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Sahagun-Cea-Bridge-3Sahagún lies on the banks of the Cea river on the Castilian meseta between Fromistá and León. The rather empty and desolate place today belies its medieval status as one of the most important monastic centres in twelfth century Spain. The town took its name from the abbey of San Facundo e Primitivo.

According to the History of Charlemange and Roland, “a castle stands in the meadows, in the best part of the whole plain, where afterwards a church was built in honour of the blessed martyrs Facundus and Primitivus, where likewise their bodies rest and an abbey was founded and a city built”.

The Guide counts Sahagún as major halt on the road, the end of the seventh day’s journey from Fromistá and mentions it by name several times.

Sahagun-San-Tirso-2The Benedictine monastery adhered to the Cluniac order and Sahagún was the centre of Cluny’s power in northern Spain, presiding over more than fifty dependent priories.

Its links with the king emperors of León-Castile and the court were exceptionally close and it was especially favoured by Alfonso VI who chose to be buried there rather than in the royal pantheon at León.

Sahagún was an important part of Alfonso’s plan to develop the Compostelan pilgrimage infrastructure and the monastery benefitted from an annual donation of 2,000 bushels of wheat which went towards feeding pilgrims in the hospital of sixty beds.

San-Pedro-de-las-Dueñas-4The abbey’s church was an immense construction and housed the relics of the two saints.

In the cursory account of Spanish saints included in the Pilgrims’ Guide, the relics of Facundus and Primitivus are among only two others apart from Santiago, that pilgrims are ordained to visit.

The two saints were martyrs of third century Roman persecutions, decapitated by the banks of the Cea river. The Guide repeats the legend that their church was erected by Charlemagne. In fact Alfonso III of Asturias had first settled a community of monks from Cordobá at Sahagún in the 870’s.

Roncevaux-11-WPPamplona was such a vital location, as well as being one of the first cities to be reconquered by the Christians from the Moors, that it was inevitable it should become the locus of legendary material.

In the epic poem known as l’Entrée en Espagne, Pamplona is described thus: “From one side it views the way to Gascony, from the other gate one sees towards Aragon, another guards the way towards Spain and the fourth faces the Ocean”.

Pilgrims to Compostela were directed to cross the Pyrenees using the Cize Pass and the first major station after the mountains was Pamplona.

The Royal Frankish Annals of 805 and 829 tell us that the Navarrese and Basques had allied themselves with the Saracens to form an enclave in the city.

Having been repulsed at Saragossa, Charlemagne and his army razed Pamplona, destroying “the walls of this city down to its foundations so that it might not rebel”.

As the Chronicle of Turpin has it, Pamplona was the first city which Charlemagne besieged in Spain after he had been admonished by the Apostle James to free his shrine in Galicia.

Chartres-Charl-Pyrenees-WPLike Joshua at the siege of Jericho, it was the impregnable strength of the walls which prevented him from taking the city.

So it was with Charlemagne before the city of Pamplona, “The first city Charlemagne besieged was Pamplona, he invested it for three months, but was not able to take it, through the invincible strength of its walls.”

Like Joshua, Charlemagne enlisted divine aid to bring down the walls. Where Joshua blew his horn, Charlemagne invoked the intercession of Saint James who, ”hearkening to his petition, the walls utterly fell to the ground of themselves”.

According to Archbishop Turpin’s account, such was the vital importance of the city, that once captured, the rest of Moorish Spain surrendered totally and the emperor proceeded unhindered to Compostela and then to Padrón, where he dipped his lance in the ocean in a symbolic gesture of dominion over the whole of the Hispanic peninsula.

Chartres-Franks-Pamplona-WPAfter the military reversals which followed the arrival in Spain of the African Saracen leader Aigoland, battle was once more joined in the field outside Pamplona where one hundred and thirty-four thousand Franks faced a hundred thousand Saracens.

The second battle of Pamplona now assumed not merely Biblical, but Apocalyptic proportions.

“So great indeed was the effusion of blood that the Christians waded in it to their knees”, declared the History of Charlemagne and Roland, of the slaughter of the Saracens at Pamplona.

This description echoed the chronicles of the taking of Jerusalem in 1099. The Gesta Francorum told of “such a slaughter that our men were wading up to their ankles in blood”. The other medieval descriptions by Fulcher of Chartres and Guibert de Nogent repeated the same, almost identical, trope to emphasise the brutality of the carnage.

Jacobus064All these writers, whether describing the capture of Jerusalem or Pamplona, were making a calculated reference to the Book of Revelation, which in chapter fourteen tells of the winepress of the wrath of God, whose wine would be reserved for those who worship the Beast.

“And the wine press was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the wine press even unto the horse bridles”.

The Apocalyptic signification attributed by the chroniclers of the First Crusade to the capture of Jerusalem and of the authors of the Turpin manuscript in describing the taking of Pamplona, were made with the same intention. It was to incorporate the twelfth century conflict against the Saracens into an eschatological mythology.

After his victory at Pamplona, the emperor made his way towards Puente la Reina, “Charlemagne then regrouped his armies, greatly rejoiced at this victory and marched forward, and came to the bridge of Arge on the Compostela road”.

Sources and Biblio: Jean Passini, Sur le chemin de Saint Jacques, Cahiers de Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, XXX 2000 pp. 75-83

Thomas F Madden Saint Louis University, Revista Chilena de Estudios Medievales Número 1 enero-junio 2012, 25-37, Rivers of Blood: An analysis of one aspect of the crusader conquest of Jerusalem in 1099

History of Charles the Great and Orlando Ascribed to Archbishop Turpin, Thomas Rodd, 1812

The Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, Kevin R. Poole, Italica Press New York 2014

André de Mandach Naissance et Origines de la chanson de geste en Europe Vol. 1 La Geste de Charlemagne et de Roland Genève, Droz, 1961

Bernard Gicquel La Légende de Compostelle Le Livre de Saint Jacques, Tallandier 2003

Estella-GV-1The pilgrimage road passed through the Navarrese town of Nájera, where in the time of Charlemagne’s Spanish expedition, Roland had vanquished the Saracen giant, Ferracutus.

In the History of Archbishop Turpin, Roland, the hero and martyr of the climactic battle of Roncevaux is presented early in the narrative as a Christian knight in his role of defender of the faith. This is not only by force of arms but also by force of words, so that Roland earned the status of both confessor saint and military martyr.

Estella-Navarrese-Palce-1-W

This episode is commemorated on a twelfth century capital situated on the pilgrimage road and located on the exterior of the Royal Navarrese palace at Estella.

Echoing the Biblical Old Testament story of David and Goliath, Roland is pitted against the Saracen giant who has been sent by the Emir of Babylon along with a force of twenty thousand, to wreak havoc in the region of Nájera.

Ferracutus challenges the champions of Charlemagne’s army to single combat. One by one the great warriors of the Franks are summarily despatched by the giant: Ogier, Renaud d’Aubespin, Constantine of Rome and Hoel. Finally, Roland puts himself forward. More successful in fighting Ferracutus than his predecessors, Roland nevertheless fails to kill the giant who appears to be invincible. Their combat lasts all day and into the next, when the giant becoming tired is given a stone by Roland to act as a pillow.

Roland-4

Echoing Jacob in Genesis who has a theophanic vision when he sleeps with a stone beneath his head, Ferracutus receives a similar revelation on waking when he engages Roland in a discourse on the Christian faith.

Significantly, Jacob’s vision concerns his destiny and that of his descendants as God’s Chosen people, a sense of national identity which was reprised by the Spanish Christians of the eleventh and twelfth centuries and notably in the legendary accounts of the Franks of the Chansons de Geste. It is a theme which runs through the whole of the History of Charlemagne and Roland.

estella-ferragut-killed-ws

First, Ferracutus reveals the secret of his invulnerability: he can be killed only by a wound to his navel.

The form of the discourse between Ferracutus and Roland is a reiteration of Christ’s Conversation with Nicodemus in chapter three of John’s Gospel. The narrative of the history of Charlemagne’s campaign against the Saracens is interrupted while Roland answers the giant’s doubts over the Christian faith and the doctrines of the Trinity, the Passion and the Resurrection are treated by Roland using allegorical references.

Estella-Ferragut-MS-L_S

The giant, however cannot submit himself to the faith and demands that a fight to the death will determine the truth of the matter. Invoking the aid of the Son of the Holy Virgin, Roland strikes Ferracutus through the navel. His victory over the giant, a reiteration of David’s over Goliath which itself was a prefiguration of Christ’s victory over death on the Cross and by extension of Roland’s own martyrdom at Roncevaux at the climactic point of the History of Charlemagne and Roland.

Sources and Biblio: History of Charles the Great and Orlando Ascribed to Archbishop Turpin, Thomas Rodd, 1812. The Chronicle of Pseudo-Turpin, Kevin R. Poole, Italica Press New York 2014. Bernard Gicquel La Légende de Compostelle Le Livre de Saint Jacques, Tallandier 2003. SG Nichols Romanesque Signs Early Medieval Narrative and Iconography Stephen G Nichols Jr 1983 Yale University

The History of Charlemagne and Roland recounts how the emperor and his Frankish army, returning after their victorious campaign to liberate Spain and the shrine of Compostela, were challenged by Furra, king of Navarre at a place called Monjardin.

Monjardin-WP-1The pilgrimage road between Estella and Najera near Los Arcos passes between the Sierra Montejurra to the south and the steep eminence of mount Monjardin immediately to the north. Monjardin dominates the road and the countryside for miles around. At its crown is the old castle of San Esteban de Deio which played a vital role in the Reconquest of Navarre in the very early tenth century.

Captured from the Saracens by Sancho Garcia Ist in 908, the Navarrese Christians were then able to use it as a base to control the valley of the Rio Ega and then advance south of the Ebro. Monjardin-WP-3When the Moors returned in force under Abderrahman III and razed Pamlona in 924, only the defensive position of Monjardin was able to resist.

The survival of Monjardin was attributed to a legendary cross which miraculously appeared during battle. The cross came to be venerated by the local populace who covered it in silver and can be seen to this day in the church of Villamayor de Monjardin.

When Charlemagne accepted the king of Navarre’s challenge at Monjardin, he prayed on the eve of battle to know which of his men were to be slain the next day. “Charlemagne therefore prepared for battle, but desiring to know who should perish in it, he entreated the Lord to show him”. In the morning these were miraculously designated by ”a red cross which appeared on their shoulders behind”.

The emperor ordered that these men should be confined to a chapel and the fight should take place without them. Monjardin-WP-2Furra and three thousand of his army were killed, “these were all Saracens of Navarre”. Although victorious,  Charlemagne was dismayed to find on his return to the chapel that all those held inside were now dead, their status as martyrs was not to be denied. “Christian warriors” declared the emperor, ”though the sword slew you not, yet did you not lose the palm of victory or the prize of martyrdom”.

The castle of San Esteban de Deio was renamed Monte Gargiani in memory of Sancho Garcia Ist, who was buried in the chapel of the castle. When in 1090 the town of Estella was founded by Sancho Ramirez king of Aragon and the French bishop of Pamplona, Pierre d’Andouque, Monjardin’s defensive role was revived, this time as a bastion between the competing interests of Aragon and Navarre and the strategic role of the pilgrimage road. Monte Gargiani was renamed Monjardin.

Biblio:  Dom L-M Lojendio, Navarre Romane ed. Zodiaque

Rio-CeaSahagún stood firmly on the pilgrimage road which traversed bridges on either side of the town.

It was here that, according to the History of Charlemagne and Roland, the Frankish army fought a pivotal battle in its campaign to liberate Spain and Compostela from the Saracens.

On the banks of the Rio Cea, Charlemagne faced the army of Aigolando in a lengthy contest. As at Monjardin and ultimately, Roncevaux, the battle of Sahagún developed the theme of the martyrdom of the Christian warrior which runs through the whole epic narrative.

Sahagun-Chartres-WP-1“Then did this miracle happen. Certain of the Christians who carefully had been furbishing their arms against the day of battle, fixed their spears in the evening erect in the ground before the castle in the meadow, near the river and found them early in the morning covered with bark and branches”.

The spears, dead wood returning to living wood were alluding to the afterlife in Paradise and Christ as the Vine, a common image in Romanesque sculpture. The miracle of the spears was also part of the continuing process of denoting the Franks as God’s chosen people, taking its source from the story of Aaron’s rod in the Book of Numbers.

In that Old Testament account, the overnight flowering of the rod signified the preeminence of the House of Levi among the twelve tribes of Israel, marking them out as being the only ones to be elected to the priesthood.

Espalion-Rider-1In the crusading era the epic legend of Charlemagne and Roland exalted the role of the Christian warrior to a privileged position whose death in battle would guarantee election to Paradise, where they might join that other caste in the tripartite division of medieval society, the priests and monks. An equation was thus made between the priestly caste of the Old Testament House of Levi and the medieval warrior martyr.

The Frankish warriors cut their spears to the ground, but the vine continued to flourish. They eventually grew into tall trees which, the legend assures us, could still be seen by pilgrims in twelfth century.

In the ensuing battle forty thousand Christians were slain including the general Milo, father of Roland. Reinforcements of soldiers from Italy, caused Aigolando to retreat to León and Charlemagne then returned towards France.

The Pilgrims Guide informs us also of Sahagún that, “Next to the town there are wooded meadows in which, as one is told, the planted poles of the warrior’s lances bloom”.

puenta-la-reina-side2The practice of interventionist patronage established by Sancho el Mayor to encourage the development of the pilgrimage road was certainly a trend continued by his successors.

Sancho Ramirez who ruled Aragon from 1063-1094, (as well as Navarre from 1076), lifted the tolls on the Pamplona and Jaca roads for pilgrims and established the towns of Estella and Puente la Reina. The location of these towns helped to fix the route of the pilgrimage way definitively. The expansion of both towns was so rapid that by the time the Pilgrim’s Guide came to be written in the mid twelfth century, they were significant enough to be mentioned as way stations on the road. Estella came to rival Burgos as a centre of commercial activity.

Estella-Navarrese-Palce-1-WAs the floodgates of the Pyrenean passes opened in the twelfth century, foreigners from beyond the mountains were encouraged to settle the new towns which acquired distinctive quarters inhabited by these emigrés. Pamplona, which had previously been abandoned as a royal city, was divided into three neighbourhoods; the Navarreria was home to the native population, the Juderia was the Jewish quarter and the Burgo San Cernin was colonised by Franks encouraged to settle through generous grants and  prospective commercial prosperity.

Like Puente la Reina, Sanguesa was a town built beside an important river crossing used by pilgrims, in this case over the Rio Aragon. Originally, the inhabitants were located on a nearby promontory in the defensive enclave of Rocaforte. As the threat of Saracen incursions receded, they were able to move down to the river bank. In 1122 King Alfonso el Batallador had a bridge built, simultaneously granting a fuero to encourage new settlement. A parish church, Santa Maria la Real was constructed on the left bank at one end of the bridge. By the end of the century the town comprised two parishes, the second dedicated to Santiago and was now enclosed by city walls.

Sanguesa-V's-2-WPBetween the major stations of the road, small conurbations and hamlets developed along the route next to monasteries, churches and hospices.

Thus the pilgrimage was exploited to bring keenly sought prosperity to these long deserted regions. This led to the inevitable paradox. The new wealth ran counter to the very spirit of the pilgrimage. On the portal sculptures of the churches at Oloron and Sanguesa, two towns which had grown rich from pilgrim traffic, the sculpted images of the merchant and artisan classes are presented in the foreboding context of Apocalyptic scenes.

Should any doubts persist, the column relief of Judas at Santa Maria la Real, rope noose around his neck, was a grim indication of the inherent dangers which were posed.

Sources: J. Passini – Sur le chemin de Saint Jacques. Cahiers de Saint Michel de Cuxa XXX 2000 pp.75-83, Melczer – The Pilgrims’ Guide to Santiago de Compostela

Leyre-V's-3The Historia Silense and the Cronica Najerense, two twelfth century monastic chronicles of Spanish history, both record that it was Sancho III el Mayor who around the year 1030 was the first Hispanic ruler to actively take a hand in the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela.

Sancho, who ruled Navarre between 1004 and 1035 had expansionist interests in the lands of Castile and Leon to the west as well as Moorish held territory to the south.

As the Historia Silense tells us, the road used by pilgrims had traditionally passed through Alava, north of present day Vitoria, because pilgrims preferred to hug the protective shelter of the Cantabrian mountains. Estall-1The chronicle attributes the reconquest of the Rioja to Sancho el Mayor, although in truth, this was achieved during the reign of his great great grandfather, a century earlier. Nevertheless, as the Caliphate of Cordoba began to fragment, the opportunity to consolidate the Christian kingdoms of the north arose and Sancho was well positioned to take advantage of the prospect.

The Cronica Najerense is closer to the facts, recording that it was only some time after acquiring the protectorate of Castile in 1017 through some astute dynastic manoeuvering, that Sancho recognised the potential of the pilgrimage road as an artery which would connect  Navarre with the future Christian empire of Leon-Castile which he was to bequeath to his son Ferdinand and grandson Alfonso VI.

Mianos Texts record pilgrim traffic passing through Navarre already in the tenth century but a century later the flow had become significant enough to warrant the establishment of an infrastructure which might benefit both travellers to Compostela as well as commercial and political interests.

Specific privileges known as fueros were accorded by kings to townspeople. These prerogatives were designed to encourage commercial activity and repopulation of urban centres and land long deserted. Fueros were granted all along the pilgrimage road. In 1030 Sancho obliged pilgrims to pass through Najera, a city he had recently accorded a fuero and which was located fifty miles south of Alava. In 1052 Garcia V of Navarre founded the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria la Real there, together with a hostel for pilgrims at the town. Thus, Najera was established as a major station on the pilgrimage road to Santiago.

Sources: J. Passini – Sur le chemin de Saint Jacques. Cahiers de Saint Michel de Cuxa XXX 2000 pp.75-83

Historia Silense. ed.  Francisco Santos Coco

LSJ-Quatuor-3In the almost exclusively non-literate culture of the medieval world, the production of a manuscript answered a need to fix and define an oral tradition  simultaneously conferring the status of authenticity on the material contained within.

 The Jacobus, a compilation of writings devoted to the cult of the Apostle James, was such a document. However, it presents a radical departure from the general form of hagiographical texts which focussed on the vita, or life and death of the subject  and provided examples of their miraculous powers.

 Its five books do include a list of miracles but no Vita, perhaps because the legend of Saint James had early been established in apocryphal texts. Rather, the intentions of the authors seem to be twofold.

Leon-Zodiac-2-WPFirstly to legitimise the questionable notion that one of the Twelve Apostles was actually buried in northwestern Spain. This was addressed in Book Four’s History of Charlemagne and Roland, which fused the legend of Saint James’ shrine with the memory of Charlemagne, the most potent and revered of medieval icons.

 The second concern of the authors is with the pilgrimage itself, since in the case of Compostela more than any other medieval cult, the journey was as, if not more important than the goal itself. The nine chapters of Book Five, the so-called Pilgrim’s Guide, deal comprehensively with this subject.

The course of the pilgrimage road had long been be a contentious matter with powerful and sometimes competing forces at play.

Rio-Salada-3Before the establishment of Estella in 1090, the road passed along a series of monasteries between Villatuerta and Irache. Among these was the priory and pilgrim hospital of Zarapuz, belonging to the powerful abbey of San Juan de la Pena. The existence of the new town meant that the route now moved away from Zarapuz, to the detriment of San Juan, whose monks bitterly complained to no avail of the rights granted to Estella.

Similarly, the important monastery of San Millan de la Cogolla was not favoured when pilgrims were directed to Najera. The monks were obliged to go there to solicit pilgrims on the road to make a detour of nine miles to the remote abbey in the Sierra de la Demanda to visit the relics of their saint Emilianus whose cult was now forced into a comparative decline.

Iroz-Bridge-WP At the end of chapter III the author claims his intention is to provide information which will give pilgrims an idea of the expense involved in their prospective journey to Compostela. Yet in performing his task, the author has at the same time fixed the definitive route of the pilgrimage road to such a degree that this may actually have been his intended purpose behind the manuscript compilation.

 Variants of the pilgrimage road were not eradicated, but at some point in the middle of the twelfth century, the author of the Jacobus set down in writing what had partly been a growing popular tradition and partly the enforced will of royalty and the Church. It came to be known as the Camino Frances.

Biblio:  Passini – Sur le chemin de Saint Jacques. Cahiers de Saint Michel de Cuxa XXX 2000 pp.75-83, W. Melczer – The Pilgrims’ Guide to Santiago de Compostela, Elias Valiña: The Pilgrim’s Guide To The Camino de Santiago

 

rioja1The Spanish pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela is a journey of almost seven hundred kilometres crossing two formidable mountain ranges, the Pyrenees and the mountains of Leon as well as the flat expanse of the Castilian plain, so baking hot in the summer months.

In the tenth and early eleventh centuries this was a barren, empty landscape, forming the frontier of Christian and Moorish Spain. Over time, the pilgrimage road across it was to become the spine of the medieval Christian empire.

In the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries towns and cities on the road began to be transformed. Fromista-11-Xt-1Within a relatively short period of time monumental structures were erected as builders and sculptors traveled back and forth along the pilgrimage artery, creating on a prodigious scale, a  series of homogeneous structures which constitute the great pilgrimage road.

 The transept facades of the cathedral of Compostela combined the work of sculptors from Toulouse, Moissac, Conques, Jaca, Fromista and Loarre. Some returned to work at Leon and Pamplona.

There was a potency in the very idea of this public road which drew on a range of interests and motives. From the time when Sancho el Mayor, ruler of Navarre, Leon-Perdon-1-WPdiverted the pilgrimage road from the coast towards Pamplona and Najera in the early part of the eleventh century, the route took in all the royal cities between the Pyrenees and the Atlantic coast; Jaca, Najera, Burgos, Leon as well as the royal pantheons at San Juan de la Pena, San Salvador de Leyre, Santa Maria de Najera, Las Huelgas de Burgos, Sahagun and San Isidoro de Leon.

It’s building programme was by-product of the Reconquista, funded largely by the ransom and extortion of the Moorish principalities and an expression of the power of the dynasty Sancho bequeathed.

Sanguesa-Fac-1-WPIt facilitated the introduction of Catholic liturgy into the Spanish peninsula, for so long cut off from the rest of Europe. It was  the vital commercial artery for encouraging French merchants to revive and repopulate an economically moribund area which had remained an empty no man’s land in the centuries since the Arab invasion.

It is this phenomenon which is recorded almost contemporaneously in the twelfth century manuscript book five of the  Jacobus or Codex Calixtinus, known as The Pilgrim’s Guide.

It is a remarkable fact that the engine which fuelled this vast enterprise was the veneration of saintly relics.

Biblio: S Moralejo, On the Road: The Camino de Santiago, The Art of Medieval Spain a.d. 500-1200

The second chapter of the Pilgrim’s Guide designated as The Day’s Journey on the Apostle’s Road, describes thirteen sections for the journey to the shrine of Saint James, from the ascent  of the Roncevaux Pass to the final arrival at Compostela, optimistically attributing to each leg one day’s travel. The sixth day’s journey is recorded as being from Burgos to Frómista.

Frómista derives its name from the endless wheatfields of the Tierra de los Campos which stretch across the Meseta plateau. It was from this abundance of grain that the town owed  its great wealth after it had begun to recover in the tenth century, from its earlier destruction at the hands of the Saracen conquerors.

It was located at the crossroads of the old north south road from Santander to Palencia and the westward bound Camino and together with Carrión de los Condes and Sahagún, was one of the three principal stations which linked the pilgrimage road as it traversed the  lonely plain between Burgos and León. Pilgrims reached the town after crossing the Rio Pisuerga over the bridge commissioned by Alfonso VI.

It was to Fromistá in her native Castile, that Doña Muña Mayor, widow of Sancho III el Mayor of Navarre, retreated after the death of her husband. Together they had both been early architects of the development of the pilgrimage road. Already responsible for the construction of the bridge named in her honour at Puente la Reina, it was in 1066 that Doña Muña chose to donate to three monks, a church then already under construction and some land at Frómista, for the establishment of a monastery dedicated to Martin of Tours.

The dedication to the celebrated saint was part of the general tendency of the Christian Spanish royalty towards promoting French alliances and affinities as well as being an indication of the French presence on the pilgrimage road in Castile. This was further endorsed when, at the behest of Doña Muña’s great-granddaughter Queen Urraca, San Martin was donated, in 1118 to the Cluniac abbey of San Zoil at nearby Carrión de los Condes. The ensuing increase in pilgrimage traffic is attested by the subsequent establishment at Frómista of four hospices to minister to the needs of those traveling to Compostela.

Doña Muña’s church is the same church which still stands today. Along with the royal basilica of San Isidoro de León and the cathedral at Jaca,  it is the earliest example of Romanesque architecture in Spain. San Martin de Frómista is a remarkable structure, almost a pilgrimage church in miniature, the refined elegance of its architectural and decorative elements more readily associated with a larger building.

 The much debated question among art historians regarding the role of the pilgrimage to Compostela on the development of Romanesque sculpture at the end of the eleventh century finds it most compelling evidence in the geographical spread of the style which found its origins at the Castilian monastery church of Frómista.

 In the late 1080’s the master sculptor of Frómista took his inspiration from the carvings on Roman sarcophagus located in the church of Santa Maria de Husillos fifteen miles south, which depicted the Greek legend of the Oresteia. These distinctively dynamic bare-limbed figures with their swathes of drapery are the clear inspiration behind the original and arresting designs combined with profuse vegetal motifs to be found on the interior capitals at Frómista.

 A chronological spread of this school along the pilgrimage roads has been detected, originating at Frómista and then moving to Jaca and Loarre in Aragon and travelling across the Pyrenees to Toulouse and then back along the Compostelan road to León and eventually to be found on the columns of the Puerta Francigena at Santiago. The pilgrimage was thus the engine which drove this sculptural school to spread all the way from  Castile to Languedoc to Galicia.

For a church of its relatively small size, San Martin manages to incorporate a surprising number of decorative elements without diminishing the simplicity of its architectural grace and refinement.

There are one hundred carved capitals. They appear to be the work of two different schools, the first already mentioned, derived from the Roman sarcophagus at Husillos and a second workshop, whose figures are more hieratic and static in their poses. Some of these are enigmatic in their significance. A hermit and an abbot, hands raised in benediction and between them, a man restrained by two guards. On each side two sets of men, one embracing and the other wrestling. One suspects the abbot and hermit refer to Saint Martin.

Outside the church is decorated with a total of three hundred and fifteen modillion figures, possibly the most imaginative array of profane and apotropaic images in Romanesque sculpture. Among them, androphagous monsters, acrobats, monkeys, young girls cradling strange offspring and a harp playing ass, this latter an image that goes back at least five thousand years to ancient Sumeria