This 15th-century Spanish painting depicts the so-called ‘Santiago Matamoros’ or ‘Saint James the Moor-slayer’. As in many similar paintings, he is mounted triumphantly on a white horse, brandishing a long sword and trampling the severed heads of Moors beneath him. This image forms the central part of a seven-panel altarpiece representing various saints, in the Chapel of the Alcázar of Segovia in Spain.
The legend of Santiago Matamoros
There are many differing stories surrounding Saint James, who appears in the gospels as one of Christ’s disciples and is sometimes said to have founded the Christian church in Spain. In the middle ages, he was represented as ‘Santiago Matamoros’ based on the myth that, long after his death, he miraculously appeared at the battle of Clavijo in 844. There he supposedly helped the Christian King Ramiro I of Asturias to gain a victory over the Islamic Moors. These Moors were north-west African Muslims of mixed Berber and Arab descent who ruled Spain between 711 and 1492.
Some critics have made a connection between the legend of ‘Santiago Matamoros’ and Shakespeare’s choice of the Spanish name Iago for his villain in Othello. The ensign is unnamed in Shakespeare’s source, Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi (1565), and most characters in Shakespeare’s play are given Italian names. Roderigo is another notable exception.
Does Shakespeare draw on the history of anti-Moorish feeling, in his use of these Spanish-named characters? Might this wider context serve as some explanation for Iago’s cruel plots to bring down the Moor of Venice? And how does this square with the fact that, in Shakespeare’s play, both Iago and Othello the Moor (a Muslim convert to Christianity) are united in their battle against the Islamic Turks to gain control of Cyprus?