Ask most people connected with the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and they will say that it was the child of the first archbishop, Diego Gelmirez, and in many ways this was so. What you may not be told, however, is that it was Gelmirez’ predecessor, Diego Pelaez, who first conceived of enlarging the basilica, nor that the first architect was one Maestro Esteban, most likely a Frenchman.
If we know little enough about Priscillian of Avila, we know even less about Diego Pelaez. We don’t know when he was born, nor where. It seems likely that he was a native of Galicia, but Pelaez (of the family of Pelayo) was a common enough name and crops up quite a bit in connection with the Camino both in Galicia and Asturias. We are told by the authors of the Historia Compostelana (of which you are going to learn a lot more in the weeks to come) that Diego Pelaez was consecrated by Sancho II. While this is possible, subsequent events were to make it more likely that Pelaez had enjoyed the patronage of Garcia of Galicia, and bishops in those days were kings’ men through and through. Besides, the Historia Compostelana is not known for its…um…accuracy.
Be that as it may, by the time that the groundbreaking began (with the old church still inside), Sancho had been dead for 3 years, at the hands of his brother Alfonso. Garcia, having made the mistake of seeking a truce with his brother, was languishing in prison as an unwilling guest in the Castillo de Luna in the mountains above the Rio Orbigo. Diego Pelaez, in his untouchable position as bishop, was perhaps enjoying the relative isolation of his see at Compostela.
The new church was to be constructed in the French “Romanesque” style. With a Latin cross form, three naves and a ground area of 8,300 square meters, this was to be far, far grander than any of the churches of St. James before. An increasing number of merchants and artisans were settling along the pilgrimage route. The work progressed under the watchful eyes of not only Maestro Esteban, but also two master masons known as Bernard and Robert. At least 50 men were employed upon the building during the time of Diego Pelaez.
In some ways, the eventual fate of the church at Compostela was a victim of its own success. Compostela (it had been known by this name since 1056) became more and more “European”. The see had already been moved from Iria Flavia by that time. Prior to this, Galicia had in many ways been cut off: politically and especially geographically. Bishop Cresconio, Pelaez forerunner of long tenure, had had more to worry about with Norman and Viking invasions than incursions from rival kings. For this he had fortified the coastal areas and in particular (for our story as you will see) built a castle at Torres del Oeste near Iria. During Diego Pelaez’ time as bishop, this as occupied by his seigneur, Gelmirio who had several sons, one of which, Diego, is to rise to almost unapproachable power as the first archbishop of “Santiago de Compostela”.