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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.