Saint James Major was one of Jesus' apostles and became the patron saint of pilgrims, those devoted and adventurous Christians who made their way over hundreds of miles to the Holy Land or to the chief pilgrimage churches of Europe. Their connection with James arose from the belief that the apostle had traveled across the Mediterranean as far as Spain to found the famous pilgrimage church Santiago (Spanish for Saint James) de Compostela. The seashell, symbolizing that voyage, and the pilgrim staff are the saint's usual attributes.
Crivelli is noted for the linear intensity and sculptural hardness of his forms, seen here in the knobby toes and the spiraling curls of hair. However, in this image of the saint, who in the original altarpiece would have been gazing at the Madonna and Child, we also see a certain tenderness, in his pose, his gesture, and the tilt of his head.