgrimage by Jean Mitchell-Lanham.
Dante, Divine Comedy (Paradiso), fol. 144, paper, 14th century.
Cavallini, Last Judgement, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, 13th/14th century, fresco.
Head of St. James, St. Mark’s Cathedral, Venice, begun 1063, mosaic.
View of Saints, Monreale Cathedral, Sicily, 12th century.
Antonio Veneziano, Apostle James the Greater, c. 1384, poplar panel, Berlin, Staatliche Museen.
Lorenzo Monaco, The Meeting and Martyrdom of Saint James, tempera on panel, Paris, Musée du Louvre.
Lorenzo Lotto, Saint James, c. 1512, Recanati, Civic Museum, Villa Colloredo Mels.
Guido Reni, Saint James, 1636-1638, oil on canvas, Houston, Museum of Fine Arts.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Saint James as the Moor-killer, 1749-1750, oil on canvas, Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts.