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Monday, November 27, 2017

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

San Pedro de la Nave.
Unless otherwise noted, 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.

Photo by José Pablo Palencia 2017 
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. 

Photo by José Pablo Palencia 2017 
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 to 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.

Photo Jessica Knauss 2018 
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 flower-like 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.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: San Pedro de la Nave, Part II: The Ricobayo Threat

The previously flooded town of San Pedro de la Nave.
Photos in this post by Jessica Knauss 2017. 
Imagine it's 1928 and you're a newly rediscovered pre-Romanesque treasure that happens to be on the banks of the Esla River. Yes, you are San Pedro de la Nave. In spite of a cave-in and some random additions, you still preserve the extraordinary remains of Visigothic sculpture and architecture. All of a sudden, after 1300 years of existence, you find yourself in the path of a reservoir project, about to be swallowed up by the rising waters of progress.

What do you do?

The bricks look haphazard, but they aren't. Just some of the sly smarts
of Visigothic architecture. Note the alabaster window, a recent addition. 
The Church of San Pedro de la Nave started out as the most important building in its area, the center of six small towns. Although it's not mentioned specifically in the historical record until 907, it's thought that it was the monastic center where Saint Valerio lived and did his saintly work in the seventh century because he describes it as the biggest and most luxurious of his time. When the area came under Muslim control, San Pedro slipped into obscurity. It seems there was never much money to do extensive construction work, a circumstance that saved San Pedro virtually intact for us today. In 1906, Don Manuel Gómez Moreno "discovered" the church for the modern era and it was declared a national monument in 1912.

Official tour guide Eva demonstrates how the bricks are held together.
They're basically stapled with wooden clamps.Those holes should be in the back.  
In the 1920s, engineers became interested in the area for its hydraulic power potential. They wanted to build a dam near the town of Ricobayo, which would create a reservoir in part of the Esla River, drowning all the small towns on its banks, and destroying San Pedro de la Nave. It had just come back into the spotlight and had recently gained a few defenders. Progress couldn't be stopped, however. Historical arguments could not prevent the building of the dam.

The original site of San Pedro de la Nave. Note the foundation stones. 
Luckily, there were enlightened people on both sides of the issue, and someone came up with the idea of moving the church, brick by brick, to a safer location. The builders of the dam paid for the move, which took two years and a lot of research, love, and guesswork. Gómez Moreno directed the project with architect Alejandro Ferrant Vázquez and the resulting monument is a lasting testament to their scholarship.

This Gothic bell gable was removed from the church
and is now used as part of the fencing around it. 
While they dismantled the church, the workers and scholars learned a lot about Visigothic building techniques. They made note of everything, and some Roman funerary stelae and fragments of an altar were found. Most of the treasures can be viewed in the Museum of Zamora, but the altar blocks were creatively rearranged in the new place to provide an altar for occasional services.

The new altar uses blocks discovered in the dismantling process. 

The stones look like you could knock
them over with a feather, but trust me,
they aren't budging! 
San Pedro de la Nave is now found two kilometers from where it originally stood in exactly the same north-south orientation as before. The original area was indeed flooded, but in recent years the water level has receded to the point that we can visit the church's original site without getting wet. Organic materials have washed away, but the sturdy stone structures of the entire town remain exactly where they were originally built.