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Tag Archives: Romanesque

The façade of the church of Saint Gabriel presents at first a rather enigmatic prospect. The architectural forms are composed of stylistically disparate elements. The sculptural work seems disconnected with no discernible coherent iconographic theme. St-Gabriel-Fac-1Closer inspection however, reveals a subtle narrative of human salvation composed of allegorical, symbolic and typological subjects and in which the role of the Archangelic patron is given particular emphasis.

The three human figures on the tympanum present a narrative which combines two of the Old Testament’s key scenes, Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Adam and Eve in the Garden with the Serpent and the Tree of Knowledge.

 The style and subject matter are reminiscent of early Christian imagery, especially that found on sarcophagi. St-Gabriel-Tymp-1In the Romanesque period, the image of Daniel in the Lion’s Den was widespread, representing as it did, a typological prefiguration of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Pairing this with the scene of Original Sin would propose a thematic link with the lions as representing sin or evil and the Daniel figure triumphing over them. As a prefiguration of Christ, the figure would therefore represent the triumph over death which began with Original Sin.

 The representation of the Daniel is significantly amplified by the inclusion, in the background of the prophet Habakkuk, who was transported from Judaea to Babylon by the Archangel Gabriel to come to Daniel’s aid. Habakkuk was given a basket of food to feed Daniel.

 The upper sculptural register, the frieze placed within the triangular fronton is of the Annunciation and the Visitation.St-Gabriel-Frieze-GV

In the Annunciation, Gabriel and the Virgin each occupy separate arcades while to the right Mary and Elizabeth share a single arcade in the depiction of the Visitation.

While representations of Daniel most often referred to prefigurations of the Passion and Resurrection there was secondary aspect to Daniel’s iconography which was also as a prefiguration of the Annunciation. In chapter IX of the Book of Daniel, the prophet is visited by the angel Gabriel who describes a vision of the coming of the Messiah.

St-Gabriel-FriezeThis connection is given further substance and the inclusion of Habakkuk in the scene is given added meaning when the exegetical commentary of Honorius of Autun is considered. Honorius made explicit the notion of Gabriel’s appearance to Daniel as a prefiguration of the Annunciation by associating the miracle of Habakkuk’s basket of food passing to Daniel without breaking the seal of the Den with Christ’s passing into the womb of Mary without breaking the seal of her virginity.

Habakkuk’s basket of food becomes a symbol of the Eucharist and Gabriel’s appearance to Daniel, while not depicted becomes implicit. The typological and allegorical strands are further strengthened in consideration of the relationship between the scene of Adam and Eve and the Annunciation: the Eve of Genesis is superceded by the Virgin of the Annunciation who reopens the Gates of Paradise previously closed by her predecessor.

The whole thematic programme is symbolised by the Lamb at the apex of the fronton presiding over a lion beneath.

St-Gabriel-Oculus-2This symbolic quality is developed to an abstract level as the programme reaches it apotheosis in the oculus. The symbols of the four evangelists surround the circular form in a quadrangular formation symbolising the terrestrial element and the cardinal points. The Eagle of John is positioned to the East representing the Resurrection while Matthew as an enthroned man angel is to the West and representative of Death and the Incarnation. The Evangelists also connote the spreading of the Word to the World and the fulfilling of the Mission of the Apostles.

St-Gabriel-Oculus-3The perfect circle of the oculus implies the divine. Within the sculpted area surrounding the oculus are two registers. The outer of acanthus leaves and the inner of ten human heads. In exegetical tradition dating back to Augustine and Isidore of Seville, ten was the number of perfection and infinity. The Apocalypticism of Romanesque church facades becomes explicit, the prophecies of the Book of Zechariah speaking of “Ten men that shall take hold“. Effectively, the oculus at Saint Gabriel takes the place of the Majestas Domini.

The programme of the facade as a whole can be considered as a progression from the Old Testament’s narrative of the Fall and later prophecies of coming redemption to the New Testament’s Incarnation representing the fulfillment of those prophecies. The whole leading to the Second Coming and the Heavenly Jerusalem as symbolised in the oculus.

Biblio: J-M Rouquette Provence Romane

M. Thomieu Iconographie Romane

N Mezoughi, Saint-Gabriel en Provence : réflexion sur l’iconographie de la façade, Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa, t. 8, 1977, p. 105-136.

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

Sangüesa on the border between the kingdoms of Navarre and Aragon was a town which developed into an important pilgrimage halt when the inhabitants were granted a charter allowing them privileges to practice trades and crafts which serviced the needs of pilgrims who were crossing the Aragon river using the seven arched bridge which had been built to facilitate their crossing. For more information click here.

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