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Monday, January 29, 2018

Oviedo: Medieval Paint and Alfonso II's Religio-Political Statement

San Julián de los Prados, Oviedo
All photos in this post 2017 Jessica Knauss 
Oviedo was a hugely important urban center in the early Middle Ages, a focal point for the largely rural Kingdom of Asturias, which was the first area to be "reconquered" after Moorish domination began in 711. I was thrilled to visit it for the first time last November.

San Julián de los Prados is a pre-Romanesque gem of a church one kilometer from Oviedo's urban center. I trudged through the traffic and the rain in the cold of the early morning, suffering with my first cold of the season but determined to make my trip to Oviedo all about the early Middle Ages.


On the side of a highway, nothing much distinguishes San Julián from this side, but if you look closely, you can see the messy-looking but super skilled bricklaying technique and the archway characteristic of the first half of the ninth century, the reign of Alfonso II.

Alfonso II, known as the Chaste, also founded Oviedo Cathedral and was the first to make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela from here.

On the side closest to the highway, this gorgeous stone jalousie window let in latticed sunlight in a very particular spot we'll glimpse below.

The back of San Julián, with its surprising view back to Oviedo's cathedral tower, is obviously pre-Romanesque, with its three-part window and the smaller, lovely jalousies.

The architects and artists of the ninth century didn't value uniformity. If someone ordered three windows, the craftsmen made each one beautifully different.

They don't let you take pictures inside, but I risked who knows what kind of admonishment or banishment with my silent, flash-free camera because this interior must be seen. They said it had original painting in it, but I was not prepared for the floor-to-ceiling glory of what was inside. Geometric shapes and a celestial cityscape, complete with chambers and bed linens, and color, color, color! They found these paintings underneath layers of lime-and-chalk (later centuries' hygiene methods, they said). My photos aren't exactly professional, but when you're in San Julián, you only have to use a little imagination to place yourself back in the ninth century, in contrast to most other medieval sites, where you have to use all your imagination and still can't picture it.

Here we see the side of the largest part of the church, where the less noble folk would've gathered to hear mass--basically the peanut gallery. It's not the most impressive spot, but it's still an eyeful. 

This is the other side of the large window we see from the outside above. It's to the right side of the main altar. I wish the pictures did it more justice. I stood there dumbfounded, looked and looked, and found myself incapable of taking it all in. Is that the same impression ninth-century worshippers would've had as they stood there smelling incense and listening to Latin speech and song? 

This gallery is to the left side of the main altar. The archway in front separates this area from the main congregation area, and nobles would've had spaces reserved for them here.

See the indentations in the wall above the bench and doorway? That's where the king's box would've been. It's across from the large jalousie window, which is placed exactly so that during mass, the sun shines through it with full brightness. (That's partially why there's less paint surviving on this wall.)

After all the people were settled and ready for mass, Alfonso II would appear on this balcony in his finest robes, embroidered with cloth of gold and decked out in all the jewels of the realm, surrounded by images of the celestial city, and the sun would create a spectacular scene of jaw-dropping splendor.

This was Alfonso II's public service announcement, a proclamation that he was indeed the chosen intermediary between God and the people.

I staggered out of San Julián, overwhelmed with the aliveness of history. I later learned that the three-part window in back is the only hint of a secret chamber destined for who knows what purpose.

This was only the beginning of the mind-blowing experiences for a medievalist in Oviedo.