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Monday, June 25, 2018

Valladolid's Medieval Treasures: Wamba

King Wamba in a 2009 statue in ... Wamba
All photos in this post 2018 Jessica Knauss
unless otherwise specified. 
The province of Valladolid is densely packed with unique cultural and historical monuments. Exploring it this winter, I zipped past signage for a place called Wamba several times. I thought it sounded interesting because there had been a Visigothic king by that name. Finally, I saw a photo of the interior of its parish church in a tourism brochure and knew I had to go there right away.

Sure enough, driving up to what seems to be any other town in the province, I saw that Wamba proclaims its difference with a statue in honor of its namesake. I like the rough carving style. It looks almost spongy, as if you could give this king, who reigned from 672 to 680, a big, squishy hug.

A Roman capital repurposed in the tenth century to
contain holy water in Wamba's church
Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
He provokes that reaction in me because I take a liking to all leaders who fulfill their roles out of a sense of duty rather than ambition. The Visigoths controlled the Iberian Peninsula from the middle of the fifth century (the "Fall of Rome") to 711 AD. The position of King of the Visigoths wasn't necessarily hereditary. You had to be elected king, and God help you if you were. Wamba's eight-year reign was one of the longest, and many kings were assassinated to make way for the next.

Parish church of St. Mary of the O, Wamba 
There are many legends concerning Wamba's rise to power, all stemming from the idea that he would rather have continued to work on his farm than go to Toledo and make state decisions. That's what he told the councilors when they went to tell him he'd been declared king. The councilors insisted, and many legends say Wamba shoved a dry stick in the ground, declaring that if it took root and grew, he would go to Toledo with them. Whether because of the miracle of the dry stick or because the councilors were convincing (even threatening his life if he didn't accept), Wamba relented in the town that now bears his name.

It may not be terribly compelling from the outside... just wait! 
His reign was typically fraught with enemies foreign and domestic, and after making some controversial military and religious reforms, in 680, Wamba fell ill (or was poisoned) and received the order of penance, effectively ending his kingship. When he recovered, he went into seclusion to live out his final years. The guide at the parish church told a different version: Wamba's successor, Erwig, had his men jump Wamba and force a penitent's habit over his head. Because no king could legally wear such robes, that ended his reign, no poison or illness needed.

Wamba town hall 
When my partner in historical adventures and I drove up to the parish church, it was shut tight. A sign on the door indicated we should call a number to alert the guide to our presence. We didn't see any number to call. We walked to the town hall, and it was also shuttered on a nippy Saturday in March.

There was a pair of men hanging around across the square, so we asked them what to do. They kindly directed us to go down the street and hang a left at the new brick buildingit was obvious what they meant in the context of the old bricks near the church—to knock on the guide's door. Along the way we saw several examples of crosses having been encased in walls as pictured, but we never got the chance to ask what it might mean. The guide knew what we wanted without our having to say. When she joined us back at the church door, she asked why we walked over instead of calling, and of course that's when the number jumped out at us at the top of the page.

We were trendsetters. After the tour started, several more couples walked in and wanted to join us. I'm glad Wamba is attracting a few visitors.

"Recceswinth's tomb" in the church's back garden 
It's said that the parish church in Wamba rests on the site of a seventh-century Visigothic monastery where Wamba's predecessor, Recceswinth, died and was buried.

Its ancient nature, with architectural styles from different periods overlapping and vying for supremacy, is evident in this facade, where we see Zamora-influenced Romanesque bestiary corbels and arches under a Renaissance gable and the date 1233 (meaning 1195) inscribed with flowers that represent the four gospels. 

We can still find the remains of twelfth-century paint under the arches, where it's protected from the elements. Don't ever let anyone tell you the Middle Ages were all brown, grey, and black.

Tenth-century apse/main altar of the parish church 
While no traces have been found of a Visigothic construction, the current church originated with the founding of a Mozarabic monastery in 928. Little documentary evidence exists about the church in these early times, and even less about its construction, but the gorgeous apse cannot lie: it was erected in the tenth century. More than a thousand years fall away as we contemplate the perfect horseshoe arch, the low vaulted ceiling, and the closed-off nature of the main altar. Full disclosure: the Mozarabic vaulting in this part of the apse was redone in the twelfth century, but the Romanesque architects followed the original lines.

The wall behind the main altar features these precious "proto-Romanesque" paintings in black and red with a cross and animals in geometrically decorated circles. Imagine how brilliant these must have been before they were lime-and-chalked over!

The hefty, angular column capitals based on plant motifs are tenth-century Mozarabic. They betray strong ties to their Classical predecessors, but you could never confuse the two styles.

The side chapels, with their horseshoe arches and closed-off feeling, are also from the 928 founding. They recall San Pedro de la Nave so strongly that you could've fooled me into believing they were the remains of the legendary Visigothic monastery. These two architectural periods show continuity rather than competition. Come back when I post about San Cebrián de Mazote to learn the possible reason for the imperfections in the second chapel's archways. 

The nave is divided into three spaces by glorious twelfth-century Romanesque arches with slight points supported on pillars with ball decorations, which are topped with delightful Romanesque capitals. The ceiling has been restored to look as it did in Romanesque times. They say the window at the back illuminates the main altar spectacularly during late services. 

Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
The tombs on each side are Gothic, from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The fifteenth-century tomb has a lovely Flemish depiction of the Visitation with a pink castle in the background. The sixteenth-century tomb has an entire altarpiece with Biblical scenes and saints under its Gothic tracery.

Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
As in many of the churches in Zamora, in Wamba all the Romanesque column capitals are delightfully different. Here, near the main altar, we see what looks for all the world like a monkey sticking out his enormous ghastly tongue. I'm glad the guide pointed out the scissors on this side, and the shoe on the figure's left. This is a shoemaker, gnawing on leather to soften it. This depiction, humorous as it seems today, likely means the shoemakers guild gave money for the twelfth-century renovations.

Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
Across from the shoemaker, flanking the main chapel, we have a potter working on an urn with his head improbably turned 180 degrees to look at his companion, a shepherd. Everyone pitched in for the Romanesque construction!

Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
Elsewhere, two fantastic birds drink out of the same goblet, a symbolic theme we've seen on this blog a few times already in San Pedro de la Nave and San Claudio de Olivares in Zamora. The theme shows great continuity across space and time.

This central column capital shows the Weighing of the Souls. Note the Devil pulling to swing the balance in his favor. The soul even looks a bit distressed about it!

I'm not sure what this represents, but it looks like a pleasant skull and crossbones. This idea will come into play before we leave Wamba.

This column is capped by an elephant and another exotic beast the sculptors likely never saw in person. For that reason, it's so general it's impossible to tell what it's supposed to be.

After gawking at all the capitals, the guide took us out to see this side door, which used to be the front door in Mozarabic times.

There's an odd, floor-to-ceiling pillar in front of the tenth-century door. Since it accompanies the door, one could be forgiven for thinking it's been eroded over so many years—but one would be wrong. The sectional technique here is naturalistic, presaging Antoni Gaudí by about a thousand years. It's meant to evoke a palm tree. The palm tree's fruit, the date, signified divinity in the Mozarabic symbolic system. 

The chapel-like space behind the palm trunk and under the bell tower is filled with fourteenth-century linear Gothic paintings depicting the life of John the Baptist. This saint became important when Doña Sancha, sister of Alfonso VII, donated lands to the church, which was then known as Santa Maria de Bamba. The spelling was changed to Wamba in 1910 to better reflect its namesake, but the locals still pronounce it with a voiced bilabial stop (b), as if it were part of the lyrics to Ritchie Valens's most popular song.

The osario looks unassuming from the outside...
(It's only the small chamber behind the leftmost door.) 
I'm fluent in Spanish, but, thankfully, it continues to surprise me. There was talk on the tour and in signage about an osario. Misguided by a verb I thought I saw in the root of that word, I couldn't figure out what in the world an osario was... Until five seconds before I stepped inside and found this:

An ossuary, of course! A bone depository. A place that confronts you with your own mortality the way nothing else can.

They say the bones here represent burials going back to the tenth century, and that the bones left today represent a mere fraction of what was found at the beginning of the twentieth century. That's when famous scholar Gregorio Marañón took many truckloads full of bones to the Complutense University in Madrid without doing any kind of cataloging. No one knows what happened to those truckloads, they say. It seems odd that Gregorio Marañón would be so careless with precious historical evidence, even in the early twentieth century, but it's a good explanation for why the small canon-vaulted room doesn't overflow.

One visits the ossuary directly after a visit to the old chapter house, which is now the baptistery. New life and death in the space of a minute. Memento mori.

The birds take flight on a cloudy March morning over Wamba. 
Thanks to the residents of Wamba and the good-humored guide who let us interrupt her day for an unforgettable walk through life, death, and everything in between that fit more than one thousand years into less than two hours.