We had a walked about fifteen miles that day – one of the shorter days of our Camino. We arrived in Astorga, tired and hot, just in time for the noon Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. We had been walking since 5:30 am that day. My friend had a particularly challenging day as her feet were covered in blisters. We were sore. Everything hurt. We shuffled into the Church and as Mass began, we found our bodies trying to adjust to the rhythmic motions of standing, sitting, and kneeling. After a thanksgiving, we went to leave the Church. As we genuflected in our exit from the pew, we both grimaced and then started laughing from the pain as we slowly descended and ascended from the floor.
We waddled out of the Church to find food and lodging. My friend decided to call her family and take a much-needed rest as her feet were covered with blisters. I, on the other hand, needed to quench my adventurous spirit. I wanted to explore the city, visit the Church where Saint Francis of Assisi stayed when he was on the Camino, the Way of Saint James, see the ancient Roman ruins, and visit the Cathedral of Astorga.
After some sightseeing, I stopped before the entrance of the Cathedral of Astorga within the hour of its closing. Like most famous cathedrals in Europe, one must pay to enter. This presented a dilemma as I recalled a promise I made to my friend earlier: I would stop paying for entrance into cathedrals for some time. We were on a budget, and the majority of the allotted money for sightseeing was being spent towards paying for cathedrals of the towns we had visited or walked through, such as Madrid, Avila, and Leon. Since I needed a minute to internally debate whether I should keep my promise, I migrated to the façade of the Cathedral to carefully weigh my options. Perched on a seat overlooking the façade, my internal conflict ceased as the beauty of the façade of the Cathedral captivated my interest and left me pondering the mysteries which the exterior design presents.
Normally when we think of cathedrals we gaze at their grandeur. We are left awestruck at its height, design, and beauty. We spend most of our time wandering around the interior of the cathedral. We contemplate its vaulted ceilings, arches, and domes and experience first-hand how the design of the cathedral shifts and guides one’s focus to the heart of the church: the altar, where the sacrifice of the Mass takes place.
The builders of the cathedrals of old knew the important role which architecture plays in worship. Sacred architecture disposes the mind and heart to be transformed and transcended as it reflects Heaven. Besides its practical purpose, the design of cathedrals also serves a spiritual purpose. For example, high cathedral ceilings reference that the liturgy transcends time and space, and so invite man to worship in a manner which points to the timelessness which occurs at every Mass.
Yet, though cathedrals interior relay rich theological aspects of the Faith and aid man in his transcendence in participating in the eternal, the exterior of the cathedrals were also built to enable spectators to contemplate spiritual mysteries. Thus, in my internal conflict of visiting the interior of the cathedral, my mind soon become enveloped in contemplating the theological meaning which the façade of the Astorga Cathedral offered.
On the façade of the building, visitors are greeted with two images above the cathedral’s doors. To the right, there is an image of Christ bending down, writing in the sand as the woman caught in adultery is brought before Him. Above this image the word “innocence” is chiseled. To the left, the panel depicts Christ angrily dismissing the moneylenders from the temple. The word “piety” is chiseled above this image.
Both of these panels speak to the faithful of the disposition one needs to enter the house of God. They remind all who enter the doors that the temple, the church, is sacred. Nothing unholy should be brought into it to profane or defile it. If man has sullied his soul, then like the woman caught in adultery, forgiveness should be sought. These images further inspire worshipers to leave behind worldly concerns so as to focus on Christ. It reminds them that the house of God is a house of prayer; thus, the virtues of piety and innocence, being properly disposed and free from grave sin, is integral to proper worship.
To help maintain the virtues, the cathedral depicts the archangel Michael slaying the dragon. His image centered above the doors to the cathedral reminds the faithful of Saint Michael’s role as protector of the Church. He guards the Church against evil. His very presence inspires those who pass through the doors to ask for his intercession to shed any inclinations to sin before entering into the presence of God.
Above the main wooden doors, the archway depicts a three panel relief series. The central panel portrays Christ being taken down from the cross, thus calling the faithful to prepare their minds and hearts to enter into the mystery of Christ’s Passion, death, and resurrection. By doing so, the dispositions of these souls are more receptive to living the Paschal Mystery in the liturgy and are more aware of the sacredness which occurs at Mass.
To the right, a panel portrays Jesus healing a boy suffering from dropsy, a condition more commonly known today as edema. In the relief, the sculptor depicts Christ in the act of curing the boy, for Jesus touches the boy’s hand. Meanwhile, the left panel shows Jesus healing the sight of the blind man. However, both the boy cured from dropsy and the blind man do not wear the traditional garb of Jesus’ day. Both are dressed as pilgrims.
These two reliefs speak to the passing pilgrim for the men cured physically resemble pilgrims. The young boy suffering from dropsy clutches a staff in his hand, which is a familiar sight for those on the Camino. Likewise, the boy’s condition is one which the seasoned pilgrim soon becomes well acquainted with, for it is not uncommon for legs and ankles to swell on the Camino journey. Similar to that of a pilgrim, the boy with dropsy experiences physical obstacles and challenges which test his endurance on the journey to Christ.
Yet, all is forgotten in the moment of encounter. The boy extends his hand, and Jesus returns this acceptance of friendship in a moment of compassion and healing. By placing His hand on that of the extended boy’s, Christ’s demeanor reflects His understanding of the difficulties of the boy’s journey. His presence reassures guidance and protection for the boy who has searched for Him in love. The boy’s gaze is one of adoration, love, and trust. He does not exhibit fear, nor focuses on the pains of the journey. The young pilgrim’s encounter with Christ is enough, for the boy recognizes Christ to be the fulfillment of all his desires and the goal of the journey. The encounter reaffirms Christ’s continual companionship with the pilgrim on earth, and so, with a renewed strength and conviction, the boy continues his earthly pilgrimage, mindful of Christ’s presence.
The imagery of the blind man conveys similar sentiments as the panel of the boy cured of dropsy. The body language of the blind man conveys that he intuitively knows the Lord’s presence although He cannot yet be physically seen. The blind man too has experienced suffering as a result of his search for the Lord. Yet, the suffering allows him to encounter God in this most intimate way. Once recognizing the Lord’s physical presence, the man kneels and tilts his face so that, once cured, he may immediately see the face of Christ. Christ, in return, reaches His hands to heal.
As the cathedral served as a place of worship for countless pilgrims throughout the centuries who walk the Camino, it is fitting that in both panels, the men healed are depicted as pilgrims. By doing so, the cathedral’s exterior speaks to the very depths of man’s nature: all are pilgrims on this earth in need of healing. The pilgrim on the Camino experiences this both on his physical and interior journey, for the Camino itself presents various sufferings to the pilgrim who walks.
All experience suffering due to original sin, whether it be physical, mental, or spiritual. All seek healing and grace from the Divine Physician. All desire an encounter with Christ and to be touched by Him whether realized or not. Yet, through life’s struggles and sorrow man experiences intimacy with God if he allows the Lord to penetrate his heart and heal the wounds inflicted by the effects of fallen human nature. This interior journey, as learnt by the boy with dropsy and the blind man, is never accomplished alone, for the Lord always accompanies man and meet him on the way. The pilgrim learns that he is aided on His journey by Christ Who walks with him, caring for him through the Church.
The Astorga Cathedral teaches that each person who walks through its doors has a unique journey which has been shaped by his experiences, upbringing, conversations, friends, temperament, and the stirrings of his heart. Everyone’s journey through life differs, as each encounters joys and struggles which are unique to his personal story. Because of this, no one can fully understand another as God does, for only He knows the innermost joys and sorrows, as well as one’s past and future. As only He sees the workings and desires of the heart, only He can touch the areas of one’s life in need of healing. The Psalms echo this, saying that God searches and knows us, He discerns our thoughts from afar. For God knows our innermost beings and before the foundation of the world, He knit us in our mother’s wombs.
For the pilgrim, it is necessary not only to recognize his journeying state, but also that all too are wayfarers. Man is called to be a companion to those whom he meets on the journey to Heaven, and it is integral for him to realize that this pilgrimage is never completed alone. This reality perhaps inspired Saint Ignatius of Loyola to call his order the “Company of Jesus”, otherwise known as the Jesuits, for man discovers that Christ walks with him on life’s journey. Though all are sojourners on earth, searching for what will give peace, Christ personally meets each soul and extends His healing, grace, and friendship to all those who accept. Thus, Saint Therese speaks to the uniqueness of man’s journey and of the need for Christ’s personal encounter as she said: “I realized that all souls have more or less the same battles to fight, but no two souls are exactly the same.”
To accompany man on this path, the façade of the Cathedral reminds its spectators, is the Blessed Mother and the Apostle Santiago (James). Mary is seen assuming into Heaven, reminding the pilgrim of her intercession and of man’s heavenly destination. Meanwhile, the Apostle Santiago watches over the pilgrims entering the cathedral, reassuring them of his protection on the journey, not only on the Camino, but also one life’s pilgrimage. As the eye shifts higher past the Apostle’s statue, the image of the slain, victorious Lamb emerges to remind man of the Resurrection of Christ and of the promise of Heaven.
The façade of the Astorga Cathedral gave me much to think about in regards to pilgrimage. It also spoke to the beauty of sacred architecture as integral to the survival of the Church for it causes man to wonder and lift his mind and heart to God and internalize the theological images which it portrays. Quite similar to the interior of the European cathedrals, the design of the façade of the Astorga Cathedral enables man to contemplate. It confronts man with the mysteries of life, challenging him to come face-to-face with spiritual realities.
Maria Cintorino currently teaches at a Catholic school in Northern Virginia. In her free time, she enjoys to travel and write. She has been published in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Crisis Magazine, Our Sunday Visitor’s “Catholic Answers,” and The Imaginative Conservative.