Give Santiago a hug for me – Darle un abrazo – is what one pilgrim will say to another who is going to Santiago de Compostela. And they mean it literally. In the cathedral there is a small staircase that ascends behind the altar to the statue of Saint James, Santiago. Behind the statue is a small space, just enough for one pilgrim, with a monk keeping watch from a corner, to embrace Santiago’s cloak, or kiss it. In this photo of the front of the altar, you can see a hand on Santiago’s left shoulder. Santiago is dressed in finery, but still carries his staff with a gourd for water, and his halo takes the form of the scallop shell, symbol of the camino.
I didn’t feel quite the same need to touch him. It seems odd. Maybe because the statue has a certain 1950’s cheesy quality to it. Again, that’s a lot of cherubs. But I certainly have felt the need to collect physical talismans of the camino, to hold and keep for luck and perseverance. Walking to Santiago was hard sometimes; but waiting out the years to go again has been harder. When Jan Morris writes about the Spanish making little goddesses out of their Virgin Mary statues, I understand that. The Reformation was hard on Catholicism’s idolatries of physical objects. The iconoclasts, clawing out the eyes of saints and chipping effigies off the walls of churches, strike me as vandals. The objects, their realness, their being made by people before us, in devotion, in craft, are important. I don’t think they even reference particular ideas or church doctrine, they just overwhelm with layers of gold and detail, straight to emotions of wanting to belong and hold on. That’s what kitsch does, and I’m not above its appeal. Perhaps that’s what my photos do as well? Appeal to the visual and sense of the object with its own weight of symbol.