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Saint James the Great conquering the Moors

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770). Szépmúvészeti Múzeum - Budapest. 1759.

Saint James the Great conquering the Moors

Juan Carreno de Miranda (1614-1685). Szépmúvészeti Múzeum – Budapest. 1660.


Saint James the Great was an apostle, son of Zebedee and brother of another apostle, John E5 . Their mother presented James and John to Jesus. She wanted her sons not only to follow Christ, she was ambitious for them in her admiration for the new message Jesus had been talking of. She offered her sons to sit the one to the left, the other to the right of Jesus. But Jesus told them that they did not understand the hardships they would be facing with their proposal. He then asked them whether they were really willing to drink with him the cup of suffering. When the answer was unwaveringly yes, the two new apostles followed Jesus.

Both were witnesses to the most important events in the life of Jesus, the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Only Peter, James and John were with Jesus in the garden of Ghetsemane. John is frequently painted as one of the few bystanders next to the Crucifixion, often supporting the Blessed Virgin. Jesus on the cross gave Mary to John as his adopted mother. John was the apostle beloved of Christ. John also wrote the fourth Gospel. The lives of James and John are wrought with legends. A Samaritan town refused to welcome Christ. When James and John saw this, they urged Jesus to call down fire from the Heavens to destroy the Samaritans. So, Jesus called James and John Boanerges or ‘Sons of Thunder’, because they were impetuous and had a rash temper E5 . James and John were willing to drink Jesus’s cup of suffering and indeed James’ fate was an early martyrdom around 44 AD, the first apostle to be martyred, whereas John suffered Domitian’s persecution. John would survive those however, go to Patmos, write his Revelation, and continue his preaching.

James preached in Judea and Samaria. Then the ‘Golden Legend’ tells that he went to Spain but made no headway there, converted only very few to Christianity and soon returned to Judea. Saint James was the first apostle to be martyred. He was killed by the sword in Jerusalem under King Herod Agrippa, just before the same Herod imprisoned Peter. The body of Saint James with his severed head was supposed to be brought by boat from Palestine to Spain in the fourth century. The ‘Golden Legend’ says that the Christians put the body on a rudderless boat, giving the burial over to divine providence. The boat made port in Galicia of Spain, in the realm of Queen Lupa. Several miracles were performed before the burial, for Queen Lupa tried to prevent the burial on her grounds. But finally she believed the wondrous events and became a Christian herself G49 . The relics were kept at a village in Galicia, the northwest of Spain, later called Santiago for Saint James. This is the legend as it was written down in the thirteenth century. The first charter mentioning the tomb of Saint James in Spain dates from 829 G14 . A tomb of a martyr with a severed head brought in a boat is probably linked to indeed a historical figure. A Spanish preacher called Priscillus was decapitated around 386 in Trier of Germany. His decapitated body could have been returned to Spain and his cult continued in GaliciaG14. The legend of James and the historical fact of Priscillus could have been joined.


Spain was mostly Arab in the ninth century. Tariq-b-Ziyad had attacked the country from 710 on. He landed at Gibraltar – Djebel al Tariq - and rapidly conquered the greater part of Spain, helped by the fact that the original Spanish had had enough of Wisigoth reign. Early Spanish nobles preferred Moorish reign and supported the Arabs. The Arab armies were stopped however in their advance to the North in 732 when in a sudden campaign they wanted to conquer the basilica of Saint Martin of Tours in France. Charles Martel at the head of a Frankish army stopped them. In the eight century, the Arabs devastated Galicia and the North of Spain.

But already in 739 the situation started to change slowly. The Spanish nobles of the North took the initiative to reconquer the land. Alphonso I of the small Kingdom of Asturia retook Galicia and incorporated it in Asturia. His son, Alphonso II, made an alliance with Emperor Charlemagne to fight the Moors. Alphonso III, crowned in 850, took Leon in 856, Burgos in 883 and Zamora in 893.

So, Spain desperately needed a saint in the early ninth century. And not just any saint. Spain needed a very powerful one, a warrior-saint. Who better than James, who had with John been closest to Jesus and who had been a Boanerges at that? The tomb of Saint James may well have been a wishful finding, the culmination of the Spanish Christian energy dressed against the Moors, in order to galvanise once more Spanish war spirit to reconquer the land from the Moors.

James became the patron saint of Spain. A strong image of a fighter-saint was necessary; one who could perform miracles in the battlefield. Soon, ‘Saint James’ or ‘Santiago’ was shouted as the battle cry of Asturian soldiers winning back their land. For that, the tomb was a place to find new strength and support. The site of Saint James’ burial was a village that grew to a small town. Along with the success of the wars against the Moors the reputation of Saint James grew. The town of Santiago in Compostella thus became a famous pilgrimage place. The heyday of the pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostella was from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. The cult was based on Saint James defending Christianity against the Moors, a faith so well rendered by Tiepolo in his painting. This was testified by many miracles, such as Saint James’ appearance in the middle of the battle of Clavijo against the Moors in 844. That battle occurred around 930, and was going badly for the Spanish against the Saracens. But Saint James according to a legend, promised King Ramirez of Castille victory in a dream. From there James received the name of ‘Matamores’ or Moor slayer and the saint is usually painted while his horse tramples the Saracen under its hooves.

Santiago de Compostella

The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella was one of the most important if not the most important of medieval Europe. The first highborn pilgrim came to Santiago around 950: Godescalc, bishop of Le Puy in France. The Franks would help, if not with weapons then at least with spiritual aid. More and more pilgrims took the roads for Compostella. Monasteries along the roads provided hospitality for them. Many roads led thus from all over Europe to Galicia. Pilgrims to the shrine of Compostella wore scallop shells, the symbols that traditionally guaranteed them shelter and food along the roads. The roads started in Sweden or England and Ireland. They started in Antwerp, Cologne, Metz, Basle and many other European towns. They continued in four well-known major trails over France. One trail went from Paris over Tours and Bordeaux, another one started in the abbey of Vézelay in Burgundy and went over Limoges. A third came from Basle in Switzerland over Le Puy and the famous abbey of Conques. A fourth came east from the Provence, from Arles over Toulouse. The pilgrims went to Compostella and if they did not perish on the route, returned with knowledge of major parts of Europe. The pilgrimages opened up Europe, they showed that covering the vast distances was quite possible and thus promoted trade over Europe still more than was already existing.

The churches and monasteries along the roads to Compostella where pilgrims could rest, spend the night or receive something to eat, all have enmasoned somewhere in their walls the Santiago sign: the scallop-shell or Saint James’ shell, or ‘compostela’, so that pilgrims could recognise where they were welcome. These shell-signs remain. One can find them in the front wall of churches and abbeys still today, all over Europe.

Santiago de Compostella was destroyed and burned by the Moor Almansur in 997, during a period when the Muslims became more powerful again, but the tomb was untouched. The Kings of Castille opened the routes to Santiago again around 1030. Somewhat later, in 1064, the town of Coďmbra was taken by Ferdinand the Great. This was a new feat for Santiago since Ferdinand, the infante Sanches and Rodrigo de Bivar called El Cid had made a pilgrimage to Saint James before the battle, to implore his support. From then on, the Moors were truly losing ground in Spain. Around this time also, a formidable cathedral was built on the tomb of Saint James. Asturia-Leon and Castille were united around the same time under one monarch, giving rise to the more powerful Kingdom of Castille.

The war against the Moors continued until the fifteenth century. In 1492 Muley Boabdil handed over the keys of Granada and its citadel, the Alhambra, to the Christian Kings of Spain. This was of course the same date as the discovery of North America and the cry of Santiago continued during the conquest of the Americas, where many cities received the name of Santiago. This conquest was regarded as a crusade for Catholic faith and was led in Saint James’ name. The last crusade was the uprising of the Spanish army supported by the right-wing Phalange in 1936 against the government of the Frente Popular. The Caudillo Franco’s soldiers used the call ‘Santiago y arriba Espana’ to the victory of the Franquists in 1939. Franco himself was born about 100 kilometres north of Santiago.

The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is an imposing monument to Christian faith. Pilgrimages took off again in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; most of the Baroque monuments and churches date from those times. Famous now are the priests and monks of Santiago who sway an enormous censer, an incense burner of sixty kilograms called the botafumeiro, all through the middle aisle of the church during Mass. At least four men are necessary to start the censer slowly swinging, then the vessel goes faster and farther in one long arc, spreading the incense perfume all through the church.

The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela continues in our days. The James’ shell still remains a sign of the roads; one can find the shell somewhere in almost all Belgian, French and Spanish towns and in towns of many other European countries. The tradition of pilgrimage on foot lives on. Pilgrims fly by aeroplane or take the train to the relatively recent pilgrimage site of Lourdes in France, but the Compostela pilgrimage has remained a journey on foot. Many Christian Europeans still take the roads and either go to Santiago in one track or make it a lifetime journey. They take off from their native town once or twice a year, go by car to a point they reached the last time and continue on foot for a couple of days to another place nearer to Santiago. It may take some of them ten years this way, but they reach their goal ultimately. The pilgrimage is particularly popular with Christian managers and intellectuals.


Santiago de Compostela is not the only pilgrimage town of the Middle Ages. Another famous one is Rocamadour in the French Quercy region. This was also an early pilgrimage site, dating from the eleventh century. Rocamadour is a very small village, almost only one street, hanging against the rocks of a spectacular hilly landscape, the Causses. Roc Amator in the old Occitanian language means ‘who loves the rock’.

The Rocamadour chapel held a black Madonna that was ardently revered. It really started off as a pilgrimage site when in 1166 a body was found close to the chapel. The body was probably of a hermit known to have lived at Rocamadour, called Amadour, but a later legend of the fifteenth century accepted by Pope Martin V in 1428 attributed the corpse to Zacheus, husband of the Saint Veronica who had wiped Jesus’s face during his passion. Rocamadour became the most famous pilgrimage to the Holy Virgin of Europe and it lay on the roads to Compostela.

More than two hundred steps lead to the chapel of Rocamadour, high against the hill. The pilgrims ascended these steps on their knees. Kings and bishops went to Rocamadour: Henri II Plantagenet was one of the first to come, after having been cured miraculously by calling on the Virgin. Other illustrious pilgrims were Blanche of Castille, her son Saint Louis King of France, many other Kings of France up to Louis XI. Here is a connection with Santiago and Spain: Blanche of Castille brought with her the Spanish religious ardour from Santiago to Rocamadour and her son, King Louis of France, became known as Saint Louis. The flags of Rocamadour were used in the battles of the Spanish against the Moors.

The heydays of Rocamadour were during the thirteenth century, but tens of thousands flocked again in the town on the special Great Pardon days installed by Pope Martin V in the year 1428. On these special days, full pardon was given for one’s sins. During the Hundred Year War, in 1562, the Protestant captain Bessonies destroyed and burned the village. Rocamadour would only be restored as a pilgrimage place in the nineteenth century.

Rocamadour is a splendid site where the small river Alzou has cut almost a canyon out of the Causse hills. Its loneliness, purity, silence and piety continue to inspire receptive people. In 1936 the composer Francis Poulenc came to Rocamadour as a tourist. He was so impressed by the spirituality of the site that he converted to Christianism and composed on religious themes, from his ‘Litanies ŕ la Vierge Noire’, or ‘Litanies to the Black Madonna’, to the ‘Dialogue des Carmélites’. He died in 1963. The Museum of Sacred Art of Rocamadour bears his name.

Santiago de Compostela and Rocamadour. How did these pilgrimage sites originated? It seems that over the centuries energy piled up in Europe. The energy found its directions of relief in Catholic fervour and specific targets. First Santiago and the reconquista of Spain, later the conquest of the Americas. Another objective was the formidable eleven crusades to that first pilgrimage site of Christian faith: Jerusalem. Rocamadour supported the essence of the cult of the Holy Virgin, which allowed Saint Joan of Arc to win back France from the English. It was the Madonna that appeared to Joan and told her to take up the coat of arms for France. Joan could thus gather around her the nobles of France and from then on the French armies were almost invincible.

Europe was much a Christian citadel, although Arab, Moor, Turkish and other cultures have much added to its diversity and richness of culture. But it cannot be denied that European history is mostly Christian history. European history was many times driven by this religion and its energy to conquests outside Europe as well of course as by the internal strives within Christianity such as of the many sects that interlocked and the religious wars, Reformation and Counter Reformation.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

The painting of ‘Saint James the Great conquering the Moors’ by Tiepolo was painted in Venice. We have few paintings of Saint James made by native Spanish painters. So, it is a geographic surprise that the most impressive painting of Saint James comes from a Venetian painter. The commission of the Spanish ambassador in London of the painting explains the subject. Tiepolo, who was born in Venice in 1696, painted more and more for the court of Madrid and went to live there in 1761. He decorated the Throne Room and the Guard Room of the Spanish royal palace. He died in Madrid in 1770.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo was a pupil of the historic painter Gregorio Lazzarini. So he knew historic scenes and learned some of the theatrical expressions of his master. Tiepolo’s style of dazzling effects in presentation and his soft, pastel colours he acquired however from another Venetian painter: Giovanni Battista Piazzetta. Piazzetta was thirteen years older than Tiepolo was, but both painters worked almost at the same time, decorating the Venetian palaces and villas. Piazzetta positioned figures against the sky, in very dramatic and epic representations, often without any landscape. He introduced groups of many figures with each separate expressions, attitudes of passion, surprise. Little angels flew around in mists and clouds. Piazzetta led Baroque art in new directions, lighter, more confuse in presentation, into whirling scenes and soft colours. Tiepolo painted in the same style, but he could modulate his representations to a profound art. He was both a decorator and a painter of smaller works on canvas.

As a decorator especially Tiepolo would follow Piazzetta and evolve this master’s style into heights of mannered scenes and fantasies that are called Rococo. He became so well known for decorating Venetian palaces that he was called upon to work all over Europe. He worked in Milan from 1730 to 1740. He was called to decorate the residence of the Prince-Bishop Schönborn in Würzburg, Germany. Here, two centuries before, the great Matthias Grünewald had worked. Tiepolo painted on the ceilings of the monumental staircase of the palace the ‘Four Continents’ and the ‘Life of Emperor Barbarossa’. The architect Balthazar Neumann built the residence. The two geniuses turned the palace in one of the outstanding pieces of art of the century. Tiepolo continuously sought new means to apply light and soft colours, contrasts, figures in extravagant clothes, groupings of intertwined figures, to obtain new effects that made his pictures into something strange, abstract, of the realm of dreams. Tiepolo is all about extravagance, illusions and transitoriness. He is the last important genius painter of Venice. Painting in Venice thus ended in a last firework of the senses.

And yet, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo was sufficiently intelligent to be able to paint intense character pictures. He could do much more than decorate. The Saint James we present here is such a painting, where can be seen a powerful Tiepolo, master of his art and also of the expression of his feelings. This is not just one more of those shallow Rococo paintings, but one that can be compared to the best expressions of masters of any century.

James is a noble youth, looking ecstatically but serenely at the sky where his powers come from. He dedicates his deeds to God. He is an idealistic figure, a white knight, and not a rude soldier. This is shown in the white robes flowing around James and in the standard he holds. The giant flag flows like the robes, continues their movements to the right of the picture. James is not clad in rich armour, bears no jewels. James is not a worldly nobleman, but a sober young man, almost a monk and this represents the ideal of a noble knight. He rides a white horse, but the animal is not wild and prancing: it also is controlled, held in reigns. It looks compassionately at the conquered Moor. James does not seem to kill the black Moor, only subduing him by the touch of his long straight sword on the Moor’s neck. The sword is unwavering. It cannot be torn from his hand; it spirals around his wrist.

The Moor has been vanquished already. His curved sword lies on the ground. He holds his head down to the earth. The Moor’s clothes are dark also, and painted in shadows, thus contrast with the white rider. The white masses of James and his horse tower above the Moor. So, while the Moor seems to fall into the black earth, the white knight James holding his head to the skies shows all the splendour of victory and the promises of Christian support from the Heavens. Of course, Tiepolo would not be Tiepolo if he had not added some style figures by which he was known. Two winged angel-heads hang over the clouds and in the lower background a confused battle scene is shown before a Spanish castle, with interlaced horses, flags and figures. Moors are lying on the ground where James’ horse has passed. James has a head with full curls, repeated in the curls of the ample manes of his horse. This contrasts even more with the black head with very short cut hair of the Moor.

Tiepolo must have thought much about his scene. He has used firm lines to re-enforce the static monumentality of the picture. The movement of the sagging Moore, of the aristocratic horse and the victorious flag form two parallel lines. Perpendicular to these lines is another line going from James’ sword over his outstretched hand to his head. Thus, the view is drawn automatically to the centre point of the picture: the gaze upwards of the saint. This is the essence of the picture: the victory of the heavens and of the Christian ideal.

Saint James Boanerges the impetuous was the Matamores or Moor Slaughterer. Yet the sword lies there gently on the Moor’s neck. It is a gesture of pity over the vanquished, a gesture of consolation, maybe so that now the Moor may save his soul in Christian faith. It is a gesture of protection. The wide-open mantle reminds us of images of another Saint, of Saint Martin. The Saint Martin who with the same gesture of the robe and a drawn, long sword cuts his mantle in two, to give half to a beggar. There are many such paintings and sculptures in Western Europe of Saint Martin on a horse, cutting his mantle in two. The scene of Tiepolo with Saint James is a scene of dominance, of tenderness, of empathy with the loser, and of a static nobility that seemed to be necessary over the centuries to picture the ideals of knighthood. In this, Tiepolo’s Saint James joins the other noblest expression of knighthood that can be found in not a painting but a sculpture: Donatello’s Saint Georges, now in the Bargello Museum of Florence and with a copy still in a niche of OrsanMichele church. This Saint Georges is also a noble young man, quite decisive in his expression but otherwise in a static defensive posture. These saints are no oppressive figures, no torturers or killers but protective young knights devoted to the Christian ideals. Tiepolo has brought all these images together in a powerful picture, expressing a depth of vision and feelings that could be expected of a genius painter.

Saint James conquering the Moors is thus not a Tiepolo picture as we would expect. It is a serene and direct picture, which shows us the genius of a Tiepolo completely controlling his emotions. Tiepolo has not painted a whirling action scene with James in middle of a battle, interlaced figures and curls, delicate details. The battle remains in the background and merely the essence is shown. The composition remains static and monumental, as needed to express the meaning of the picture and of course: as a Spanish Ambassador might like. Tiepolo needed to make the scene static so that the picture would become everlasting, the image of a thought and of a vision. This was the vision and the strength that would lead the Spanish in the end to conquer the land from the Moors. More than any Spanish artist, Tiepolo had captured splendidly this Spanish vision of Saint James.

Tiepolo brought with pictures such like the one we show here more profound meaning than we would expect from Rococo. Rococo is considered nowadays as an unbridled art in which much more attention is given to sentimental, light, overladen elements of decoration and unchecked fantasies in representation. Rococo seems to have been more than that with artists like Tiepolo. Rococo could tale also a serious devotional subject, painted by an artist in a powerful but relaxed way, conveying a profound meaning but to which was added a profusion of sentimental decorative elements. It is hard not to agree with the combination of seriousness and joyful elation of this art and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo was its greatest Italian master.

Juan Carreno de Miranda

Tiepolo had had an example. In 1660, almost hundred years before Tiepolo, the Spanish artist Juan Carreno de Miranda made also a painting of Saint James the Great conquering the Moors. We see immediately that Tiepolo must have known this picture. He might have seen it at the court of Spain, or copied drawings of it may have been presented to him. Carreno de Miranda’s painting is untypical for Spanish art, in that it represents a very lively scene and not the usual static portraiture common in Spanish pictures. But it is of course a scene of the life of a saint, and in that aspect it meets again the general standards of traditional Spanish art of the seventeenth century.

Carreno de Miranda was a Spanish nobleman, born in Aviles in 1614. He was a Baroque painter, who worked for several monasteries before being introduced to the Spanish court by Velásquez. He painted large frescoes in Italian style for the royal palace of Madrid. He then worked mainly as the portraitist of the Court of Spain, became official Painter of the Court, until he died in Madrid in 1685.

The Saint James of Carreno de Miranda is a passionate warrior who shows no mercy at all. He flings his sword high above him to strike violently all enemies of Christianity. His white horse prances, ready to trample a Moor to death. This is probably how Spanish noblemen saw Saint James, their Santiago, at his best, how they liked him in the middle of their battlefields. This was the spirit of the Conquistadores who would wage violence without pity in the South Americas.

There are similarities and differences between the Tiepolo and the Carreno de Miranda pictures. Both paintings show Saint James fighting on a white horse, in the midst of action. Both riders triumphantly hold a flag that flows in the wind. But the Tiepolo Saint James is a noble youthful knight showing mercy, whereas Carreno de Miranda’s Saint James is an avenging monk-soldier. Carreno de Miranda’s painting is very dynamic, his horse prances high with lifted hooves. Tiepolo’s painting is more in restraint; his horse is standing and quietly looking at the Moor. Tiepolo’s knight is clad in white, the clothes of a nobleman. Carreno de Miranda’s James is dressed in the dark, coarse cloth of a monk. His James is intent on the battle and his long untidy hair makes him much more a warrior than the mystic Saint James of Tiepolo. Both paintings inspire us very different emotions. They may have been typical for the character of the countries and the times they were made in. Carreno de Miranda’s vision was one of raw conquest in the name of a religion without compassion. Tiepolo’s Saint James is a picture of nobility and forgiveness. Tiepolo modulated his Spanish example.

The paintings of Carreno de Miranda and of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo are the pride of the National Gallery of Hungary. The collection of Spanish art in the Museum of Budapest is very important, with more than eighty paintings H1 . The Esterházy family acquired many of these paintings in the nineteenth century. The Esterházy collection became national Hungarian art treasure after 1870, but the Esterházys continued to add paintings to it. The Saint James of Carreno de Miranda was donated by Jenö Boross of New York in 1922; the painting came from the collection of the French king Louis-Philippe H1 . The Museum can present both pictures next to each other to show the differences in time and styles of a typical Spanish painter Carreno de Miranda of the seventeenth century and of the Venetian Tiepolo of the eighteenth.

Other paintings:

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