A Renaissance St. James as pilgrim

Gil de Siloé (Burgos, Castile-León, Spain), Saint James the Greater, c. 1489–93, alabaster with traces of paint and gilding, 45.9 x 17.4 x 12.5 cm (The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), an Expanded Renaissance Initiative video, speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris


Additional resources

This sculpture at The Cloisters

Learn more about the expanding the renaissance initiative

Read more about the tomb for Juan II and Isabel of Portugal that this sculpture comes from on Smarthistory

K. Woods, Cut in Alabaster: A Material of Sculpture and Its European Traditions (Brepols, 2018)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:05] We’re standing here in the Cloisters Museum in New York City, looking at an alabaster sculpture of Saint James the Greater. This sculpture was produced in Spain, where they would refer to him as Santiago.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:17] Saint James was one of Christ’s 12 apostles. Saint James was also, importantly, the patron saint of Spain.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:23] The artist was from the Netherlands, or northern Europe, who came to Spain to find work. His name was Gil de Siloé, and you’d hear it pronounced multiple ways. He was considered one of the best, if not the best, sculptor in Spain at this point in the 15th century.

Dr. Harris: [0:38] It wasn’t unusual for there to be artists there from northern Europe, from Flanders, working in Spain, particularly for Queen Isabel.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:46] Queen Isabel of Castile commissioned the sculptor to produce a very large tomb for her parents in the Carthusian Monastery of Miraflores, near Burgos. This sculpture formed a small part.

Dr. Harris: [0:59] And so, Isabel is gathering some of the greatest artists in Europe to come to work for her.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:04] The tomb that Isabel commissioned had life-size effigies of her parents, Juan II and Isabel of Portugal, and surrounding the life-size effigies of them were all these smaller figures, including the apostle Saint James that we’re seeing here.

Dr. Harris: [1:20] We think that his position was near her head or by her shoulder.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:23] At some later point, the sculpture was removed. If we’re looking at it, we see that there has been gilding applied to it. We don’t believe that the gilding was original. We think this was added later, after it was removed from the tomb, and potentially even installed on a different type of altarpiece.

Dr. Harris: [1:38] It is so clear to me that this is by a great master sculptor. The fineness of the carving is extraordinary. His right hand, for example, I see the bones in his hand, the sense of skin laying on the bones. A real sense of studying of human anatomy, even just in the small areas of bare flesh that we can see.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:59] I love how the folds fall, particularly in his cloak. These very deep folds, but they fall very naturalistically. That he used alabaster as the material to produce this sculpture is important as well. Alabaster is not something we typically think of when we think of Renaissance sculpture, but was actually incredibly common at this time in Spain as well as northern Europe.

[2:20] They didn’t necessarily differentiate it from marble. There are some strengths to using alabaster. It’s softer to carve than marble, and it has a more translucent quality. There are some negatives. It does not do well outside. It is more prone to breaking. Still, alabaster in part allowed for some of these very naturalistic details to be developed here.

Dr. Harris: [2:42] The beard, in particular, is very naturalistic. You can almost see the individual hairs growing from his face, and these lovely curls in the beard that frame his chin, and this incredibly expressive face. He’s so clearly individualized. He’s not a generic figure.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:01] Let’s talk about the iconography here. Saint James was an early Christian martyr, one of the apostles of Christ. How does he become the patron saint of Spain? And why is he being shown as a medieval pilgrim?

Dr. Harris: [3:12] Often, in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, people paid homage to relics. The relics of Saint James miraculously appeared in Spain in what is today Santiago de Compostela.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:24] And Saint James miraculously appears on the battlefield to help Christians battle Muslims during the reconquest in the 8th century — so, centuries after he dies — which is part of the reason that his relics are celebrated in northwestern Spain at Santiago de Compostela. They’re so celebrated that it becomes the third most important pilgrimage site of the Middle Ages.

Dr. Harris: [3:46] Many people during the Middle Ages and Renaissance would want to take a spiritual pilgrimage. They could go to Rome, they could go to Jerusalem, and the next most popular spot was Santiago de Compostela. All along the pilgrimage route, you could stop and visit relics at various churches, ultimately making your destination to the great pilgrimage church of Santiago de Compostela.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:08] Pilgrims who completed the journey were given a cockle shell. We’re seeing a reference to that three times here, in fact. We see it on the satchel that he has across his waist. We see it clasping his cloak together. And we see it on his pilgrim’s hat.

Dr. Harris: [4:21] He’s dressed like a modern pilgrim. He’s not dressed like a apostle.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:25] He’s wearing a pilgrim’s cloak. He’s wearing that satchel that you see. He’s wearing this hat. He’s carrying a walking staff that has a water gourd tied to it. These are all the types of things that you would see pilgrims using and wearing as they were making that journey to Santiago de Compostela.

Dr. Harris: [4:41] Let’s not forget that journey was a really arduous one and could take months or even years and mostly on foot. Made to atone for sins, perhaps to heal, perhaps seeking a miracle cure of some sort.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:55] Let’s talk more about where this was originally located. We mentioned that Isabel of Castile commissions the artist to create this much larger tomb structure in this monastery. Part of the reason that she commissions this very well-known sculptor was to not only commemorate her deceased parents. Her father had actually been the one to gift this monastery to the Carthusians.

[5:20] It was a way to commemorate them, but it was also a way of connecting herself to her father. She needed to legitimize her reign because her mother, Isabel of Portugal, was actually her father’s second wife. She needed a way to make that dynastic claim to the throne of Castile. Art is so often politically motivated to make a claim about power and legitimacy.

Dr. Harris: [5:43] But simultaneously, on a tomb beside an enormous altarpiece in a monastery, in this very spiritual setting, this joining of the spiritual and the political.

[5:54] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris, "A Renaissance St. James as pilgrim," in Smarthistory, June 20, 2020, accessed April 16, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/james-pilgrim-siloe/.