Subscribe to Jessica's exclusive newsletter

Subscribe to Jessica's newsletter

* indicates required

Friday, August 3, 2018

Valladolid's Medieval Treasures: San Cebrián de Mazote

The side of San Cebrián where you can best see the mozarabic contours
All photos in this post 2018 Jessica Knauss unless otherwise indicated. 
Another of the places I passed by many times in the province of Valladolid this winter was San Cebrián de Mazote. The name fascinated me, being a version of San Cipriano, the third-century Bishop of Carthage who loans his name to one of the most interesting churches in Zamora. On one of the drive-bys, I spotted a sign that indicated it was the site of a tenth-century mozarabic church. Sign me up!

No amount of camouflage can hide this building's ancientness! 
Like many such ancient buildings, you have to catch it at exactly the right moment so that there will be someone willing to open the door for you, especially in winter. Finally, my travel partner and I checked the schedule and made a special trip. It was worth the wait and the effort.

Beautifully restored ceiling
Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
In the tenth century, the town of San Cebrián was on the border between Muslim territory and the Christian push from north to south known as the Reconquest. People came from Asturias to live in the area, and apparently some Christian monks from Córdoba joined them. They built the church in about 916 on the foundations of a former Visigothic building. It's this fusion of Roman-Visigothic tradition and Arabic sensibilities via Córdoba that gives us the enduring mozarabic style.

San Cebrián is the largest and best preserved church of this style and time period.

Although the seventeenth-century bell gable as you head toward the church is not promising, when the man comes with the keys to let you, your companion, and more weekend medievalists than you expected inside, all your hopes for a tenth-century experience are immediately satisfied.

You're surrounded by horseshoe arches that divide the space into three naves.

Each column and its capital (most Corinthian in design) was culled from former Roman buildings to be recycled here. All the capitals are unique, with no repeats. While the tenth-century arches are flawlessly uniform, the capitals and columns come up to slightly different heights, punctuating their uniqueness.

Photos 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 

Other tenth-century delights include a separate horseshoe arch obviously inspired by Córdoba...

and a lintel found during archaeological excavations. Again, I love the alien feel of pre-Romanesque carving.

The right side chapel has an original mozarabic ceiling, but like
the left side chapel, its shape doesn't quite achieve a horseshoe. 
The arches over the central colonnades, as I mentioned, are strikingly uniform, but all of us on the tour wondered why the arches that frame the main altar and the chapels to its sides have a drawn-out, warped look to them. Enraptured with what the guide was telling us, it wasn't until near the end of the visit that someone got up the nerve to ask what the funny shapes were all about. 

The left side chapel archway 
Yes, the guide said. The architects and artisans were obviously capable of creating perfection on command. What probably happened was that tastes changed.

The mozarabic aesthetic, like the Visigothic one, called for secretive ceremonies cut off from the congregation. It didn't matter, in fact it was preferable, if the opening to the altar was too small for anyone in the peanut gallery to get a view. In just a few hundred years, this policy was reviewed, and probably by the twelfth century--that universal medieval style, Romanesque--new architects and craftsmen with new ideas wanted to widen the arches that opened onto the main altar and chapels. They inserted a few more bricks into the horseshoe arches and moved the columns, a process that made it impossible to preserve the integrity of the original design.

I think the same process happened in Wamba.

Outside, this filled-in horseshoe arch is more evidence of changes in the way the building was used over time.

This sixteenth-century alabaster Virgin of the Assumption by Inocencio Burruguete probably came from the nearby Monastery of the Holy Thorn, where they now have a replica. 

Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
We spent a great deal of time appreciating this seventeenth-century recumbent Christ made by the school of Gregorio Fernández. The poor state of its painting actually allows us to see how the sculpture was assembled in puzzle-like pieces.

The foot of the church has a display about
the modern architectural discovery of the building. 
After many years of neglect, San Cebrián's rare value was rediscovered for the modern world by Agapito Revilla and Vicente Lamperez in 1902. A lovely 1932 restoration was supervised by Manuel Gómez Moreno, and for this reason alone, we can enjoy San Cebrián today.

Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
The sixteenth-century bishop sculpture behind me is the man himself, San Cipriano. We visited this site in March, and I fondly remember (now that it's a sultry August) being so cold, I could hardly feel my hands, even inside the church.

Now I see the sense in wintertime tourism. At least you can warm up afterward, maybe have a tea or hot chocolate, while in the summer, it's hard to enjoy anything under pounding sunlight close to 100 degrees when you don't have air conditioning back home! Don't be surprised if I lie low and ride out the summer, writing blogs about all the amazing things I saw this winter. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Salas de los Infantes: Where the Seven Noble Knights Lived

Seven Noble Knights and the crest of Salas both
tell the legend in their own colorful way. 
Photos in this post 2018 Jessica Knauss unless otherwise noted 
In 2015, mere days before I got the long-awaited and welcome news that my epic novel Seven Noble Knights had been accepted for publication, I visited Salas de los Infantes for the first time. Salas is the home territory of the heroes of the saga, and I was thrilled to see their legend so alive in the world.

Yours truly with humidity hair and the Culture Palace
on the site of the seven noble knights' house
Photo 2015 Stanley Coombs 
My husband and I explored the town and had a lovely meal, but the church where it was said the skulls of my heroes were laid to rest was shut tight. I was too shy to tell the lady in the town hall what I was really looking for in Salas.

Fast forward three eventful years. Seven Noble Knights had been published to critical acclaim, and I returned to my characters' home territory with that validation and a new sense that life is too short for shyness. I was resolved not to let something as stupid as not asking for what I wanted keep me from seeing the casket with my heroes' skulls and donating a copy of Seven Noble Knights to the city.

Salas's beautifully historical town hall in the Plaza Mayor with a certain novel 
I led my mother to the town hall and found, I think, the same lady I had spoken with in 2015. My mother witnessed all of the following silently, and I wonder if her lack of Spanish made me seem like I knew what I was doing.

Even with a big American smile to hide my nerves, I still had to ease into what I perceived as the riskiest part. I asked about the church with the skulls, which is the main parish church in Salas and a reasonably popular tourist pilgrimage. The lady gave me a thorough run-down of what numbers to call and where to walk if I couldn't reach anyone on the phone. She thought her tourism work was done, but I took a dose of when-am-I-ever-coming-back-here with a dash of I'm-holding-this-book-and-what-will-I-do-with-it-if-I-don't-say-anything, and said, "I'm an author, and my novel about the legend of the seven noble knights has been published, and I'd like to donate this copy to the city."

Sole of a warrior's shoe excavated at the site of the seven noble knights' house!
Dinosaur Museum, Salas de los Infantes  
The answer was surreal in its unexpectedness. "You have to go to the Dinosaur Museum and talk to the guys there. They'll flip out! Even though it's in English." (Dialogue approximate.)

There are worthy dinosaur exhibits at the Dinosaur Museum, too. 
After much more encouragement I hardly needed, my mother and I walked a few steps to the other corner of the Plaza Mayor to the so-called Dinosaur Museum. As we were to find out, this museum actually contains artifacts from all of Salas's history and prehistory, something for everyone. We entered to find two men at a chaotically creative reception desk. I screwed up my courage again, this time with a little more of a calling card.

The Culture Palace ensures the land where the
seven noble knights lived is always usefully occupied.  
"They tell me at the town hall that I should talk to you. My novel about the seven noble knights has been published, and I'd like to donate a copy to the city." I held the bright-red book out and hoped my face wasn't the same color.

Their reaction was an author's dream come true. You would've thought they'd just won the lottery. They took my darling Seven Noble Knights and leafed through it as if it were made of gold. "They really looked like they wished they could read English," my mother told me later.

The stained glass in the Culture Palace illustrates
the giant battle in Chapter VIIII
"You've got to get in touch with a seven noble knights scholar," they said. "He's a teacher, like you, not in Salas, and he's written an extensive history of Salas and is cataloging all the artistic representations of the legend. Here's his email. While you're here, step into our Culture Palace. It's on the site of the seven noble knights' house and has a really cool stained glass window. And have you seen the ark with the heads in the Church of Saint Mary? You can't miss it."

"That's exactly what I was hoping to do next."

They let us see the museum for free and proceeded to make numerous phone calls to see if the priest was around, or a dean, or a sacristan, or anyone who could open up the church and tell us a little of the history. They gave me leaflets, brochures, and pamphlets about Salas, a program detailing a 2011 conference about the legend at which I recognized the names of many medieval Spanish literature scholars, and maybe half a million copies of the poster pictured. I'm meant to give copies to my friends, and I will find a few worthy recipients. I wish I had the resources to mail posters to fans of my book! I adore the poster because it's a graphic representation of some key moments in the saga. The fourth cartoon is so similar to the way I imagined the scene in Seven Noble Knights, it gives me chills.

They also told me that only a week from the date we were there, Salas was having its "legendary" seven noble knights festival. Events included children's activities, world cuisine, medieval dancing, jugglers and stilt-walkers, high tea, a craft fair, Bulgarian dancing, and the pièce de résistance7i, a rock opera based on everyone's favorite medieval legend.


It's hard to describe the beautiful feelings it gives a proud author to see other artistic representations of characters she adopted as her own. I never expected this phenomenon to be so agreeable. I almost wish all my books were based on beloved folklore.

Unfortunately, the festival was to take place during my mother's visit, and we already had hotel reservations and big plans for those dates. I hope they do it again next year, when I'll be ready.

Santa Maria de Salas and Seven Noble Knights 
Many minutes later, the wonderful cultural ambassadors at the Dinosaur Museum told us we should head to the church. They'd found a sacristan who knew a ton of history and was in town that day to show it to us. Before we left, they said Ridley Scott should pick up Seven Noble Knights and make an epic movie. Not the worst idea I've ever heard.

Santa Maria's main door bears the enigmatic legends
"Misfortune befalls the house of one who swears" and
"The curse of the mother burns and destroys children and house from the roots."  
In 2015, I admit to being less than impressed with the outside of the church. Its tower, though imposing, doesn't look like it jealously guards the skulls of the seven noble knights.

Notice the niche built into the left side of the altar. 
Inside, however, it's balanced and harmonious, with elegant Gothic curves and ornate altarpieces of a unified aesthetic. The good-natured, studious, and ridiculously young sacristan, Isaac, turned on the lights and pointed out the historical interest in altarpieces and richly embroidered cassocks, appropriately building up to the show-stopper.

What we've come to see.  
In 1579, it's said someone found a wooden box in the wall of the church with eight skulls inside and an inscription outside claiming they had belonged to the seven noble knights, Diego, Martín, Suero, Fernando, Rodrigo, Gustio, and Gonzalo, and their tutor Muño Salido. Paintings on that box served as inspiration for the modern town crest.

Isaac opened the grille so nothing would separate me from my beloved characters. It was so much more beautiful than I imagined, or had even seen in photos. Although small, the ark reassured me that the legendary history of this lovely town was being properly honored.

The current ark was made in 1924 with medievalist red velvet, golden metal flourishes, and a large keyhole. Isaac suggested something could be seen through the keyhole, and I put my eye right up to it, but of course it was too dark to make anything out.

I was able to tell Isaac something he didn't know: The ark was last opened in 1974 during Salas's one-thousandth anniversary celebration.

"Oh, before I was born," he said.

"Me, too," I hurried to add. (Just barely!)

The Latin inscription on the plaque reads, "Here, piously maintained for a long time, eight heads of the noble lords of Castile 'the seven noble knights of Lara' and their tutor are treasured."

And I will treasure these moments in Salas in my memory. My heroes' home is my spiritual home.

Suggestive sarcophagi in the churchyard 
In loving memory of Stanley Arthur Coombs.


Monday, June 25, 2018

Valladolid's Medieval Treasures: Wamba

King Wamba in a 2009 statue in ... Wamba
All photos in this post 2018 Jessica Knauss
unless otherwise specified. 
The province of Valladolid is densely packed with unique cultural and historical monuments. Exploring it this winter, I zipped past signage for a place called Wamba several times. I thought it sounded interesting because there had been a Visigothic king by that name. Finally, I saw a photo of the interior of its parish church in a tourism brochure and knew I had to go there right away.

Sure enough, driving up to what seems to be any other town in the province, I saw that Wamba proclaims its difference with a statue in honor of its namesake. I like the rough carving style. It looks almost spongy, as if you could give this king, who reigned from 672 to 680, a big, squishy hug.

A Roman capital repurposed in the tenth century to
contain holy water in Wamba's church
Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
He provokes that reaction in me because I take a liking to all leaders who fulfill their roles out of a sense of duty rather than ambition. The Visigoths controlled the Iberian Peninsula from the middle of the fifth century (the "Fall of Rome") to 711 AD. The position of King of the Visigoths wasn't necessarily hereditary. You had to be elected king, and God help you if you were. Wamba's eight-year reign was one of the longest, and many kings were assassinated to make way for the next.

Parish church of St. Mary of the O, Wamba 
There are many legends concerning Wamba's rise to power, all stemming from the idea that he would rather have continued to work on his farm than go to Toledo and make state decisions. That's what he told the councilors when they went to tell him he'd been declared king. The councilors insisted, and many legends say Wamba shoved a dry stick in the ground, declaring that if it took root and grew, he would go to Toledo with them. Whether because of the miracle of the dry stick or because the councilors were convincing (even threatening his life if he didn't accept), Wamba relented in the town that now bears his name.

It may not be terribly compelling from the outside... just wait! 
His reign was typically fraught with enemies foreign and domestic, and after making some controversial military and religious reforms, in 680, Wamba fell ill (or was poisoned) and received the order of penance, effectively ending his kingship. When he recovered, he went into seclusion to live out his final years. The guide at the parish church told a different version: Wamba's successor, Erwig, had his men jump Wamba and force a penitent's habit over his head. Because no king could legally wear such robes, that ended his reign, no poison or illness needed.

Wamba town hall 
When my partner in historical adventures and I drove up to the parish church, it was shut tight. A sign on the door indicated we should call a number to alert the guide to our presence. We didn't see any number to call. We walked to the town hall, and it was also shuttered on a nippy Saturday in March.

There was a pair of men hanging around across the square, so we asked them what to do. They kindly directed us to go down the street and hang a left at the new brick buildingit was obvious what they meant in the context of the old bricks near the church—to knock on the guide's door. Along the way we saw several examples of crosses having been encased in walls as pictured, but we never got the chance to ask what it might mean. The guide knew what we wanted without our having to say. When she joined us back at the church door, she asked why we walked over instead of calling, and of course that's when the number jumped out at us at the top of the page.

We were trendsetters. After the tour started, several more couples walked in and wanted to join us. I'm glad Wamba is attracting a few visitors.

"Recceswinth's tomb" in the church's back garden 
It's said that the parish church in Wamba rests on the site of a seventh-century Visigothic monastery where Wamba's predecessor, Recceswinth, died and was buried.

Its ancient nature, with architectural styles from different periods overlapping and vying for supremacy, is evident in this facade, where we see Zamora-influenced Romanesque bestiary corbels and arches under a Renaissance gable and the date 1233 (meaning 1195) inscribed with flowers that represent the four gospels. 

We can still find the remains of twelfth-century paint under the arches, where it's protected from the elements. Don't ever let anyone tell you the Middle Ages were all brown, grey, and black.

Tenth-century apse/main altar of the parish church 
While no traces have been found of a Visigothic construction, the current church originated with the founding of a Mozarabic monastery in 928. Little documentary evidence exists about the church in these early times, and even less about its construction, but the gorgeous apse cannot lie: it was erected in the tenth century. More than a thousand years fall away as we contemplate the perfect horseshoe arch, the low vaulted ceiling, and the closed-off nature of the main altar. Full disclosure: the Mozarabic vaulting in this part of the apse was redone in the twelfth century, but the Romanesque architects followed the original lines.

The wall behind the main altar features these precious "proto-Romanesque" paintings in black and red with a cross and animals in geometrically decorated circles. Imagine how brilliant these must have been before they were lime-and-chalked over!

The hefty, angular column capitals based on plant motifs are tenth-century Mozarabic. They betray strong ties to their Classical predecessors, but you could never confuse the two styles.

The side chapels, with their horseshoe arches and closed-off feeling, are also from the 928 founding. They recall San Pedro de la Nave so strongly that you could've fooled me into believing they were the remains of the legendary Visigothic monastery. These two architectural periods show continuity rather than competition. Come back when I post about San Cebrián de Mazote to learn the possible reason for the imperfections in the second chapel's archways. 

The nave is divided into three spaces by glorious twelfth-century Romanesque arches with slight points supported on pillars with ball decorations, which are topped with delightful Romanesque capitals. The ceiling has been restored to look as it did in Romanesque times. They say the window at the back illuminates the main altar spectacularly during late services. 

Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
The tombs on each side are Gothic, from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The fifteenth-century tomb has a lovely Flemish depiction of the Visitation with a pink castle in the background. The sixteenth-century tomb has an entire altarpiece with Biblical scenes and saints under its Gothic tracery.

Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
As in many of the churches in Zamora, in Wamba all the Romanesque column capitals are delightfully different. Here, near the main altar, we see what looks for all the world like a monkey sticking out his enormous ghastly tongue. I'm glad the guide pointed out the scissors on this side, and the shoe on the figure's left. This is a shoemaker, gnawing on leather to soften it. This depiction, humorous as it seems today, likely means the shoemakers guild gave money for the twelfth-century renovations.

Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
Across from the shoemaker, flanking the main chapel, we have a potter working on an urn with his head improbably turned 180 degrees to look at his companion, a shepherd. Everyone pitched in for the Romanesque construction!

Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
Elsewhere, two fantastic birds drink out of the same goblet, a symbolic theme we've seen on this blog a few times already in San Pedro de la Nave and San Claudio de Olivares in Zamora. The theme shows great continuity across space and time.

This central column capital shows the Weighing of the Souls. Note the Devil pulling to swing the balance in his favor. The soul even looks a bit distressed about it!

I'm not sure what this represents, but it looks like a pleasant skull and crossbones. This idea will come into play before we leave Wamba.

This column is capped by an elephant and another exotic beast the sculptors likely never saw in person. For that reason, it's so general it's impossible to tell what it's supposed to be.

After gawking at all the capitals, the guide took us out to see this side door, which used to be the front door in Mozarabic times.

There's an odd, floor-to-ceiling pillar in front of the tenth-century door. Since it accompanies the door, one could be forgiven for thinking it's been eroded over so many years—but one would be wrong. The sectional technique here is naturalistic, presaging Antoni Gaudí by about a thousand years. It's meant to evoke a palm tree. The palm tree's fruit, the date, signified divinity in the Mozarabic symbolic system. 

The chapel-like space behind the palm trunk and under the bell tower is filled with fourteenth-century linear Gothic paintings depicting the life of John the Baptist. This saint became important when Doña Sancha, sister of Alfonso VII, donated lands to the church, which was then known as Santa Maria de Bamba. The spelling was changed to Wamba in 1910 to better reflect its namesake, but the locals still pronounce it with a voiced bilabial stop (b), as if it were part of the lyrics to Ritchie Valens's most popular song.

The osario looks unassuming from the outside...
(It's only the small chamber behind the leftmost door.) 
I'm fluent in Spanish, but, thankfully, it continues to surprise me. There was talk on the tour and in signage about an osario. Misguided by a verb I thought I saw in the root of that word, I couldn't figure out what in the world an osario was... Until five seconds before I stepped inside and found this:

An ossuary, of course! A bone depository. A place that confronts you with your own mortality the way nothing else can.

They say the bones here represent burials going back to the tenth century, and that the bones left today represent a mere fraction of what was found at the beginning of the twentieth century. That's when famous scholar Gregorio Marañón took many truckloads full of bones to the Complutense University in Madrid without doing any kind of cataloging. No one knows what happened to those truckloads, they say. It seems odd that Gregorio Marañón would be so careless with precious historical evidence, even in the early twentieth century, but it's a good explanation for why the small canon-vaulted room doesn't overflow.

One visits the ossuary directly after a visit to the old chapter house, which is now the baptistery. New life and death in the space of a minute. Memento mori.

The birds take flight on a cloudy March morning over Wamba. 
Thanks to the residents of Wamba and the good-humored guide who let us interrupt her day for an unforgettable walk through life, death, and everything in between that fit more than one thousand years into less than two hours.