Medieval Spains
Advanced Skills


Architecture in Christian Spain

The history of Spanish architecture, like many cultural evolutions, is marked by the repeated coming together of distinct groups, each of whom bring their own traditions and conventions to the juncture. In the first millennium C.E., three major groups arriving from outside the peninsula dominated the inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula: the Romans, the Visigoths, and the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate. Naturally, the architectural practices of each dominating group eventually influenced the design and construction of architecture in medieval Spain. By the time the Visigoths first began to occupy territory on the Iberian peninsula in the 5th Century, the indigenous Hispanic population had already spent several centuries as a Roman province. The result of that Roman colonization and Christianization was an assimilation of classical models into Hispano-Roman architecture, such as the basilica design constructed from cut ashlar with stone foundations. The basilica plan had originally been used for Roman civic buildings but was adopted as one of the standard church designs by early Christians. With the entry of the Visigoths, whose artistic tradition consisted primarily only of small personal objects, no immediate impact was made on the development of Iberian architecture. Though the Visigoths began to erect their own buildings shortly after coming to power, Hispano-Visigothic architectural forms continued to rely primarily on Roman models for some time. It took nearly two centuries of Visigothic rule before a uniquely Visigothic floor plan emerged as a prominent model in the 7th Century. The development of this form, however, was abruptly ended in the following century by the Islamic invasion of the peninsula.

The split between Christian and Islamic Spain marks an important period in Iberian Christian architecture, one that has lead historians and archaeologists to study the most minute details of buildings in order to ascertain similarities and changes, and to establish possible links to specific influential styles. Their results have contributed to a debate that has been ongoing for nearly a century itself. This architecture of the 9th-10th Century, found predominately in the Christian kingdom of Asturias, comprises what can generally be classified as Pre-Romanesque. Other architectural traditions in Spain, such as Classical Roman, Visigothic and the so-called Mozarab, may or may not have had an influence on the design in this region. This module will provide examples that identify Pre-Romanesque architectural features and will give comparison with other architectural forms found in medieval Spain. In doing so, the reader will be made aware of this aforementioned, on-going scholarly debate; but will also be left to construct his or her own opinions concerning the likeness or dissimilarity between the examples.


Santa Comba de Bande
San Pedro de la Nave
San Juan de Baños de Cerrado

After the 3rd Council of Toledo (589), the Visigothic Bishops began a more rigorous building program. Previously, Visigothic church architecture had been derived either from conventional Roman basilica plans and Greek cruciform plans, which provide relatively open spaces that leave the altar in plain view of all the liturgical participants. One such example is the conservative cruciform floor plan of the church of Santa Comba de Bande. As the liturgy evolved however, the desire to close off and privatize the sacred space led to changes in architectural form. Beginning in the 6th Century when the first Council of Braga (561) stipulated that the laity could not enter the sacristy of the altar for communion, the Visigoths began to formulate a new architectural floor plan that emphasized partitioned space. At that time, formalized church hierarchies dictated where one could go in a church and what one could see. For example, a deacon was not allowed as close to the altar as a priest. New church designs used transepts, or perpendicular crossings, to separate visually the altar space and the choir from the nave. Later churches further divided the choir from the altar space, or even divided the choir into two or more separate spaces. By the mid-7th Century, most if not all churches added chancel screens to enact further a physical separation between public and private space. Thus, within the thick ashlar walls of the church of San Pedro de la Nave, a churchgoer relegated to the nave area could only just barely glimpse the mysteries on the altar, the view of which was first restricted by the darkness of the space, then by a narrow horseshoe-shaped archway separating the apse from the rest of the church, and then finally by the chancel screen itself.

Although builders used various different means to construct the division of space, one of the best extant examples of the new partitioned plan is that of San Juan de Baños de Cerrado. Constructed in 652 in Palencia by the order of King Recceswinth, the plan for this church is an innovative adaptation of a traditional design. Here rather than a simple basilica or cruciform church, we have a unique combination of the two. Situated along an east-west axis, the floor plan consists of a portico on the west end of the church, which serves as the main entry, a nave and a sanctuary. Beyond the portico, the center nave extends eastward and is flanked on both sides by an aisle that is separated from the nave by an arcade of horseshoe shaped arches. In its modern form, the church resembles a basilica with two side aisles and three sanctuary spaces. However, the plan has since been adjusted several times through the ages and the Visigothic era plan was slightly different than it is today. Excavations reveal that the nave and both aisles were met by a simple crossing. Two square chambers branched off the crossing at either end, each of which was completely detached from the central chamber. These chambers were not within public view from the nave, and thus would likely have been used for private ceremony or perhaps as a space set aside for pilgrims to use, so that their presence did not disrupt the main sanctuary. The extant central chamber, to which the nave leads, houses the altar and is the main sanctuary area. It should be noted that in Visigothic plans, the sanctuary has a square shape, in contrast to the rounded apse that was common in other European churches designed with the basilica plan.

As a royal construction, San Juan de Baños represents the court's influence on architecture. It was likely to have been richly ornamented, but now only a few relieves remain. The decorative arches used at San Juan, however, are significant. It has been argued that the horseshoe shape, so frequently found in Islamic architecture, was brought into Spain with the Islamic regime. Many have considered the horseshoe arch to be a design that was adopted by Christian architects through contact with Islamic motifs, and more specifically, actively incorporated into Christian architecture due to the influence of Mozarabs, a word loosely used to describe Christians who lived under Muslim rule. Perhaps it is the case that Mozarab immigrants to Asturias did bring the horseshoe shape with them. However, the horseshoe arch was not unknown before their arrival in the north. San Juan de Baños was built 50 years prior to the Muslim invasion and the predominate arch shape used there is, without question, that of the horseshoe. It is used throughout the entire structure - as the initial entry into the portico, in the arcade along the nave, and in the frame of the sanctuary window. In fact, horseshoe arches are found in many Visigothic buildings, so it cannot be characterized solely as a Mozarabic design. Let us look now at the distinction "Mozarab."


Santa María de Melque
San Miguel de Escalada

While the term "Mozarab" may be derived from an Arabic word meaning "arabicized," "Mozarab" is often used to describe all Christians who had lived under Muslim rule in Al-Andalus, and not just those who were highly acculturalized. In 1919, Manuel Gómez Moreno first used the term Mozarab to characterize several 10th-century constructions in northern Spain. His categorization assumed that southern Christians immigrating to the north would have been influenced by Islamic architecture, particularly since the elaborate building program under the Umayyad Caliphate utilized Christian craftsmen. Thus, Moreno's 10th-century examples tend to be located in areas in which the population of southern immigrants was high. It is difficult to determine, however, whether or not Moreno's categorization holds true based on what Mozarabs would have built prior to their migration. Very few definitively Christian structures built under Islamic rule remain. Furthermore, very little documentation that would provide records or dates associated with the buildings survives. Some evidence points to a continuity with the Visigothic past, but the structures are simply too few to be able to formulate a general theory of Mozarabic tradition within Al-Andalus. One example from the 8th- or 9th-century, is a construction on the outskirts of Toledo called Santa María de Melque, which exhibits many of the same characteristics as Visigothic models. It is constructed with large ashlar bricks and its floor plan features the familiar compartmentalized transept projections we already saw in the last section. Horseshoe shapes also dominate in the apse and in the barrel vaulting. In fact, the construction is so reminiscent of Visigothic design that it has been argued that Santa María was built prior to 711.

The 10th-century structures that Moreno discusses are also difficult to generalize. Some exhibit ties to Visigothic models. At the same time, they combine elements of a different and distinctly Asturian building tradition. Thus, in the last 40 years historians have suggested the use of other terms such as "resettlement architecture" to classify these buildings. This term is slightly more accurate, since regions where these buildings are found were not just populated by southern immigrants, but also received a significant number of immigrants from other parts of Asturias. San Miguel de Escalada in León is a very good example of resettlement architecture that is still often classified as a Mozarabic construction. Abbot Alfonso and a group of Cordoban monks who had immigrated north founded the monastery and chapel in 913. Like Santa María, San Miguel's floor plan is reminiscent of the Visigoths. It is based on the traditional basilica, with the interior space compartmentalized and subdivided to accommodate the Mozarabic liturgy. Additionally, the horseshoe arch is again dominant in San Miguel. There are three naves separated by a horseshoe colonnade and another horseshoe colonnade dividing three horseshoe-shaped apses from the nave. Unlike Visigothic structures however, at San Miguel the walls are thinner than the heavy ashlar construction found in the south. Instead, the walls are created by a framing and filling method in keeping with Asturian building practices.

Buildings such as San Miguel stand out in the north because they are the exception. Most do not follow Visigothic traditions for spatial division and instead feature wide, open spaces that are well illuminated. Let us look now at some characteristically Asturian examples.


San Julián de los Prados
Santa María de Naranco
San Miguel de Lillo
San Salvador de Valdedios

Asturian architecture has been called Pre-Romanesque, the original precursor of the Romanesque architecture that flourished outside of Spain. There is some debate now as to how the direction of architectural influence flows - whether from Carolingia to Asturias or from Asturias to Carolingia. There are many ways in which Asturian building plans could have infiltrated Carolingia, and vice versa. The region of Asturias was not completely isolated from the rest of the world. For one, the Asturian kings sustained diplomatic and commercial ties with Carolingia that facilitated the interaction of the two realms. Also, just as southern Christians immigrated to Asturias, Asturian craftsmen and religious men migrated outside Spain, i.e. the bishop Teodulfo who was responsible for the construction of the church at Germigny-des-Prés in France. Additionally, several towns in Asturias were on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. As the route gained prominence, it is possible that travelers were exposed to this distinct style and brought design ideas back to their homeland.

During the reign of Alfonso II (791-842) the Asturian capital city of Oviedo experienced a massive series of building projects. According to the Liber chronicorum, Alfonso commissioned the architect Tioda to construct several churches and a palace within the walls of the city, in addition to baths and other public buildings. His building projects are further described in both the Chronicle of Albelda and the Chronicle of Alfonso III. Between 826-838, he built San Julián de los Prados, also known as Santullano, as his palatine chapel outside of Oviedo. In the study of Asturian architecture, we are fortunate that San Julián has survived essentially in its original form. In plan, it is a typical basilica with a very wide nave and two side aisles. The central nave is taller than the two side aisles and has a clerestory with both covered and latticework windows. The nave is barrel vaulted, while a flat wooden roof covers the side aisles. Three barrel-vaulted, square apses are found on the east end. The Visigothic penchant for compartmentalized space is not present here, nor are the horseshoe arches. Rather, San Julián is a large open space with rounded arch colonnades that lead to a triumphal arch before opening to the transept. The walls are thin, framed and filled with oblong ragstone bricks. There are indications that the building also had a wooden royal tribune for use of the king, although this is no longer extant. The interior is highly ornate and much of the original fresco remains. Interpretations of the interior frescos have been highly symbolic, signifying the hierarchy between the celestial world and the terrestrial world, with the king's royal tribute placed between the two. Because similar elements are found in Carolingian royal chapels, many scholars have thus remarked that the buildings of Alfonso II resemble early Carolingian structures much more than those of the Visigoths. However, new archaeological evidence suggests the possibility that the exact plan of San Julián may have been borrowed for constructions in Carolingia.

In 848, Alfonso's successor, Ramirez I (842-850) built his country estate about 3 kilometers from Oviedo. Santa María de Naranco is well documented and described in chronicles. Furthermore, its altar inscription provides the date of consecration:

Christ, Son of God, who entered the belly of the Virgin Saint Mary without human conception and who left without corruption, who by means of your servant Ramirez, glorious prince, together with his wife Queen Paterna renewed this building consumed by much antiquity, and by means of them built the east altar for the benediction of glorious Saint Maria in this place, hear us from your celestial dwelling and pardon our sins. Who lives and reigns for infinite centuries of centuries, Amen. The ninth day of the Kalends of July 886 (23 June 848).

Santa María de Naranco, which was likely not a church in its original inception, is a simple basilica with two levels. The construction is primarily of cut stone and even some ashlar, rather than the frame and fill method seen in other Asturian models. On the lower level, there is a nave with a short vaulted ceiling and two lateral aisles. On the main level, two external staircases rise up to the second-floor portico situated at the center of the building. The portico opens up to a long nave with a ribbed barrel vault that visually extends the room. Over each pillar in the nave and each column on the lateral porches, there is a medallion carved with human figures and bestiary. The nave leads to lateral porches on either end. As Santa María has no apse, the altar is placed outside on the eastern porch. Naranco is dominated by the symmetry of its design, and its remarkable sculptural program adds to the monumentality of the interior space. Rounded arches are supported by bonded pillars which feature both Corinthian capitals and trono-pyramidal capitals, revealing both Roman and Byzantine influence.

Another of Ramirez's constructions, San Miguel de Lillo, is located just 300 meters from Naranco and was possibly Ramirez's palatine chapel. The Asturian Chronicle of Albelda confirms that San Miguel de Lillo belongs to the building period of Ramirez. Constructed with thin walls in the frame and fill method, the chapel as it stands today is not wholly complete. In the 12th Century two-thirds of the chapel, including the apse end, were destroyed in a landslide. It is generally agreed that it would have had a tripartite apse similar to those we have already seen. What remains of San Miguel de Lillo's original floor plan shows that it is again based on the typical basilica style, with a main nave and two side aisles. The aisles are separated from the nave by an arched colonnade, the columns of which are ornamented with carved capitals and bases. One remaining column base depicts the four Evangelists and their representative symbols. A few remnants of the frescoed walls remain, using a style similar to those at San Julián. The frescos at Lillo, however, are rare in that they depict human forms. On the east wall of the south nave, one finds a figure dressed in yellow and black carrying a musical instrument. On the south wall of the same nave, figures symbolizing the Annunciation are found. The vaults in this chapel are also unusual. Those that remain from the original structure reveal that a barrel vault running on an east-west axis covered the main nave. However, those over the side aisles are configured perpendicularly and run north-south. At the entrance to the nave there is a portico, over which is built a barrel-vaulted royal tribune and two small rooms on either side of the tribune. The doors to the tribune features two stone jambs carved with a figurative relief that was taken from an ivory diptych dated to the early 6th Century.

The last Asturian building in this survey is the palatine chapel San Salvador de Valdedios, built approximately 40 kilometers from Oviedo by Alfonso III (866-910). Under Alfonso III, the kingdom of Asturias was greatly expanded and Alfonso actively engaged in erecting castles, monasteries and churches along its new frontier regions. At one of his monasteries, the one to which he would later retire after he divided his kingdom among his sons, he constructed the chapel of San Salvador. According to the dedicatory inscription, the church was consecrated on 16 September 893 in a ceremony attended by seven bishops. The architecture of San Salvador is interesting in that it combines many of the elements that we have looked at thus far. It is a frame and fill construction, modeled on a basilica plan with a wide central nave and two side aisles. Heavy piers support the arched colonnade between them and the barrel-vaulted ceilings. The center nave stands taller than the side aisles and features four clerestory windows on each side, which illuminate the open spaces below. The nave and aisles lead to rectangular apses, from which they were once divided by a small chancel screen. Each of the apses is barrel-vaulted. In terms of the architectural design, San Salvador strongly resembles San Julián de los Prados. Additionally like in San Julián, frescos may have decorated the walls in profusion, however now only a few remain in the area of the apse and lateral vaults. There is no sculptural program aside from just a few elements, such as the Cross of Victory plaque hung on the exterior façade. The arches are predominately round as in other earlier Asturian buildings. However, the Visigothic horseshoe does appear in the central apse. There, three horseshoe arches are fitted within a triple window that illuminates the east end. Thus, at San Salvador a nod toward a Visigothic past is seen.

Within just 20 years, Asturian architectural design would encorporate two different building models. Under Alfonso III's son Garcia, there are both classic basilica plans, dominated by wide, open naves and rounded arches, such as were found in typical Asturians design, and also Visigothic plans characterized by closed, compartmentalized spaces and horseshoe arches, such as we have seen in San Miguel de Escalada. Although the Romans had managed to gain a foothold in Asturias, particularly because of their interest in Asturian mines, the steep mountain ranges surrounding Asturias had kept the region geographically excluded from the center of the Visigothic kingdom. This could be a partial explanation for the Asturian preference for classical Roman architecture prior to the immigration of the southern Christians. It is possible that "Mozarab" influence brought not an assimilation of Islamic architectural forms, but rather a better familiarity with the Visigothic past which they then integrated in their new homeland. As archaeological surveys of the region continue, certainly new theories will be presented to help answer this question.