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Category Archives: Aragonese Camino

Jaca-Ext-GV-2-WPThe town of Jaca was a major way station of the Compostelan pilgrimage. The topography of its location proved beneficial in several ways. From early on, its surrounding area was one of the first enclaves providing shelter for those Christians who fled north from the Arab conquest, the original nub of what eventually became the powerful kingdom of Aragon.

Situated at the confluence of the Aragon and Gas rivers, Jaca was located on the old Roman road which connected Saragossa with France over the Somport Pass. Another road running westwards linked it to Pamplona and at Jaca the pilgrimage road makes a sharp turn westward towards Navarre to rejoin the the main Spanish road at Puente la Reina.

In the early medieval period it was merely the principal town in a region of shepherds and hill farmers. In the early ninth century it was controlled by a local aristocrat, Aznar Galindez who had formed protective alliances with Franks beyond the Somport. Jaca-Ext-GV-4-WPIt then came under the protection of the fledgling kingdom of Pamplona. On the occasion of the establishment of the new episcopal see of Aragon, the bishop of Pamplona made a donation  in 922, of a tract of land of some six hundred square kilometres between the Aurin and Gallego rivers. After this, the city began to develop an autonomous identity and became the principal residence of the count of Aragon.

Jaca-WP-C1-8-WPThis core territory began to expand gradually with the occasional land grabs from the Moors. Then, in the early eleventh century Jaca’s fortunes took an exponential surge upwards  as trade between Africa and Europe was revived via Pamplona, Narbonne and Jaca.

Sancho el Mayor established trade tariffs for the spices, fabrics, gold coin and silks that were passing northward and the pelts, cloth, metals and weaponry that was being transported to Africa via the Somport Pass.

JacaThirty kilometres from Jaca, a customs house was founded at Canfranc in the narrow gorge of the Rio Aragon, as it ran down from the Somport. In 1063 the city of Jaca was formally established by Sancho Ramirez and grants and fueros were given to encourage the settlement of a population who could add to the commercial prosperity of the town.

Sancho Ramirez further fortified Aragon’s status by placing himself as a vassal of Saint Peter after visiting Pope Alexander II in Rome. Benefiting from its customs rights, Saracen tribute payments and the ever increasing pilgrimage traffic, Jaca became a bustling frontier city and a grand new cathedral was commissioned.

Jaca-SP-Bal-2Reflecting Aragon’s new relationship with the pontifical see the cathedral was dedicated to San Pedro. Pilgrims venerated the relics of a virgin martyr of the Saracen oppression. Tradition held that Santa Eurosia had been forcibly betrothed to a Moorish military leader. Rather than succumb she had attempted to flee. On her capture her hands were amputated before her eventual decapitation. Her relics having been discovered by a shepherd were brought to Jaca on the instruction of Sancho Ramirez.

Jaca’s preeminence in the emerging kingdom of Aragon was limited by two factors. In the first place, strategic location as the point of passage between Europe and the south meant that it would remain a way station. Then, in 1098 the episcopal see was transferred to Huesca two years after its reconquest from the Moors and when Saragossa was ultimately captured in 1118, the focus of the expanded Aragon was shifting away from its initial Pyrenean focus.



Biblio: Canellas-Lopez A.- San Vicente A.‎ · ‎Aragon Roman Edition Zodiaque 1971. Collection la nuit des temps 35

In Navarre, only a stone’s throw from the pilgrim’s road, stands an isolated chapel. Its octagonal shape and exterior stone cloister arcade grant it a quite exceptional appearance. Despite its location away from an urban centre, there is nothing rustic about the building. On the contrary the fine quality of the stonework and construction bear the mark of an edifice of some consequence.

Eunate-GV-WP-6Situated in a fertile valley near the hamlet of Obanos it is on the route which the Pilgrim’s Guide declares was used by those travelling on the Toulouse Road via the Somport Pass and Jaca and passing through Aragon.

Eunate is located very close to the point where this road joins the other great pilgrimage route from the Roncevaux Pass via Pamplona to Puente la Reina. The Pilgrim’s Guide describes this stretch of the road from Monreal to Puente la Reina as the third day’s journey from the Somport.

Eunate-GV-WP-5The solitary aspect of the church gives it a mournful quality in keeping with its likely function as a funerary chapel.

Long thought to have belonged to the Templars, this was a supposition based simply on the fact that its octagonal shape was a copy of the church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem which the Templars were charged with guarding. The lack of documentary evidence of the presence of the Templars in the area would seem to refute this idea.

Nevertheless the origins and purpose of the church remain somewhat mysterious due to a shortage of contemporary references.

Stylistic considerations suggest a date of construction in the second half of the twelfth century during the reign of King Sancho el Sabio of Navarre.Eunate-Corbs-WP-9

In the mid thirteenth century a Navarrese monastic document makes mention in granting certain privileges to monks of Obanos of a hospice “on the way”.

A document of the Pamplona Cathedral of the sixteenth century refer to numerous ancient sarcophagi and in particular to a sculpted stele which located the burial site of the patroness of the foundation.

Excavations have revealed numerous burials within and without the arcade area including the discovery of a scallop shell.

These would appear to suggest a funerary church which formed part of a hospice complex for the benefit of pilgrims travelling to Santiago. Within Navarre, there were three of these octagonal churches. The Sancti Spiritus at Roncevaux and Santo Sepulcro at Torres del Rio just before Logroño. If one considers the dispersion of these locations it is apparent that they have a strategic and topographic function, Roncevaux being the point where the pilgrim road enters Navarre and Torres del Rio the point where it leaves. Eunate is halfway between and significantly at a point where the two main pilgrimage routes coincide.

Eunate-Ext-WP-1The arcade which surrounds the church at Eunate does not appear to have been joined to the church by a roofing structuring but more likely to have been a part of the now dismantled hospice complex of which the church would have been the central part. The area within the arcade may have been reserved for important burials.

Both Torres del Rio and Eunate incorporated a staircase within the structure of the building. In the case of Torres, this led to a Lantern of the Dead where a beacon was lit and the stairs at Eunate may have had a similar purpose.

The lack of window space provides a suitably dark interior for a Eunate-Int-WP-7church whose main function was the performance of funerary rites. This only serves to enhance the effect of the twelve metre high dome, whose style is redolent of Islamic architecture. Eight starlike holes punctuate the ribbed ceiling to provide the spare lighting.

Of these openings, there are four octagonal and four smaller hexagonal shapes. The symbolic significance of the octagonal structure of the building, once reserved for baptisteries is further emphasised by these skylights. The use of the number eight  was frequent in Romanesque art, symbolic not only of baptism and rebirth but also resurrection.

Biblio. Navarre Romane, Dom L-M de Lojendio

Lexique des Symboles, Olivier Beigbeder

By arranging the construction of a seven arched bridge across the Aragon river by Rocaforte, it was clearly the intention of Alfonso el Batallador to drive pilgrimage traffic south towards Puente la Reina. The new town which grew up by the new bridge was Sangüesa and it became a substantial pilgrimage station.

Situated on the frontier of Aragon and Navarre, at the time of Sangüesa’s expansion the two kingdoms were joined under Alfonso’s rule.

The charter which the king granted for the town’s inhabitants in 1122 was designed, much like those for Oloron-Saint-Marie and Estella, to provide certain rights which would allow the growth of trade and crafts, thereby both facilitating the Compostelan pilgrimage and adding to the royal coffers at the same time.

In time a wall featuring six separate gates was built to surround the town.

The major Romanesque monument standing today at Sangüesa is the church of Santa Maria la Real. Originally within the precincts of the royal palace, it was donated by Alfonso to the Order of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem in 1131. The presence of the Hospitaller’s at Sangüesa is an indication of the level of provision made for pilgrims.

The location of the church was on the left bank of the Aragon by the bridge and its proximity to the river was such that entrance from the west was restricted. This is why the southern portal is the decorative centrepiece, one of the most elaborate designs in Spanish Romanesque. Clearly the work of a succession of workshops carried out over a period of time, it includes a diversity of influences, whose eclecticism speaks of the cultural movements engendered by the Compostelan pilgrimage.

At the top ranged in two rows of arcades are the Apostles surrounding Christ in Majesty. The bulbous eyes of the figures, plainly the work of the Aragonese sculptor known to art historians as the Master of San Juan de la Peña.

Beneath, a tympanum in the Burgundian style of the Last Judgment is surrounded by a mass of spandrel and voussoir reliefs which recall the facades of Poitevin churches.

Many of the figures are too obscure to hazard more than a guess at their meaning. The recurrence of a variety of craftsmen, cobblers in particular, suggest some of the trades in which the townspeople of Sangüesa engaged, having an affinity with similar figures on the arch surrounding the tympanum at Oloron which pilgrims would have seen before they crossed the Pyrenees.

On either side of the entrance doorway are columnar statues, reminiscent of the western entrance at Chartres cathedral. To the left are the Three Marys, identifiable by the inscriptions on the books they bear. The central crowned figure is the Virgin Mary, patroness of the church and to her left Mary Magdalene, to her right Mary Salome.

The figures on the left side of the entrance are the Apostles Peter and Paul and the hanged figure of Judas. This presentation of the image of the traitorous disciple at Sangüesa is unique in Romanesque sculpture. A demon above his head suggests the chastisement which was Judas’ due and the inscription across the chest, though difficult to decipher has been read as Judas Mercator. This would identify Judas with the mercantile class who were profiting from the pilgrim trade at Sangüesa and advised, like those at Oloron, to heed the church’s warnings about wealth as a barrier to salvation.

Initially the most popular route into Spain for pilgrims to Compostela, it has been traditionally considered that the passage over the Somport Pass was later restricted to those using the so-called Via Tolosana, from Arles. However its more central position along the Pyrenean chain suggests that the Aragonese Way drew travellers from a wider area.

A number of old Roman highways continued to serve medieval travellers. From Carolingian times a monastery at Siresa along the Hecho valley was strategically placed to assist the mountain crossing using the Palo Pass where there was an old Roman road. There, pilgrims benefited from an important collection of relics which included bones of the saints Andrew, Stephen, Benedict, Adrian, Lupercius, Medardus and Sebastian as well as a relic of John the Baptist and a piece of the Holy Cross.

However with the development of Jaca and the retreat of the Moors to the plains, the pass at  the Somport became the the standard route from Oloron.

Just below the pass, which stands at 1640 metres, was the great monastic hospital of Santa Cristina of which the Guide speaks with so much effusion. This was protected by the fortress at Candanchu. Along the right bank of the fast flowing Aragon river, the road descended gradually the thirty kilometres to Jaca, passing Canfranc where a customs house was set up in the mid eleventh century to deal with the increasing amounts of trade which were now passing between the Peninsula and France carrying goods from as far as Africa.

The rugged and desolate gorge through which the road threaded its way, made the travellers easy pickings for thieves, as evidenced in the naming of an overlooking summit as the Coll de Ladrones – thieves’ hill.

At Canfranc a bridge led over the river which could quickly become a raging torrent, to the left side. The road continued due south, on one side the castle at Castiello de Jaca and on the other the Monte del Apostol which rises to 1362 metres.

Jaca was a bustling frontier town, made prosperous by the passage of pilgrims and traders. As the capital of the early Reconquista, the royal coffers had been swollen from the money extorted from the Moorish taifa of Saragossa.  At Jaca pilgrims also had the opportunity to vist the shrine of Santa Eurosia at the cathedral.

Leaving Jaca via the bridge of San Miguel. the road followed the course of the Rio Aragon for a hundred kilometres as it turns due west, the high peaks of the Pyrenees visible to the north. A short distance to the south among the rugged hills lay the royal monasteries of Santa Maria de Santa Cruz de la Seros and San Juan de la Peña.

According to the Guide the stages following Jaca were Osturit and Tiermas. Tiermas was renowned for its “continuously running hot royal baths”. Alternate routes were available to pilgrims and the left bank of the Aragon river was favoured because there were fewer affluent streams to cross as well as an old Roman road, by contrast the right bank of the river received the fast flowing streams that ran down from the Pyrenees.

By the town of Osturit an important bridge crossed the Aragon after which, pilgrims continued along the river past the fortified hilltop town of Esco to Tiermas and Liedana.

The great massif of the Sierra de Leyre rises up here and on its slopes the celebrated monastery of San Salvador, a short distance from the camino.

San Salvador de Leyre was the oldest established abbey of the region and in the early days of the Reconquista had served as a refuge for the kings of Pamplona. This association of resistance towards the Moors was further emphasized by the presence in the abbey’s crypt of the relics of the saints Nunilo and Alodia, two sisters who had been martyred during the persecutions of Abdur Rahman II in 851.

At Ruesta there was a fortress built by the Moors in the ninth century but which they had been forced to abandon and was now taken over by the Christians. The town had a hospice for pilgrims and a monastery San Juan de Ruesta.

From Ruesta a road led south of the Aragon river via Undues de Llerda over hilly terrain towards the fortified town of Sangüesa. This was highly favoured as evidenced by the development of  the latter into an important pilgrimage station with its seven arched bridge. Alfonso el Batallador king of Aragon established his royal palace here and numerous hospices existed to care for pilgrims.

At Sangüesa, pilgrims headed north, crossing the Aragon once more over a massive bridge at Yesa leaving it to follow its southern course as the road headed northwestward along the valley of the Rio Elorz to Monreal avoiding  the Sierra de Izco.

Just before joining the main Navarrese route at Puente la Reina, the road passed by the church of Santa Maria de Eunate. This octagonal church surrounded by a cloister arcade took its round design from the church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. It may have belonged to the Knights Templar and been a funerary chapel to honour those pilgrims who had died en route.

The Rio Aragon turns westwards as it leaves Jaca, the pilgrimage road following along its left bank. Just off the road up a shallow valley lies the monastic buildings of Santa Cruz de la Seros, nestling under the peaks of the Sierra de San Juan de la Peña which tower immediately above.

It was a long established double hermitage

with one building, San Capraiso for monks  and the other, Santa Maria for nuns.

Originally, Santa Maria was part of the monastery of San Juan de la Peña, however it became the royal convent when Doña Sancha of Aragon arrived in 1070 and a major monastic and political centre in its own right.

It was initially settled by a group of hermits seeking refuge from Moorish persecution and started to receive royal attention when Sancho 11 Garces (970-994) and his wife Urraca Fernandez provided the convent of Santa Maria with a substantial endowment.

In 1049 Ramiro Ist made further endowments and in 1061 entered his youngest daughters Urraca and Teresa as nuns, leaving further donations in his will.

Ramiro’s eldest daughter had married count Armengol 111 of Urgel, however after his death in Moorish lands in 1065, she entered the convent to join her two sister in 1070.

From then on the convent started to play a role in the affairs of the nascent kingdom of Aragon with Doña Sancha supporting her brother the king Sancho-Ramirez, who made further donations in 1093. A visit to Santa Maria by the mother of Ramiro 1st, Sancha de Aibar was the occasion for a ceremonial gift offering which took place in fron of the porch of the convent church.

Doña Sancha died in 1097 and a magnificent carved sarcophagus was commissioned by her nephew the new king Pedro 1st.

These endowments helped to pay for the important Romanesque church which dates from the end of the eleventh century. It features a tall bell tower which is built over the southern transept chapel.

The tympanum over the western entrance features a crude copy of the Chrismon surrounded by two lions from Jaca. This symbol, seen at number of Aragonese monasteries implies a royal connection as was the case at Santa Cruz de la Seros and a statement of the Reconquista as a Holy War.

Situated at the mouth of a cave beneath a massive red sandstone cliff, the abbey of San Juan de la Peña benefits from one of the most dramatic locations of any medieval edifice.  The monastery lies about thirty kilometres south of Jaca hidden within a rugged sierra which rises to a height of 1220 metres.

In the tenth and eleventh centuries it was the most important Aragonese monastery and although some way off the direct pilgrimage road and entailing a difficult journey, pilgrims would have been drawn there by its reputation as the major  Cluniac centre of the region and the presence of the relics of San Indalecio.

Indalecio was considered one of Saint James’ original disciples during his ministry  in Spain and had reputedly been ordained bishop by the Apostle himself, of the Roman town of Auca, the modern day Villafranca de Montes de Oca, itself a station further along the camino near Burgos.

After the Arab conquest many Christians fled from the Ebro valley up to the Aragonese mountains for safety. In 781 they were pursued by Abd-el-Rahman Ist who attacked and killed a group of Christians who had taken refuge at Monte Pano. Early in the ninth century a powerful Christan landowner from Jaca named Aznar Galíndez pursued a policy of encouraging Christian resettlement of the region on the southern side of the Aragon river. His son Galindo Aznárez II became the first count of Aragon, and he continued his father’s ressettlement policy.

During this period, two hermits from Saragossa, Voto and Felix established a hermitage at the foot of Mount Pano, where the red sandstone cliff concealed a large grotto which opened out onto a large entrance.

According to legend they found the body of another hermit Juan de Atarès and buried him by three altars which they had erected dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, Saint Julian and Santa Balissa. These were the patrons of a Visigothic monastery at Labasal in the Extxo valley which had been destroyed by Saracens suggesting that the hermits had come from there. They built a Mozarabic church.

The hermitage was known as San Juan del Monte Pano and developed into a monastery which began to play an important role in Aragonese ecclesiastical affairs, becoming the spearhead for the Cluniac expansion in the region.

King Sancho-Ramirez formed an alliance with the Cluniacs of the diocese of Auch just beyond the Pyrenees, which was aimed at bringing the fledgling kingdom of Aragon recognition and support from Rome and the rest of Christendom.  In 1071 he invited the Cluniac monk Aquilino to become abbot of the monastery now renamed Jan Juan de la Peña. On Aquilino’s death the abbacy was taken over by the well travelled Sancho de Arinzana who had visited Rome, Monte Cassino and Compostela. Sancho de Arinzana brought with him the relics of two saints from Almeria, Indalecio and Jaime in 1078.

With these developments San Juan de la Peña expanded into a mighty abbey with substantial dependencies and lands, annexing some territory from the kingdom of Pamplona. The fortunes of the abbey and the political fortunes of the kingdom of Aragon became intertwined, as San Juan de la Peña acquired lands which were recovered from the Moors to the south during the conflicts of the Reconquista, thereby helping to define the territorial limits of the kingdom.

The construction of a new larger Romanesque church was begun with two funerary chapels, one for the laity and the other for the abbey’s monastic community. In 1083 the body of Ramiro 1st was transferred there and two years later the abbot Sancho de Arinzana was entombed.

Subsequently the new abbot Aimericus continued to acquire the older monasteries of the region and their dependent parishes so that San Juan de la Peña assisted by the favourable privileges granted by Rome developed into a veritable independent monastic state in its own right.

In 1094 the consecration ceremony for the new church was  given by the bishop of Jaca in the presence of the king Pedro 1st and the countess Sancha and numerous important figures, including the archbishop of Bordeaux and the abbots of Leyre and Languedocian monastery of Saint Pons-de-Thomières.

The cloister of the abbey dates from around the middle of the twelfth century and the carved capitals are the work of a sculptor notable for his very distinctive stylistic traits.

Unusually large bulbous eyes  lend the figures an air of meditative grace which contrasts with the expressive attitudes of their bodies. The same original hand can be seen at  work in several Romanesque sites in Aragon of the artist who has come to be identified as the Master of San Juan de la Peña.