Guest Essay: Santiago Matamoros by Alfred J. Andrea

Main Image (Above): Francisco Camilo, El Apóstol Santiago a caballo o Santiago Matamoros (1649), Prado Museum. Source: (accessed December 15, 2020.

The following essay is by Alfred J. Andrea, the former president of the World History Association, a mentor, and a noted medieval historian. In it, he provides background on Santiago Matamoros, the subject of the cover image of our forthcoming book Sanctified Violence: Holy War in World History.

See also: Guest Essay: Santiago of the Americas by Andrea J. Andrea


Santiago Matamoros

This seventeenth-century painting, which graces the cover of the paperback version of Andrea and Holt, Sanctified Violence: Holy War in World History, deserves a bit of explanation. The title translates as “The Apostle Saint James on Horseback, or Saint James the Moor-slayer.” How, one rightly asks, did an apostle of Jesus, the same Jesus who preached “Blessed are the peacemakers,”[1] get in the business of killing Moors? And what is that strange symbol on the white banner that he carries? Answers to those questions tells us quite a bit about the holy war known as the Spanish Reconquista and Spanish conquests in the Americas.

Saint James in the New Testament

Saint James, or Santiago as he is known in Spain, is James the Greater, the son of Zebedee, and with his brother John, one of the two whom Jesus nicknamed “sons of thunder.”[2] OK, so he was probably a hot-head. But a Moor-slayer? According to the Acts of the Apostles, he was martyred at the command of Herod Agrippa,[3] which would have been between the years 37 and 44. Well, how does a first-century martyr in the Roman province of Judea become a holy warrior in medieval Spain?

Santiago of Legend

A Spanish legend of indeterminate origin, which was recorded in the early twelfth-century Historia Compostelana (History of Compostela), maintains that Santiago traveled to Spain around the year 38, and spent six years attempting to covert the Galicians who inhabited the far reaches of northwestern Spain. The saint found them particularly resistant to the Gospel, and returned to Judea, where Herod Agrippa personally decapitated him in 44 C. E. Two of the apostle’s disciples collected the body and head, put them in a boat, and set it adrift toward the west. Miraculously, the boat made it across the Mediterranean, through the Pillars of Hercules, and up the west coast of Spain, all the way to the shores of Galicia, in seven days! There his body was miraculously buried and later discovered by several Christians, who reburied it and raised a small chapel over the site. In time, however, the chapel was forgotten and fell into ruins.

Early in the ninth century, a hermit had a vision of a star and angels leading him to a field (shades of shepherds at the Nativity), where he discovered the body of Santiago with his head wondrously reconnected to his body. Ever since that field has been known as Compostela, the starry field (campus stellaris). Well, that is the popular etymology. It is more likely that the name derives from the medieval Latin compostum (manure), and means “little compost pile.” Whatever the origin of the field’s name, King Alfonso II of Asturias (r. 791-842) accepted the discovery as genuine and ordered a church built over the grave. By mid-century, the cult of Santiago as protector of the Christians of Spain had taken hold, and at some indeterminate time the church became a center of pilgrimage. Also at some unknown time a second legend emerged, Santiago the Moor-slayer at Clavijo.

The Battle of Clavijo

The Battle of Clavijo is a fight that never took place, but faith often trumps sober history. In 711, North African Muslims (Moors) had invaded the Visigothic kingdom of Spain, conquering most of the peninsula, save for Christian enclaves in the mountainous north. There certainly was sporadic fighting along the permeable and ill-defined borders separating  Spain’s small Christian polities from Moorish al-Andalus (as Muslim Spain was known). Nevertheless, shifting alliances, in which Muslims and Christians allied against co-religionists, tribute-paying, trade, and peace were more common than out-and-out Christian-Muslim warfare for the first four centuries of Muslim hegemony in the peninsula. It was only in the mid-eleventh century, following the disintegration of the caliphate of Córdoba (928-1031), that attempts to reconquer former Christian lands took on the qualities of a holy war, a holy war later termed the Reconquista. Prior to that time, however, there had been occasional stirrings of the idea that the Muslims should be dispossessed of the lands they had conquered, and it might have been in that context that the myth of Clavijo was born, although the first known recorded mention of it, and that in a forged charter, was composed three centuries later as the Reconquista was getting underway.

            Originally dated to 834 and later revised to 844 to fit the reign of the Christian leader, Ramiro I of Asturias (r. 842-50), the battle supposedly took place between Ramiro’s forces and the army of Abd al-Rahman II, emir of Córdoba (r. 822-52). According to the legend, the Christians were losing badly when suddenly Santiago appeared at full gallop from the heavens, astride a white horse and bearing a white banner. Killing Moors left and right, he rallied the Asturians to victory and became immortalized as Santiago Matamoros.

“¡Santiago, y cierra España!”

At some unknown time, possibly in the late eleventh century, the battle cries “¡Santiago, y a ellos!” (Santiago, and at them!) and “¡Santiago, y cierra España!” (Santiago, and close, Spain!) became standard calls to valor across the peninsula. Reportedly, the latter was shouted out at the pivotal Christian victory at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212.

The Order of Santiago

Four military orders joined the ranks of the Christian forces at that battle, including the Order of Santiago, which had been founded in León around 1170. And this brings us to that white banner and the red symbol upon it. Every military order had a distinctive cross that its members wore and bore. Santiago’s was a stylized red sword-cross, an eloquent  expression of the Reconquista’s mixture of piety and violence. Although the point of the sword is not visible in the painting, clearly the banner bears the symbol of the Order of Santiago.

A Promise of Things to Come

For the past several years, I have been studying the Order of Santiago’s role in the Americas, especially in Mexico, where Santiago Matamoros became Santiago Mataindios (Santiago, Indian-Killer). And then, in an act of delicious irony, native Indian rebels against Spanish colonial oppression in nineteenth-century Peru adopted Santiago as their patron, transforming him into Santiago Mataespañois (Santiago, Killer of Spaniards). But that is for another day.

Alfred J. Andrea

On the northwestern frontier of New England


[1] Matthew:5:9.

[2] Mark, 3:17.

[3] Acts, 12.2.