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Monday, February 26, 2018

Segovia's Medieval Treasures: Frescoes and Dusk in Maderuelo

Santa María and the new bridge at Maderuelo, Segovia
All photos in this post 2017 Jessica Knauss 
Maderuelo has been around since time immemorial, but got its final start in the tenth century under a "repopulation" order from Fernán González, the first Count of Castile and the father of Count García in my Seven Noble Knights.

The day I visited Maderuelo with our knowledgeable and entertaining guide, David, I was suffering with the first full day of a common cold, i.e., the day when you think it's not really common and you might just be dying, so I was unable to appreciate the fact that this is a site my characters could recognize! This is one of the things I love about Spain: you can't avoid stumbling onto some piece of interesting history, anywhere you go.

Maderuelo's city limits are defined by the rocky outcrop on which it sits, commanding views over the majestic plains of the province of Segovia.

You enter via Entrance to the Village Street...

... and if you make it past the town guardians...

... you go through a ruggedly lovely door in the Romanesque town wall.

You turn around to find buildings just as ancient leaning together to make you feel as if you were one of the inhabitants during the town's heyday.

Turning back around, you're confronted immediately with San Miguel, which has seen better days. Although it's been restored and is currently in use as a church, most of its Romanesque aspects are deteriorated or were austere to begin with.

San Miguel's plain chapel has a delightful
late Romanesque Virgin and Child. 
David points out the contrast between what most restorations
look like and what they ought to look like. 
Our guide, David, took the opportunity to explain his views on restoring medieval buildings. A lot of times, he said, restorers leave the stone exposed so people can feel like that's what it looked like way back when. But, David said, of course they didn't leave the stones exposed, indoors or out. They wanted smooth surfaces for painting or otherwise decorating indoors and to give a finished look and protect the stones outdoors. The buildings lasted this long because of the protective layers of stucco or other materials that impeded weather getting into the mortar and cracking the stones into rubble. David's central question in Maderuelo was why don't they restore that most lovely and useful part? It would be even more beautiful for visitors to gaze upon and would prevent further weatherization.

Baroque facade of Santa María 
The Church of Santa María, farther inside the town, has the most Romanesque traces within the wall. It's a fascinating combination of building materials, put together with a utilitarian chaos that makes its history hard to interpret. It has a lovely, understated Romanesque portal with geometric motifs.

Mysterious archways in Santa María 
David tries to illuminate the chaos into order with his green laser pointer. 
However, we spent the most time puzzling over some blind arches on the opposite side of the building. The use of the arches is unknown. Made of red brick, they immediately suggest mudéjar craftsmanship, and the horseshoe shape of the arches indicates this may be the earliest part of the building. Did Romanesque architects take over a mosque for use as a church? We may never be certain. I strongly felt that if I hadn't been suffering with that cold, I could've come up with a plausible answer no one else had brought up before. Maybe the cold medicine was giving me delusions of grandeur.

Santa María's large, light-filled interior has been carefully restored to Baroque splendor. Here, David also showed us a lovely transitional Romanesque-Gothic crucifixion, pointing out all the details to watch for and unforgettably talking about Christ wearing G-strings in some Baroque depictions. Since then, I've been fascinated with the sculptural transition between the Romanesque and Gothic styles and look for the clues on every old crucifix I come across.

Ermita de la Vera Cruz with San Miguel on the rocky outcrop behind 
The undoubted star attraction of Maderuelo is actually outside of it: the Ermita (Hermitage) de la Vera Cruz. Here they told us we'd see some Romanesque murals. What we saw defied such an easy summary.

The paintings survived since the twelfth century in remarkable condition, albeit in artistic obscurity, until they became appreciated again in the early twentieth century. Then, in 1947, engineers wanted to put a dam in place that threatened the hermitage with flooding. (Is this story familiar?) Rather than move the entire building, however, the engineers removed the top layers of the paintings--because they're frescoes--and transferred them to the Prado in Madrid, where you can still visit them today.

Illustrating the thickness of the fresco layer removed to Madrid 
More recently, they've opened the hermitage as a sort of museum. Visitors can now see an exhibit about the transfer of the paintings and a very special added bonus. Both sides of the hermitage are architecturally identical, but there were only paintings on one side. For this reason, we were able to observe the faint traces where the original frescoes were, and on the other side, we took in a glorious replica of the paintings.

Loving the medieval paint traces 
I've seen the originals in Madrid, and these paintings are some of the most impressive Romanesque artwork anywhere, in any context. But there was something undeniably magical about seeing the replica practically in situ. The composition made so much sense! I could imagine the way the art got its messages across to its medieval audience much more clearly here. While more people can appreciate the paintings in the museum setting in Madrid, I would like to point out that the waters never reached the hermitage and have now receded to nothing after a couple of years of drought.

You can see how the reds and yellows made the deepest impressions in the fresco. 
And here's what it used to look like.
Creation of Adam and the fall from grace (replica) 
Lamb of God flanked by angels 
Apostle
Christ in Majesty on the ceiling overhead 
Seraph, archangel, and St Peter 
The dove represents the Holy Spirit, which
the artist associated with the formless light
coming in through the window. 
Mary Magdalene washes Jesus' feet. 
Mary, Jesus (his feet, anyway), and one Magi 
We couldn't get enough of the replica! 
It's not only the vibrant colors and excellent state of preservation that make these paintings so special. They display a medieval brand of creativity. Although the decorators of a religious building had a limited repertoire of images they could work with, the artists of Vera Cruz made brilliant decisions in every part of the process that resulted in a place where we all wanted to linger. They made use of the architecture to increase their didactic intent, as seen in the original rendering of the Holy Spirit in the window and their placement of Christ in Majesty unusually on the ceiling. Their appreciation of form is especially evident in the creation of Adam and fall from grace scenes, where nude bodies are compartmentalized into their constituent limbs and muscles. The expressiveness of the faces and gestures comes through loud and clear in spite of the lack of depth and the overwhelming solemnity of the tiny space. 

Early nightfall on the Maderuelo wall echoed my virus-induced exhaustion. 
As evening fell, my cold was taking over and I only wanted to go home and sleep for days. But even so, there was a part of me that was sorry I couldn't enjoy the day with a clear head and airways. As I hope you can see, a mere virus couldn't stop the province of Segovia from being unforgettable.

Thanks to Arteguías and our intrepid guide, David. I'll find a way to take many more of these tours that seem like they were made just for me. See a chronicle of the day on the Arteguías website.