This primarily Gothic-style church, begun in 1394, is located in the heart of the “Call”, Barcelona’s Medieval Jewish ghetto, and in this respect there is always a hint of something melancholy about it. A synagogue originally stood on this site, but was later torn down to make way for the present church. However the present name of this church is not the name with which it began its service, but rather recalls a long-gone structure nearby, and the era of Apostolic missions to Spain, in the earliest days of Christianity.
According to pious belief and long tradition, the Apostle St. James worked as a missionary in what was then known as Hispania, modern-day Spain, one of the largest and wealthiest of the Roman colonies. His shrine at Santiago de Compostela is of course well known, but it is believed that he preached in many cities, including Barcelona and Tarragona. Whether or not this is the case we do not know. We know that St. Paul specifically wrote in Romans 15:23-28 that he was planning to visit Spain, to preach there, so it is not outside the realm of possibility.
Whatever the truth of the stories, the very old church dedicated to Sant Jaume (St. James), first mentioned in a document of 985 A.D., was torn down in 1823. Part of the building reportedly dated from the arrival of Christianity in Barcelona, and it had been expanded over the centuries until it occupied the site of the ancient Roman Forum, where supposedly St. James had preached. The building was torn down to make way for the Plaça de Sant Jaume, or St. James Square. This new square roughly corresponds to the dimensions of the old Forum, and is dominated by the Generalitat (Catalan government) headquarters on the north side, and Barcelona city hall on the south. The parish community was moved temporarily to Santa Monica, a convent along the Ramblas, but was later moved to Holy Trinity church, which was renamed for St. James.
Originally, Holy Trinity was the parish church of Jews who had converted to Christianity but chose to remain living in the Call. It was built on top of the remains of the Lesser Synagogue, of the two that existed in Barcelona during the Middle Ages. After the expulsion of the Jews and suspected Jews in 1492, the Church of the Holy Trinity, as it was known then, was turned over to a group of nuns – from which order I have been unable to discover – who built a convent next to the church.
In 1522, ownership of the convent and the church were given to nuns of the Trinitarian Carmelite Order, who after some expansion and remodeling took up residence on the site in about 1529, and remained there until their expulsion by the government in 1835. They also built a large school on the Ramblas in the 17th century, which remained in use until the Napoleonic period. Following the anti-clericalism which marked that era, the nuns were expelled, the convent demolished, and the school was sold. It was then that the old convent chapel became the parish of Sant Jaume, while the school was burned, torn down, and became the site of the Liceu, Barcelona’s sumptuous and historic opera house.
Much of the interior, of course, was burned and destroyed by the leftists in 1936. The present church has been remodeled numerous times, given the changes in ownership over the years, and is something of a stylistic hodge-podge, with Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neo-Gothic elements. It is a building not devoid of interest, but the primary reason to visit is to see the former retablo of Barcelona’s Cathedral, a 14th-century feast of incredibly delicate stone gingerbread. The high altar was moved here from the Cathedral in 1971 when the diocese made the regrettable decision to replace it with a rather unpleasant early 20th century Crucifixion group.