Saint James Matamoros: the Fake News of the Last Millennium

It’s impossible to walk the Way of Saint James, the Camino de Santiago, without encountering images of Saint James. Which makes sense – we are on a journey to his recognized grave, after all. Without James the Greater, brother of John and the first of Jesus’ disciples to be martyred, there would never have been a reason for the early Christians to journey to a remote corner of northern Spain, one of the farthest corners of their known world.

The more I walked, though, the more I paid attention to the different ways that James is represented along the way.

Most of the time, Saint James is portrayed as a pilgrim with a floppy hat, staff, and some kind of scallop shell. This James was kind and welcoming, though the logic of his appearance always confused me. Was he dressed to visit his own grave?

In Spain, there was a second depiction of of Jesus’ disciple that popped up more often than I would like. This one was anything but kind.

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Saint James Matamoros, as depicted in the Cathedral of Burgos. Note that he’s wearing his pilgrim’s scallop shell.

This is Santiago Matamoros, or Saint James the Moor Slayer. He is always on a horse, sword drawn, and often depicted with a pile of bodies — or body parts — under his feet.

The image comes from a story that spread across Spain during the centuries-long war between the Christians in the north and the Muslims in the south. According to legend, things were going badly for a Christian army during a battle near Clavijo in 844. They were outnumbered and near defeat, but were saved by the miraculous appearance of Saint James, no worse the wear for having been dead for 800 years. With an enormous sword and an immortal white horse, he led the Christians to victory against the infidels, killing as many as 5000 men in the process.

The story of the battle spread across Spain, cementing the Spanish commitment to the disciple who would become their patron saint and unifying the northern Christian in their fight against the Moors. Hundreds of years later, Spanish conquistadors took Santiago Matamoros with them to the New World, erecting statues and naming churches after the violent defender who would protect them against the violent indigenous gods.

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Hoofprints (or horseshoes) of the horse of Santiago Matamoros, as preserved in the reliquary of the Santa Maria de San Salvador Monastery in Cañas

The only problem was that the whole thing never happened. I don’t just mean that a long-dead saint didn’t appear on angelic horseback to slay an opposing army. I mean that the entire battle was fiction. It was fake news.

There was a town called Clavijo, but no battle ever took place near it. And while there was definitely a war between the northern Christians and southern Moors, the two specific armies mentioned never met.

The whole story was wartime propaganda to motivate a beleaguered population.

It took historians centuries to prove it, and by then the legend was too deeply ingrained, and the images and artwork too prevalent, to undo. Santiago Matamoros even has his own statue in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, despite protests, though for the past ten years the church has at least covered the decapitated bodies of his victims with a tasteful flower arrangement.

I always squirm when I see James, the evangelist and humble martyr, turned into a violent, nationalist weapon.

And I wish it wasn’t so easy to see modern parallels.

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