Isambard Wilkinson, Telegraph (UK), July 22, 2004
St James the Moor Slayer, Spain’s patron saint, has notched up another victory.
Church officials have been forced to overturn a decision to remove a statue of the saint from the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain.
The statue, an 18th-century work by Jose Gambino which depicts St James on a white charger hacking off the heads of Moors beneath his rampant mount’s hooves, was deemed to be offensive to Muslims.
However a spokesman for the church, which is Christendom’s third holiest site after Rome and Jerusalem and attracts half a million pilgrims each year, said yesterday that, due to public anger over the proposed move, the statue will now remain in place.
“It is still here on the same spot. It is not going anywhere,” a spokesman for Alejandro Barral, the president of the cathedral’s art commission, said. “We have decided that the statue of St James will stay in the cathedral. There is no reason why it should be removed in the near future. For the moment the debate over its future has been suspended.”
The Spanish press reported that terrorist bomb attacks on Madrid trains in March had precipitated the withdrawal of the statue.
The Spanish national newspaper, El Mundo, said: “According to our sources the authorities fear that the image could attract the anger of the Arab world in a period of high tension.”
The plan was to put the statue in a museum and replace it with a less provocative effigy, one of St James the Pilgrim.
The decision outraged Roman Catholics. One newspaper commentator dubbed it “political correctness gone mad”. People gathered in strength to place flowers at the foot of the statue and newspapers published letters of complaint condemning the “intolerable heresy”.
The announcement of the withdrawal was welcomed by the Muslim community as a “step towards peace” according to Houssam El Mahmoudi, the president of the Association of Moroccan Students in Santiago.
St James, who was described by Cervantes’ Don Quixote as “the most valiant”, still exerts a strong hold on the Spanish popular imagination.
Spanish troops deployed to Iraq were issued with a special badge depicting the Moor Slayer’s red cross. Santiago Matamoros, as he is known in Spanish, was the brother of St John the evangelist. He was beheaded in AD44 in Palestine after the King of Judea, Herod Agrippa, sentenced him to death, making him the first apostle to be martyred.
According to tradition his body floated in its sarcophagus to the lands where he had been a missionary and was buried in the westernmost part of the peninsula near Santiago de Compostela.
St James, of whom bloodthirsty statues abound throughout Spain, has been a figure of veneration since he appeared on a white cloud at the battle of Clavijo in 844 and spurred Spanish soldiers on to victory against the Moors.
On Sunday, in a ceremony that will resound with ancient symbolism, King Juan Carlos will pay homage to the Moor Slayer on his saint day by making the annual National Offering at Santiago.
The dictator Gen Francisco Franco once sent his only Moroccan general, Mohamed ben Miziam del Qasim, to make the offering. Sensitive officials covered the base of the statue with cloth to hide the decapitated heads of his compatriots.