The representation of St James the Greater as a Muslim-slaying Christian warrior, originates in the fabricated account of the Battle of Clavijo, which allegedly took place in 844 and was perceived as a historical fact in the seventeenth century. This pitted the Christian forces led by Ramiro I, King of Asturias, against the more substantial armies of the Umayyad dynasty, which had controlled most of the Peninsula since 711. The story is narrated in later sources, notably the Chronicon mundi by Lucas of Tuy (1236), De rebus Hispaniae by Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada (1243), and the Estoria de España by King Alfonso X (1282–84). These texts explain how St James appeared to Ramiro I in a dream on the eve of the battle, assuring him of victory. The next day, the saint descended from heaven on a white stallion and slayed thousands of Muslims, turning the battle in the King’s favour. This myth became a key element of the historical narratives of medieval Iberia, which typically envision the period as a Christian mission to free it from Muslim domination. As scholars have pointed out, the reality of multi-faith Iberia was exceedingly more complex.
The composition follows earlier images of the Muslim-slaying St James, which circulated from the Middle Ages onwards in manuscripts, paintings, reliefs, and sculptures. The Apostle is shown as a sword-wielding warrior on a galloping white horse, trampling over defeated Muslim soldiers. His military authority is confirmed by the billowing white flag with the red cross of the Order of Santiago, the highest military order in Spain. His red cloak, which appears to swirl weightlessly, underlines the miraculous nature of his descent from heaven.
St James’s halo and the scallop shell badge on his shoulder allude to his spiritual identity. The distinctive design of the shell is symbolic of the pilgrimage routes to his tomb, which, according to legend, had been discovered in Santiago de Compostela in the ninth century. Because he had evangelized in Iberia, his remains were said to have been transferred there after his martyrdom in Jerusalem. The discovery of his relics led to the construction of a chapel, which evolved into one of Europe’s greatest Cathedrals and pilgrimage sites.
The blending of the saint’s spiritual and military identities suggests that Christian viewers at the time perceived pilgrimage and warfare against Islam as being compatible. In the lower foreground, the artist visualizes the consequences of the saint’s violence, depicting one soldier lying dead on his back, another screaming in agony, and a third hiding under a shield. The identities of these figures as non-Christians is established through their dress and darker skin colour. They do not appear to be medieval Muslims but relate to the Moriscos (converted Muslims) who were expelled from Spain in 1609–14. The figures recall those in Francisco Ribalta’s St James at the Battle of Clavijo (1603, Church of St James the Apostle, Algmesí, Valencia) and in Juan de Roelas’s version of the subject in Seville Cathedral.
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The Battle of Clavijo.
Unknown artist (seventeenth century).
Medium and Support
Oil on canvas.
167 x 122 cm.
Marks and Inscriptions
Jonathan Ruffer, acquired 2019.
The Spanish Gallery, Bishop Auckland.
Janis Tomlinson, From El Greco to Goya: Painting in Spain 1561–1828 (New York: Perspectives, 1997), pp. 62–64;
Katherine Elliot van Liere, ‘The Missionary and the Moorslayer: James the Apostle in Spanish Historiography from Isidore of Seville to Ambrosio de Morales’, Viator, 37 (2006): 519–43;
Grace Magnier, Pedro de Valencia and the Catholic Apologists of the Expulsion of the Moriscos: Visions of Christianity and Kingship, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World, 38 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 47–118.