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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Segovia's Medieval Treasures: The Church of the Nativity of Santa Maria de la Riaza

A monk strains to support an arch in the Church of the Nativity.
All photos in this post 2017 Jessica Knauss. 
How to describe the company Arteguías? As the living, breathing representation of the contents of my head, perhaps. Or maybe by telling you that if it didn't exist already, it would be the company I would dream of creating. 

Arteguías is a Spanish endeavor dedicated to medieval art. They publish books and present lectures on art history, make architectural models, and conduct minutely detailed guided tours of sites no other tourism company would even know about, much less consider visiting.

Looking toward the foot of the church.
Note the amazing ceiling and the baptismal font at back. 
I first stumbled onto Arteguías a few years ago, when my husband and I were as far from being able to go to Spain as we ever would be. Someday, someday... A few weeks after my arrival this year, I remembered my long-ago wishes and looked Arteguías up to find that they were soon going to give exactly the kind of tour I would like: medieval villages in the province of Segovia. I've been to the impressive city of Segovia many times, and the first time was during my college studies. Looking out the window of those tour buses, even though I thoroughly enjoyed the sites where they took us, I just knew they were skipping over the disregarded corners full of surprising cultural artifacts I would love the most.

Everyone on this tour was almost as excited as I was! 
I took the medieval villages of Segovia tour and boy, was I right. I'd been missing out hugely. Thank goodness for Arteguías, the only company willing to show me what I want to see in exactly the level of detail I demand!

You, dear blog reader, are lucky because I'm going to share the best parts of that trip with you, and you don't have to spend money on travel, or a hotel in Madrid, or anything.

Our first stop was at Santa Maria de la Riaza to see its Church of the Nativity. Like many Spanish monuments, this one is on a hill, and as you drive up, it looms over you impressively. Like many medieval buildings in the province of Segovia, it's from the late Romanesque period, because during earlier medieval times, Segovia was too unstable of a border territory to construct lasting buildings of any kind.

The distinctive bell gable is a Baroque addition. That's all we have to say about that. The Baroque period has its place, but not on this tour.

The Romanesque part of the building still has impressive dimensions and must've drawn a congregation from many surrounding towns. The original building had a characteristic semicircular apse, which was covered up by the cross-shaped sacristy at a later date. 

The gorgeous pillared arcade is all original and unique. Normally, such an arcade would be achieved with columns, but here, they didn't have any Roman monuments to steal from, so they made sturdy pillars instead. This is the largest and best preserved example of such a construction. There used to be ten windows, five on each side of the doorway, but the last two were filled in, upsetting the symmetry.

Most of the corbels are basic, but there are a few mysterious human figures among them.

The main entrance has ten corbels and a semicircular archway with five layers of different abstract designs, such as spheres (not to be confused with late Gothic Isabelline ball decor), flowers, and zigzags. The rich yellow stone takes on many blush tones here, adding to the loveliness.

Its four column capitals merited an extended discussion in spite of their poor state of preservation. They represent lions (symbol of Christ), a couple of angels, leaves and pine cones, and people fighting.

The angels don't seem to be typical beatific types. Their facial expressions are lost to us, but the positions of their bodies indicate strong emotional states. Our guide, David, said the seated one looked miffed about something, and I had to agree.

On the other side, the fighters illustrate the starting hand-fighting stance when this church was first built. The contenders had to place their feet side by side and clasp hands as if about to armwrestle, with the other arm around their opponent's neck and their foreheads touching or at least very close. The only reason I can tell you this is that David demonstrated with his assistant. These fighting scenes are so common in Segovian architecture of this period, he wanted to be sure we had the cultural context to recognize them throughout the day. It was quite a show, the stylized medieval aggression in front of that lovely archway.

On the other side of the fighters, a human figure appears to be carrying something, but we can only guess what. Someone on a previous tour observed that since he's next to the fighters, he's probably lifting weights in preparation for sporting combat. It makes sense. What do you think?

Inside, the main altar harbors a harmonious Virgin and Child image, transitional between Romanesque and Gothic styles, from the thirteenth century. She's surrounded by a Gothic altarpiece made up of many different scenes. You could've fooled me into thinking these were the national treasures we'd come to see, but when someone asked about them, David assured us they weren't worth a second glance. Many of these had been retouched in modern times, he added. Then I knew exactly where we stood. Our guide's tastes were well defined and hard to argue with.

All the wooden planks are meant to be "read" from right to left.
This one shows uncertain Biblical scenes. 
What had we come to see? These wooden planks, recovered in recent times from where they were languishing in storage and deteriorating, neglected because of changing senses of style and the modern-times superiority complex that seems to have prevailed from the Classical era until the at least the nineteenth century. David asked us to imagine what it would be like to live in a world in which these pieces of art, which we value so highly now, had always been respected and taken care of.

This fragment probably once showed a spectacular Crucifixion. 
The style of these paintings is linear Gothic, so called because of the cartoon-like black outlines and lack of depth. Personally, I don't need depth perspective in my paintings to arrive at depth of meaning and heights of artistic achievement. Neither did our guide, who explained the paintings to us for about 45 minutes! It was worth every second.

Here we see the slaughter of the innocents, made all the more emotionally evocative because the sharp swords are so enormous in comparison to the babies. I love the colors and the facial expressions, which are reserved but clear. I dare say they reflect Castilian mannerisms. The mothers' struggle in the face of events the viewer knows to be inevitable looks especially dynamic.

Christ, with the gold and orange nimbus, is brought before Pilate on the right and whipped by Roman guards on the left. The resignation on Christ's face turns into a sorrowful pain it would've been hard not to sympathize with.

Here, Judas kisses Jesus and the guards are ready to move in. Then, Judas hangs himself and a devil carries his soul away in a graphic depiction of his spiritual fate.

Christ in Majesty flanked by Mark and Luke, as demonstrated with their lion and ox symbols.

Part of a beautifully composed Epiphany scene. Before the iconography began showing the Magi or Three Wise Men as being from three different ethnic backgrounds, they represented the three ages. The oldest, with a white beard, always comes first because he's the wisest. Here we get to see his face because he's kneeling to present his gift of gold to Mary and Jesus. I love the detail of doffing his crown. Behind him, the middle-aged man with a brown beard and the young man with no beard are missing their heads.

This fragment is probably the entrance into Jerusalem, with children laying out carpets for the "royal" arrival.

There was still more to see. This Crucifixion is transitional between Romanesque and Gothic. When we see these artistic examples, it's like finding "the missing link." The lack of physiological detail, the long modesty panel, and the serene facial expression are Romanesque. The crossed feet, the Y shape of his arms, and the mild tilt of his head are the beginnings of the Gothic style.

Last but not least, we studied this baptismal font. It's made from a single block of stone and is probably much older than the church. Its arches display strong Visigothic influence, and its shape also tells a story.

David lifts an imaginary child by the
armpits into the baptismal font. 
According to our knowledgeable, affable, and entertaining guide, in the beginning of the Christian Church, baptism was always by immersion. The sacrament would've been given to children between three and five years old, so the font had to be big enough for the priest to take the child by the armpits and submerge him or her to the neck. The water would've been warmed whenever possible. The shape of baptismal fonts changed as their function changed. First, they became more goblet-shaped because they started immersing children at a younger age, cradling them and dipping them sideways, again leaving the head dry. You wouldn't need nearly as much warm water. Immersion got less and less popular as time wore on, so all a priest needs now is a bowl of consecrated water to pour or smudge on the child's forehead.

Armed with more new knowledge than I ever expected so early in the day, we were then off to see the medieval treasures of Ayllón.

Arteguías put a little "chronicle" of the tour on their webpage. I show up in at least two of the photos! Visit this blog in the coming weeks for more of my take on the wonders of the day.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: San Pedro de la Nave, Part III: Welcome In!

San Pedro de la Nave.
All photos in this post by Jessica Knauss 2017. 
From afar, it's an unassuming building, and if you notice it at all, you might wonder why it's been set a little apart from the town of El Campillo. As you get closer, you see that this is not the same brickwork as the rest of the town. This is San Pedro de la Nave!

Even when it was built, the stones were extraordinary. They aren't local stones, meaning this building was costly to put together. In this picture, along the top left eave, you can see corbels placed there in Romanesque times (the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries), when the church was already hundreds of years old and in need of repair.

The first impression of the inside is of warmth, in the golden color of the stone (which never had colored paint, as near as anyone can tell), and in the way the multiple horseshoe arches embrace your view. San Pedro's floor plan is a Latin cross, like a plus sign, and the spaces are highly compartmentalized, with little communication between the main nave and side apses. We're looking toward the main chapel here, and from this spot, there's no indication of anything beyond the main tunnel. The lateral areas could have been sacristies, chapter houses, or cells where monks lived. Yes, in those tiny spaces. (Find pictures in previous posts.)

Looking back toward the entrance, you can appreciate the way the light illuminated the main altar on sunny days and the wooden ceiling, a practical solution to unstable Visigothic vaulting. The original vaulted ceilings are thought to have collapsed not long after they were built, and would've been replaced with a wooden ceiling much like the one we see today.

Above, you can see that the central dome is made of bricks. The 1930s restorers wanted to differentiate their work from the stone that had survived so many centuries.

Glancing to the sides, you begin to appreciate the work of two different artists, one who tended toward the Classical and one with a more progressive Visigothic style.

Electric lighting was added recently. The blackness near the floor is the result of fires that were lit for lighting and warmth during San Pedro's long period of obscurity. 

The first artist was "old-fashioned," meaning that he took his inspiration from the sculptors who had gone directly before him, and limited his repertoire to plants and more abstract motifs that are highly symbolic of the church's relationship with churchgoers. The second sculptor is responsible for four of the column capitals, which have human and animal figures as well as symbolic vegetable motifs. Both artists were influenced by Byzantine art and had probably seen an illustrated copy of an early commentary on the Apocalypse.

One of the biggest surprises about the columns is that they aren't structurally necessary: they don't support anything. The arches are supported in the walls. What compelled someone to put superfluous columns in such an otherwise austere space? Looking closer, we sense a highly didactic function.

Here, on the first column near the door on the right, we see the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. God's hand appears out of a cloud in the sky on the left to stop him, and the fat ram, the replacement sacrifice, appears on the right between skinny bushes. The altar is labeled as such—ALTARE—and is complete with tinder for burning the offering. A legend above the scene describes it just in case the meaning slipped the monks' minds. No detail is left out.

This is more than an important Bible story. The priests could've used this column to teach (and to remind themselves) of the way God sacrificed his son, Jesus, who also rose again from the sacrificial altar to save humankind.

The symbolism doesn't stop there. Above the capital, the cyma (capital-topper, basically) is decorated with bunches of grapes and long-necked birds. The grapes are a nod to consecrated wine—the blood of Christ—and the birds represent the human soul. They gnaw on the vines to show the human soul nourished by the blood of Christ.

San Pedro de la Nave is already extraordinary, and now you're telling me it harbors six imaginatively sculpted, unique column capitals that let us see into the Visigothic worldview? There are no words for this.

On the side, the capital shows St. Peter, the foundation of the Christian church, holding a book labeled as such—LIBER—and a cross to remind the viewer of his martyrdom.

The other side shows St. Paul, the first great traveler and proselytizer of the Christian world. He holds a book in the form of a scroll and his raised hand shows that he was a great teacher. The cyma extends back along the corner of the wall significantly, repeating its birds and vines, souls and blood, as needed.

Facing Abraham and Isaac, another decorative column teaches with a different story. 

The prophet Daniel throws his hands up in prayer in the middle of the lions in the den, but is miraculously untouched by them. Because of the Latin translation of the den as LACUM (lake), Daniel's story is not only another reference to Christ's Resurrection (both were saved from certain death—it's a metaphor, go with it), but also to the sacrament of baptism. Yes, here, Daniel's feet are submerged as in early baptism, and rather than eating him, the lions lap at the lake's water. Daniel's robes echo the ripples in the lake, and the purposefully imperfect symmetry of the space makes it, to me, an even higher artistic achievement.

Here, the cyma features birds more prominently, and each one picks directly at the grapes.

The left side shows the apostle Thomas, clearly labeled and holding a book that declares ENMANUEL ("God with us" according the King James Version).

Philip appears on the right side, holding over his head what's been described as a crown topped with a cross and fleurs de lis. The curls on the sides make it look like a ship to me.

Moving toward the altar, the two facing columns showcase elegant birds, perhaps peacocks, representing the soul in paradise. If these columns were supporting anything, it would be San Pedro de la Nave's dome, which represents heaven. Practical function and metaphor become inextricably linked when we consider that these four columns artistically represent some of the main supports of the Christian church.

This column is the only one whose base still clearly shows its original floral designs.

The cymas here feature apostolic faces, bunches of grapes, and pinecones, another representation of the church's relationship with the congregation.

The sides of these columns have large, serious faces. This one has a clear reference to Roman sun worship. It was not unusual to associate Christ with the sun in early Christianity because of the sacred space it occupied the Roman mind, and also because it sets and rises again every day. It is the ultimate representation of resurrection.

This unidentified presumed apostle is topped with a unique cyma: a lamb, with obvious symbolism.

When you're inside the lateral cells, it feels as if you can spy on everything going on in the nave.

And finally, we come to the main chapel. It would've been the only chapel in Visigothic times. As I mentioned in the previous post, parts of an excavated altar were reassembled to make the new altar table here. St. Peter (San Pedro) stands on a Visigothic column that was also recovered during the transfer excavations. The area is tiny and mostly closed off from the rest. Visigothic rituals were secret, not really for public consumption, so it didn't matter if the congregation could see what the priests were doing. The reduced size probably contributed to its being the best preserved part of the church. 

It's the only area that maintains its original Visigothic vaulting. 


Entering this space is a sacred experience, in spite of its reduced size, largely because of the decoration, which is more profuse here than anywhere else.

While most Spanish guides use the word "rough" to describe these works by the Classical artist, I find them delicate, precise, and harmonious.

Crosses, grapes, geometric designs, and sunbursts frame the windows and run along the walls to unify the space and please the eye even while making reference to the same foundational metaphors we've seen on the column capitals.

The columns supporting the triumphal arch are nearly identical in conception. Also the work of the Classical artist, their cymas show winding serpents (sin) with bunches of grapes (redemption). The central parts of the capitals show four empty archways, which represent the four rivers in heavenly Jerusalem and recall the four Gospels.

The columns are marble and very likely taken from a Roman construction.

On my first visit to San Pedro de la Nave, I had the luxury of being able to sit in the front pew and stare at and through the triumphal arch for an indeterminate amount of time. Time had become irrelevant as I was transported more than a thousand years into the past.

The last extraordinary and mysterious item inside San Pedro is this sundial. To the left of the triumphal arch, someone has carved the names of a few months. They're not very visible in this photo, but just under the Christ monogram, it reads +JANUARIUS Et DICEMBR  MAR, with many Roman numerals indicating liturgical hours in the next row, and beneath, FBRS ET NOEMBER with their numerals. The metal bar casts a shadow on the wall, and you would think the shadow would point to the month and hours corresponding to the correct time of year.

Here's where the mystery comes in: The calendar doesn't work. It's in utterly the wrong place. Scholars have wondered why the calendar was never finished. I think the carver stopped when he realized it wasn't going to work. It also occurs to me that this stone could be recycled from another site where the calendar did work as planned. It's a less simple explanation, but perhaps more likely, given early medieval people's enthusiasm for reusing and recycling any materials at hand.

I hope you found this tour of San Pedro de la Nave as dazzling as I did.