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Monday, March 12, 2018

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: Romantic Ruined Castillo de Alba

A corner of Castillo de Alba's homage tower overlooks Ricobayo Reservoir
All photos in this post 2018 Jessica Knauss 
I'm pleased to report that I've seen more than ten castles since I arrived in Castilla y León in the middle of September 2017. Yes, there are so many castles here that it's hard to keep count! I've seen beautifully maintained Gothic masterpieces of defensive architecture and lovingly restored bulwarks of several different architectural schools. But the castles that give you the most immediate sense of the passage of time are those that have fallen into ruin.

In this post and the next, I present two ruined castles of Zamora province. Whether they provoke wistful nostalgia for what's gone, a Romantic remembrance of a brave past, or just seem like good places for a picnic, there's no denying that ruined castles present a unique pleasure when you get to climb around on them. In the case of Castillo de Alba, the climbing is literal.

Castillo de Alba is perched on a hill tucked into a valley. To get the full effect, you have to feel a cool breeze on your cheek and hear the shepherd calling gruffly as his sheep move along to the symphonic tones of their bells. I'm not exaggerating. That's what I experienced while taking this picture.

Every area of Castilla y León has a signature stone fence style. Looking at this one, there's no mistaking we're in Alba y Aliste.

The name Castillo de Alba (Alba Castle) might lead to some confusion, as a village that grew up in the castle's shadow is also called Castillo de Alba. The fertile hills and valleys of this area have been occupied by humans since pre-Roman times, and the current castle of Castillo de Alba was first constructed in the twelfth century as an important defense on the border with Portugal on the site of a Neolithic fort. In the thirteenth century, Alfonso IX of León granted the castle to the Knights Templar, and they held it until the crown took it back to grant it to a noble dynasty. Finally, Enrique IV of Castile and León created the County of Alba y Aliste and declared the castle its seat in 1489.

The town of Castillo de Alba seen from the castle 
You approach the castle via a steep and picturesque mountain trail.

At the top of the trail, you're confronted with the largest surviving chunk of the castle, which used to be one of the towers. Its imposing robustness gives the sense that the people who constructed this castle wanted you to stay away!

Looking closer, you see the modern caretakers want you to stay away, too! And with good reason. Rocks are falling off the castle structure at random moments and the approach is steep and inhospitable, such that if you aren't an experienced climber, you might get stuck on top of the castle and have to be rescued.

Luckily, I was with a Castilian who is apparently part mountain goat, and I made it to the top of the castle and back down again to show you these photos.

Inside the most intact tower, it's a Romantic tangle of overgrown nature.

The castle has an irregular floor plan that adapts to the hillside that protects it so well.

A lot of the outer walls remain. It's sometimes not easy to distinguish what is construction and what is natural rock formation.

This sliver of corner is all that remains of the homage tower.

The castle became neglected when the border with Portugal stabilized and noble and royal interests focused elsewhere. Rest assured, Romantic warriors! It was never defeated or destroyed by humans.

Next week, not just a castle, but an entire ghost town!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: Espíritu Santo

Espíritu Santo on its unobstructed side
All photos in this post 2018 Jessica Knauss 
Some of Zamora's medieval treasures are so humbly self-effacing that they don't even have visiting hours. One such place is the Iglesia del Espíritu Santo, which was consecrated on the pleasing date of June 12, 1212, by the bishops of Zamora and Coria, with a third from somewhere in Portugal. Ten years later, Alfonso IX of León confirmed its importance by declaring it and the nearby hospital royal property with his full protection.

In spite of these auspicious beginnings, it seems today Espíritu Santo is visited only by parishioners and those in the know about the Romanesque scene in Zamora. I attended mass one recent Sunday in spite of my lack of Catholicism, and I'm glad I did.

One of the smaller Romanesque gems in this city, Espíritu Santo gives a first impression of being boxed in by more modern constructions. The only facade not blocked to view is the southern one. Even the eastern side, with its lovely Romanesque rose window, makes you work for the privilege of a closer look.

It's crowded in under the bell gable, too. Don't even think about going around the back. There's no way to get there. I've read that the church has a nice back garden space with archaeological findings on display, but only at certain times of year.

Utilitarian corbels 
Like a few other churches in Zamora, most notably the cathedral, Espíritu Santo is influenced by the austere Cistercian school of architecture. While its exterior is agreeable with its warm Zamoran stone, the only flourishes are the rose window and two curlicue-shaped acroteria flanking the lowest part of the building, which you learn when you walk in is the apse. Even the corbels are utilitarian.

The double arch entrance could hardly be simpler. 
You don't expect the quiet yet colorful delights awaiting inside. To begin with, the elegant apse evokes heavens above, drawing the eye upward with a subtle point after the smooth semicircle of the double archway. The small windows above had stained glass installed in 1963 that gives a Gothic feel without making a secret of their "mid-century modern" origin. The wooden ceiling is a restored version of what was installed in the fifteenth century.

We can also see 1963 stained glass appropriately depicting a dove--symbol of the Holy Spirit (Espíritu Santo)--from this interior perspective on the rose window.

The main altar is home to an attractive thirteenth-century crucifix that was discovered in bad shape during the 1963 renovations. Known as Cristo del Espíritu Santo, it's been lovingly restored and is now taken out in procession during Easter festivities. (Easter or Holy Week is a huge deal in Zamora. More on that in a later post.) Its early Gothic curves are evocative without being gory, and the long modesty panel recalls its Romanesque predecessors while commanding a more realistic sense of fabric drapery.

What's this behind the Cristo? It's something else wonderful discovered in 1963, a swath of stone painted in the late thirteenth century. (This is my favorite period of medieval painting because it encompasses the Cantigas de Santa Maria.) A cross is flanked by blurred forms we can still distinguish as angels.

On the other side of the church, on the northern wall, awaits a trio of unexpected curiosities. On the left, you can see an image of St. Isidore the Farmer created in the eighteenth century that goes on procession through the streets of Zamora on May 15 every year.

The second of the recovered thirteenth-century paintings shows a cross surrounded by geometric forms.

Although the inscription is all but illegible, this recumbent abbot is identified as Franco de Ribera, who died in 1350. I haven't found out exactly why the statue so unusually lies on its side, sticking out of the wall. It must've once occupied a niche in another location, where it could assume the normal posture.

The southern wall, opposite the apse, displays the last of the recovered thirteenth-century paintings: the Tetramorphos, or the four apostles who wrote the Gospels, arranged around another cross.

This Baroque Pentecost used to occupy the center of a large altarpiece. 
Small, boxed in by the unyielding tide of time, but unexpectedly feisty in the way it reveals its own historical personality, Espíritu Santo was well worth sitting (and standing) through a cheerful Lenten mass with guitar and voice accompaniment throughout. It is only one of more than twenty Romanesque temples in my dear Zamora, and just the third one I've presented on this blog. As hard as it may be to believe, the best is yet to come!

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Monday, February 26, 2018

Segovia's Medieval Treasures: Frescoes and Dusk in Maderuelo

Santa María and the new bridge at Maderuelo, Segovia
All photos in this post 2017 Jessica Knauss 
Maderuelo has been around since time immemorial, but got its final start in the tenth century under a "repopulation" order from Fernán González, the first Count of Castile and the father of Count García in my Seven Noble Knights.

The day I visited Maderuelo with our knowledgeable and entertaining guide, David, I was suffering with the first full day of a common cold, i.e., the day when you think it's not really common and you might just be dying, so I was unable to appreciate the fact that this is a site my characters could recognize! This is one of the things I love about Spain: you can't avoid stumbling onto some piece of interesting history, anywhere you go.

Maderuelo's city limits are defined by the rocky outcrop on which it sits, commanding views over the majestic plains of the province of Segovia.

You enter via Entrance to the Village Street...

... and if you make it past the town guardians...

... you go through a ruggedly lovely door in the Romanesque town wall.

You turn around to find buildings just as ancient leaning together to make you feel as if you were one of the inhabitants during the town's heyday.

Turning back around, you're confronted immediately with San Miguel, which has seen better days. Although it's been restored and is currently in use as a church, most of its Romanesque aspects are deteriorated or were austere to begin with.

San Miguel's plain chapel has a delightful
late Romanesque Virgin and Child. 
David points out the contrast between what most restorations
look like and what they ought to look like. 
Our guide, David, took the opportunity to explain his views on restoring medieval buildings. A lot of times, he said, restorers leave the stone exposed so people can feel like that's what it looked like way back when. But, David said, of course they didn't leave the stones exposed, indoors or out. They wanted smooth surfaces for painting or otherwise decorating indoors and to give a finished look and protect the stones outdoors. The buildings lasted this long because of the protective layers of stucco or other materials that impeded weather getting into the mortar and cracking the stones into rubble. David's central question in Maderuelo was why don't they restore that most lovely and useful part? It would be even more beautiful for visitors to gaze upon and would prevent further weatherization.

Baroque facade of Santa María 
The Church of Santa María, farther inside the town, has the most Romanesque traces within the wall. It's a fascinating combination of building materials, put together with a utilitarian chaos that makes its history hard to interpret. It has a lovely, understated Romanesque portal with geometric motifs.

Mysterious archways in Santa María 
David tries to illuminate the chaos into order with his green laser pointer. 
However, we spent the most time puzzling over some blind arches on the opposite side of the building. The use of the arches is unknown. Made of red brick, they immediately suggest mudéjar craftsmanship, and the horseshoe shape of the arches indicates this may be the earliest part of the building. Did Romanesque architects take over a mosque for use as a church? We may never be certain. I strongly felt that if I hadn't been suffering with that cold, I could've come up with a plausible answer no one else had brought up before. Maybe the cold medicine was giving me delusions of grandeur.

Santa María's large, light-filled interior has been carefully restored to Baroque splendor. Here, David also showed us a lovely transitional Romanesque-Gothic crucifixion, pointing out all the details to watch for and unforgettably talking about Christ wearing G-strings in some Baroque depictions. Since then, I've been fascinated with the sculptural transition between the Romanesque and Gothic styles and look for the clues on every old crucifix I come across.

Ermita de la Vera Cruz with San Miguel on the rocky outcrop behind 
The undoubted star attraction of Maderuelo is actually outside of it: the Ermita (Hermitage) de la Vera Cruz. Here they told us we'd see some Romanesque murals. What we saw defied such an easy summary.

The paintings survived since the twelfth century in remarkable condition, albeit in artistic obscurity, until they became appreciated again in the early twentieth century. Then, in 1947, engineers wanted to put a dam in place that threatened the hermitage with flooding. (Is this story familiar?) Rather than move the entire building, however, the engineers removed the top layers of the paintings--because they're frescoes--and transferred them to the Prado in Madrid, where you can still visit them today.

Illustrating the thickness of the fresco layer removed to Madrid 
More recently, they've opened the hermitage as a sort of museum. Visitors can now see an exhibit about the transfer of the paintings and a very special added bonus. Both sides of the hermitage are architecturally identical, but there were only paintings on one side. For this reason, we were able to observe the faint traces where the original frescoes were, and on the other side, we took in a glorious replica of the paintings.

Loving the medieval paint traces 
I've seen the originals in Madrid, and these paintings are some of the most impressive Romanesque artwork anywhere, in any context. But there was something undeniably magical about seeing the replica practically in situ. The composition made so much sense! I could imagine the way the art got its messages across to its medieval audience much more clearly here. While more people can appreciate the paintings in the museum setting in Madrid, I would like to point out that the waters never reached the hermitage and have now receded to nothing after a couple of years of drought.

You can see how the reds and yellows made the deepest impressions in the fresco. 
And here's what it used to look like.
Creation of Adam and the fall from grace (replica) 
Lamb of God flanked by angels 
Christ in Majesty on the ceiling overhead 
Seraph, archangel, and St Peter 
The dove represents the Holy Spirit, which
the artist associated with the formless light
coming in through the window. 
Mary Magdalene washes Jesus' feet. 
Mary, Jesus (his feet, anyway), and one Magi 
We couldn't get enough of the replica! 
It's not only the vibrant colors and excellent state of preservation that make these paintings so special. They display a medieval brand of creativity. Although the decorators of a religious building had a limited repertoire of images they could work with, the artists of Vera Cruz made brilliant decisions in every part of the process that resulted in a place where we all wanted to linger. They made use of the architecture to increase their didactic intent, as seen in the original rendering of the Holy Spirit in the window and their placement of Christ in Majesty unusually on the ceiling. Their appreciation of form is especially evident in the creation of Adam and fall from grace scenes, where nude bodies are compartmentalized into their constituent limbs and muscles. The expressiveness of the faces and gestures comes through loud and clear in spite of the lack of depth and the overwhelming solemnity of the tiny space. 

Early nightfall on the Maderuelo wall echoed my virus-induced exhaustion. 
As evening fell, my cold was taking over and I only wanted to go home and sleep for days. But even so, there was a part of me that was sorry I couldn't enjoy the day with a clear head and airways. As I hope you can see, a mere virus couldn't stop the province of Segovia from being unforgettable.

Thanks to Arteguías and our intrepid guide, David. I'll find a way to take many more of these tours that seem like they were made just for me. See a chronicle of the day on the Arteguías website.