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Thursday, January 30, 2020

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: Santa María la Nueva: It's A Riot

Santa María la Nueva with its Baroque
bell gable and two burial niches for those
who couldn't afford a plot inside.
Photos in this post 2017-2019 Jessica Knauss 
Santa María la Nueva may be the most Zamoran building of all. Its history and legend make it unique in any city, in any country.

The church was built in the early twelfth century in an early, pure Romanesque style. Then, it was built in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century in a Romanesque style that was making the first changes toward Gothic. The Gothic style took over at the sides of the apse, built in the later thirteenth century, and finally the bell gable was added in the seventeenth century. In Zamora, it's not the usual practice to keep revising a church, once built. So why is Santa María la Nueva the most Zamoran of twenty-two Romanesque churches?

Don Benito and his son between two narrators in their leather shop
in a representation of the legend associated with Santa María la Nueva
not far from that very church, during the medieval festival in Zamora, 2019 
Mainly because it has its own legend. The harrowing tale takes place convincingly in the twelfth century and is complete with economic class resentment, the forging of the border with Portugal, and royal prerogative.

Ready with their torches to do some Romanesque damage
The legend, known as El motín de la trucha, is important in the formation of Zamoran identity. One of the first things I did when I arrived in 2017 was see a cantata written on this subject. Many other works of art have been created on this theme, including the Spanish-language play, part of the medieval festival, seen in these photos.

The red lights and smoke effects show what Don Benito so regrets having to do. 
I felt as if English speakers were missing out on an amazing story, so I've written my own short play, "Trout Riot" (my translation of El motín de la trucha), to dramatize it for you! It's free to download in many formats here. I hope my play is entertaining as well as informative, and I grant permission to any theatre group who wants to use it (giving credit where it's due, of course).

These medieval legends keep only the essential information to tell the story, relying on their audience's cultural context to generate the emotional impact. Although I provide quite a bit more context in my play, I still rely on actors' performances to lend an interpretation to my written words. It was an interesting departure to write for the stage!

Now that you know the legend, tour the church where it all happened.

Santa María la Nueva sits nestled against the Holy Week Museum in a plaza all its own. To its side, at the beginning of calle Carniceros (Butchers Street in "Trout Riot"), an alley and a classy eatery share the name El Motín de la Trucha. There is no better place in the world for a restaurant to be named that.

The plaza features a statue of the barandales (bell ringer) of the Brotherhood of the Holy Burial, created for the occasion of the four-hundredth anniversary of its founding (1594). The barandales walks at the head of the nighttime procession of this brotherhood on Holy Thursday of Holy Week to announce their solemn arrival with his resonant strikes of one bell in each hand. Inside Santa María la Nueva, we'll glimpse the image this brotherhood carries on a float in the procession.

If you're at an event in the cozy auditorium of the Ethnographic Museum, windows in its corridor provide a stunning view of Santa María's early twelfth-century apse, complete with its semicircular arches, column capitals with checkerboard patterns, and some of the earliest sculptures in Zamora. Catching a sunset here in autumn, with the pinks in the sky echoing the red highlights in the church's golden stones, would be worth the plane ticket all by itself.

The building just behind the church in this photo is the previously mentioned Holy Week Museum, the largest such of its kind in the region and maybe all Spain. It helps make this plaza an important hot spot during Holy Week as the floats on display travel in and out its specially proportioned doors.

The apse is accompanied by stone sarcophagi and features a partial-indulgence tau cross, six semicircular arches, and three Romanesque slot windows with many fascinating column capitals.

Here we have a tangled mess of what could be vines--if they didn't have forked tongues coming out the ends. I've been searching for the specific meaning of tangled serpents, and haven't found anything yet. The serpent has an interesting history in Christian iconography, but by the time this church was built, it exclusively evokes negative characteristics. I would venture to say the serpents are the tangled mess an unwitting person can get into when evil crosses their path.

This poor fellow is being devoured by wild animals (probably wolves). Given the checkerboard pattern above, which represents choices on the spiritual path, this capital could be illustrating what happens to those who choose the wrong path. But because no sculptor of Santa María la Nueva left a record of his exact intentions, this same scene could be interpreted in the opposite way. Harking back to Celtic spiritualism, these wolves could be spirit animals who, by killing humans, allow them to be reborn in a better, stronger form. The Christian interpretation makes this a metaphor referencing Christ's resurrection as well as the way a sinner "dies" to his sins to become spiritually pure. 

In this closeup, we can see that the style is "primitive" in the sense of being some of the first expressions of the Romanesque style. More than one critic has noted the similarity of the eyes, the symmetry, and virtual flatness to Mozarabic paintings. These sculptures share the same artistic goal of presenting the bare suggestion of forms so the viewer can more easily see past said forms to the symbolism beneath. No need for distracting realism here. It has also been suggested that these aspects have their origin even earlier than Mozarabic art, given the relatively nearby presence of San Pedro de la Nave. As we have seen on this blog, San Pedro is a well preserved seventh-century Visigothic temple, and the faces on its column capitals bear striking similarity to Santa María la Nueva's. (Similarity in itself is never enough to prove influence, but come on!)

Why does this man have birds pecking at his head? I believe they're eagles, and this scene may represent the triumph of the spirit (represented by the birds) over the weakness of the flesh (represented by the man).

This window has the same primitive style of human figures. On the right, Adam (because he's naked) stands among sumptuous trees in Eden, and on the left, a priest prays with his hands raised among an altar and vines without beginning or end to symbolize eternity. Here you can also see the way modern restorations made their changes easily traceable. The plain block cyma over the priest is new, in contrast to the medieval, vine-covered cyma over Adam.

The north side's door, facing the Holy Week Museum, is said to have been built in the later twelfth century, part of the reconstruction after the fire. It's flanked by column capitals that seem to be even older than what we've seen so far. They've been exposed to more erosion on the north side, which reduces the carvings even further into their intended abstraction. Rather than a Corinthian capital with obvious leaves and fruits, these capitals suggest the idea of a Corinthian capital. It's a subtlety only someone who has spent the past two years studying Romanesque sculpture can get a kick out of.

The south side has the front door everyone uses to enter the church. The door itself, with a double horseshoe arch, survives from the first construction on this spot, while the rest of the structure seen here is from the Gothic period.

Two column capitals, also from the earliest artwork, protect the entry to the church. They look a bit out of place, as they don't fit perfectly within the space or on the same angle with their cymas. These capitals could have been moved from a different part of the church in any of the rebuilds over the years. The eroded mermaid above symbolizes the tricky seductions of carnal pleasures.

The other capital shows two doves with their necks entwined. The dove is involved in the imagery of the Holy Spirit, the human spirit yearning for peace, and the reconciliation symbolized by the dove that returned to Noah's ark with an olive branch. The seven-pointed stars in the cyma may symbolize the perfect union of the earthly and the celestial.

The simplicity of the apse is on full display during a Lenten candlelight
Stations of the Cross service in 2019. 
Walking inside, we're met with spaciousness. In the thirteenth century, the triple nave was reduced to a single one by removing rows of columns, which opened up the space considerably. We've seen this in San Cipriano, as well, and it seems to be a typical move in the transition from Romanesque to Gothic.

The apse interior is beautifully simple, with an archaic horseshoe triumphal arch and half-circle arches at the windows, which we've already seen from the outside. The subsequent layers of construction, including a pointed Gothic arch, threw off the Romanesque balance of the nave. Contemplated as in the above photo, all the sight lines are slightly askew.

The recumbent Christ in front of the main altar was attributed to famous sculptor Gregorio Fernández, who was said to have created it under the influence of the sorrow he felt when his true love entered a convent. The image is now known to be the work of Fernández's disciple, Francisco Fermín, in the year 1635. It was originally intended for a funerary chapel in a monastery that no longer exists. It was moved several times before finding its home here in 1966. Since then, it has been the center of the Holy Thursday night procession. The singing brotherhood goes out in procession rain or shine because they carry the image in a glass casket that protects it from any possible weather.

Remnants of fourteenth-century linear Gothic paintings (I love the colors!) on the southern wall remind us that medieval people did not like to look at bare brick. They used every surface available  to tell their stories. Here, "reading" the images from right to left, we have a sequence from the life of Mary: the Visitation, the Annunciation, possibly the Nativity (but most of the scene is gone), and the Flight into Egypt. The wooden cross embedded in the wall, upper right, is likely a medieval Station of the Cross. As darkly pictured above, Stations of the Cross services still take place here during Lent, with the priest and many helpers making a tour around the small space, stopping at the modern versions of the embedded cross seen here to recite texts and prayers. The sense of continuity with the past thrilled me.

Fainter scenes on the adjacent wall depict the life of Jesus. Here, the Last Supper stands out with its checked tablecloth. All of these paintings were coated with limewash in accordance with early modern hygiene practices. The resulting chemical reactions and perhaps exposure to light before the paintings were covered account for the deterioration. The Gothic paintings were revealed in the twentieth century. Tastes and motivations for renovating old buildings continue to change.

The foot of the church contains a museum where artwork found during restoration efforts is displayed, such as this marvelous fourteenth-century dragon painted on wood.

A baptismal font has sculptures in a fully rounded, mature Romanesque style depicting Jesus' baptism. As seen here, the sculptures have been worn away more at the base, where they're not protected by the arches--evidence of clerical robes rubbing up against them while helping people in and out of the full immersion basin.

Book lovers (like yours truly) enjoy the box embedded in the wall with an elaborate grille protecting it. The inscription beside it reads, "Archive of the Noble Knights of Zamora from the twelfth century to 1836. Royal executive letters from 1342. Books of agreements from 1546 to 1835. References to historical events: Trout Riot in 1158, Monsalve's challenge to Mazariegos in 1531." It looks as if I have quite a bit more investigation to do!

Returning to the head of the church, to the left of the apse, where it would be seen as the faithful walked in the door, we have the lime-eaten and over-painted but now recovered painting of St. Christopher. This saint was popular throughout the Middle Ages and often appears in just the spot where where it would be the first sight upon entering a church. The legend tells that Christopher (Latin for "bearer of Christ") agreed to carry a small child across a river. He came across unexpected perils from the water and from the portentous weight of the child, who revealed himself on the opposite bank to be Christ. St. Christopher's journey is a metaphor for the arduous spiritual path of the devout.

Below St. Christopher's foot and to the left, someone who cared about Zamoran history marked a piece of evidence that the Trout Riot really happened. Near the corner and rather lower down than I would've expected for a miraculous escape route, the hole through which the consecrated communion wafers flew safely toward the convent is protected by a seemingly ancient grate. A plaque reads, "Through this fissure in the wall, the Sacred Forms miraculously exited from amid the fire and smoke and took refuge at the oratory of the Convent of the Ladies. In the year of grace 1158." It is highly unlikely that this is that very crack because this wall is part of the Romanesque rebuild. From what I know of medieval practicality, the rebuilders wouldn't have added a crack back in on purpose. And, no, this hole doesn't go through to the outside--sadly for the legend, happily for the people who visit or sit through mass in the winter.

The Trout Riot legend may or may not have a grain of truth to it. The architecture says, "Yes! Of course it's true! Just look at my evidence and folkloric backup." True or not, it's a fascinating slice of medieval Spanish life with its own gem of medieval art and architecture.

Don't forget to get your free dramatic interpretation of the medieval legend here!

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